New Brunswick

Official Languages Act being reviewed in secret

A legislative committee is reviewing the Official Languages Act away from the glare of the public.

Legislative committee meeting behind closed doors

Committee chair, Justice Minister Marie-Claude Blais, says the committee wanted people to be able to speak freely. (CBC)

A legislative committee is studying the Official Languages Act away from the glare of the public.

The Select Committee on the Revision of the Official Languages Act, which is made up of Progressive Conservative and Liberal MLAs, has agreed to hold the meetings in secret.

While members of the public can respond to four questions on the legislative assembly’s website, the MLAs are doing their work behind closed doors. No one from the public is allowed to sit in and listen.

None of the Conservative MLAs would talk on Tuesday as to why citizens were barred from the meetings.

"Secret meeting? I'm afraid I can't," said Saint John Harbour MLA Carl Killen.

Justice Minister Marie-Claude Blais, who is the committee's chairperson, said language reforms are always a difficult issue for politicians.

"This is not an easy subject. We all know in past history how this can bring out — people have different positions, there's a spectrum of positions," she said.

Contentious issue

Blais was referring to heated language hearings in 1984 that included an egg being thrown at the committee.

That was 30 years ago and some polls suggest the issue is less contentious today.

But the Opposition Liberals are not in a position to slam the Tories over the committee’s secrecy.

"Bilingualism, or the Official Languages law, is always an emotional issue in New Brunswick," said Liberal MLA Hédard Albert.

Michel Carrier, the province's official languages commissioner, declined to comment, saying it is up to the committee to decide how to run the hearings.

The Official Languages Act, which was passed in 2002, requires a review every 10 years.

Various groups have submitted briefs, come to testify in front of the committee and answered questions from MLAs, none of which the public can see.

"We wanted to make sure that the people who came to the committee felt free to say what they wanted to say," said Blais.

She said the committee doesn't have any problem with the public knowing its position on the issue, or hearing any discussion of the committee's proposals.

Bilingualism skeptic Jim Cougle contends the hearing should be public.

"We are told by Mr. Alward's people that he is unswervingly committed to accountability and transparency," he said. "So this seems the antithesis of that, and we're just not sure why they're doing this."