Esquimalt, B.C., across the harbor from Victoria, is an unlikely setting for a confrontation over the rights of Canada's two founding nations. At any one time, the community of 16,000 is home to only about 1,000 French-speaking people, almost all of whom are military personnel stationed with their families at a local naval base. But last month, the quiet, suburban community found itself engulfed in yet another episode of Canada’s long-standing and seemingly intractable language war. Prompted in part by Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s decision in December to prohibit the use of English on outdoor commercial signs, five of Esquimau's six aldermen signed a petition urging the B.C. government to proclaim English the province’s only official language. In response, some local francophones accused the aldermen of bigotry. “I do not deny that there is a strong anti-French undercurrent out here,” acknowledged Mayor Ronald Warder, 34, who refused to sign the petition. “But the average person is upset that Quebec once again seems to be getting special treatment.”

Passions: As often happens, the passions unleashed by Esquimalt’s language controversy quickly began to dissipate. A copy of the petition, bearing the names of about 10,000 British Columbians, has gone to Premier William Vander Zalm, who is almost certain to ignore it. But such incidents are far from rare. Twenty years after the Liberal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau enacted Canada’s first official Languages Act—guaranteeing French and English citizens the right to federal services in their own languages—the gulf of understanding between the country’s two major linguistic groups has still not been bridged. Across the country, English Canadians reacted angrily last December to what they perceived as Bourassa’s trampling of the rights of Quebec’s 600,000 anglophones. In addition, Bourassa’s actions provoked a storm of criticism among Quebec nationalists, who accused him of not going far enough to protect the French language and culture from the threat of English assimilation.

Increasingly, the debate over the competing rights of French and English-speaking Canadians has focused on the Meech Lake constitutional accord. Signed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the 10 provincial premiers in June, 1987, the accord represents Mulroney’s attempt to strike a delicate balance between French and English Canada. In return for Quebec’s signature on the 1982 Constitution, Ottawa recognized that province as a “distinct society” and surrendered some federal powers to the provinces (page 32). Almost two years later, however, the accord is in serious danger of unravelling. To become law, it requires the ratification of Parliament and all 10 provincial legislatures by June, 1990. But two provinces, Manitoba and New Brunswick, are withholding their approval.

Blow: Some critics of the accord have argued that, by reinforcing Quebec’s unique identity within Confederation and weakening Ottawa’s power, Meech Lake would deal a fatal blow to Trudeau’s vision of a bilingual country united by a strong central government. “Those Canadians who fought for a single Canada, bilingual and multicultural, can say goodbye to their dream,” Trudeau himself wrote in a scathing attack on the accord in 1987. And last week, Trudeau wrote in a letter to Montreal daily La Presse, “Because the Meech Lake agreement is bad for Canada, because Quebec is not overly committed to it ... it would be better for Canada if the Meech Lake monster went back and drowned itself in the watery depths from which it should never have raised its hideous head.” To some, Bourassa’s handling of the most recent Quebec language controversy appeared to bear out Trudeau’s 1987 prediction. Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon, formerly a supporter of the accord, cited Quebec’s restriction of anglophone rights to justify his government’s change of heart on Meech Lake. And similar concerns have fuelled opposition to the accord in the ranks of the federal Liberals and the New Democrats—although both parties continue to officially support the agreement.

The increasing momentum against Meech Lake in English Canada has alarmed many Quebecers. In the highly charged atmosphere that surrounds discussions of the accord’s future, some politicians have issued dire warnings that a rejection of Meech Lake could reignite the embers of separatism in that province. “We are playing a game of chicken if we assume that if Meech Lake fails, Quebec will keep quiet and stay in its comer,” Bernard Roy, Mulroney’s former principal secretary and currently a Montreal lawyer, cautioned during a special Maclean’s forum on the Constitution held in Ottawa earlier this month (page 28). Federal Transport Minister Benoît Bouchard, meanwhile, said last week that “if Meech Lake is shredded by English Canada, Quebecers will have to ask themselves if there is a place for Quebec in Confederation.”

Rift: For many people across the country, the issues raised by the Meech Lake accord go to the heart of what it means to be Canadian. The accord’s supporters say that English Canada is morally obliged to repair the rift between Ottawa and Quebec City caused by Trudeau’s decision to bring the Constitution home from Britain in 1982 without Quebec’s consent. Declared Gertrude Laing, 84, of Calgary: “With all of its imperfections, Meech Lake is absolutely necessary to overcome the sense of betrayal in Quebec.” As one of 10 members of the 1963-1970 Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Laing helped draft a series of reports on Canada’s linguistic duality that led to the passage of the 1969 Official Languages Act. But, despite the progress since then, Laing said that many of the grievances that French-Canadians had two decades ago have still not been redressed. “Canada is almost in two linguistic camps right now.”

