On Friday, June 12, the Supreme Court of Canada made a ruling on official language rights to education in British Columbia that has implications in particular for provinces outside New Brunswick. In this province, the ruling is a reminder of the need for strong political support for minority language rights.
The case began 10 years ago when the francophone school board in BC argued the province had been underfunding their schools, including not funding school busses for students living far from a French-language school. The province claimed the small number of francophone students did not justify the cost of providing equal education services in French.
Importantly, the Supreme Court decision clarifies that not having enough funds in a provincial budget is not a valid reason to deny an equal quality of education to students in both official languages. The ruling was contrary to arguments in the briefs submitted last year to the court by the governments of Nova Scotia, PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador which posited that budgetary constraints should be a valid reason to limit linguistic rights to education.
The provincial government in New Brunswick had also considered intervening in the Supreme Court case but ultimately decided not to. It was not clear at the time which side of the argument the Progressive Conservative government would have supported.
New Brunswick is the only officially bilingual province and the only province with the right to bilingual provincial government services, including education, guaranteed in the Canadian Constitution.
Bilingualism is on the rise in the province, especially among youth. The Canadian census data shows that in 2006, only 37% of youth age 17 and under in New Brunswick were bilingual but that figure rose to 50% in 2016. The rise in the number of bilingual youth over the same decade is much lower in the other Atlantic provinces where French-language schooling is not widely available.
The Societé de l’Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick (SANB) called the court decision “a victory for francophone minorities.” SANB and the Féderation des Conseils d’Éducation du Nouveau-Brunswick (FCENB) were both intervenors in the Supreme Court case.
SANB president Robert Melanson said he learned of the Supreme Court decision “with a sigh of relief.” Melanson said that the decision ensures the concept of equality and equal opportunities for all “prevents the creation of second-class school programs for the linguistic minority due to budgetary austerity.”
One drawback for minority language students is that the Supreme Court decision did not impose a timeline for provinces to develop the required infrastructure including building the new schools that will be required for all students who want to study in the minority language. This leaves it up to provincial governments to decide the timetable for complying with the ruling.
Establishing and maintaining the rights of French-language speakers outside Quebec, and English-language speakers in Quebec, is a political struggle, including in New Brunswick where language rights have always been political.
The Liberal Party of New Brunswick is most strongly associated with supporting official language rights in the province. The government under Liberal premier Louis Robichaud brought in the Official Languages Act in 1969. In 1981, the Act Recognizing the Equality of the Two Official Linguistic Communities in New Brunswick was passed under Progressive Conservative premier Richard Hatfield.
Currently, most Liberal MLAs are bilingual while only one of the PC government MLAs speaks French fluently. All three Green Party MLAs are bilingual and the Green Party policy manual strongly supports official bilingualism.
The People’s Alliance of New Brunswick (PANB), with three elected members in the provincial legislative assembly – none of whom speak French – are sitting on the government side of the house and have been voting to support the minority PC government.
PANB is associated with anti-bilingual sentiment and activity in the province. In a CBC Vote Compass poll during the 2018 provincial election campaign, 79% of people who planned to vote for PANB indicated that New Brunswick should no longer have an Official Languages Commissioner.
Indeed the PANB election platform promised to eliminate duality in government services, to eliminate the language commissioners’ office and to base bilingual hiring “where numbers warrant.” After the election, the leader of the PANB Kris Austin chose as his chief of staff a person who was formerly the director of the Anglophone Rights Association of New Brunswick, a group that lobbies to end bilingualism in the province.
The Supreme Court decision entrenches official language education rights for all. Groups and people who attack and deny the rights of francophone communities and citizens are costing Canadians across the country millions in government legal fees every year. Fortunately most New Brunswickers appreciate the economic and social benefits of being the only bilingual province in Canada and can envision many opportunities to build on this strength moving forward.
Susan O’Donnell is a member of the NB Media Co-op Editorial Board.