The judicial recounts in two New Brunswick ridings seem to confirm the party equilibrium in the upcoming Legislative Assembly. Nonetheless, we still do not know who will effectively govern the province. The challenges are well known and expectations are running high to fully address key issues: public finances, demographic decline, the environment, etc. But, if we were to assess issues solely through the lens of linguistic duality, what actions would be most productive moving forward?
Analyzing New Brunswick’s political landscape via the prism of linguistic duality provides each political party with specific homework.
First, each party could very well do the following: reaffirm the importance and benefits of linguistic duality, recognize and confirm the mandate of the New Brunswick’s Official Languages Commissioner, reassure citizens that the constitutional rights of francophones are not in question. Some leaders are already communicating these messages better than others. They may truly believe what they say.
Anti-bilingualism rhetoric, especially among politicians, has a destabilizing effect. Furthermore, the misleading strategy of harping on language costs completely bypasses the issue of the benefits of bilingualism. When we purchase something in a store, it is to reap its rewards.
How could each party leader fully demonstrate his commitment to linguistic duality?
Blaine Higgs of the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party has certainly made the laudable effort to speak French. This is a step in the right direction. Some say it is not enough, but we should recognize that nobody is born bilingual. Higgs is certainly representative of many anglophones who did not have the chance to learn French in school or practice it in the workplace.
Regardless of his language proficiency, Higgs must ensure that official languages are part and parcel of what his party stands for. He is sitting on a heap of human capital, well versed in bilingualism, within his own party. Those francophones who worked relentlessly for Hatfield or Lord are not that far gone. One could call upon their expertise, as well as that of the new conservative operatives cognizant of language issues. Higgs should give such francophones and moderate anglophones a leading role in any future discussion or decision pertaining to language policy.
Higgs could choose to surround himself with people who know the stakes of language and act accordingly. As well, he could encourage members of his anglophone caucus, who are not comfortable in French, to hire bilingual staffers: communications experts, analysts, legislative assistants, etc. The key issue is to what extent the leader and power brokers within the party will listen to and act upon the advice given.
Brian Gallant has the luxury of a strong Acadian presence among his elected caucus. Perfectly bilingual, he understands the personal advantages of multiple language skills. But has he really understood the political consequences of official bilingualism? He stated that he supports linguistic duality but will he have a real chance of putting his words into practice?
For the time being, language is not his primary concern. First, Gallant wants to govern and he knows full well that he may not be given a real chance. Discussions to build a possible alliance with the Greens are on-going. Even if they succeed, a non-confidence vote may loom on the horizon.
If Gallant continues as Premier, he will be in a position to implement his linguistic vision, notably ensuring that the language file is led from his office. Paradoxically, his greatest contribution to linguistic duality may derive from his possible ousting from power. If he loses the confidence of the Legislative Assembly, his dualist convictions will be put to the test.
Will Gallant recognize and support Blaine Higgs as Premier, forcing him to govern at the center, in the interest of all New Brunswickers? One possible honourable path would be to pre-empt Higgs from cozying up to the People’s Alliance of New Brunswick (PANB). The more Gallant plays old-style politics, the more Higgs will be tempted to turn to Austin for support in the Legislative Assembly. Hence, the Liberal leader will bear great responsibility if the PC party secures a majority with the formal or tacit support of the PANB.
David Coon of the Green Party is a model student of linguistic duality. Consequently, he does not need that much homework. He speaks sincerely to francophones in their language. His words are respectful and he does not purport to know all Acadian issues. He already has many points in the bank for having been crystal clear on language rights. Post-election, he has sought the advice of a francophone mayor who believes in bringing people together. They seek to broker a deal with traditional parties in the hopes of governing.
Though his party seems to have more affinity with the Liberal party, Coon could very well protect linguistic duality by aligning himself with the Progressive Conservatives. He will undoubtedly ask for environmental trade-offs, but Coon must stand firm that linguistic duality is also a non-negotiable value.
Kris Austin’s linguistic homework at the PANB is never ending. First, he should translate all of his party’s website into French and say the same thing in both languages. Furthermore, he should retract the promises to end duality and to abolish the Office of the Official Languages Commissioner. In short, he should respect francophones.
Ricky G. Richard is a political scientist having researched and worked on official language policy for over 20 years. He is a native of New Brunswick.