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Historical Overview of Language Rights in New Brunswick (Part 2)

*For Part 1 of this series, "The Robichaud Years: The Birth of Language Rights in New Brunswick", click here.

Richard Hatfield: The 1970s and Recognition of Collective Rights [1]

Despite the progress made in the previous decade, Acadie of New Brunswick in the early 1970s was still far from being as developed as the Anglophone regions. The Acadian regions had the lowest levels of economic activity and the highest unemployment rate, resulting in a very marked income gap between the Francophone and Anglophone regions. The education level among Acadians was among the lowest in the country. School management still eluded Francophones, and bilingual schools were the rule rather than the exception.

The 1970s saw an evolution in the political discourse of the Acadian community. The discourse was no longer as homogeneous. Some Acadians seemed pleased with the progress of preceding years, but the fact remained that the Acadian community still could not aspire to full equality with the Anglophone community. The creation of the Université de Moncton resulted in the introduction of new political ideas, making a different analysis of the Acadian condition possible. This more critical approach challenged established assumptions.

It is also during these years that we see demonstrations for services in French at Moncton City Hall. The film L'Acadie l'Acadie, which showed the arrogance of a Leonard C. Jones, then mayor of Moncton, ordering Acadian students who had come to him with grievances to speak to him in English, illustrated the attitude of a significant segment of the Anglophone community towards Francophones.

While in Moncton the battle was fought on the language front, in the northern part of New Brunswick, it was socio-economic conditions that unleashed passions. An unemployment rate of 25 percent, compared to an average of 11 percent in the province, a dramatically high illiteracy rate, and a very precarious social situation meant that this region was far from the notion of "modernity", in the early 1970s.

New Brunswick's Acadie was in a state of turmoil. The time seemed ripe to develop the parameters of a truly Acadian political discourse, but the promoters of this new discourse had difficulty agreeing on the form it should take. Some favoured greater political activism, hence the birth of the Parti acadien. Others preferred attempting to transform the situation from inside by becoming involved in traditional political parties and renewing existing Acadian institutions.

The creation of the Parti acadien in 1972 by a group of professors from the Collège de Bathurst triggered some controversy within the Acadian community. The idea of creating a nationalist political party was interesting in the beginning. A community wishing to assert itself must ideally have a political organization able to represent it. By ensuring the community's presence in political debates, a nationalist party can draw popular attention to its concerns. Unfortunately, in bringing the Parti acadien onto the New Brunswick political scene, its founders did not seem to have given enough thought to the direction they wanted to give it. