Manitoba’s fight over French

Andrew Nikiforuk October 3 1983

Manitoba’s fight over French

Andrew Nikiforuk October 3 1983

Manitoba’s fight over French


Andrew Nikiforuk

For more than three months a Manitoba government resolution to extend French language services has consumed the politics and divided the people of that province. Last week the bitter provincial dispute escalated into an emotional national debate as the federal government sought to orchestrate an all-party resolution in the Commons expressing support for bilingualism. As more than 15 Manitoba municipalities, including the city of Winnipeg, prepared to hold plebiscites on the issue, raising fears of racist outbursts and even more acrimony, NDP Premier Howard Pawley met with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau for 2 xk hours on Sept. 22. His message was blunt. Said Trudeau after the meeting: “Premier Pawley is not asking for any help. He feels this is Manitoba’s problem.” But Pawley could not ease the rising concern in other parts of the country. As Neil McDonald, chairman of Manitoba 23, an alliance of ethnic groups favoring francophone rights, put it: “The debate affects Ontario, New Brunswick, Quebec, Saskatchewan and Alberta. It is hard to keep other people out.”

The proposal to entrench and expand French language services for 50,000

francophones (four per cent of the Manitoba population) is both complex and explosive. While the NDP argued that minority rights can best be protected by entrenching them in the federal Constitution, a tenacious Opposition Tory Leader Sterling Lyon maintained that the change would allow the courts to settle issues best dealt with in the legislature. Such a fundamental political cleavage over bilingualism is neither surprising nor new in a province often scarred by cultural controversies. Language tensions in Manitoba date back to long before an 1890 law declared English the only official language of the province. The latest flare-up had its origins in a 1979 federal Supreme Court decision which struck down the old law and threw into question the legality of all English-only legislation passed in the past 93 years.

In 1981 legal chaos appeared imminent when a francophone Winnipeg lawyer, Roger Bilodeau, challenged the constitutionality of a speeding ticket written in English only. To prevent a ruling that might have undermined the very acts by which the legislature operates, the Pawley government privately struck a deal with the Franco-Manitoban Society, the federal government and Bilodeau. Essentially, the govern-

ment offered to translate 400 of some 4,500 laws at a cost of $3.5 million over 10 years while expanding some Frenchlanguage services in government agencies by 1987. That offer became the basis of the bilingualism resolution now before the legislature. The resolution would extend francophone services to specified ministries and agencies beyond the legislature and the courts where French is already official and would ask the federal government to entrench the new rights in the federal Constitution. In return Bilodeau postponed his speeding ticket challenge and Ottawa agreed to pay $2.35 million toward the cost of translations.

The NDP soon discovered that their solution could not easily resolve a century-old problem. Apart from the Tories’ persistent filibustering in the legislature, the NDP faced defections from within—most notably from NDP member Russell Doern, who took out newspaper advertisements denouncing entrenched bilingualism.

Last month, in an attempt to defuse a spreading public revolt, the NDP began holding a series of meetings in town halls and school auditoriums across the province. Attorney General Roland Penner, the architect of the government’s motion, travelled to hear first-

hand the fears and objections of the voters. But the hearings, due to finish this week, only highlighted the public’s fears and concerns about the cost and necessity of the proposal. In the province’s rural areas in particular, townspeople spoke out against bilingualism with such force that even the local francophones were stunned. In Rosser, a small English-speaking village 32 km northwest of Winnipeg, reeve Alan Beached argued that in his town bilingualism would only produce jobs for francophones. “They say that bilingualism will unify the country, but that’s nonsense,” he said. “It’s a case of people wanting to get jobs.” At a meeting in Brandon, Sydney Lyle, the reeve of nearby Portage-la-Prairie, said bluntly,

“I’m not prepared to be taxed by either thé federal or provincial governments to keep alive a minority culture.” David Harms, a Mennonite farmer and president of the Union of Manitoba Municipalities, which represents half the province’s population, compared bilingualism with owning two cars. “We can’t afford two languages,” he said. “And you can only drive one at a time anyway.”

