Language law will have public debate: N.B. Grits
University of Moncton language law expert says reform unavoidable
Last Updated: Thursday, September 2, 2010 | 6:34 PM ET
By Daniel McHardie, CBC News
Michel Doucet, a language law professor at the University of Moncton, said the next New Brunswick premier cannot avoid a debate over reforming the Official Languages Act. (Courtesy Michel Doucet) The Liberals are promising a full public consultation when New Brunswick's Official Languages Act is up for review in 2012, according to a party official.
When the act was revised in 2002, it included a mandatory provision to review the law in a decade, which puts the subject clearly on the incoming government's radar screen.
Michel Doucet, a law professor at the University of Moncton, writes in an analysis for CBC News that previous politicians gave the touchy subject of official languages a wide berth. He said the political establishment has been afraid of "waking the sleeping dragon" of language politics.
Caraquet Liberal Hédard Albert, the Liberal minister responsible for official languages, said in an interview Thursday that a full public consultation will be held in 2012 if his party is elected on Sept. 27.
Albert said he would not identify areas that he believes are needed to be reformed in the 10-year-old law.
"We will let the people talk with our consultation. After 10 years we know and I feel that we have to make some changes," Albert said. "But I cannot point out one change here or there. We have to talk to the people and they will let us know what would be better for the future of New Brunswick."
Progressive Conservative MLA Paul Robichaud, a former minister responsible for official languages, said his party can't promise a public consultation will be part of the legislative review process.
"In 2002, we didn't have any public consultation, [but] it went very well," Robichaud said. "If [there are] some interest groups that believe we should have public consultation, I'm sure they will do public consultation.
"I'm not saying no [to public consultations], but I'm not ready to say yes, because I don't know what [Doucet] means by public consultation."
People concerned with the future of the Official Languages Act should be wary of voting Liberal in the next campaign, said Robichaud.
Liberal Leader Shawn Graham played a very minor role in the 2002 negotiations and has presided over a series of language controversies in the last four years, Robichaud said. He pointed to the Liberals' failed plan to scrap early French immersion and the amalgamation of the eight health authorities into two larger health networks.
"I don't know if we could trust Shawn Graham to review the new Official Languages Act because he was not a part of the debate when we introduced the act in 2002 because he sent [then Liberal MLA] Bernard Richard to negotiate," Robichaud said.
Graham won the Liberal leadership in May 2002, and the new language law was introduced a month later.
Reform in 2002
New Brunswick is Canada's only officially bilingual province. Its original language law, adopted in 1967, sets out the basic rights for the province's two official language groups, French and English.
The former Bernard Lord Progressive Conservative government was forced to update the decades-old law in 2002. Instead of opening a public dialogue, Doucet said, the Tories opted for an internal committee that was kept far away from the public.
'[Previous politicians] feared that engaging on this path would wake the sleeping dragon, which, once aroused, could turn the province into a battleground where emotions and misguided beliefs would have the upper hand.' —Michel Doucet, University of Moncton
When the Lord government passed the revisions, former Liberal premier Louis J. Robichaud, father of the original legislation, was invited to speak on the floor of the legislature.
That act was passed unanimously, with little debate in the legislature.
However, Doucet said he's concerned that when it comes time to review the legislation in 2012, the next premier may borrow a tactic from the Lord government and stickhandle the contentious file away from the public's glare.
"[Previous politicians] feared that engaging on this path would wake the sleeping dragon, which, once aroused, could turn the province into a battleground where emotions and misguided beliefs would have the upper hand," Doucet writes.
"They preferred the vision of a bilingual province where everything is perfect, at least on paper, and where nobody is worried about that nebulous concept of language equality."
In the last decade, there has been relative peace on the language front.
Moncton is now considering a bilingual sign bylaw. Michel Doucet argues the next government could establish a provincial precedent. (CBC)There have been recent minor flareups after Dieppe passed a bylaw mandating new commercial signs be in both official languages, and the neighbouring city of Moncton announced it was considering a similar law.
In Bathurst, the city council found itself embroiled in a national controversy when it rescinded approval to allow the Anglo Society of New Brunswick to fly its flag outside city hall. The anglophone rights group then protested outside Fredericton City Hall in front of families celebrating the Acadian national holiday on Aug. 15.
When the mandatory review is struck, Doucet said, there are many issues that politicians can address, starting with helping ease the pressure on municipalities on the sign bylaw debate.
The issue is felt by some in the anglophone community as an "affront to individual freedom of expression" while some francophones view the bylaws as a necessary protection for their language and culture.
So, Doucet said, the next premier has the opportunity to set a provincial standard.
"Will they choose the easy way out and leave the decision to individual municipalities, or will they have the courage to address it dead-on?" Doucet writes.