Manitoba’s protracted language wars were no closer to resolution last week as a procedural wrangle in the legislature stalled the NDP government’s latest attempt to extend rights and services to the province’s francophone minority. Before the Opposition Tories walked out of the House, beginning a four-day boycott, agreement between the two sides over an issue that has divided Manitoba since last May seemed tantalizingly near. Earlier, the government had abandoned its plans for a constitutional amendment that would have given francophones the right to receive certain government services in their own language. Instead, the government wants to include those services in a provincial law which a future legislature could amend if it chose.
For their part, the Progressive Conservatives agreed to changes allowing translation of 400 of the province’s 4,500 English-only laws into French. But the Tories balked at constitutional recognition of English and French as official languages and urged the government to withdraw that part of its plan. When Premier Howard Pawley’s administration refused, the Tories began their boycott, claiming that the government had violated the order of debate.
Before the breakdown the Conservatives had also dropped a demand that lawyer Roger Bilodeau continue a delayed court challenge of the province’s English-only laws. If successful, that challenge could invalidate all Manitoba laws passed since 1890. Faced with that
threat in 1983 the government reacted by offering francophones extended rights and guarantees.
Tempers frayed on both sides of the debate as the legislature’s bells rang, summoning members to vote. The government characterized the daily departure of Opposition members from the House as merely another tactic in the Tories’ long fight to prevent passage of its proposal. Gary Filmon, the new Tory leader, rejected that description, claiming his party had widespread public support. “What we are speaking is being said by 80 per cent of Manitobans,” said Filmon.
Tacit acknowledgment of Filmon’s assertion came last week from one unexpected source in the province: the Société Franco-Manitobaine, which represents the province’s 50,000 Frenchspeaking citizens. At a subdued SFM meeting in Winnipeg members voted 506 to 112 to endorse the NDP’s modified language plan instead of holding out for constitutional guarantees. Leo Robert, the organization’s president, said that the NDP proposal was the best language deal francophones could hope to receive. Moreover, during the language debates opponents directed hate mail and even death threats at SFM members. Francophones were tired of the controversy and wanted to start enjoying the promised services now, Robert said. That will not happen until the NDP and the Tories resolve their differences over an issue that so far has stubbornly defied resolution.
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