Aseries of meetings on proposals to extend bilingualism in New Brunswick ended recently the way it began: in a cross fire of heckling, insults, minor violence and open hostility between the French and English communities. The latest eruption is a major source of concern in New Brunswick, where stormy relations between the province’s 510,000 anglophones and 250,000 francophones have deep historical roots. Now, government officials and others say there is a danger that the proposals may set the two linguistic communities on a confrontation course that could destroy a political accommodation painstakingly constructed in the years since New Brunswick became officially bilingual in 1969.
The acrimonious mood in the province was evident last month when more than 800 jeering spectators jammed a Moncton high school auditorium for the last of 10 information sessions by the province’s Advisory Committee on Official Languages. Members of the audience repeatedly interrupted the meeting, conducted in both official languages. Anglophones demanded that a committee member speaking in French “talk English.” Then, when a francophone member of the audience asked for a translation from English, anglophones threw translation receivers at her.
Similar incidents occurred in other cities in which the committee tried to explain the government’s proposals for extending official bilingualism to municipalities and private business and for making the provincial bureaucracy more bilingual. The recommendations, contained in a two-year-old report which Premier Richard Hatfield’s Conservative government is now actively studying, have unearthed widespread resentment against the bilingual provisions that already exist in the province.
Much of that resentment is focused on jobs. Anglophones, particularly, insist that they are discriminated against in favor of French-speaking New Brunswickers. John McGuire, a 30-year-old unemployed warehouse worker, for one, told the committee that he was refused a post office job because he is not bilingual. Other objections have been less temperate. An anglophone woman at the Moncton meeting likened bilingualism to the Communist domination of Eastern Europe, and other speakers called it a French-inspired plot. At the same time, a letter published in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal charged that the new language proposals were developed by “misfits working to force French on everyone and erode everything that is English.”
Dissent over the issue has also developed within Hatfield’s caucus. Three MLAs from Saint John, where anglo-
phone anger is especially vocal, publicly disagreed with Hatfield’s support. “We’ve handled it poorly,” declared MLA Keith Dow. A new round of hearings he added, would only “polarize views.. . and that would be catastrophic.”
Conflict over language in New Brunswick dates back to 1755, when Britain expelled the French-speaking Acadians from Nova Scotia. Many settled in New Brunswick, where tensions reached a peak in 1968 when Moncton’s implacably anti-French mayor, Leonard Jones, refused to recognize the use of the language. In response, Acadian students dumped a severed pig’s head on the lawn of Jones’s house. Then, in 1969, the province’s Official Languages Act, which extended French language rights to the provincial legislature and the courts and which brought more francophones into the public service, ushered in a decade of more cordial relations.
Now, significant changes in the province’s social fabric are threatening the status quo. Francophones, encouraged by the gains made during the 1970s, are pressing for full equality in the province’s affairs—with the support of Hatfield, who won a landslide victory in 1982 largely on the strength of his government’s popularity among Acadian voters. In the meantime, three years of recession have left anglophones in an ungenerous mood, unwilling to develop a second language as a requirement for some jobs.
In truth, many, anglophones say that they are convinced they would indeed all have to become bilingual under the new proposals. But that concern is only partially rooted in fact. The report recommends bilingual services in most municipalities and it says that private companies, unions and professional associations should be forced to make greater use of French. The proposals also include provisions for affirmative action to ensure equitable representation of francophones in the provincial civil service. And to do that, predicted dissident Tory MLA Beverley Harrison, “You’ve got to slow down anglophone promotions to zero.”
To New Brunswick’s francophones, the debate over language amounts simply to a demand for full citizenship in a province where many still feel like barely tolerated foreigners. But with provincial unemployment running at 15 per cent, anglophones like Aubrey Urquhart, a Fredericton resident who attended one of the hearings, say that advancing bilingualism now is akin to “giving starving Ethiopians a color TV instead of food.” Tempers are almost certain to flare again this month when language hearings resume in a continued effort to build an accommodation from New Brunswickers’ painfully shattered illusions over bilingualism.^
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