But others contend that Meech Lake itself threatens to intensify Canada’s linguistic divisions. Among other things, some critics object to the clause in the accord that recognizes the role of the Quebec government to “preserve and promote the distinct identity of Quebec.” That objective, they say, puts the preservation of the French character of Quebec ahead of the rights of other Canadians—most notably anglophones in that province. Said Toronto lawyer Timothy Danson, who represents the Canadian Coalition on the Constitution, an organization of prominent Canadians opposed to the Meech Lake accord: “In an effort to satisfy Quebec and promote its distinct identity, we forgot to promote and protect Canada’s.”

Poll: Clearly, many Canadians remain uncertain about the Meech Lake accord and its implications for the country’s future. A Gallup poll conducted in January found that 69 per cent of respondents—and 71 per cent of Quebecers—admitted to knowing little or nothing about the accord’s contents. But the poll also showed that only 27 per cent of English-Canadians—compared with 58 per cent of French-Canadians—approved of the proposal to declare Quebec a distinct society within Canada.

That unwillingness appears to be rooted in part in a widespread conviction that Quebec already receives preferential treatment from Ottawa. Much of the opposition to bilingualism in Esquimalt, said Mayor Warder, is a reaction to a sense of injustice over federal spending policies. For three years, he added, residents of the Esquimalt area have been waiting for the federal government to deliver a promised contract to build a massive new Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker at a local shipyard. “We get frustrated when we hear that Ottawa has given all sorts of contracts to shipyards in Quebec.”

In the mainland community of White Rock, B.C., near the U.S. border, novelist William P. Kinsella said that he understands those feelings of frustration. “What happened in Esquimalt stems from people’s sense of helplessness,” said Kinsella, 53, a native of Edmonton. “They know that federal policies toward Quebec are ignorant and stupid, but there is nothing they can do about it. So you strike back any way you can.”

At the same time, there is a strong undercurrent in many parts of English Canada, particularly the West, that still resists federal efforts to encourage bilingualism (page 26). Acknowledged Lloyd Barber, president of the University of Regina and a prominent western Liberal: “There is a lot of ignorance and apathy in the West about Quebec. But if somebody thought that it suited their political purposes to arouse it, French-speaking people here could find crosses burning on their lawns.”

Right: Barber decried the continued existence of anti-French prejudices but he said that he can sympathize with those who view federal language policies as unrealistic. “I agree that francophones have a right to a parallel education system with the same services that we enjoy, but it is impractical,” said Barber. Even Laing, a lifelong advocate of bilingualism, said that Trudeau’s language policy was inherently flawed. “As a strong believer in individual rights, Trudeau could say that everyone in Canada had the legal right to function in his or her own language. He was right, but he was also unrealistic.”

But English-Canadians are not alone in reevaluating the wisdom of official bilingualism. Said Bouchard, federal transport minister: “We must deal with reality. One cannot impose the French language in Alberta.” Besides, Quebec nationalists have never supported Ottawa’s language policy—for the simple reason that the introduction of French services for francophones elsewhere in Canada put pressure on Quebec to maintain full services for its anglophone minority. “Bilingualism was the grand design of Trudeau but it was not what Quebecers wanted,” said Michel Roy, a columnist and former editor of La Presse. Added Roy: “For years and years, English Canada was told that to be good Canadians it was necessary to learn French. Now, they see Bourassa banning English signs and they cannot understand what is happening.”

In fact, many Quebecers argue that English Canada’s preoccupation with the rights of Quebec anglophones misses the point. The real issue, they say, is that the French language and culture in Quebec will gradually disappear unless the government takes extraordinary measures to preserve them (page 22). Said Montreal political scientist Jules-Pascal Venne, a former Parti Québécois constitutional adviser and another participant in the Maclean’s round table: “It is impossible to exaggerate how strongly young Quebecers feel about protecting the future of their language.”

