New Brunswick

A review of province's Official Languages Act will happen behind closed doors

A review of one of the most persistently controversial aspects of New Brunswick life, official bilingualism, will happen in secret.

People must be 'unencumbered' when voicing concerns, Higgs says

Premier Blaine Higgs says openness in the review process means letting people feel comfortable enough to be open with their views in private. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

A review of one of the most persistently controversial aspects of New Brunswick life, official bilingualism, will happen in secret.

Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters Friday afternoon that the mandatory 10-year review of the Official Languages Act will be chaired by two commissioners who will hear from New Brunswickers behind closed doors.

"The reason for that is to certainly let people have a chance to voice concerns and ask questions back and forth, let's say, unencumbered," Higgs said. "They get to have a very open and frank discussion and do that in a very personal way."

Similar arguments were made a decade ago when a previous Progressive Conservative government sent the review to closed-door hearings by a committee of MLAs. 

At the time, the only two parties in the legislature, the PCs and the Liberals, agreed to the secret hearings. The Liberals later changed their minds.

This time, groups ranging from the People's Alliance party to the Acadian Society of New Brunswick have called for open hearings.

Opposition Liberal Leader Roger Melanson said Friday it was disappointing Higgs opted for a closed-door process.

"I think the premier has got a track record here," Melanson said.

"He's very secretive. He doesn't engage with New Brunswickers. His consultation processes are, to be quite honest, fake. His mind is already made up and on this one we still don't know what he wants to accomplish." 

Opposition Leader Roger Melanson says review should be held in the open. (CBC)

But Higgs redefined the concept of openness Friday to suggest people wouldn't be at ease speaking freely in public consultations.

"That's exactly what we want, an open conversation where everybody is able to participate without any external pressure of any kind," he said.

"Our definition of open is the ability for one to talk frankly, openly, honestly, in an open way, a personal way, a way that doesn't put any undue pressure on them."

Combating bilingualism disinformation

Acadian Society president Alexandre Cédric Doucet says private discussions are a missed opportunity to combat the disinformation that exists about bilingualism. "It would have been very positive for the province to have a public discussion," he said.

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin called it "the type of decision that erodes the trust of the public" and Green Party Leader David Coon said it was "absolutely unacceptable." Coon called for a committee of MLAs to review the act in public hearings. 

Higgs didn't identify who the two commissioners will be. He said they'll be named within weeks and he expected there to be one anglophone and one francophone, both of whom will likely be bilingual and both of whom will support official bilingualism in general.

As expected, the review will go beyond the Official Languages Act itself, a 2002 law that requires the government to communicate with New Brunswickers in their choice of English and French. It replaced the original law passed in 1969. 

Auditor General Kim Adair-MacPherson previously said only 10 per cent of the students who started immersion in 2005 graduated with advanced French or better. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

The act does not apply to provincial schools, which fall into anglophone and francophone systems that are governed by the Education Act and enshrined in the Constitution. 

Despite that distinction, the review of the legislation will also look at why French immersion students in the anglophone school system are graduating with low rates of fluency in French, the premier confirmed.

Higgs said more than 50 years after the original language law, the province should be able to graduate more anglophone students who are bilingual.

"Let's just think outside of the box a little bit, and the educational process, we know, is key to that. Let's not tie our hands." 

Doucet said it's positive to talk about improving immersion but a mandatory review of the Official Languages Act is not the proper vehicle for that discussion. Coon said while he supports examining immersion, the review of the act will be "muddied" by adding it.

In 2019, Auditor General Kim Adair–MacPherson said only 10 per cent of the students who started immersion in 2005 graduated with advanced French or better, a number the government cited often at the time.

But 75 per cent of that 2005 cohort transferred out of immersion before graduating. Of those who followed it all the way through Grade 12, 40 per cent had advanced or higher levels of French, Adair–MacPherson said.

On Friday, Higgs referred to fewer than 50 per cent of immersion grads being able to speak French effectively.

Before Christmas, he tied that to an outmigration of unilingual anglophones from New Brunswick.

On Friday though, he avoided putting it that way, saying that "we've seen anglophones and francophones" leave the province for work and that improving the system would benefit everyone.

"If we enhance our capability to be a bilingual province, we can differentiate from other provinces, for offering service and a capability that doesn't exist in other parts of Canada," he said.

About the Author

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.