CANADA

Backlash over language

SHERRI AIKENHEAD August 17 1987
CANADA

Backlash over language

SHERRI AIKENHEAD August 17 1987

Backlash over language

They had gathered inside a small brick Legion Hall in Morrisburg, Ont., a United Empire Loyalist town 60 km west of the Quebec border. Their numbers were small—about 30, most of them elderly—but all of them seemed angry. The focus of their anger: bilingualism. Executive members of the eastern Ontario wing of the Alliance for the Preservation of English in Canada (APEC), they convened the July 27

meeting to discuss their battle against the Ontario government’s plan to extend services to the province’s 500,000 francophones. That plan, many of them claim, threatens both their jobs and their culture. Declared Robert Howald, 60, a retired schoolteacher and president of the local APEC chapter: “I don’t like people telling me I have to speak French.”

On the same street—one block from the town’s Loyalist Hotel—Paul Carpentier, a 52-year-old francophone, operates a fast-food counter. Carpentier, who moved to Ontario from Montebello, Que., eight years ago, said that he is shocked by APEC’s campaign: “I’m a Canadian, and it is hogwash that I have to put up with this in my country.”

The emotions that have divided English and French in Morrisburg (pop. 2,300) have spread quickly in eastern Ontario, a Loyalist bastion where Union Jacks are as common as Canadian flags. In fact, the bilingualism de-

bate has already spilled over into Ontario’s provincial election campaign. In the first week of the campaign, Progressive Conservative Leader Larry Grossman reaffirmed while electioneering in Ottawa that his party would never make the province officially bilingual like New Brunswick. And Grossman accused Liberal Premier David Peterson of having a “hidden agenda” to make Ontario officially bilingual if

he wins in the Sept. 10 vote. In response, Peterson said that while he believes Ontario should become officially bilingual eventually, he would not set any deadline. Said the premier: “I don’t like to see these kinds of divisions.”

At the heart of the controversy is legislation passed last November—with the support of all three parties in Ontario’s legislature. Known as Bill 8, the new French Language Services Act guarantees francophones in areas with a significant French-speaking minority the right to receive services in their own language at hospitals, liquor stores and other provincially operated institutions by 1989. (French is already an official language in Ontario’s courts and educational system.) APEC is now lobbying for repeal of the bill. The organization—which claims 7,000 members nationwide, most of them in Ontario— says that extending French services is a costly and unnecessary step in a province that is 95 per cent anglophone.

And it maintains that the bill will prevent unilingual anglophones from getting government jobs.

Along the St. Lawrence River in eastern Ontario, an area settled two centuries ago by farmers loyal to England fleeing from revolutionary America, such fears are deep-rooted. Some politicians in the area campaigned in vain against the 1969 federal Official Languages Act, which brought bilingualism to such local employers as customs and immigration posts on the U.S. border. Since last spring 11 municipal councils in the region have voted to endorse

APEC’s call for a provincial referendum on bilingualism and the extension of French-language services. Three towns went even further and declared themselves officially “nonbilingual”—a symbolic action that will not affect Ontario government services in those towns. Most of these are not directly affected by Bill 8, which applies only to areas where francophones make up more than 10 per cent of the population. In Morrisburg, francophones represent only two per cent. But some APEC members voiced fears that the bill is part of a conspiracy against anglophones. Said Howald: “This is just going to snowball.”

Just 50 km downriver from Morrisburg, in the picturesque city of Brockville, 38-year-old music teacher Faye Garner is spearheading APEC’s Ontario campaign. In 1985 Garner lost her job as a secretary in the Brockville office of the Ontario ministry of corrections to a woman who spoke French. But ministry

officials said that Garner’s language ability had nothing to do with their decision not to renew her contract. And Garner failed to win her job back despite a union grievance and an appeal to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Frustrated, Garner turned to APEC. As president of APEC’s Brockville chapter and the organization’s most vocal activist, she has travelled widely in Ontario, organizing new groups and trumpeting the organization’s motto: “One language unites, two languages divide.”

Garner’s calls found a receptive audience in Elizabethtown Township, which includes Brockville. In a unanimous vote last month, the township council supported APEC’s position and designated the area officially unilingual. Councillor Howard Harper, 69, said he fears that his granddaughter, Kelly, 13, will be at a disadvantage if jobs are offered to bilingual applicants first. “French Canadians are gradually trying to take over the whole country,” said Harper. “It’s like a bad disease.”

Although APEC members insist that they are not anti-French, the group’s hostility has offended many francophones. Brockville’s Cecile Loiselle, a 33-year-old occupational therapist, said that she was disturbed when she learned that her own music teacher, Garner, was campaigning to repeal extended French services. “You’re hurt and upset and can’t help but ask yourself, why is this anger directed at me?” said Loiselle.

So far the only government response to the backlash has been an unequivocal guarantee from Municipal Affairs Minister Bernard Grandmaître—who implements the new law—that no one will lose jobs because of Bill 8. Said Grandmaître, who represents Ottawa East and is also the minister responsible for francophone affairs: “APEC is preying on fears with scare tactics.” Last week Peterson added that he would never agree to hold a referendum on Bill 8, which he called “pioneering” legislation.

APEC plans to escalate its attack on Bill 8 during the election campaign by lobbying candidates. By last week bilingualism was already the hottest issue in what had promised to be a sleepy summer campaign. And aides to the premier admitted that the issue could be politically explosive. Said David McNaughton, Peterson’s campaign cochairman: “It’s a dangerous issue to play with, but it can be just as dangerous for the opposition.” The anger voiced by Howald and his associates in eastern Ontario—and the resulting anguish expressed by francophones— seemed to confirm that view.

SHERRI AIKENHEAD