Brian Gallant calls for more tolerance of bilingualism

Premier Brian Gallant is calling on New Brunswickers to be more tolerant when it comes to bilingualism.

Province has faced several hot-button issues dealing with bilingualism in the last 2 years

Premier Brian Gallant delivered his first of two speeches on bilingualism in New Brunswick at the Saint John Chamber of Commerce luncheon Monday. (CBC)

Premier Brian Gallant has delivered a forceful and personal defence of official bilingualism, the latest move in a public-relations blitz by his government as it passes the two-year mark in office.

Gallant told a Saint John Chamber of Commerce lunch audience that he has lived many facets of the bilingual debate because of his own mixed English-French background.

And he defended the principle of bilingual service while at the same time saying governments have to be "pragmatic" in how they promote that principle.

Gallant called for New Brunswickers to be more tolerant when it comes to bilingualism. 

Why do we do this to each other? Shouldn't we just say thank you? We all need to be tolerant.- Premier Brian Gallant

He pointed to complaints about bilingual hiring requirements at the New Brunswick Heart Centre in Saint John, which serves the entire province, and asked the mostly anglophone audience to put themselves in the shoes of francophones receiving care there.

"When you're trying to find your way to the right wing of the hospital, I would only imagine you would need someone to give you directions in your own language," Gallant said. "When the surgeon comes out, you'd want to hear the prognosis in your own language.

"Many anglophones get sent to the Dumont hospital in Moncton and we make sure they are served in English because that is their right," he continued. "We owe francophones the same right when they come here to the provincial heart centre in Saint John."

Since taking power in 2014, Gallant's government has been forced to defend the dual school bus system for English and French schools, and was criticized for demoting a unilingual commissionaire after an investigation by the official languages commissioner.

Busing costs

The premier's speech Monday was the first time he has laid out such a detailed rebuttal to critics of bilingualism.

He said the supposed high cost of school bus duplication is overstated, given most communities don't have both English and French schools, and in places that do the schools aren't on the same bus routes.

He also pointed to a recent report by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies that showed New Brunswick spends $572 per student on school busing, less than the $592 spent in Nova Scotia, where there is no dual system.

Even so, he said, his government asked the New Brunswick Court of Appeal if the Constitution requires dual busing or if there is a "middle ground."

Speech repeated in Caraquet

Gallant also said it's a myth that you have to be bilingual to work for the province, pointing out 55 per cent of government job postings require only English.

Gallant said he will give the exact same speech, but in French, in Caraquet on Wednesday.

Saint John mayor Don Darling says the premier's speech was a valuable response on criticisms about bilingualism. (CBC)
The speeches are part of an effort by Gallant's office to make him visible and accessible to New Brunswickers as he passes the halfway point of his mandate.

Saint John Mayor Don Darling, who attended the speech, said he's heard from citizens upset about bilingualism and Gallant's speech was a valuable response.

"I guess what the premier asked us to do today is to be understanding and tolerant of each other, and understand that we're talking about Charter rights, not just something that someone decided to grant to a group on a whim."

Life experience

In defending bilingualism, Gallant cited his own life experience to show that he understands both anglophone and francophone New Brunswickers — and suggested both groups can be unreasonable in their approach to the issue.

He said his anglophone mother has struggled to learn French, but has been screamed at by francophone customers at the fast-food restaurant she manages for not speaking the language well enough. She's also been criticized by anglophone customers for having French on top on bilingual menus.

"Why do we do this to each other?" he said. "Shouldn't we just say thank you? We all need to be tolerant."

He said he agreed that there aren't enough opportunities to learn a second language in New Brunswick, particularly in rural areas, and promised an announcement on that soon.

Gallant said he switched to a French school when he was 10 years old mainly so he could compete in the Acadian Games — one example of how that event, open only to students at French schools, can strengthen the minority language.

Even so, Gallant said, he found himself criticized by some francophone media commentators for speaking inadequate, accented French after winning the party leadership.

"What does it say that this was the most newsworthy story about the new Liberal leader?"

Social media

Gallant said he doesn't think language tension is new but said it has become more visible because of social media.

He also said it's normal during tough economic times to see such tensions come to the surface.

"When people feel services in their area are threatened, they can react by pointing to other groups or other regions whose services might be cut instead."

But he said the economic downturn was not unique to New Brunswick "so we should not be looking for a scapegoat that's unique to New Brunswick."

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