It began as an inauspicious incident. On May 29, 1980, Winnipeg police saw law student Roger Bilodeau speeding in his Ford sedan down Lyndale Drive in Winnipeg’s St. Boniface area, stopped him and routinely handed him a ticket. After noting that the ticket was printed in English only, Bilodeau, who now teaches law in New Brunswick, agreed to pay the $35 fine, but then began a lengthy court challenge on the basis of a 1979 Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the 1890 Manitoba Official Language Act. His case has tugged at the fabric of the Manitoba government’s legal authority. In the next two months the Supreme Court of Canada will rule whether all the English-only laws passed in the province over the past 94 years—the very legal foundation of the province—are valid. Declared constitutional law expert Dale Gibson: “It is utterly unprecedented. There has never been a constitutional ruling that threatened complete legal chaos for a portion of the country.”
In May, 1983, the province’s NDP government attempted to avert a potentially disruptive Supreme Court ruling by introducing a constitutional amendment to entrench bilingualism and expand French language services in a province where only four per cent of the 1.05 million people are francophones. But the NDP strategy threw the province into a divisive emotional crisis. Opponents of entrenched bilingualism held mass demonstrations while an implacable Tory opposition waged a bitter fight in the legislature. Key players on both sides of the debate, notably Premier Howard Pawley and the head of Manitoba Grassroots, Grant Russell, who led the public opposition to the legislation, received death threats. At the same time, the controversial amendment became the subject of two dramatic resolutions in the House of Commons which called for the province to fulfill its constitutional obligations. When the Manitoba government failed to pass the amendment last February the issue reverted to the Supreme Court. In April the federal government asked the Supreme Court to hear the Bilodeau case.
One legacy of Manitoba’s linguistic war is the right-wing Confederation of Regions Western Party (COR). Formed last April, it ran second in three rural ridings in southwestern Manitoba in the Sept. 4 federal election and captured
more than eight per cent of the popular vote. Doug Edmondson, the flinty chairman of the party’s Manitoba branch, credits COR’s popularity to its pro-Western platform: a review of compulsory metrification, increased regional representation in Ottawa, public referenda on all constitutional matters and one language for Western Canada—English. Said Edmondson, a car dealer who speaks fluent French: “We do not want anything entrenched in the constitution be it English, French or Chinese.”
Throughout the stormy language dispute last year, national media reports angered Manitobans with charges that bigotry and political hysteria had arisen in the province. But according to Greg Mason, director of Manitoba’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, the language debate was much more complex. Said Mason: “The issue was a lightning rod. It conducted all the frustrations felt under Western alienation—from Ottawa’s long-standing neglect of the region to unfair grain stabilization payments.” Institute surveys showed that equal numbers of Anglo-Saxons and Manitobans of neither English nor French descent opposed the legislation because of its $3.5-million cost and because of the sudden and arbitrary way the government introduced it. A poll which the institute released in September showed that half of the province’s 670,000 voters remain firmly opposed to entrenchment, while only 30 per cent support the securing of French rights. Those statistics also illustrate the West’s traditional antipathy toward bilingualism.
Although the Supreme Court could rule invalid all of Manitoba’s laws, Gibson says it is unlikely to do so without granting the provincial government temporary powers to govern in order to avoid legal chaos. According to Gibson, that would mean giving the province a fiveor 10-year period in which to translate all of its laws. Kerr Twaddle, the lawyer representing the Manitoba government, argued in a three-day hearing before the Supreme Court in June that the province’s constitutional language guarantees are merely directory because any other findings would place the province in a kind of legal limbo. But lawyers representing the federal government stated that such guarantees —of both French and English as official languages of the provincial courts and legislature—are mandatory.
Whatever the Supreme Court’s decision, Premier Pawley is clearly counting on it to put the divisive issue to rest. But a ruling unfavorable to Manitoba will invoke protests from both COR supporters and from Manitoba Grassroots. Vowed spokesman Russell: “If the ruling is unfavorable, the sleeping giant will awake.”
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