03/23/2014 02:00 EDT | Updated 05/23/2014 05:59 EDT

Gaelic College's 'royal' compromise was first floated in December

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia government documents show a recent compromise on the use of the royal designation received by Cape Breton's Gaelic College was first floated in December, shortly after a backlash over the decision to change the school's name.

The emails and briefing notes obtained by The Canadian Press under access-to-information legislation also show the province took a largely hands off approach to the brewing controversy.

The school's decision to add the word "royal" to its name was announced Dec. 6 after getting the special designation from the Queen, which stirred strong opposition from many in the province's Gaelic community.

Opponents maintained the use of the word royal was offensive because most Gaelic-speaking migrants who came to Nova Scotia in the 1700s were forced out of the Highlands following battles with the English.

Government emails indicate officials in the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage and its Office of Gaelic Affairs initially prepared to congratulate the college on its newly bestowed honour from the Queen.

But an internal request from deputy minister Killiann Dean on Dec. 9 to prepare congratulatory notes for two cabinet ministers responsible for those departments was shelved as negative reaction emerged in emails and in letters to newspapers. A Dec. 10 email from the department's administrative support section informed an executive secretary that letters wouldn't be going out "due to sensitivities around this."

The emails also show that by the end of the day a staff discussion had ensued.

Lewis MacKinnon, director of Gaelic affairs, summarized his office's assessment of what had transpired in bullet points, describing the affair as a "setback." They also said the problem was with the board and its "disconnect with the Gaelic community."

"I think what became evident through the process is that there was an issue around consultation and process," MacKinnon said in an interview.

He said it was also evident early on that it was up to the board to respond to questions about the process it used.

"It was up to the board to respond to that and therefore it wasn't a situation where the government could involve itself any further until the board addressed some of the process issues," he said.

By Dec. 12, emails show that Gaelic College CEO Rodney MacDonald had forwarded a briefing note prepared for the school's board of governors to department official Craig Beaton.

The note provides a summary of the growing opposition to the royal designation and contains a recommendation from MacDonald to the board, although MacDonald's email tells Beaton: "I am not including my recommendation."

In a subsequent email, Beaton tells another department official that he believes a compromise is in the offing.

"I believe that the recommendation is that they respectfully accept the royal designation and recognize it with a small plaque on site, but do not use it in the name or refer to it in the future," he said.

By Dec. 16, a departmental briefing note prepared for Tony Ince, the minister of communities, culture and heritage, said the board would meet later that day to pass a resolution "indicating that it will not be using the royal designation."

However, later emails from MacDonald informed MacKinnon that the board would not move from its original news release on Dec. 6 announcing the designation.

A briefing note prepared by MacKinnon on Dec. 17 said MacDonald had contacted Canadian Heritage and Canada's secretary to the Queen — the two bodies involved in the process of receiving the designation — "to advise these agencies on the board's discussions on this matter."

In fact, the board didn't vote to drop the royal designation until March 2, and the compromise wasn't announced until a March 7 posting on the college's website.

In an interview, MacDonald wouldn't discuss why the board appeared to change its mind following the Dec. 16 meeting only to arrive at his position nearly three months later.

He would only say the eventual decision was the board's.

"It acknowledges the designation in a respectful way and, at the same time, the history of the Gaels of Nova Scotia and the people who are engaged in the Gaelic cultural community today," said MacDonald.