The charges of betrayal followed Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa as he crossed the West. On a four-day swing through British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan last week, Bourassa defended Saskatchewan’s controversial decision to repeal long-standing legislation that would have compelled the province to translate all its laws into French. Instead, Bourassa hailed the Saskatchewan government’s offer to translate some laws as a “step forward” and “common sense.” Those muted compliments provoked angry denunciations from francophone groups across the West. Georges Ares, president of the Alberta Association of Franco-Canadians, asked angrily why Bourassa was “abandoning francophones.” Declared Ares: “He is a traitor to our cause.”
That stinging accusation epitomized the charges and countercharges ringing across Canada last week as language issues once again dominated the national agenda. At the centre of the storm was Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine, who offered to translate unspecified laws into French and to provide unspecified bilingual services after his government introduced legislation to repeal a century-old law. Despite a personal plea from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney—who met with Devine on April 14—the Conservative premier refused to make more concessions to his francophone minority. Devine insisted that he had to pay attention to anglophone sentiment and to budgetary restrictions when providing services in French to the 2.3 per cent of the population who are francophones. He told Maclean’s, “We are going to go at it as hard as we can.”
The premier’s vague undertaking
triggered a renewed national debate about the bilingual nature of Canada— and the constitutional rights of minority Frenchand English-language groups. It also cast doubt upon the protection accorded to linguistic minorities in the Meech Lake constitutional accord. That agreement was hammered out by Ottawa and the 10 provinces last June to win Quebec’s acceptance of the 1982 act that brought Canada’s constitution from Britain. If passed, it would recognize Quebec as a “distinct society” with the role of preserving—and promoting—its identity. By contrast, the role of Parliament and provincial legislatures would be to preserve—but not to promote—the francophone and anglophone character of Canada.
Worthless: Many critics argued that the Meech Lake promise to “preserve” francophone minorities was worthless: despite those promises, the Devine government introduced legislation on
April 4 to repeal the rights of the francophone minoritytwo months after the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed that those rights still existed. Francophone minorities were left with no legal recourse. Said Bryan Schwartz, a constitutional law professor at the University of Manitoba: “ ‘Preserved’ is pretty weak stuff. Meech Lake does not increase the legal position of minorities outside Quebec.” Solitudes: Meech Lake critics also charged that the accord—which Parliament and the 10 provinces must ratify before June, 1990, if it is to go into effect—would radically alter the nature of Confederation. They said that the goal of a bilingual Canada would gradually disappear, leaving in its place two solitudes, francophones in Quebec and anglophones in the rest of Canada. As Rupert Baudais, the president of Saskatchewan’s Franco-Canadian Cultural Association, charged last week, “Devine and Bourassa are the first people to destroy the foundations of that accord, the French-English duality across Canada.”
Those renewed doubts were especially important because they coincided with a sudden renewal of language tensions across the nation. In Ottawa, Mulroney’s Conservatives were bitterly divided over proposed amendments to the Official Languages Act that would extend bilingual federal services to regions where there is “significant demand” (page 15 ). In Quebec, Bourassa’s Liberal government anxiously awaited a Supreme Court of Canada ruling on the legality of provisions requiring French-only signs in the province.
In Alberta, Premier Donald Getty hinted last week that he would follow Saskatchewan’s lead—and repeal similar provisions that call for the translation of all legislation into French. And in most provinces, francophone groups continued to press for extended language services in such areas as education and health care. Declared Marie Bourgeois, vice-president of the Federation of Franco-British Columbians, after a meeting with British Columbia’s ruling Social Credit caucus: “We are determined not only to survive, but to thrive.”
Proponents of the accord moved quickly to reassure minorities—and to
limit the political damage. Saskatchewan’s action came at a particularly awkward time for Mulroney, because the Senate—dominated by Liberal members, many of whom oppose Meech Lake—is required to vote on the accord this week. In an effort to change Devine’s mind, Mulroney wrote to the Saskatchewan premier, noting that his proposals could be viewed as a “first step” in bolstering French-language services in the province. But he pointedly added, “Many Canadians perceive it as constituting a reduction of existing rights.” Late last week, after a twohour meeting with Devine in Saskatoon, Mulroney said that if he were a member of a minority official-language group he would want all possible guarantees “in regard to courts, the legislation, schools, all the rights of Canadian citizenship.”
Improved: For his part, Bourassa— stung by charges that he was abandoning western francophones—conceded that Meech Lake was “perhaps insufficient on the question of minorities.” But at a news conference in Saskatoon after his own meeting with Devine, he maintained that Meech Lake improved the situation “because we don’t have any commitment to protect minorities in the present Canadian constitution.”
Other Meech Lake supporters maintained that Devine’s actions violated the spirit of the accord. Senator Lowell Murray, the federal minister for federal-provincial relations, told Maclean's that Ottawa originally wanted the accord to state that the role of all provinces was “to preserve and promote”
their linguistic minorities. “We could not get that,” he said. “But to the extent that [Saskatchewan’s law] can be said not to preserve what the francophone minority had, at least in theory, then it is against the spirit of Meech Lake. If Meech Lake had been ratified, then people could invoke the clause in court.”
