CANADA

TAKING SIDES ON LANGUAGE

ONTARIO CITIES SPARK A NATIONAL DEBATE BY REJECTING FRENCH AT THE MUNICIPAL LEVEL

BRIAN BERGMAN February 19 1990
CANADA

TAKING SIDES ON LANGUAGE

ONTARIO CITIES SPARK A NATIONAL DEBATE BY REJECTING FRENCH AT THE MUNICIPAL LEVEL

BRIAN BERGMAN February 19 1990

TAKING SIDES ON LANGUAGE

ONTARIO CITIES SPARK A NATIONAL DEBATE BY REJECTING FRENCH AT THE MUNICIPAL LEVEL

CANADA

The councillors of the Northern Ontario city of Thunder Bay were unaccustomed to the attention. As they deliberated before a packed public gallery last week, network television crews, as well as reporters from publications as far afield as the Los Angeles Times, recorded their words and actions. The reason for the intense media scrutiny: a five-paragraph resolution calling on the council to declare English the only official language of Thunder Bay. Arguing against the motion, Aid. Dusty Miller said that it would be perceived as bigotry and send a message that Thunder Bay, a city of 113,000 that includes about 3,500 francophones, was “a narrow, intolerant community.” But Miller clearly spoke for the minority. By a 9-to-3 margin, council members voted to approve the motion in principle. If, as expected, council formally ratifies that decision this week, Thunder Bay will become the 43rd, and largest, Ontario community to declare itself officially English-only in the past three years. Those communities now outnumber the 31 Ontario communities that have voluntarily adopted bilingualism in the same period. How-

adopted bilingualism in the same ever, since there is no requirement in Ontario to provide French-language services at the municipal level the English-only resolutions have no legal impact. Still, their powerful symbolic message reverberated across the country last week, widely interpreted as a symptom of the deepening divisions between Canada’s two language communities. Both Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Ontario Premier David Peterson deplored the municipal actions and then accused each other of lack of leadership. In the House of Commons, partisan squabbling prevented MPs from agreeing on a unanimous statement in support of Canada’s linguistic duality. But to Ontario’s francophone minority, the actions

carried a chilling message. Said Rolande Soucie, president of the Association canadiennefrançaise de l’Ontario: “It is making us very nervous because we see intolerance surging.” The majority of the English-only resolutions arose in response to Ontario’s French Language Services Act, approved unanimously in the legislature in 1986. That act, which went into effect last November, guarantees francophones the right to be served in French at the

head offices of all provincial agencies, at local offices in 22 areas where they make up at least 10 per cent of the population, and in urban centres where they number at least 5,000. But the protests only drew national attention on Jan. 29, when Sault Ste. Marie, a city of 80,000 at the eastern end of Lake Superior, became the largest community until then to approve such a resolution. Thunder Bay followed suit even though, unlike Sault Ste. Marie, it is not even an area designated for French services.

Councillors in both cities voiced fears that municipal taxpayers may have to share the costs of improving services for the province’s 500,000 francophones. But civic leaders in both communities were also plainly eager to draw attention to a host of grievances, including anger over the “distinct society” status for Quebec proposed in the Meech Lake accord and Quebec’s own 14-month-old language law, Bill 178, which outlaws the use of English on outdoor signs. Said Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Joseph Fratesi: “People are saying ‘Enough.’ The French language has a place in Canada, but not necessarily in every community.”

The new flurry of English-only resolutions struck a sensitive nerve with Peterson, who called it “destructive and gratuitous.” In Quebec City to address the Chamber of Commerce, Peterson said that Quebec bore part of the responsibility because of its Bill 178, which, he said, had “seriously hurt” anglophones. And he lashed out at the federal government, accusing it of doing an “unacceptable and disgusting” job of protecting minority language rights. Speak-

ing to reporters in Ottawa, Mulroney replied that he would match his record on minority rights against any other leader. Declared a clearly irritated Mulroney: “Perhaps he [Peterson] should spend part of his time in his own province, dealing with problems there.” Similarly partisan rhetoric dogged the issue in Parliament. On Monday, Liberal Leader John Turner introduced a motion calling on the House of Commons to “reaffirm its commitment

to support, protect and promote Canadian linguistic duality.” But the Conservatives, following Mulroney’s lead, refused to endorse that wording unless it included support for the embattled Meech Lake accord. With both opposition parties divided over the accord, the Liberal initiative quickly bogged down. Said Thomas Reid, a Torontobased spokesman for the 18,000-member Canadian Parents for French: “It is sad that they think this is just another political football.”

other political football.”

In the rest of the country, meanwhile, the issue became the subject of heated debate on open-line talk shows and on the editorial pages of newspapers. Predictably, some of the strongest condemnation of the resolutions came

from Quebec. Councils in Montreal West, Sherbrooke and the tiny Laurentian resort of Amherst Township (winter population 825) passed their own resolutions urging Sault Ste. Marie to rescind its resolution. For his part, Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau called the resolutions an “insult” and “another indication that the dream of a bilingual society can never be achieved.”

In other parts of the country, some municipal politicians protested the declarations—with mixed results. In Victoria, the city council voted to ask the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to urge its members to work towards better relations between the two language groups. But in Ontario, mayors for three of the nine largest cities refused to sign a joint statement declaring their continued support for a bilingual Canada. And in Sault Ste. Marie, the councillors were unmoved by the national uproar or by a demonstration in support of bilingualism that brought 500 people to the doors of city hall. Indeed, on Feb. 5, the council reaf-

firmed its week-old English-

only resolution, and the mayor expressed surprise at the attention the motion had attracted. Said Fratesi: “If small-town Sault Ste. Marie can be said to have threatened what holds our country together, then there’s something wrong with the thread that’s being used.” Fratesi and others also said that it was hypocritical to criticize his city and Thunder Bay without condemning Quebec’s language laws. But francophone activists called that

comparison misleading. Said Soucie, for one: “Franco-Ontarians would gladly switch places with Anglo-Quebecers anytime.” As Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa noted pointedly last week, his province’s anglophones have access in their own language to a full range of services, ineluding schools, courts and hospitals. By comparison,

said Soucie, “everything we have in Ontario, we have had to fight for.” Indeed, for francophone minorities across

the country, last week’s lan-

the country, last guage skirmishes were a sobering reminder that the battle was far from over.

BRIAN BERGMAN

KAREN LEWIS