New Brunswick’s anti-French crusade

Chris Wood March 11 1985

New Brunswick’s anti-French crusade

Chris Wood March 11 1985

New Brunswick’s anti-French crusade

Chris Wood

Outside Fredericton High School, exhaust vapors shrouded the cars manoeuvring for space in the packed parking lot. About 300 New Brunswickers, many of them elderly, had braved a frigid February night in anticipation of a message from Len Poore that would be both nostalgic and caustic. Inside the school assembly hall they were not disappointed. To enthusiastic applause, the founder of the New Brunswick Association of EnglishSpeaking Canadians repeated his familiar charge that “a gutless government” is surrendering the province to domination by its French-speaking minority. “French people will control the government for years to come,” shouted the 63year-old insurance agent. “If we don’t stand up now, God help the Englishspeaking people of New Brunswick.” The warmest applause enveloped Poore’s views on the creation of an Acadian administrative district proposed by Acadians living in the province’s largely French-speaking northeast peninsula. “They should get it,” declared Poore. “They should fence it in and keep them sons of guns behind the damn fence and don’t let them out.” Poore’s mixture of anti-French rhetoric and homespun humor, delivered with the evangelical zeal that he has mastered as a Baptist lay preacher, is playing well among a growing constituency of New Brunswickers. In less than a year Poore

has used his English-rights crusade to attract more than 13,000 members to his association. That makes it a substantive political force in a province of 715,000 people.

New Brunswick’s two principal political parties—Premier Richard Hatfield’s Conservatives and the opposition Liberals led by Raymond Frenette—reject Poore’s statements. But the province’s 235,000 francophones—proportionately the biggest French-speaking community in any province outside Quebec—are alarmed at the evidence of growing support for his cause. The Acadians, and some government officials, are worried about the potential for manifestations of anti-French feeling by his followers, as public hearings on the province’s language issue resume next week.

In effect, Poore has assumed the mantle worn by Leonard Jones a decade ago. Jones, as mayor of Moncton, first earned notoriety in the late 1960s through his fierce opposition to bilingual street signs and other services for Frenchspeaking residents of the city. Jones’s attempt to carry his anti-French crusade into the federal arena as a Progressive Conservative collapsed when the opposition par-

ty under Robert Stanfield refused to let him run for the Commons as a Tory. Jones ran anyway as an Independent and was elected in 1974, serving a full term before returning to his legal practice in Moncton in 1979. In the meantime, Poore, a Second World War veteran of infantry campaigns in Italy, France and Germany, was serving his own apprenticeship in municipal politics. As a member of Fredericton city council for 17 years until 1980, Poore, says former fellow councillor William Thorpe, exhibited “rampant bigotry . . . even on issues that were only peripherally related to French.”

Poore’s opportunity to become a rallying point for anti-Acadian sentiment arose with political and social changes in New Brunswick. Encouraged by the provision of limited French-language services under the province’s 1969 Official Languages Act, which made New Brunswick officially bilingual, the province’s Acadians now are pressing for a larger role. But in trying to meet that demand, Hatfield—who received strong Acadian support in the 1982 provincial election—has increasingly encountered anglophone resistance. The premier provoked protests from anglophones when he announced that the Acadian flag—France’s tricolor with a gold star in the upper left-hand corner—would fly from all government buildings during last year’s provincial bicentennial celebrations. (The events recalled the arrival of British loyalists from the rebellious 13 American colonies in 1783, more than 150 years after the establishment of Acadian communities in what was to become New Brunswick.)

Then, last summer Public Services Delivery Reform Minister Jean-Maurice Simard aroused the English community by announcing that the government would cut 1,800 positions from the civil

service—affecting mostly unilingual anglophones—while continuing to hire additional francophones. Many English New Brunswickers reacted furiously when the Hatfield government formed an advisory committee last March to study the recommendations of a two-year-old report proposing that official bilingualism in provincial agencies be extended to municipalities and private businesses across the province.

Poore’s role began to

expand last spring, when he and four other sympathetic businessmen who were disturbed by the increasing use of French in the provincial capital decided to take action. They drafted a letter and sent it to three New Brunswick newspapers, inviting anyone with “problems with language” to write to them. Poore’s name and address appeared at the bottom of the open letter, published in The Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, The Times-Transcript in Moncton and The Daily Gleaner in Fredericton, and, he says, “within two days we had at least 200 letters.” By last May the response had grown so strong that Poore decided to form his New Brunswick Association of English-Speaking Canadians.

Poore is now drawing overflow crowds from urban Saint John to rural Woodstock. Away from the political stage Poore, a former National Hockey League talent scout, maintains that he is not anti-French. His principal concern, he insists, is that English-speaking New Brunswickers are being shut out of government jobs because they do not speak French.

Poore’s followers are more direct in stating their concerns. “I’m English. We’re the majority. Why should we cater to the minority?” asked Shaun Collicott, a pulp mill worker from Nackawic, northwest of Fredericton. “I believe the French should have no say in government whatsoever,” argued Greg Hargrove, a 26-year-old Fredericton hardware salesman. “They’re a minority, they should live like a minority.”

Initially, francophone spokesmen dismissed Poore as a fringe force. But more recently, the Société des Acadiens du Nouveau Brunswick has acknowledged Poore as a champion of what executive director Aurèle Thériault calls a “very outdated, very cynical vision of New Brunswick.” Added Thériault: “There are still people who think New Brunswick should be a unilingual English province and we have no right being here.” Still, declared Thériault, discrimination in government hiring “is just not happening the way Poore says it is.” Thériault insists that hiring in the provincial civil service continues to favor unilingual anglophones. New Brunswick civil service commission figures bear this out. In 1983-84, 59 per cent of new jobs went to unilingual anglophones, whereas fewer than two per cent went to unilingual French speakers.

Despite the growth in Poore’s support, New Brunswick’s French-speaking Acadians clearly do not plan to abandon their campaign for equal rights.“In fact, [Poore] could create the opposite effect,” said Thériault. “I think you are going to see the Acadian population out in force, saying, ‘Look, we have rights and we expect New Brunswick to respect our

rights.’ ” Still, the concern in some political quarters is that Poore’s movement could develop sufficient strength to deflect Hatfield’s government from its course. Poore, noted Liberal Leader Frenette, deserves to be “taken very seriously.” And David Clark, Conservative member of the legislature for Fredericton South, described the English backlash against bilingualism as “the most urgent task facing our government.”

But Hatfield, preoccupied by the drug possession charges laid against him last fallemdash;he was acquitted in Januaryemdash;and

subsequent claims that he supplied teenagers with drugs, has had little time or energy to devote to the issue. As a result, Poore and his supporters will likely try to intensify their campaign as the advisory committee resumes public hearings in Fredericton after a month’s delay. During an earlier round of hearings in November, English audiences repeatedly shouted down comments in French, scuffled with reporters and even hurled eggs at committee members. In the next round, declared Poore, “the reaction will be more violent than ever.”lt;£gt;