Repealing equal status

BRUCE WALLACE April 18 1988

Repealing equal status

BRUCE WALLACE April 18 1988

Repealing equal status


The latest threat to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Meech Lake constitutional accord was an untimely blow dealt by one of his closest political allies. On April 4 Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine’s Conservative government introduced legislation to repeal a century-old statute that gave French and English equal status in the province’s courts and legislature. The new bill provoked an angry backlash from Frenchand English-language minority groups across the country, who said that actions such as Devine’s could threaten the survival of their communities. It also prompted Mulroney, who was vacationing in Florida during Ottawa’s spring parliamentary recess, to intervene. Secretary of State Lucien Bouchard told reporters that Mulroney telephoned Devine to say that, if necessary,

Ottawa would use federal funding to protect French-language rights in the province. Ottawa had an obligation to act, declared Bouchard, because the issue involved “the fundamental values of the country.”

Mulroney’s intervention followed furious protests from critics of Saskatchewan’s strategy. They claimed that the bill demonstrated, in effect, that the minority language guarantees in the constitutional accord were essentially worthless. “I have been sympathetic to Meech Lake until now,” said Roger Lepage, a francophone Regina lawyer. “But if this is what Meech Lake means for the preservation of minority language rights, then it is not worth the paper it is printed on.” It quickly became clear that Devine’s proposed legislation was a potentially damaging blow to Mulroney’s historic 1987 constitutional deal, which was aimed primar-

ily at making Quebec a signatory to the 1982 Constitution Act. As well, the accord would require the provinces to preserve French or English linguistic minorities.

All 10 provinces must ratify the constitutional agreement before it takes

effect, and Saskatchewan is one of just three—along with Quebec and Alberta—to have done so. Still, many observers charged that the proposed Saskatchewan law violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the accord. And the controversy that it provoked came at a time when the Meech Lake agreement was under growing attack. New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, one of the most prominent critics of the deal, said Saskatchewan’s action would harden his opposition to the accord.

As well, minority groups in other

provinces said they feared that the Saskatchewan bill would weaken their linguistic rights. Leaders of the Ottawabased Federation of Francophones Outside Quebec spent the week pleading with federal politicians to intervene the dispute on their behalf. And

spokesmen for Quebec’s increasingly nervous anglophone minority said the Saskatchewan legislation would weaken the moral legitimacy of their campaign for language rights. As a result, both groups argued that Meech Lake’s language rights provisions had proved to be insufficient.

The erosion of confidence in those provisions clearly alarmed the Mulroney government. After four days of heated public debate on the issue, Bouchard held his first news conference since being named to the cabinet late

last month, and announced the Prime Minister’s intervention with Devine, which was confirmed in a subsequent letter that Mulroney wrote to the premier. But pressure was mounting for Mulroney to take further action when he meets Devine in Saskatoon this week during a previously scheduled pre-election swing through Western Canada. For his part, Rupert Baudais, president of the Saskatchewan FrancoCanadian Cultural Association, who met earlier with Bouchard, said, “We received an assurance from Mr. Bouchard that the federal government has a responsibility for the French minority in Saskatchewan and for French minorities across Canada.”

The furore over Saskatchewan’s language bill also created a delicate internal party problem for Mulroney by driving a wedge between western Tory MPS who support Devine, and Quebec MPs who want Mulroney to persuade Devine to entrench French-language rights. The debate rekindled the kind of invective and emotionalism that were the hallmark of language battles in the past—and the deep divisions in the Tory caucus under former leader Robert Stanfield. Said Saskatchewan MP Jack Scowen of the 2.3 per cent of Saskatchewan’s population who claim French as a first language: “They probably speak English as good as you or I, and they carry on their daily lives in English.” And John Gormley, Conservative MP for The BattlefordsMeadow Lake, Sask., commented: “Devine would be appalled that his actions would be applauded by so-called rednecks. But by being overly cautious, he has unfortunately opened the seamy underside that sometimes characterizes language debate in Canada.”

The language bill that prompted the new debate was the result of a Feb. 25 Supreme Court of Canada ruling. The court declared then that thousands of Saskatchewan laws are invalid because they were enacted only in English, in violation of the 1886 Northwest Territories Act, which was the basis for law in the area prior to the creation of Saskatchewan in 1905. After a similar Supreme Court ruling in 1985 concerning

Manitoba, that province began re-enacting laws in both languages. But Devine’s government decided to take advantage of a provision in the Supreme Court decision that instead allows Regina simply to repeal the bilingual provision of the old statute.

At the same time, Saskatchewan Justice Minister Robert Andrew promised that the province would translate selected pieces of legislation into French.

He also proposed legislation to allow the use of French in the courts and legislature, but without the provision of translation facilities. Andrew said that those changes would in fact improve the services available in French to Saskatchewan’s 25,000 francophones. But dismayed francophone groups in Saskatchewan complained that the government had made an end run around the Supreme Court ruling.

Devine’s decision may also have important implications in neighboring Alberta. That province, which is probably under the same legal obligations as Saskatchewan, also plans to introduce new language legislation. Some observers said that Premier Donald Getty’s government would closely watch the fallout from the Saskatchewan decision for an indication on how to proceed. But Leo Piquette, a French-speaking MLA who sparked an uproar last year by asking a question in French

in the legislature, predicted that Getty would stop short of giving full rights to the province’s 60,000 francophones. Added Piquette: “I don’t think that Alberta francophones are prepared now to accept 50 per cent of what they know is theirs.”

Other minority language groups across the country said the Saskatchewan decision augured poorly for their own language rights. In Quebec, linguistic tensions have resurfaced as the province awaits a Supreme Court ruling over the legality of a provincial law that requires commercial signs to be in French only. Saskatchewan New Democratic Party MP Lome Nystrom, for one, said he feared that the Saskatchewan bill might “send a signal” to Quebec’s Liberal government and the opposition Parti Québécois on “how they may want to treat the anglophone minority in Quebec.” But other observers said the reaction to the Saskatchewan legislation was excessive. Said Mit; chel Roy, assistant pubz lisher of Montreal’s daiQ ly newspaper La Presse: “Minorities can often be too legalistic in their approach. Translating a bunch of old laws will not save a minority from extinction.”

Still, the most serious impact of the renewed debate over bilingualism could be to undermine confidence in the Meech Lake agreement. And for Meech Lake’s opponents, Devine’s unwillingness to recognize the equal status of French in Saskatchewan was the most glaring example yet of the document’s apparent flaws. But the Tories defended the pact. Said Senator Lowell Murray, minister for federal-provincial relations: “Opponents of Meech Lake will fasten onto any issue they can to defeat it.” With his response to Devine last week, Mulroney showed that he was determined to fend off further attacks against his vaunted accord.




Ottawa, with DEANA DRIVER in Regina and NANCY BEASLEY in Edmonton