SPECIAL REPORT

FOR THE LOVE OF LANGUAGE

ACADIANS ARE FIGHTING FOR SURVIVAL

JOHN DeMONT April 22 1991
SPECIAL REPORT

FOR THE LOVE OF LANGUAGE

ACADIANS ARE FIGHTING FOR SURVIVAL

JOHN DeMONT April 22 1991

FOR THE LOVE OF LANGUAGE

ACADIANS ARE FIGHTING FOR SURVIVAL

SPECIAL REPORT

It has been a centuries-old struggle to maintain a distinct French identity—a struggle that Canada’s Acadians have maintained against sometimes overwhelming odds. Beginning in 1755, after they refused to swear an oath of unconditional allegiance to Britain, about 9,700 Acadians were loaded onto ships and deported from their homes in what are now New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to Britain, France, Louisiana and elsewhere. Thousands eventually made the long trek back to their Maritime homeland, where they resumed their distinctive way of life. The historic struggle eased somewhat in 1969, when Ottawa’s passage of the Official Languages Act guaranteed French-language federal government services across Canada. That, in turn, cleared the way for Acadians throughout the Atlantic provinces to wrest legislative concessions from the region’s provincial governments. But now, in spite of those gains, the rekindling of the debate over Canada’s bilingualism policy—and concern that Ottawa may

retreat from its support of two official languages—has left Canada’s 300,000 Acadians fearing a new threat to their collective fate. Declared Dollard LeBlanc, a retired highschool principal in Dieppe, N.B.: “Without bilingualism, our culture will not survive.” Choice: That culture is most vigorous in New Brunswick, Canada’s only officially bilingual province. There, Acadians make up fully a third of the province’s population of 750,000, and at least 10 provincial constituencies are represented by Acadian members. That political strength has been reflected in provincial legislation. In 1963, the administration of Liberal Premier Louis Robichaud, an Acadian, established a French-speaking university in Moncton. Then, in 1969, the same year that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s government produced its Official Languages Act, Robichaud’s government also enacted official bilingualism. Since then, a provincial policy of socalled duality has given Acadians effective control over elementary and high-school education in French and a wide choice of Frenchlanguage government services. But now, rising criticism of bilingualism in the province, espe-

cially from the New Brunswick chapter of the right-wing Confederation of Regions (COR) party, has made many Acadians fear for their hard-won rights. And many Acadians say they worry that if Ottawa weakens its support for bilingualism, New Brunswick’s government may attempt to save money by backing away from its own commitments to French. Said Michel Bastarache, president and chief executive officer of Monctonbased Assumption Mutual Life Insurance Co.: “With Ottawa cutting back transfer payments, there could be increased pressure on the provincial government to cut French services.” Indeed, many of New Brunswick’s Acadians say that they are already under siege—especially from the Confederation of Regions party. In the most recent survey of provincial political opinion, the group stood tied with the provincial Conservatives, claiming the support of the 13 per cent of respondents who said that the party best represents their views. That was still far below the governing Liberals, who held 57-percent support. Still, most observers predict that the COR party’s strength will ensure that language becomes a major issue in a provincial election that is expected later in the year.

Gains: In spite of such challenges, New Brunswick’s Acadians are plainly better off than those living in the other Atlantic provinces—where they have neither the strength of numbers nor provincial legislation to protect them. Still, they have made some small gains, particularly on the education front. The education acts of both Nova Scotia, home to 30,000 Acadians, and Prince Edward Island, which has 15,000 Acadian citizens, now provide for French-language schools, run by French board members, in areas where francophones predominate. Newfoundland, which has 2,600 French-speaking residents, is now in the process of passing a similar amendment to its school law. And some Acadian leaders say that they are confident that those provincial governments will continue to offer more Frenchlanguage services, no matter what course Ottawa decides to follow on bilingualism.

But others, including Marc Angers, editor of Le Gaboteur, a bimonthly French-language newspaper published in Stephenville, Nfld., say that they expect the worst—particularly because cutting bilingual services would be a convenient way for provincial governments to reduce spending. Charged Angers: “If the Official Languages Act disappears, the evolution of French services in Newfoundland will slow and eventually halt.” Added Paul Comeau, executive director of the Acadian Society of Nova Scotia: “After 25 years of renewed hope, everything we have gained is going to come crashing dQwn.” Clearly, despite the Acadians’ centuries-old struggle, vigilance in the defence of their culture will be necessary.

JOHN DeMONT in Moncton