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When Dr Edgar Laurent vetoed the use of the creole language in Port Louis municipal council

 Pearlishka Burrun

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 7 February is a date to reckon with in the history of the use of the creole language in a public institution. (1) The councillor Mamode Ellam, an elect of Ward II, decided to express himself in creole at the sitting of the Council on the afternoon of Tuesday 7 February 1922. However, when the councillor started his speech in creole on a previous motion of Dr Edgar Laurent related to the retirement of Jules Quantin, he was noisily interrupted by Dr Laurent.

Council Ellam had barely started his exposé with «Mo…» (Idem) that Dr Laurent jumped off his seat and stated emphatically: « Si M. Ellam ne peut s’exprimer en français ou en anglais, qu’il se taise. Mais moi, le Dr Laurent, ne permettrai pas, pour la dignité du Conseil, qu’on vienne parler le patois à cette table.» (Idem) The meeting of that Tuesday 7 February 1922, was chaired by the Mayor of Port Louis Edouard Nairac. The latter was of opinion that the law would not forbid Ellam to express himself in creole, but was contradicted by Councillor Arthur Rohan who approved the stand of Dr Edgar Laurent and moved that the advice of the legal counsellor of the municipality be sought on the issue.

The Mayor agreed with the proposal of Councillor Arthur Rohan, but said that in the meantime he would give the floor to Councillor Mamode Ellam. When the latter stood up a second time and started his speech: «Dan l’Enn (Inde) ek Aden…» (Idem), he was once more interrupted. Dr Laurent accused the Mayor of acting arbitrarily and added that he and his followers would not allow a Councillor to express himself in creole in the Municipal Council. He threatened to leave the council meeting and come back for a special sitting. He proposed the adjournment of the Council meeting, which was seconded by the Councillor Goolam Issac and approved by 7 to 5.

What ‘The Mauritius News’ and ‘Le Cernéen’ said about the issue

The debate on the issue lasted no less than five months. ‘The Mauritius News’ of 9 February wrote this on the affair ‘Ellam v/s Laurent’: «La loi régissant la municipalité (la section 23 de l’ordonnance de 1903) est plutôt muette pour ce qui a trait à l’usage du créole en tant que langue. Durant des années et des années, l’anglais et le français seulement ont été utilisés. La même ordonnance prévoit, toutefois, que toutes les délibérations du Conseil municipal soient rapportées en anglais. L’article 60 de la loi est ainsi rédigé: “All proceedings of the Council and all books, writings, accounts and records thereof shall be made and kept and all Municipal Regulations shall be enacted in English.”(Idem) The newspaper suggested that the best way out of the dilemma would be an amendment of the municipal law, in one way or other.

The pro-French ‘Le Cernéen’ took a legalistic stand on the issue, arguing that those who elected Mr Ellam should have ensured themselves that the latter could express himself in English or French: «Or, que dit la loi municipale? Que les conseillers auront le droit de s’exprimer en français ou en anglais. Un point, c’est tout, » (Idem) wrote the editor-in-chief Hart de Keating. The latter had recourse to a most reactionary argument to deal the deadly blow to Mr Ellam’s initiative. « On ne se sert pas d’un patois, naturellement enfantin et primitif, pour parler à des collègues, lorsque ce patois est un sûr indice d’infériorité intellectuelle.» (Idem)

 

The legal counsel Philippe Raffray dismissed Dr Laurent’s stand

The status quo prevailed until the legal counsel of the municipality, Philippe Raffray, gave his ruling to the effect that nothing in the law could prevent the use of creole in the Council. The Mayor Nairac then expressed his wish that only English and French be spoken in the Council and observed that the Councillor Ellam was studying hard to express himself in one of the two European languages. The Mayor then proposed the following to move out of the impasse – either apply for a revision of the law, or for a writ of injunction against the Mayor. The resort to the writ of injunction would give the opportunity to the Mayor to explain why he allowed Councillor Ellam to express himself in creole.

The issue was given a wide press coverage in ‘Le Cernéen’ and ‘Le Mauricien’, which were resolutely against the use of another language apart from English and French. Further to the stand of the legal adviser Philippe Raffray the issue was far from resolved. Fuelled by the conservative stand of the press, Dr Laurent stated that he would not, pending a lasting solution, come with a new motion. The debate on the issue ended up on a curious note on Monday 19 June. Councillor Ellam did not go further with the use of creole in the municipal council and, against all expectations, he seconded a motion of Dr Laurent to the effect that only French or English was to be used in Council. The motion was unanimously approved and the following day Councillor Ellam was congratulated in the press for his conciliatory attitude.

The use of creole in Council postponed for 55 years

It was expected that a fresh legislation would be undertaken to resolve the issue for good. But this piece of legislation never came. It was only in 1977, under Lord Mayor Kader Bhayat, that creole was admitted for the first time in the Municipal Council of Port Louis. Since then creole is freely used in local councils in the country, and that without provoking tensions and animosity as it did in the past…

Reference

  1. Marimootoo, Henri, “Cinq mois où la langue creole ébranla le Conseil municipal de Port-Louis”, in Week-End, Sunday 5 February 2006.
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