Say: Because of those concerns, there is widespread agreement in Quebec that the Meech Lake concessions represent the absolute minimum necessary to make Quebec feel comfortable in Canada. “The important thing about Meech Lake is the symbolic recognition that Quebec must have a say in its own destiny,” said Michel Roy. “But if English Canada sends a message that it has had enough of Quebec’s demands, then, just maybe, Quebec will reconsider separation.” Added Antonine Maillet, a New Brunswick-born playwright who now lives in Montreal: “There is an urgent need for Meech Lake. It all comes down to a question of whether or not we want to save Canada.”

But if Quebecers appear to be digging in their heels, so are many Canadians outside that province. And some critics of Meech Lake charge that Quebec is using the spectre of renewed separatism to blackmail the rest of the country into succumbing to its demands. Said Morris Kaufman, who stepped down this month as president of the Liberal party of Manitoba: “What Quebecers do not understand is that the next time they threaten to separate, there will be a lot of people standing at the Manitoba border waving goodbye.” For his part, Barber said that many westerners have lost patience with Quebec. “There is a feeling of, ‘Come on, guys, we have tried to see things from your perspective.’ But at some point, people ask themselves why they should spend so much time worrying about something that does not have much bearing on their lives.”

Vision: Others wonder whether Meech Lake will founder on the tendency of Canadians to focus on regional, rather than national, concerns. “I bought into Trudeau’s vision of One Canada,” said Colin Jackson, producer of the Prairie Theatre Exchange, a Winnipeg-based theatre group. “But that myth has died. Unfortunately, I now feel that I have more in common with other flatlanders in the U.S. than I do with people in Nova Scotia or Quebec.” For those who share Jackson’s views, the notion that there is a national will that binds Canadians from coast to coast seems anachronistic. Newfoundland journalist and playwright Ray Guy, 49, for one, noted that 1989 marks the 40th anniversary of Newfoundland’s decision to join Confederation. “But I cannot think of anyone here who would celebrate that fact,” said Guy. “It is not that they will be wearing black armbands, but no one will be waving the Canadian flag, either.”

The entrenched positions held by those on both sides of the Meech Lake debate appear to leave little way out of the current political stalemate. Privately, federal officials said that their strategy in dealing with Manitoba and New Brunswick is to stall for time in the hope that neither province will wish to bear responsibility for the accord’s death. But the premiers of those two provinces also appear to be playing a waiting game. Manitoba’s Filmon, whose Conservatives have a minority government, has announced that the province will hold public hearings next month in a bid to forge an all-party position on Meech Lake. And New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna said that he will consider the results of hearings that have already been held in that province before announcing in the fall whether he will support the deal in its current form.

But, regardless of what happens to Meech Lake, some Canadians are more optimistic about relations between the two major language groups. Gérard Pelletier, who, as secretary of state in Trudeau’s first cabinet, introduced the Official Languages Act in 1969, said that in spite of the current tensions, Canadian unity is not at risk. “I have no confidence in the magnanimity of the provinces toward their minorities,” he said. “But ordinary Canadians still believe in a bilingual Canada.”

That view appears to be borne out by statistics showing that enrolment in French-immersion programs across Canada is rising. Kathryn Manzer, president of the 17,000-member Canadian Parents for French, said that 224,120 children attended French-immersion schools in the 1987-1988 school year. That represented a 10.5-per-cent increase over the previous year. Manzer, a mother of two who lives in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills, acknowledged that many members of her group were disappointed by Bourassa’s decision to restrict bilingual signs in Quebec, fearing that such actions would undermine the rights of francophone communities elsewhere. “But I have honestly not heard anyone say that the changing atmosphere in Quebec will affect their decision to educate their children in French,” she said. Added Anne Doris Malenfant, 29, president of the Francophone Society of Victoria: “I do not see us as a nation divided but as one becoming more and more bilingual.”

Storm: For his part, D’Iberville Fortier, the federal commissioner of official languages, agrees with that assessment. Last year, Fortier provoked a storm of controversy in Quebec—and earned a rebuke from Mulroney—when he wrote in his annual report that Quebec’s limitation of anglophone rights amounted to “humbling the competition.” But despite the apparent escalation in linguistic tensions, a senior official in Fortier’s office told Maclean’s that the commissioner’s 1988 annual report, due next month, will offer a “generally upbeat” picture of the state of French-English relations. Added Laing, now retired and living in Calgary: “There are still pockets of Canada where there is a good deal of bigotry. But when I compare what is happening now with the situation 20 years ago, there is no question in my mind that people are becoming more tolerant.” And as Canadians await a resolution of the stalemate over Meech Lake, that, at least, is something to be thankful for.