It is 9:30 a.m. in the bar of the Windsor Hotel in Humboldt, Sask. The muted whistles of trains sound through the walls from the nearby railway tracks where long lines of grain and lumber cars rumble toward the West Coast. A giant tractor roars past in the brilliant midwinter sunshine on Main Street as townspeople arrive for a morning drink—for many, a mixture of beer and tomato juice. Elsewhere, at the Pioneer Motel coffee shop and Tran’s Cafe, people gather for warmth, coffee—and a bit of conversation. The talk is less about the country’s language wars and the threat to the Meech Lake constitutional accord than about the prospects for a good crop this summer after two dry years. “These days, we are too busy making a living to worry much about the Constitution,” said ex-railroad worker James Woodcock, 41, now the night manager at the Pioneer Motel.
In the wake of the recession of the early 1980s and last year’s Prairie drought—which resulted in widespread crop failures—that attention to local economic concerns is understandable. But, although the Constitution is not the main topic of discussion when people gather in Humboldt, the Meech Lake accord— particularly its recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society” within Canada—still arouses resentment. Indeed, anti-Quebec and antiFrench attitudes simmer, and can easily bubble to the surface, in the town of 5,360 people. When Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa outlawed bilingual signs in his province last December, the weekly Humboldt Journal was filled with enraged letters. And Bourassa’s action also fuelled a long-standing resentment of Ottawa’s bilingualism policies. Declared George Hamilton, 67, a retired provincial liquor board manager: “Bilingualism is a bunch of horse manure. I don’t accept this business of us being bilingual and Quebec being French only.”
Epic: Humboldt was founded in 1902 by German-American settlers. They named their settlement after the German naturalist-explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who made an epic journey through South America between 1799 and 1804. But the town quickly became overwhelmingly anglophone. And two decades after Parliament passed the Official Languages Act—making the country officially bilingual— many residents remain opposed to any legislation or policies that appear to favor francophone Canadians at the expense of anglophones.
For some, that sentiment has translated into opposition to the Meech Lake accord. Said 67year-old life insurance agent George Klimosko: “Meech Lake is a farce. Since when was Quebec a distinct society? If they think that, they should not be part of Canada.” Klimosko also criticized the Quebec government’s language policies. “Where are anglophones’ rights and freedoms in Quebec?” he asked. “You may as well live in Russia.”
Hostility: Among many Humboldt residents, the issue that provokes the most hostility is bilingualism. Said Klimosko: “Around here, 98 per cent of the people still oppose official bilingualism.” For his part, Humboldt Mayor Matthew Breker, 61, a former provincial MLA and farmer whose grandparents were among Humboldt’s first German settlers, complained that his then-24-year-old son was refused a job with the RCMP in 1983 partly because, Breker says, he was not bilingual. “It leaves a bad taste to be the victim of a bilingual approach,” said Breker. “We went overboard on bilingualism.” At the time, the RCMP was accepting only applicants who were either university graduates, bilingual, female or native. But since 1987, the force has relaxed that affirmativeaction hiring program and in the case of unilingual new employees, is offering language training if necessary.
Joke: But many westerners charge that bilingual hiring requirements in government jobs have even favored francophones who speak little English. James Thompson, for one, a Humboldt travel agent, charged that when he travelled to Waskesiu Lake in Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert National Park during his vacation two summers ago, some of the park employees were not fluent in English. Said Thompson: “The joke was that the lifeguards could speak French but they could not swim.”
That hostility toward bilingualism has clearly left many Humboldt residents with mixed feelings about French language instruction for their children. Although French immersion programs have become increasingly popular in the western provinces during the past decade, the trend has not taken hold in Humboldt. None of the town’s three primary schools or its one secondary institution offers French immersion. Still, children in both public and separate school systems have been required to study French from kindergarten to Grade 9 since 1984.
But the number of high-school students taking French after Grade 9 has remained at roughly 50 per cent of the enrolment, about the same level as it was before the Official Languages Act was passed in 1969. In spite of that fact, some people in Humboldt say that attitudes toward French are changing. Said Frederick Saliken, secretary-treasurer of the town’s three school boards: “Some parents still think French is being pushed at them but they can accept the fact that the more languages their kids can speak, the better off they will be.”
Still, compulsory French instruction has created resentment among many Humboldt residents of German descent. Rosa Gebhardt, for one, president of the town’s German Heritage Society, said that among some people of German ancestry there has recently been a resurgence of interest in their ethnic roots. And many of them say that their children should learn German as their second language—not French. Declared Gebhardt: “Some of us would prefer our kids to be able to communicate in German.” Added Hamilton: “German as a second language makes more sense around here.”
Unfair: Indeed, German was repeatedly offered as an elective subject at Humboldt Collegiate Institute, the local high school, until 1981. But school officials cancelled the subject each time because of lack of interest among students. And Gebhardt, whose organization receives $2,200 a year in federal funds to conduct weekly German classes for 40 students, partially attributes that lack of interest to the overwhelming focus on French-English bilingualism. “It is a bit unfair,” she said, “that so much money has been poured into bilingualism while the heritage languages struggle to survive.”
But the people in Humboldt are clearly more concerned with more pressing matters. As a result of last summer’s drought and resulting crop failures, the town’s officials have started to promote small manufacturing interests and tourism in an effort to diversify its economic base. For one thing, Humboldt council is now considering capitalizing on the town’s German heritage by adopting a Bavarian theme to attract tourists. But farming remains the major preoccupation. “The stress is severe,” said Breker. “Three inches of rain in the spring would change this Depression-era psychosis that affects us.” Indeed, despite the high emotions generated by the language issue, many Humboldt residents are looking ahead—not to a resolution of the country’s constitutional chaos but to rain clouds on the horizon after the Prairie winter has ended.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.