Language has yet again reared its ugly head following the New Brunswick provincial election. At root, the real issue is not if New Brunswickers are split along linguistic fault lines, but rather to what extent language rhetoric and policies are respectful of the Acadian minority.
It is unclear what the true intentions of newly-elected unilingual anglophone politicians are, but some of the election rhetoric was inflammatory. The controversy in organizing a French-language leaders’ debate, which would not have happened but for key advocacy groups, only served to confirm a sense of alienation among francophones.
How the newly elected minority government, be it Liberal or Conservative, will move forward on language issues is an open-ended question. Some lessons and basic tenets should be top of mind.
« Anglo rights » advocates read into official bilingualism an unfairness that needs to be righted. They say linguistic duality is too costly and language policies are a failed experiment. However, there are two sides to this story.
In any self-respecting democracy, policies should be achieved through public discourse or political conversation. However, since language underlies how we interact with one another, it becomes difficult to structure public institutions when a significant minority does not have basic respect for its own language.
Acadians are proud of their language and culture. They have a constitutional right to education and services in French from the federal and provincial governments. The French language and Acadian vernacular is not only what Acadians speak; it is who they are.
Criticizing the French language, linguistic duality or constitutional rights is not only a slight, but an affront to their dignity. If French is pushed aside, what is to become of Acadians?
Fundamentally, language policies are about striking the appropriate balance between majority and minority language groups. Recognizing the precarity of the French language in New Brunswick should lead to culturally sensitive policies that ensure basic rights.
This does not mean language is forever out of bounds of politics or public policy discourse. However, you cannot properly debate with a person if you deny their basic existence at the outset.
The relatively small number of Anglophones in New Brunswick who advocate culturally insensitive policies miss the mark. They are playing a dangerous game that may have dire consequences for social and political cohesiveness.
If New Brunswick’s francophones, who make up a significant part of the electorate, lose confidence in public institutions, the very soul of democracy will be stricken. If francophones retreat to other spheres of influence or start to advocate for sectarian public policies, the provincial government could grind to a halt.
The student upheavals of the late 1960s at the Université de Moncton, the rise of the Parti acadien and the revolutionary Convention d’orientation nationale des Acadiens in the late 1970s were viewed by the Hatfield government as loss of confidence among its French-speaking citizens. The response was enacting Law 88 in 1981, which recognized more deeply the linguistic duality policies of the Louis J. Robichaud government.
This linguistic duality, proclaiming the equality of both communities, was also entrenched in the Canadian constitution at the behest of Frank McKenna and many Acadian leaders.
Hence, the current debate seems to turn a blind eye or deny the profound reasons why past politicians have approached language in the light of basic rights and dignity. The question of how much extra cost duality supposedly incurs, or if services should be organized in a certain way, are secondary to the key question: Are francophones indeed equal citizens of the political community, and how are they recognized?
Those who fan the flames of language resentment need to ask themselves if this is a fight that they really want to win. The consequences of trying to implement unilingual policies may very well be more costly than they imagine.
Ideally, cooler heads should prevail. There are many concerned citizens who approach the thorny language questions with an open mind. Acadians are a warm and welcoming people who want to be accepted for who they really are. Many anglophones appreciate how hard it is to learn a second language and act accordingly with their fellow citizens.
The path forward should stress the solidarity among all New Brunswickers who seek prosperity and fairness for everyone.
Ricky G. Richard is a political scientist who has studied official language policy for over 20 years. He is a native of New Brunswick.
Published in the Telegraph Journal
Commentary, 28 September 2018, page A-9