FREDERICTON — Forty years ago, New Brunswick passed the Official Languages Act, changing the course of the province’s history and triggering a cultural and social debate that continues today.
Louis Robichaud, the premier at the time, told his fellow legislators prior to the vote on April 11, 1969: “I think this is a fair bill and if all of us want to treat it fairly, implement it fairly and harmoniously, I believe it will lead to much better understanding in New Brunswick.”
Bill 73, which made both French and English official languages in the province, was passed unanimously in a vote later that day. But the introduction of official bilingualism wasn’t without controversy.
In the decades since, some have questioned whether it was the best approach for New Brunswick and whether it has really had the desired effect.
“There were protests, of course, there always are,” says Robert Pichette, one of the drafters of the act and a key adviser to Robichaud as executive assistant and deputy minister.
While for many in New Brunswick the act is a source of pride and a sign of tolerance, questions remain about its effectiveness and efficiency. Even now, the law that makes New Brunswick the country’s only bilingual province continues to generate debate.
There are concerns that it has been too costly, forcing the duplication of services and bloating the bureaucracy, while at the same time reinforcing divisions between francophones and anglophones.
As well, there are the glaring shortcomings in terms of actually fostering a bilingual population in New Brunswick — shortcomings that were highlighted during the current Liberal government’s effort to alter French immersion programs in the province’s schools.
One senior civil servant suggests the province may not be able to afford official bilingualism in future.
“No one will ever tell you that for publication,” he says. “They would be branded a bigot.”
Donald Savoie, the Canada research chair in public administration and governance at the French-language University of Moncton, contends the act has played a crucial role in developing the province socially, culturally and economically.
“If you compare the New Brunswick of today to 40 years ago, it’s not only a different province, it’s a different world,” he says. “There was a big chunk of New Brunswick that was not part of the modern economy.
“We were lost in the wilderness. We were very much a church-dominated, poverty-stricken people. I think the reforms in the 1960s gave us energy, life and so on, and, frankly, if you take a good solid look at it, it made substantial contributions to the province of New Brunswick.”
Opposition to official bilingualism took its most tangible form in the Confederation of Regions Party, which was briefly the official Opposition in New Brunswick. The party, which held official status between 1991 and 1995, grew out of dissatisfaction in parts of anglophone New Brunswick with the government’s promotion of the languages act.
The party promised that, if elected, it would repeal the act and provide government services in French only in areas with a large francophone population. Condemned as racist by many, especially its political foes, the CoR party flamed out quickly.
But while the party and its platform have vanished, the language act, and the subsequent amendments that have strengthened it, continue to stir varying degrees of controversy.
Currently, a francophone group is challenging the constitutionality of the province’s recent amalgamation of its regional health authorities, which reduced the number from eight to two.
The Committee for Equality in Health Services is charging that the reforms erased the province’s only francophone health authority. They argue the change removes francophone governance from the health system and fails to meet the requirements of the Official Languages Act.
Michel Carrier, New Brunswick’s commissioner of official languages, says the first act was “symbolic at best, and certainly timid,” but it was “a launching pad for progression and improvements.”
“Basically, what it did was recognize the reality that existed in 1969,” Carrier says. “Regardless of your origin, your status, it said you should be able to have a good life.”
He predicts the act will continue to evolve and change, particularly with the provision in the 2002 act that it should be re-evaluated before 2012.
“Social development usually is done in increments,” says Carrier. “It’s like climbing stairs.”