The language revolt

MARY JANIGAN February 22 1988

The language revolt

MARY JANIGAN February 22 1988

The language revolt

It was a painful dispute eerily reminiscent of the corrosive language debates of the late 1960s. First, a

handful of Conservative backbenchers publicly declared their strong opposition to the official languages bill, which would increase access to bilin-

gual government services. Manitoba MP Dan McKenzie told Maclean's, “I am fed up with hearing complaints from qualified people who cannot get a government job because they do not speak French.” Then,

Quebec Tory MP Charles Hamelin countered that many of his Quebec caucus colleagues would work for the nationalist Parti Québécois if they were not equal partners in Confederation. “This legislation will allow all Canadians to work together,” he maintained. “When Mr.

McKenzie pulls out one letter from one of his anglophone colleagues who complains about discrimination, I can pull out 1,000 [from francophones].”

The two visions of Canada clashed last week when the Conservative government brought the language bill back into the Com-

mons for second reading, or approval in principle. Although Liberals and New Democrats supported the legislation, a small group of anglophone Tory MPs charged that it would ensure that only bilingual Cana-

dians could work in the public service or serve on the judiciary.

Their unusual public revolt led the government last week to allow an informal caucus committee to examine the legislation. But Deputy House Leader Douglas Lewis maintained that the government would not change its proposal significantly.

“We are not prepared to budge on the strengthening of bi-

lingualism in Canada,” he said.

The 40-page bill, which has reawakened festering resentments about bilingualism, attracted little attention when the government introduced it last June. It updates the Official Languages Act of 1969, which declared

both English and French to be Canada’s official languages, to bring it into line with the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The new bill would guarantee the right of all Canadians

to plead before all Federal Courts in English or French—and guarantee the availability of a bilingual judge.

It also stipulates that Canadians have the right to bilingual service from federal institutions in the national capital region and in regions “where there is significant demand.” The cabinet will determine where the demand is significant—although, traditionally, demand is considered significant when at least

10 per cent of the region’s population are members of the minority language groups. In those regions, federal institutions would also have to ensure that their employees can work in French or English—but the language of work cannot interfere with service to the public. As well, the bill specifies that management “that is responsible for the general direction of the institution as a whole” should include bilingual officials. As Justice Minister Ray Hnatyshyn told the Commons last week, “This bill reflects the open-mindedness and tolerance of Canadians.”

That tolerance was strained when the Feb. 1 issue of Western Report, a weekly magazine published in Edmonton, charged that the bill means that “practically all federal services to the public may be bilingualized.” In the wake of that report, the backbench Conservatives went public with their opposition. Some of them argued that the bill was sloppily drafted—one clause appeared to require that all judges in Federal Courts be bilingual, although Hnatyshyn said that the government only wanted to ensure that at least one bilingual judge was available in each court. Calgary MP Alex Kindy cited six poorly drafted clauses. “All of us are for bilingualism,” Kindy added. “But this bill turns institutional bilingualism into individual bilingualism.”

Other MPs claimed that the federal bilingualism policy would allow the government to discriminate against unilingual anglophones. Manitoba’s McKenzie told Maclean's, “I am going to insist upon a clause in the Charter of Rights which guarantees that any [anglophone or francophone] Canadian who is fully qualified cannot be denied a job based upon their language.” Opponents of the bill welcomed the chance to re-examine it. Declared Kindy: “You see what five or six or 10 backbenchers can do. You can shake them.”

In contrast, supporters of the bill said that they were disturbed —despite the government’s reassurances. Manitoba Tory MP Léo Duguay pointed out that of the 50,000 federal jobs in Western Canada, only one position is designated as unilingual French and 2.67 per cent of positions are bilingual. Added Quebec MP Louis Plamondon: “The two or three per cent who are against the bill should go and sit with Botha’s government in South Africa.” With that, he signalled that the profound issue of bilingualism has returned to haunt another generation of politicians.