August 2, 2010 6:49 AM

The National Post has recently cast its eye towards New Brunswick and has performed a classic trick that even good journalists attempt from time to time: draw up a list of three facts and declare it a trend.

In the Post view, the province is a "new" battleground between English and French, an "less likely hornet's nest" in the realm of linguistic tension. But if we accept that recent debates in Bathurst, Dieppe, and Moncton reflect simmering hostility, then we can't very well call it new: there's a history of these outbreaks dating back more than four decades. Barely acknowledged by the Post is the equally long history of New Brunswickers using the democratic process to work things out.

Liberal Premier Louis Robichaud introduced official bilingualism; PC Premier Richard Hatfield, with one eye on expanding his party from its anglophone base to reflect the province as a whole, completed the implementation of the law (as he said he would), and was re-elected handily. When Hatfield flirted with ideas that went beyond what the mainstream would accept, such as linguistic duality as recommended by the Poirier-Bastarache commission, the voters reined him in. The system worked: the premier had forgotten the delicate balance of leading while not getting too far ahead of the political centre, and he was punished.

Likewise, when lingering anger over Hatfield's initiatives and over constitutional concessions to Quebec reached a peak in the late 1980s, they coalesced into the Confederation of Regions Party. Rather than call for "civil war" or other actions outside the law, CoR played by the rules of the electoral system -- and failed miserably to go beyond their win of eight seats in 1991.

In 1992 CoR lost at the ballot box: it campaigned against the Charlottetown accord, but a majority of New Brunswickers voted yes, endorsing, among other things, its provisions to enshrine Hatfield's Bill 88 in the Constitution. Though the accord was defeated nationally, the provincial result amounted to a mandate on Bill 88 (especially given CoR's "majority rule" dogma), and the McKenna and Mulroney governments passed a bilateral amendment.

The real trend here is that though our democratic system has its flaws, it has given voters the opportunity to weigh in on these matters again and again. The Post may not be aware of this, nor that the "Quebec takeover" trope has been a consistent feature of these debates for decades. If Quebec has such a plan, its organizers have been spectacularly inept at executing it.

Likewise, voters will get their chance to pronounce themselves on these municipal sign bylaws that have so alarmed the Toronto newsroom of The National Post. One suspects Dieppe voters, with a large francophone majority, won't punish their city council. Moncton may be different, which is probably why council there is moving cautiously, given the city is only one-third francophone.

One of the sticky points in this kind of debate is who really speaks on behalf of a community. The Anglo Society claims to represent English New Brunswick, but, at best, you never see more than a handful of their members together; a Post interview with one of the anglophone parents who fought to save French immersion would have been as legitimate a representation of "anglophone New Brunswick."

If the hostility were widespread, one suspects as well that it would be manifested in the election pre-campaign now underway. Yet we have five political parties, including one professing to let its policies be shaped exclusively by "the people," all embracing official bilingualism. If the province is becoming a linguistic hornet's nest, we would see the buzz at the ballot box, and our political system, though imperfect, would again be the vehicle for sorting it all out-- just as it has been for more than four decades.
-- Jacques Poitras

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