Plea: The origins of the controversy over Saskatchewan’s language laws go back to 1980 when a Saskatchewan priest, Rev. André Mercure, received a speeding ticket. He asked the provincial court for permission to enter his plea in French—and he demanded that the government produce the relevant statutes in French. His demands were based on the contention that Section 110 of the North-West Territories Act of 1886 still applied to Saskatchewan. That legislation set up the government of the Territories, which then included the future provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. It stipulated that both French and English could be used in the courts and the assembly—and that all statutes should be in both languages.
Mercure’s lawyers pointed out that, when Saskatchewan became a province in 1905, Section 16 of the Saskatchewan Act specifically noted that all existing laws continued until the legislature repealed them. That, the lawyers said, meant the minority-language obligations contained in the North-West Territories Act still applied to Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Eight years later the Supreme Court of Canada upheld that interpretation. On Feb. 25 Mr. Justice Gérard La For-
est wrote that “the statutes of Saskatchewan must be enacted, printed and published in English and French and both languages may be used in the Saskatchewan courts.” But he added that Saskatchewan was legally entitled to simply repeal Section 110 of the 1886 act.
That ruling presented Devine with a difficult decision.
A pragmatic, down-to-earth politician, Devine, 43, grew up on the family farm near Lake Valley, Sask., and later took a PhD in agricultural economics. The premier, who does not speak French, is married to a Saskatchewan francophone, the former Chantal Guillaume, who once sold cosmetics. The couple has five children, four of whom have been enrolled in French-immersion programs at school in Regina.
Cost: The Supreme Court ruling forced the veteran politician to choose between the demands of the province’s 25,000 francophones and the sentiments of the anglophone majority, many of whom oppose any extension of Frenchlanguage rights. Provincial officials calculated that it would cost at least $12 million to translate the province’s laws into French. As a compromise, Devine promised to introduce French-language government services gradually— until full bilingualism is achieved. In-
sisted Devine: “The public is saying that they cannot see us doing this all at once.”
Devine’s decision to repeal the guarantee of French rights set in motion the latest chapter in the. explosive history
of disputes over language rights in Canada. The Constitution Act of 1867 imposed the first linguistic obligations on the new dominion, stipulating that English and French could be used in Parliament, the Supreme Court of Canada and the Federal Court, and in the courts
and legislature of Quebec. Those constitutional obligations increased in 1982 when the federal government brought the Constitution to Canada from Britain with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter repeated the BN A Act’s federal language provisions. But it added that every Canadian has the right to receive bilingual service from the head office of a federal institution —and from regional offices where there is “significant demand.” All provinces could adopt those language guarantees, but only New Brunswick has done so. And although Quebec was legally bound by the 1982 constitutional package, it refused to endorse it.
Healing: To win Quebec’s endorsement, Mulroney and the 10 premiers devised the Meech Lake accord, under which all provinces won new rights of consultation in appointments to the Supreme Court and the Senate, greater powers over immigration and the right to opt out of future shared-cost programs with full financial compensation. As Mulroney declared, it was “a time for healing in this land.”
Initially, despite its critics, the accord seemed likely to win acceptance. So far, the House of Commons, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Quebec have
endorsed it. The Senate was expected to defeat the accord this week or send it back to the House of Commons for amendments. But the Senate cannot permanently block it; it can only delay its adoption for 180 days. However, Devine’s move provided the opponents of Meech Lake with new ammunition—and dismayed its supporters.
‘Dagger’: Quebec Conservative MP Charles Hamelin, an ardent backer of the accord, denounced Devine.
“This was a dagger stuck into the heart of the Meech Lake accord, the consecration in law of an 83-year-old injustice,” he charged. Supporting Liberal MP JeanRobert Gauthier was even more scathing.
“This is some funny way of protecting minority rights —by rushing ahead and restricting them,” he said. “This is not the kind of country that I thought we would be building with Meech Lake.”
Those denunciations alarmed the Mulroney government, which holds up the accord as one of its major accomplishments. Murray told Maclean ’s that federal Tories knew in advance what Devine was going to propose on April 4
—but they believed that he had secured approval from Saskatchewan francophones. “We were under the impression that a real consultative process had taken place,” he said. “We were dismayed to learn that it had not.”
To protect the Meech Lake accord, Murray said that Ottawa would press Devine to provide a legislative timetable for the translation of laws and the provision of bilingual services. He also suggested that Meech Lake was only the first step in the process of protecting minority rights.
Murray said that at the next constitutional conference—which could be held this year—Mulroney would press all premiers to follow New Brunswick’s example and endorse the language provisions in the charter of rights. “No one ever pretended that Meech Lake was the last word,” the senator said.
Furore: Meanwhile, the Saskatchewan furore made it clear that no one knows exactly what the accord will do for official minority-language groups. Wayne MacKay, a constitutional law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said that the accord relies upon goodwill “rather than constitutional protection” to advance the rights of francophones outside Quebec. Murray flatly countered, “Meech Lake is a net gain ^ for francophones, for the § minority-language 5 cause.” The disturbing 1 gulf between those two opinions appeared to threaten the fragile rights of minority-language groups—and the Meech Lake constitutional accord itself.+
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