The new politics of language
Suddenly the Liberal leadership race was no longer a personality contest. All it took was one ill-judged remark by the early favorite, John Turner, on a subject that goes to the heart of Canadian nationhood—the emotional and intractable issue of language rights. Turner’s seemingly offhand suggestion that the Manitoba language dispute should be settled by “provincial initiative”— rather than by federal interventionprovoked a storm of controversy in the Liberal party. And even when Turner attempted to clear the air by affirming his belief that “Parliament must remain vigilant in the protection of the rights of minorities everywhere in Canada,” the controversy refused to subside.
In fact, the Manitoba issue engulfed the national political landscape last week. The province’s long-festering language dispute not only gave Energy Minister Jean Chrétien, who entered
the Liberal leadership contest, a readymade issue, but it continued to divide the Opposition Conservatives as well. During a private meeting at Stornoway, the Opposition leader’s official home, Brian Mulroney and Bud Sherman, a prominent Manitoba Tory, tried to patch up their differences over efforts to extend the language rights of the province’s 50,000 francophones. They failed to agree, leaving Mulroney—who has staunchly defended the francophone cause—at odds with the Manitoba party as he heads to Winnipeg this week to confront the dilemma once more.
Even in the North passions over language flared after Northern Affairs Minister John Munro, who later in the week became a Liberal leadership candidate, declared that the Yukon and Northwest Territories would become officially bilingual. And in Ottawa, Maclean's has learned, a bitter debate erupted over the Manitoba issue at a Tuesday meeting of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s inner cabinet between
ministers who back Turner and those who do not. They disagreed over the role the Supreme Court should play in resolving the protracted language dispute—but in the end decided to ask the Supreme Court to rule on the issue. That was the course of action that Turner—at least in his initial statement on the issue—had appeared to oppose, and he shocked many Liberals by seeming to back off from the firm defence of minority language rights that had characterized the Trudeau era. Later in the week Turner modified his position, declaring that a judicial ruling might be necessary as a “last resort.” Restraint: Chrétien, who joined the leadership race at the height of the furore over Turner’s statement, was quick to stake out a different position from Turner on the Manitoba situation. “The achievement of constitutionally protected minority language rights in every province is the proud heritage of the Liberals,” he declared. “On this I shall not compromise.” Although they were fighting words, Chrétien spoke
with uncharacteristic restraint—perhaps aware that a Liberal feud over bilingualism is the last thing the party needs now as it tries to close the gap with the Tories. Many of Chrétien’s supporters expected a fiery speech in familiar streetfighter style. But, as he later explained: “It was not an occasion for belligerence. It was a solemn moment. I was declaring myself a pretender to be the successor of Laurier and Mackenzie King and St. Laurent and Pearson and Trudeau.”
For all of that, it was clear that the Liberals now had a passionate defender of their traditional doctrine of linguistic equality contesting the leadership. As the race toward the June leadership convention gathered momentum, the party faced an alarming new prospect. For the first time in this century it seemed possible that the Liberals might be divided on the language question. Dennis Dawson, one of Turner’s strongest francophone supporters, acknowledged the setback when he said: “The whole issue will blow over in a week or so. But I wish it had never happened.”
The immediate cost of Turner’s unexpected pronouncement was apparently high: he lost the support of five MPs— three whom were committed to him and two who had been leaning his way. Per-
haps most important, he forfeited his early aura of invincibility. “Now we know there is a man under the Superman suit,” said Quebec MP Pierre Deniger, a Turner supporter who tried to put the affair in a favorable light. For his part, Mulroney ridiculed Turner for amending his position and declared, “If that’s experience, I’ll have none of it.”
In Quebec, where Turner came under heavy fire from critics across a wide political spectrum, the long-term political consequences could be serious (page 22). “It has not cost us one iota of support,” insisted Quebec Liberal MP Jean Lapierre, a Turner backer. But Argenteuil Liberal MP Robert Gourd, a Chrétien supporter, said that Turner had slipped badly. “He has been out of politics so long that he is probably out of touch,” Gourd said. Chrétien himself, in an interview with Maclean ’s, made only one critical reference to Turner’s statement. Observed Chrétien: “It turned out it was not me who fumbled the ball on the first play.”
