• The Low Down

Shelley Fraser: lost in translation

At a neighbourly gathering in Chelsea this weekend, mayor hopeful Shelley Fraser insisted she wanted, first and foremost, to listen to and learn from citizens.


The trouble is, she can only listen to half of them. Shelley Fraser doesn’t speak French.


I salute Ms. Fraser’s public engagement, and I agree with a large part of the program she has (finally) made public. But I cannot reconcile myself with the idea of a mayor who doesn’t speak the official language of the province in which she hopes to serve.


Ms. Fraser claims she’s hired a French teacher. But that may be too little, too late. Learning a complex language on the side while one is also learning to be mayor and trying to dive into complex municipal dossiers she’s unfamiliar with seems like an awfully large task ahead. And considering she has lived in Chelsea for many years without learning the province’s official language, how certain can we be that her French will suddenly improve now? I’d rather someone who can focus on the issues themselves while fluently communicating with citizens, colleagues, and staff.


Half of the Chelsea population lists French as a mother tongue, and the one spoken at home.


Ms. Fraser’s hope – or expectation – that they will consent to translate all their needs, queries, and preoccupations in order to simply communicate with an elected official shows precious little understanding of the cultural and political history of our province.


And that’s not to mention the significant logistic difficulties of communicating with municipal staff, who overwhelmingly perform their duties in French. And what of attending and participating in MRC meetings, where mayors of most of the other municipalities express themselves in French? Practically speaking, there seem to be only three options: Ms. Fraser hires a simultaneous interpreter, at significant cost; she misses out on large parts of the debates and discussions; or she expects others to put aside their mother tongue (and the province’s official language) to communicate with her.


The question of media is also an important one: in a recent article on the mayoral race, Radio-Canada could only report translated, second-hand comments from Ms. Fraser, lifted from a CBC interview. Media presence is a crucial part of governance and an important way to communicate with citizens. Will she simply shut out the province’s most significant and widely-read news outlets?


Again, I share many of Ms. Fraser’s concerns and applaud her stated desire to listen to citizens’ voices. But she has been a Chelsea resident for close to 15 years — did this desire only apply to anglophones’ preoccupations, or is it a freshly minted one? How has she included francophones’ ideas and concerns into her program? Some say they’d rather focus on ideas than language, but that can only be true if the language they’re spoken in is the one you happen to speak.


If Ms. Fraser truly wants to lead a bilingual municipality, perhaps she could commit to learning French over the next four years and run again. She’d then be better placed to substantiate her claims that her platform, and her attitude, are genuinely “open and inclusive.”


Laura Shine is a resident of Chelsea, Quebec