By coincidence, the 2018 provincial elections in New Brunswick and Quebec overlapped. Though the dynamics were fundamentally different, certain parallels on language issues can be drawn.
What lessons can the English-speaking minority in Quebec learn from the Acadian experience?
New Brunswick is not Quebec, as we learned on the campaign trail. Indeed, there is only one province in Canada that has declared itself « officially » bilingual — or so we thought. Though New Brunswick has enacted the equality of both linguistic communities, the debate on language revealed a level of discontent and rancour not heard in recent memory.
With the rising popularity of French-immersion programs and the 1999 Francophonie summit in Moncton, francophones had thought that anti-bilingualism had run its course. Clearly, it had not.
While Quebec party leaders proudly debated for the first time in English on television, francophones had to make do with a debate on a community station in which some leaders spoke in French and others spoke via simultaneous translation, the costs paid by francophone community associations.
To add insult to injury, the rights of the francophone and Acadian community now seem to hang in the balance. Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives have a clear majority, having respectively won 21 and 22 seats. The premier will need to be mindful of the Green Party and the People’s Alliance of New Brunswick in order to govern. While the Green Party leader is bilingual and sympathetic to the cause, the other is openly critical of linguistic duality, claiming that it is wasteful or too costly.
The PANB leader claims that he is not anti-francophone, he just stands for “common sense.” While using obfuscating language in French, the party’s English platform plainly calls for an end to linguistic duality and the sacking of the province’s commissioner of official languages. How should Acadians now feel that nearly 48,000 of their fellow citizens, or 12.6 per cent of the total vote cast, agree that their constitutional rights are essentially meaningless?
From these electoral dynamics, one can extrapolate a few lessons for all minority-language communities in Canada, not the least of which is the English-speaking community in Quebec.
One hard lesson is that minority-language safeguards or rights mean next to nothing to certain politicians who wantonly sacrifice them for political gain. These rights, underpinning linguistic identities, are not fully accepted by many. Minorities know all too well that periodic waves of populism or anti minority-language sentiment can come crashing on their shores at any moment. Even where they have rights in theory, these are not always deemed integral to the political conversation. In short, minorities must steadfastly strive for recognition.
The second lesson pertains to context and, more specifically, the types of rapport that a given minority has with the majority. Fruitful and productive dialogue with the majority is essential. Community leaders must find allies and intermediaries in civil society. These identity brokers or societal linchpins play a crucial role in linguistic harmony. When the majority tolerates or even incites language strife directed at the minority, nobody wins.
A third lesson relates to the pivotal role political parties play in our system of government. Minority communities that continually support the same party or shy away from others run the risk of being at the whim of those who ascend to power. Minorities must find mechanisms to dialogue with all political parties and understand their inner workings. Language is political, but it should not follow partisan fault lines. Advocacy groups should strive to ensure that concern for minority-language rights transcends political parties.
Language is a fundamental question tied with human dignity and basic rights. Linguistic minorities that stand idle will bear the brunt of electoral politics.
Ricky G. Richard has researched and worked on official language policy for more than 20 years. He is a native of New Brunswick and lives in Quebec City.
23 October 2018