Since its inception eight years ago, the People’s Alliance has often led the perpetuation of anti-Francophone rhetoric hidden behind criticisms of “duality” and official bilingualism in New Brunswick. Usually these comments are chalked up to some sort of Francophone conspiracy, bolstered by the Official Languages Act of NB and its Commissioner, to oppress the English majority, force their children to learn French, and “take all the jobs from good English folks!” Like most arguments that cast the blame for perceived misfortunes on one group ahead of another, these claims don’t match up very well with facts or reality.
Some of these messages talk about “poor Anglos not getting work because they don’t speak French.” While the unemployment rate for all New Brunswickers tends to be higher than the national average, the unemployment rate for Francophones in New Brunswick is actually higher than that of Anglophones. In 2016, the unemployment rate for Francophones in the province was 12.4% versus 10.4% for Anglophones. This trend has been in place for decades. (For the record, the unemployment rate across New Brunswick is now around 7.5%, a marked decrease but still higher than the national average.)
Another absurd claim that is sometimes trotted out by anti-duality advocates is that Francophones make up the majority (some 85% supposedly!) of public sector jobs in New Brunswick despite only making up about 30% of the population. Well, unsurprisingly, this is simply not true either. Francophones make up around 43% of public sector jobs with variation among different sectors. That’s nowhere close to the 85% I hear bandied about along with hateful stereotyping of Acadians. Even so, there’s a pretty obvious reason for that discrepancy. We are a bilingual province which necessitates bilingual service provision in our public sector. Francophones are historically much more likely to be functionally bilingual because they are essentially forced to learn English to obtain employment and function in a predominantly English province and North American society. A 2017-18 Annual Report from the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick counted approximately 250,000 bilingual residents. Of these, two thirds are Francophones who speak both English and French and 72% of New Brunswick’s Francophone population are bilingual. Despite this, the main language of work in the public sector is still English with 90% of workers speaking English at work compared to about 36.7% speaking French.
Francophones aren’t getting these public sector jobs because they speak French, they are getting the jobs because they speak ENGLISH – and they speak and write both languages well! There is absolutely nothing in New Brunswick legislation or society that forces Anglophones to learn French. The majority of public sector workers are still Anglophones (around 57% – some of whom are bilingual by choice, and a good chunk of whom are unilingual Anglophones).
All of this is a sad case of low-income people in a poor province being manipulated into blaming an equally low-income (if not more so in northern parts of the province) linguistic and cultural minority for their problems. It’s fear, insecurity, and lack of social infrastructure fueling bigotry, scapegoating, and hate.
There are lots of things to be upset about in New Brunswick. We should be working to stop the spraying of glyphosate, a known probable carcinogen, on our forests. We should fight for proper health and emergency service provision to rural communities. We should care about the fact that many New Brunswickers, especially many newcomer families, don’t have enough work or food. In other words we’re all in the same boat and it is full of holes. We sink together, we swim together.
I will end this commentary with an appeal to folks who have been swayed by these divisive messages: Don’t let these petty, hateful, and inaccurate conspiracy politics of French versus English be a distraction. We’re a hell of a lot stronger together and there are so many worse things going on behind the language politics/duality debate blinders. Getting rid of “duality” and “bilingualism” will not get you a job. It will not fix our economy. It will not make you happier. Working together to achieve the changes we need might.
Tabatha Armstrong is a NB Media Co-op editorial board member.