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Bernard Richard was one of the 119 citizens who signed a letter criticizing recent coverage of bilingualism in two New Brunswick newspapers. ((CBC))

A group of politicians, business leaders and prominent citizens has written a public letter saying they are frustrated about how bilingualism is being portrayed in two New Brunswick newspapers.

The collection of 119 citizens criticized stories published in the Times & Transcript and Telegraph-Journal, which are both controlled by the Irving-owned Brunswick News Inc.

The authors said the stories have been "stoking the flames of discontent, thereby creating unnecessary division and increased tensions between communities."

"We are tired of seeing Acadians and francophones being used as scapegoats each time the fiscal situation of the province deteriorates. It is also very frustrating to see that editorials and some prominent members of the anglophone community so blatantly misrepresent the aspirations of the francophone community and its desire for equal rights," the letter states.

"This serves only to foster hatred and division, and we don’t believe they represent the views of the large majority of anglophones in New Brunswick or those of the owners of these newspapers."

'This serves only to foster hatred and division, and we don’t believe they represent the views of the large majority of anglophones in New Brunswick or those of the owners of these newspapers.'— Open letter

Jamie Irving, vice-president of Brunswick News Inc., said in a statement the media company is examining the letter.

"Brunswick News Inc. received an opinion letter critical of our coverage of language issues signed by more than 100 signatories Monday afternoon," Irving said in his statement.

"As in the case of any opinion letter, we strive to confirm the identity of all signatories. We have since received separate communication from individuals, whose names are attached to the letter, who say they have not seen the letter or authorized their names as signatories. Once we have completed our due diligence, we intend to publish the letter," Irving said.

Language debates have always been contentious in New Brunswick.

However, the issue has reared up in recent months specifically around the decision of a special legislative committee that is reviewing the Official Languages Act to hold its meetings in private.

As well, Premier David Alward expelled Fundy-River Valley MLA Dr. Jim Parrott from the Progressive Conservative caucus after he criticized the provincial government’s lack of consultation with physicians and how the health system serves the province's two main language groups.

That decision sparked a debate over the difference between bilingualism and duality in the government. Bilingualism means a single provincial institution providing service in both English and French. Duality is the creation of duplicate centres in English and French.

The education system is the one area in the provincial government where duality exists.

The Department of Education has one minister, but a deputy minister for the anglophone system and a deputy minister for the francophone system. And those deputy ministers are responsible for administering each of those school systems.

The Department of Health, however, is different. The Official Languages Act says health authorities can operate internally in their language of choice. When it comes to delivering services to patients, the law says citizens have the right to be offered service in their language of choice.

Bilingualism’s advantages

The letter is signed by eight current mayors in New Brunswick, two former lieutenant governors, several business leaders and former politicians, such as Bernard Richard, Bernard Thériault and Yvon Poitras.

The letter said the discussion around bilingualism leaves the impression that Acadians and francophones do not contribute to economic development in the province.

"The reality is that Acadians and francophones are part of the richness of New Brunswick and will continue to participate and contribute to the development of this beautiful province," the letter said.

"As business people, we have to look at both sides of a financial statement. Those opposing bilingualism often look only at the cost. Let’s look at the other side: the advantages yielded by what we consider to be investments in the fundamental identity of the province."

The authors said other provincial governments, such as Ontario and Nova Scotia, face massive debts and they are not officially bilingual. So, they argue it is unfair to pin the blame on bilingualism.

The letter ends with an appeal for unity in the language discussion.

"The time has come for those of us who believe in justice, fairness and equality to stand up and be counted. The future of this province depends on it. New Brunswick deserves better," the letter states.

"We have come a long way and we have a long and tough road yet to travel, but we can only achieve the goals we hold dear in a spirit of mutual respect, honesty and co-operation. We will all be much better off if we focus on what unites us rather than what divides us."