Strategy: In Manitoba, where the language issue has raged for the past six months, francophone reaction to Turner’s initial statement was predictably vehement. Manitoba Liberal Leader Sharon Carstairs, who has not yet come out in support of any leadership candidate, said that Turner’s state-
merits had shown him in a new light. Turner, she said, “was a golden son, and everyone thought he would be crowned. He tripped a little. Maybe we should have another look at him.” But Grant Russell, spokesman for Manitoba Grassroots, a coalition of Manitobans opposed to the entrenchment of language rights in the Constitution, concluded that Turner’s position was a deliberate strategy to win western support. “Turner feels that he has to break into the West, and it could be that this is the way he has chosen to do it,” he said. “Politically it is a very astute move.”
Elsewhere in Western Canada reaction was mixed. Arthur Welsh, president of the Conservative association in Vancouver-Quadra riding, where there is speculation that Turner might run, said that Turner had “been out of the mainstream so long he does not know what is going on.” But Rod Sykes, a Liberal and former mayor of Calgary, said that in the West “Turner’s position is quite popular. I’d support it myself.”
Impact: Throughout the week
Turner’s strategists tried to contain the damage. The Bay Street lawyer—who for eight years was out of federal politics-had been briefed for every conceivable question, including the Manitoba dispute. “We had been over this for two years,” said one of his key strategists. But Turner evidently underestimated the impact that his views on language would have. When a reporter asked for Turner’s thoughts on the Manitoba situation on March 16, he replied confidently. “I think we have to recognize that what is at issue here is a provincial initiative and that a solution will have to be provincial,” he said. “I would hope that it would be resolved by the political process and not by the judicial process.” If there was any doubt that Turner meant what he said, he removed it three days later in a CTV interview on Canada A.M., affirming that “Provincial services for French language within a province should be a matter of provincial initiative.”
That position was obviously at odds with traditional Liberal policy, which has held that the protection of the rights of either of Canada’s constitutionally protected linguistic minorities is, in the final analysis, a federal responsibility. Transport Minister Lloyd Axworthy, the MP for Winnipeg-Fort Garry, eloquently defended the stand in Parliament last month. “There are some in my province who argue that this House has no business in the issue,” said Axworthy. “They are dead wrong. This is an issue for all Canadians.”
While the controversy grew, Turner’s supporters demanded a clarification. “A lot of fine-tuning will have to be done,” said Quebec’s Deniger, “to
convince our delegates that [Turner] understands the federal role in Frenchlanguage laws.” By Tuesday, Turner and his aides were on the phone, urgently canvassing supporters for advice. “He is kicking himself for not being more specific,” said a senior campaign official. “And we are all upset about the amount of emotion the issue has generated.”
Then on Thursday—still refusing interviews—Turner issued a 12-paragraph “clarification” which affirmed his commitment to the principle that the federal government has a duty to intervene, if necessary, to protect the rights of a French or English minority but noted that the extension of language services within a province was a provincial responsibility. “If I am elected leader of the Liberal party,” the statement concluded, “it would be my clear commitment to promote and protect the minority rights of Canadians.” Most Liberals, including Axworthy, accepted the statement as a welcome return to the traditional party view. Indeed, after two lengthy meetings with Turner, Axworthy an-
nounced that, instead of running himself, he will co-chair Turner’s campaign. But some remained skeptical. Former prime minister Joe Clark accused Turner of being “on all sides of the question” and of “seeking refuge in ambiguity.”
Ironically, the week-long controversy over Turner’s views on linguistic rights may have diverted attention from the wider significance of his statements. Underlying his Manitoba stance was the belief that Liberals in Ottawa have been too eager to tell the provinces how
they should govern, and a willingness to rethink the sharing of power between Canada’s competing levels of government. A senior adviser said that in the leadership campaign Turner will lay out a whole new approach to federal-provincial relations. But it will take some skilful stickhandling on Turner’s part to transform the Manitoba controversy into the first step along the road to better relations between Ottawa and the
Manitoba’s linguistic troubles are rooted in the peculiar legal history of the province, whose French-speaking Métis population outnumbered anglophones when Manitoba joined Confederation in 1870. The Manitoba Act of that year gave English and French equal status as official languages. But within two decades a flood of immigrants made English the majority language, and in 1890 the provincial legislature made English the sole official language of the courts and the legislature. Despite periodic flare-ups over the use of French in the schools, Manitoba’s official unilingualism prevailed until 1979, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the province had gone beyond its powers in declaring itself English-only. That jeopardized the legal status of thousands of provincial statutes. In an attempt to resolve the issue, Premier Howard Pawley’s NDP government last year introduced legislation that would have made Manitoba officially bilingual and extended language services to Manitoba’s francophones—who today make up only five per cent of the population. But the Opposition Tories, after six months of bitter debate, forced Pawley to prorogue the legislature and let the language legislation die.
