In 2019 New Brunswick celebrates 50 years as Canada’s only officially bilingual province. The equality of both linguistic groups is protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Constitution of Canada states that English and French are the official languages of New Brunswick and have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the legislature and the government of New Brunswick.
New Brunswickers recently voted the People’s Alliance (PANB) into our legislature, a party that campaigned on abolishing the office of the Official Languages Commissioner and reducing the second language requirements for some public service jobs. In concert with the Progressive Conservative government, they are already attempting to make these changes.
The only way to reduce the right to services in both official languages in New Brunswick is to change the Constitution. This requires the approval of the legislative assembly in New Brunswick and of the Senate and House of Commons in Ottawa. Any political party serious about trying to change the Constitution would be making convincing arguments, in both English and French, to win over the hearts and minds of Canadians.
The People’s Alliance is not appealing to the majority because a convincing argument cannot be made for why French and English citizens should not have equal rights. Instead, PANB’s message aims at a much narrower audience of anglophones.
Ambulance NB has repeatedly stated that the ambulance shortage is not linked to language requirements. By spreading misinformation that the shortage is due to bilingualism requirements, PANB is stirring up anti-francophone sentiment for political gain. The tactics of the “old” Confederation of Regions party still serve their purpose.
However, the challenge to language rights goes beyond only PANB voters. Before the election, a CBC Vote Compass survey of 10,700 New Brunswickers found that 78% of PANB voters strongly agreed the office of the Official Languages Commissioner should be abolished. Yet, if the number of actual voters for the various parties in the recent election is calculated with the survey results, more Progressive Conservative voters strongly agreed, as did a minority of Liberal, Green and NDP voters.
Since the implementation of the Official Languages Act, people lacking adequate second language skills have difficulty securing public service jobs requiring those skills. In New Brunswick, three of every four francophones are bilingual but only one in six anglophones.
For bilingual anglophones and francophones, communicating in a second language is a skill they have worked to achieve. If a public service job requires second language skills and a candidate is missing those required skills, the candidate is not qualified for the job. Yet when they miss out on a bilingual government job because they are not bilingual, some anglophones lobby to make these jobs unilingual English, rather than fight for better French language training.
Judging by the standard test results for students that were reported recently, we can surmise that the standard of teaching overall in New Brunswick needs considerable improvement. Informal conversations have provided examples of French immersion graduates in New Brunswick unable to achieve the required second language proficiency to work in the government.
Learning a new language demands a huge amount of energy. It is not something you just do half-heartedly. It involves a bodily and emotional commitment. Mouth, throat, lips and even the whole body have to perform a different set of movements. Due to poor teaching, some anglophones are unaware of this or are too shy or embarrassed to make the necessary effort.
There are other reasons why some anglophones are lobbying to reduce the second language requirements for government jobs. There is a resurgence of old animosities going back long before the Confederation of Regions Party of 1991-95. Anglo-Loyalist culture in New Brunswick was originally a privileged land grab, taking from both the Indigenous peoples and francophones. Inherent in that act of pillage was a presumed superiority, a sense of entitlement. Despite the passing centuries, some anglophones of that heritage resent having to learn a language and familiarize themselves with a culture with which they have no empathy and to which they feel superior.
Whatever the reasons, after 50 years of the Official Languages Act, a majority of anglophones in New Brunswick have not learned French. At least some – the ones who want jobs requiring second language skills – will have to be persuaded to change their minds. They will need to find a way to motivate themselves and move past shyness, embarrassment, resentment, sense of entitlement or physical discomfort and focus on what they can actually change for them and for the generations to come. Instead of advocating to reduce language rights – which, like it or not, the courts will not allow – they will need to fight harder for improved access to and quality of French language training, and to find new ways of delivering the training that will work for them.
Our MLAs must show leadership, first by putting to rest the so-called debate about bilingualism. Our government has a duty to make a clear and firm commitment to the office of the Official Languages Commissioner, to bilingualism, and to all its citizens, to help New Brunswickers understand our rights and responsibilities under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And, most importantly, to stress the richness of life and culture that living in a bilingual province brings.
Moving forward, our political leaders must engage the federal government in a mission to improve second language skills in New Brunswick, with a focus on rural communities. With political will and vision, we could create a big social and cultural project with anglophones and francophones working together for our collective future. In Canada, New Brunswick can become the example of a bilingual province where people who want to learn their second language, can.
Let’s move language training out of urban institutions and into rural communities, supporting local language schools and immersion opportunities run by grassroots groups and local entrepreneurs. Building on our shared love of nature, we could support language skills training and cultural exchange opportunities designed as projects for rural community development such as small farms, local renewable energy, food security, community forestry, and climate change adaptation activities along our waterways and coastlines.
Models do exist. In Europe, Finland is also constitutionally bilingual. Belgium and Luxembourg have three official languages. Switzerland and the Netherlands each have four official languages. Good practices for learning and teaching second language skills in rural communities exist in other jurisdictions and could be applied in New Brunswick.
Finally, in this new year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act. Let us act in solidarity with our Acadian and francophone fellow citizens. We call on all anglophones to speak up to defend the constitutional rights of Acadians and francophones.
It should be unacceptable to anyone who respects the rule of law that the rights of Acadians and francophones in New Brunswick are under threat from our own government.
Gerry McAlister is a NB Media Co-op member and supporter; he delivers The Brief in Fredericton. Susan O’Donnell is a NB Media Co-op reporter and member of the editorial board, and a researcher with the UNB RAVEN project (Rural Action and Voices for the Environment).