When Chelsea adopted its bilingual status at a council meeting in February, it was more than just a legislative document.
Chelsea deserves praise for not only maintaining its bilingual status on paper, but championing that status in meetings, in its communications with the public, and in interviews with this newspaper.
Chelsea is proving that it's still possible to have linguistic harmony in the midst of what some English-speakers call an assault on their rights from Bill 96.
The last three meetings this paper has covered were presented in both languages. Sure, these meetings tend to run at least two hours or more with the same issues being explained in two languages, but it’s clear that Chelsea is taking its French-English population split seriously.
Bill 96, passed into law last summer, states that a bilingual municipality’s status must be revoked in places where fewer than 50 per cent of the population is English.
According to 2021 Census data, Chelsea’s English speakers account for 47.8 per cent of the population, just under the provincial threshold. However, the law allows municipalities to retain their bilingual status by passing a resolution in council before the expiry of the 120-day period.
Chelsea didn’t have to do this. But let’s be clear: that they did pass the resolution is no heroic feat. With Chelsea’s population pretty much split down the middle, we can’t call councillors heroes for unanimously passing the bilingual resolution, but they certainly would have been vilified by Chelsea’s English community if they hadn’t.
There are pressing issues in Chelsea – from controversial dock bylaws and short-term rentals to major developments that are handcuffed by a maxed-out sewer treatment plant. The term “dock” may be “quai” in French, but removing community docks in Farm Point, which have been used by hundreds of people for more than 40 years, will have the same effect on residents, whether they are French or English.
These are issues that affect residents deeply, French or English, and policies that will shape the future quality of life in the municipality. And while some have argued that councillors aren’t listening to residents’ concerns, they actually are — in both languages.
Chelsea Mayor Pierre Guénard, who is francophone, has never had an issue discussing policies and city hall items in English with the Low Down. He even went as far as saying that offering two languages to Chelsea residents comes down to basic respect. That was months before Chelsea adopted its status and Guénard made good on his promise when he and his councillors unanimously approved their bilingual status.
Chelsea has been putting out press releases in both languages, running most public meetings in French and English and, with its bilingual status, has the obligation to respond to residents in their mother tongue — just as it has done since 1978.