Landmark: But all avenues were not closed. While Pawley was searching for a political solution, the case of a historic traffic ticket was working its way through the courts. Roger Bilodeau, a Winnipeg lawyer, was contesting a
speeding violation on the
grounds that he received his ticket in English only. Since his court case could prove pivotal to the language rights issue, the federal government—as it often does in landmark court cases—offered to help Bilodeau with his legal costs. The case is currently before the Supreme Court of Canada.
That set the stage for last week’s cabinet showdown. Justice Minister Mark MacGuigan sought to convince his cabinet colleagues that rather than entrusting the fate of Manitoba’s entire legal system to a court decision
on a simple traffic ticket, Ottawa should ask the Supreme Court to consider the larger question of whether all Manitoba’s English-only laws are invalid. Several of MacGuigan’s cabinet colleagues—most notably Axworthy and Trade Minister Gerald Regan, who also declared for Turner last week—adamantly opposed the justice minister’s plan. They argued that the federal government should not risk alienating the Pawley government by an unnecessary intervention.
Throughout the ensuing cabinet battle, Trudeau, for the most part, played the role of impartial chairman. But one cabinet source said it was the stormiest cabinet debate he could remember. Finally, the competing factions compromised. MacGuigan undertook to secure the support of the Manitoba government in his plan to go before the Supreme Court so that Ottawa could not be accused of being high-handed, and he immediately contacted Manitoba’s attorney general, Roland Penner. Then, late in the week MacGuigan announced that the federal government would indeed take its case to the Supreme Court.
Legislation: The prospect of yet another Supreme Court challenge, this time from Canada’s North, resulted in a surprise move by Ottawa last week to impose official bilingualism in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Government and native leaders responded angrily when Munro announced in Yellowknife that Ottawa would introduce legislation making both the federally administered territories officially bilingual. In Whitehorse, Yukon territorial government leader Chris Pearson denounced the federal initiative as “gross, despicable, outrageous and abhorrent.” Munro acted after Daniel St. Jean, one of the Yukon’s 225 French-speaking residents—who make up less than one per cent of the population—refused to pay two speeding fines because the tickets were written only in English. Munro said he wanted the bill introduced before Thursday, when an appeal of St. Jean’s conviction was scheduled, because a victory for St. Jean could mean that every piece of legislation ever passed by the territorial governments could be challenged before the courts because they were not written in French. St. Jean was pleased, but a little astonished. “I had no idea that it would go that far,” he said. “I only asked for an inch of legal rights, and they are giving everybody a foot.”
Meanwhile, in Ottawa the focus on Manitoba’s language problems posed new problems for Mulroney. For six months he had struggled to stay on good terms with his provincial counterparts in Manitoba, while refusing to accept
their fierce opposition to any extension of language rights. To make matters worse, several of his own federal caucus members were privately opposed to their leader’s dictum that they either support his stand on bilingualism or remain silent on the issue. In an attempt to defuse the situation, Mulroney invited deputy provincial leader Bud Sherman—who has been thinking of contesting Axworthy’s federal Winnipeg seat—to his home for a secret Sunday meeting. But Sherman flew to Ottawa on the same plane as an Axworthy aide, who tipped off reporters that the Manitoban was in the capital. “It was pretty civilized,” said a Tory spokesman, but he admitted that the tête-à-tête resolved nothing. Back in Winnipeg, Sher-
man, a former journalist, called an informal news conference to declare that “The position our national leader has taken reflects that he has had bad advice. He does not fully understand the issue as it exists in Western Canada.”
Mulroney planned to be in Winnipeg this week to try once again to repair relations with the Manitoba Tories. But he had no intention of budging from his commitment to extend francophone rights in Manitoba. “The principle is nonnegotiable,” said Mulroney’s press aide, Bill Fox. “He is going to try to explain his position—his feeling is that ultimately you have to go into the lion’s den.” The federal Tory leader apparently received warnings from local Tories to stay away until passions cooled. But he believed that he owed it to party workers to make a personal appearance and discuss the issue.
Courage: Until Turner made his controversial statement on the Manitoba dispute, the Tories were alone in being painfully split on the issue. Now they have company. The party’s sole Quebec MP, Roch LaSalle, gleefully denounced Turner. “He wants to protect the two sides, but it is impossible,” said LaSalle. “And he refuses to prove his courage.” Added Fox: “Our guys are not used to seeing Liberals divided on an issue like this, and it has been terrific for them.” But for the nation as a whole, there was little comfort to be found in last week’s explosive and often confusing debate— and little hope for an easy solution to the country’s language problems.