SAULT STE. MARIE, ONTARIO -- Nearly a year after adopting an English-only law that triggered a divisive national debate and helped revive the secessionist movement in Quebec, this historic canal city at the confluence of Lake Superior and Lake Huron is considering holding a referendum to emphasize how strongly its people still oppose French language rights.
The prospect of such a vote next year has raised fears within the Francophone minority -- about 4 percent of the 82,000 residents here -- of an increase in linguistic and cultural intolerance and a poisoning of relations between the French and English communities that some feel could compel French speakers to move away.
To many French Canadians in Sault Ste. Marie, the referendum proposal by Mayor Joseph Fratesi underscores what they perceive as a growing backlash in English Canada against all Francophones because of the Quebec sovereignty movement and an attitude that if French speakers in Ontario Province are so determined to preserve their language and culture, they should go to Quebec and fight for independence.
"We already had a feeling of not being wanted. I'm afraid a referendum would start that up all over again. It would just bring everything out into the open again," said Collete Olive, who teaches in a French school and runs Le Centre Francophone, a cultural preservation group, in a storefront downtown.
Sault Ste. Marie, which local residents call "The Soo," was the first city in predominantly English Ontario Province to adopt a resolution early this year endorsing English as its only official language of business. In the weeks that followed, 25 municipalities in the province passed similar resolutions, apparently in response to the Ontario government's declarations that it intended to move toward official bilingualism in the province.
The English-only resolutions and the powerful television image of militant Anglophones burning a Quebec fleur-de-lis flag in a highly publicized incident in Brockville, Ontario, became emotive symbols of what many French Canadians regarded as English Canada's rejection of Quebec during the failed constitutional negotiations on according Quebec special status as a "distinct society."
The collapse of those proposed constitutional reforms, collectively known as the Meech Lake Accord, led to the creation of a joint Quebec parliamentary and public inquiry that is considering ways by which the province can separate from the rest of Canada.
Fratesi said in an interview that he has no regrets over his city council's decision to pass the English-only resolution on the basis of a petition signed by 25,000 people, and that continued opposition to it by some of the city's Francophones may force him to hold a referendum to prove that the petition reflected the wishes of a majority of the voters.
"It's all right for them (Quebec residents) to outlaw signs in English, but not for us to refuse to adopt a costly language policy for the benefit of 4 percent of the population. All we're saying is: When you come to City Hall, please be forewarned that we will speak the language that we've spoken for 400 years," said Fratesi.
He was referring to Quebec's controversial Bill 101, requiring that all public signs and commercial advertising be exclusively in French.
Although Sault Ste. Marie's historical museum barely makes note of it, French was the first non-native language spoken here, when Etienne Brule met with Ojibwa Indians at St. Mary's River in 1622.
But with an influx of other European immigrants after the turn of the century, the city's demography turned increasingly multicultural. About 20 percent of its population now is of Italian origin, and it also has sizable Finnish, German, Ukrainian and Polish communities.
Fratesi bristles at the notion of applying the concept of Canada's duality of French and English founding nations to Sault Ste. Marie, saying, "Let's not rewrite history. Let's accept the fact that this city is truly multicultural, and that English is the language that works here."
He said that when the Ontario legislature adopted the 1986 French Languages Services Act, which requires French-language services in 22 areas where most of the province's half-million Francophones live, a clash with local governments became inevitable.
"It was out of a sense of frustration that we said: 'No, the delivery of municipal services in French would be a waste of money. Don't come in and pound the table, because we can't afford it. We don't need it here.'"
Public opinion polls show that most Ontarians feel the same way. In one recent survey, 57 percent of voters in the province said they were opposed to official bilingualism, while 38 percent thought Ontario should operate in both languages.
Olive said the revival of the controversy can only spell difficult days ahead for the French-speaking minority.
"We're used to people telling us to speak English or move back to Quebec. We've had bomb threats and death threats before. Now it's all going to start up again," she said.