The province’s francophones, the remnants of a once vibrant community and now one of the most quickly assimilating groups in the country, is confused and beleaguered by the current fight. Although many originally approved of the government resolution, some now see it as a divisive measure that is turning the English-speaking majority against them. Scattered in 30 communities across the province, few francophones have the opportunity to conduct most of their daily affairs in French. Ste-Anne, a town of 1,300 and the second-oldest French settlement in the province, is one place where French has survived. French is spoken in the village chamber and used on the street signs. Service station operator and deputy reeve Dennis Grégoire, himself a descendant of a coureur de bois, sympathized with anglophone concerns but added, “The resolution sounds worse than it [really] is to an anglophone.” Louis Bernardin, the director of the village’s home for the elderly, keeps Quebec’s fleur-de-lys flag in his office. He said that the current controversy would not exist if the government had provided more services in the past. “We don’t need this crisis. It’s unfair,” he said. “In Europe you speak four or five languages and you are respected. Here, if you speak two languages you are an ass.” For his part,

Camille Chaput, a former alderman, said that the resolution has caused too much ill feeling. “You can take a box full of pills, and you die,” he said. “It’s the same with French. We have as much French as we can use and need. Just leave it alone, for God’s sake.”

The issue, a thorny one for politicians at both the federal and provincial level, is unlikely to go away. Tory Leader Brian Mulroney found himself in a particularly delicate situation when Trudeau called for a federal show of support for the province’s francophones. Mulroney, a longtime proponent of

French language rights, was caught between his own beliefs and the possibility of alienating some members of his own caucus and the Manitoba Tories. Still, Mulroney met with Trudeau twice last week to discuss the Prime Minister’s proposed resolution. After the second meeting last Friday, Mulroney was angered when a Trudeau aide disclosed a few details of what was to have been a private encounter. The aide, Ralph Coleman, said that Mulroney had not yet read a draft of the resolution because the Prime Minister was waiting for NDP Leader Ed Broadbent to return to Ottawa to see it.

The leak infuriated Mulroney, who said that further meetings on the subject might be jeopardized. But Coleman quickly apologized for his remarks

and Mulroney called Trudeau a “gentleman.”

As the public hearings draw to a close this week, the focus is shifting to the upcoming municipal plebiscites. Timed to be held on the same day as municipal elections, the plebiscites are certain to add to the controversy. Penner, who wants to get the amendment through in the current session of the legislature, where the NDP holds 34 seats to the Tories’ 23, said the municipalities should not get involved in a provincial matter. New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield, whose province passed the Official Language Act in April, 1969, making French one of the two official languages, added that “You cannot have a referendum on equality.” Nevertheless, on Oct. 26, 500,000 Winnipeggers will face a complicated question. The referendum question reads: “Should the province withdraw its proposed constitutional amendment and allow the Bilodeau case to proceed and be heard and decided by the Supreme Court of Canada on the validity of English-only laws passed by the legislature of Manitoba since 1890?” Even Don Mitchelson, the city councillor who introduced the original motion, found the final wording, a cumbersome attempt to avoid inflaming the language issue, hard to understand. “If you want to say yes, you have to say no. My constituents find it unbelievably confusing,” he said.

In the face of growing public anger, Penner has already changed the resolution to allay 5 fears of a massive change in public services. The amended resolution guarantees the use of French as an official language in the legislature and courts alone, rather than covering such areas as municipal services and the school boards. The Société Franco-Manitobaine called the changes a retreat. But their greatest fear is that the NDP will drop the resolution altogether.

With the plebiscites imminent, the pressure to resolve the language dispute is likely to grow. The Bilodeau speeding ticket case may be heard in the Supreme Court anytime after Dec. 31. If that case goes ahead, the legal chaos that the NDP government hoped to avoid may become a reality. But even the courts may not be able to resolve the deeply felt antagonisms. The NDP has the legislative strength to push the resolution through. If they do so, they can only hope that Sterling Lyon is wrong when he predicts that language will bring down the NDP in the next election.