New Brunswick is Canada’s only officially bilingual province, with the closest balance in the nation of residents who speak our two official languages.
Politically, though, language has long been a ticking time bomb.
“I don’t think New Brunswick has ever resolved its cultural and linguistic divide,” says Herb Emery, a professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.
“Instead, it’s had premiers who have been very good at keeping a lid on it and keeping the peace.”
Polls suggest the next premier of New Brunswick after the Sept. 24 provincial election will be one of two very different men.
There’s Brian Gallant, the bilingual Liberal incumbent who has been reticent to wade into the province’s thorny language politics.
Then there’s Blaine Higgs, the anglophone Tory leader who was briefly involved with an anti-bilingualism party three decades ago but has since changed his opinions and is taking weekly French classes.
Despite their differences, neither leader is likely eager to make bilingualism an issue in the campaign.
“When you play the language card … it’s a hot topic,” says Christian Michaud, a bilingual Moncton-based lawyer who has worked on language rights cases and constitutional challenges as far as the Supreme Court.
“If you don’t do it properly you could face different levels of attack. It could backfire.”
There was one language flare-up last week: A French-language leaders debate was scrapped by Canada’s public broadcaster after Higgs said he couldn’t debate in French and Gallant refused to take on a candidate that wasn’t the leader.
“It made political sense for the Liberals to refuse to participate in that debate, because they don’t even have to debate any issue and they already appear to be the francophone-friendly party,” says Mathieu Wade, a researcher with the Institute for Acadian Studies at the Universite de Moncton.
The language rights act of 1969 is credited with ushering in major social reform and safeguarding the French language in New Brunswick, where in 2016 roughly 32 per cent of people said French was their mother tongue, compared to about 65 per cent English, according to census data.
But the incident offered a glimpse into the language debate that still simmers. Official bilingualism has sparked heated arguments in both English and French over its benefits and costs.
In recent years, separate school bus regimes for francophone and anglophone students, bilingual staffing for paramedics, language obligations for municipalities, and even a complaint — from the official languages commissioner — about a unilingual commissionaire in a government building have all made headlines in New Brunswick.
On one side of the debate, some equate so-called duality — two institutions that each serve one linguistic community — with duplication. They see the costs of providing English and French services across New Brunswick as untenable in the cash-strapped province.
Critics say the division of New Brunswickers among linguistic lines — such as separate health care or school bus systems — amounts to segregation, and that bilingualism requirements in the public sector unfairly disadvantage anglophones.
It’s a position that has been carefully sidestepped by the Progressive Conservative party, historically seen as the party of choice among the province’s anglophones.
The tension had been exploited in the past by the Confederation of Regions Party, which won eight seats in 1991 on a promise to strike the Official Languages Act from the province’s books, and more recently by the People’s Alliance party.
People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin, who lost his bid for a seat by fewer than 30 votes during the last election and is running again, promises a populist agenda — including ending duality by combining English and French public services.
“Bilingualism is a wedge issue in New Brunswick and the People’s Alliance is prying it open,” Emery says.
“There are some New Brunswickers that have never really gone along with official bilingualism and they feel there is favouritism, and the party is taking advantage of that.”
On the other side of the debate are those who say their language rights can’t be reduced to dollars and cents arguments about economic efficiency.
New Brunswickers have a constitutional right to be served by the government in English or French, and proponents of official bilingualism say the duality of services helps prevent the assimilation of the minority francophone population.
“Language can be taught, learned and forgotten,” Wade says. “It’s a very porous identity.”
“You need to create some boundaries for it to be preserved.”
Yet even among defenders of official bilingualism, some moderation of language laws is increasingly considered acceptable.
With school buses, for example, Michaud says anglophone and francophone students should be allowed on the same bus under certain circumstances.
“I would argue that on a school bus there is very little risk of assimilation,” he says.
The school bus issue arose three years ago when the provincial government discovered that students from French and English schools were travelling on the same buses in a rural area of southeastern New Brunswick. The school districts were ordered to stop the practice and added extra buses to comply.
The Charter guarantees separate educational institutions for French and English, resulting in two distinct school boards.
But Michaud says he doesn’t see a school bus as an extension of the school. And even if bilingual school buses are a breach of the charter — which he doubts — he says it would be a “very limited breach” that would likely be considered reasonable.
“That’s the thing with language rights,” Michaud says. “Some people use language rights to the extreme where it’s about purity and that becomes dangerous.”
He adds: “Language rights are there to allow for francophones to ensure they protect their language and culture, but it should not be a trump card for everything.”
Meanwhile, Emery says the idea that duality creates a duplication in the system is often false.
“As long as the scale economies are being achieved because you have a large enough clientele, duality is not more expensive,” he says, adding that issues arise when there are smaller populations without the economies of scale to run two systems.
Still, the economics professor says much of the bilingualism debate is a distraction from the real issue New Brunswickers should be focused on during this election campaign: The economy.
“If our ability to pay for things falls, there are going to be things people value and care about on the chopping block.”