It is a battle that has exposed raw and inflamed emotions across an entire province. And it defies all attempts at a smooth solution. The deepseated passions of Manitoba’s language impasse, which is more than a century old and which burst into a new and divisive controversy last year, have since grown even more intense. Nine months ago Premier Howard Pawley tabled a plan to guarantee French language rights for the province’s 50,000 francophones. Then he significantly modified the proposals. Still, he and his New
Democratic Party government remain deadlocked in the legislature, and Pawley and at least one minister have been subjected to death threats and large public protests.
Last week the Opposition Conservatives walked out of the legislature for the 12th time this year, once again defeating government efforts to pass the controversial language legislation. Some members of Pawley’s own party oppose his language policy. But the premier received a standing ovation when he appeared before the annual convention of the Manitoba NDP last weekend and castigated the Conservatives as being “extremists and fear-mongering hypocrites.”
In the past three weeks antibilingualism protests have become increasingly ugly and histrionic. The death threats
and abusive calls to Pawley and three cabinet ministers forced Winnipeg police to increase patrols around the legislators’ homes. After a bomb scare at the legislature on Jan. 30 security has been tightened, and visitors are more carefully monitored.
At the same time, many communities of all sizes have been divided and embittered by the issue. And letters to local newspapers daily denounce “the Pawley dictatorship.” One rural Manitoba woman took out a $3,000 bank loan to place a half-page advertisement in the
Winnipeg Free Press urging that “Bilingualism is not what it appears to be ... don’t do it.” Throughout the province Manitoba Grassroots, the umbrella organization for the antibilingualism forces, has been holding fervent rallies. In one Winnipeg meeting alone, on Feb. 2, more than 3,000 people listened sympathetically as speaker after speaker accused the government of imposing bilingualism on Manitobans and putting forward “a blueprint for apartheid.” The intensity of the reaction has invited charges of bigotry and hysteria. But Grant Russell, a spokesman for Manitoba Grassroots, said the whole issue rests on the fact that westerners have a virtually unilingual view of Canada. “Down East,” said Russell, “they do not understand what is going on out here.” For the most part, Pierre Trudeau’s
federal Liberals have stayed out of the debate. But Employment and Immigration Minister Lloyd Axworthy, who is the MP for Winnipeg-Fort Garry—an affluent riding in which bilingualism is a marginal issue—has warned of the dangers of extremists taking over the language debate. And Brian Mulroney’s federal Conservatives have pleaded with their provincial counterparts to tone down their opposition to bilingualism—to no avail. Last week Mulroney publicly ordered Dan McKenzie, Conservative MP for Winnipeg-Assiniboine and a long-standing opponent of bilingualism, to toe the party line or quit the Tory caucus.
The hopes and fears embodied in
Manitoba’s language issue are sharply reflected in the town of Somerset, a mixed Frenchand English-speaking community about 130 km southwest of Winnipeg. In 1981 a language dispute at the town’s high school split Somerset’s 650 residents, with French-speaking parents demanding more courses in French and anglophone parents pressing either for less French or their own school. The dispute led to family quarrels, discord, a boycott of stores and the death of lifelong friendships. “It was a war-torn area,” said Denis Rocan, a francophone farmer and truck driver. Added his wife, Connie, who is of Icelandic descent: “If a school situation can cause this kind of hatred and strife, what is the legislation going to do to the whole province?”
Somerset parish priest René Tou-
chette supports the proposed legislation but he said that it could renew the hostility between the town’s language groups if the current debate began to focus on people instead of the issues. “There is a danger,” said the bearded priest, who holds an English service on Saturday nights and a French service on Sunday morning to give everyone a chance to take part in the service.
The town’s mayor, Roger Poiron, is concerned by the increasing influence of Manitoba Grassroots—a group, he says, that preys on people’s emotions. Like many francophones, Poiron is also alarmed by the Tories’ resistance to the legislation. “Many people would certainly not want to live under the rule of the Opposition. They have shown that they are not for minorities,” he declared. On the other side of the dispute, Gerard Devloo, an anglophone farmer who withdrew six of his children from school during the 1981 education fight, holds views typical of many Englishspeaking Manitobans, although he harbors no bitterness. “Five per cent of the population should not dictate how the rest should live,” he said.
Linguistic storms have swept Manitoba throughout its history. In 1890, when the Riel rebellion was a recent memory, a Manitoba government made up of Ontario Orangemen arbitrarily revoked the province’s constitutional guarantees of French language rights. University of Manitoba historian D.N. Sprague contends that the current “irrational outrage” is caused by widespread feelings of insecurity and fear. Anglo-Saxons resent the challenge to their dominance, he added, while Manitobans of other language groups, such as the Ukrainians, Poles and Germans, resent the provision of rights and status to a group numerically less significant than themselves. Language, said Sprague, “is one of those exposed nerves.”
Quebecers are watching Manitoba’s troubles closely. Gérald Godin, minister of immigration and cultural communities in the Parti Québécois government, has pointed to the issue as a “failure of the Canadian dream.” Eric Maldoff, president of the English rights group Alliance Quebec, is more optimistic about the vision of a bilingual Canada. He said that the anglophone community has not been destroyed by Quebec’s Bill 101, which in 1977 made French the sole official language in the province, and that Ontario has pledged to make French language education available to all francophone children in the province. “The vision of a bilingual Canada is not dead,” said Maldoff. “Manitoba should assume its constitutional responsibility.”
ANDREW NIKIFORUK in Winnipeg, with bureau reports.
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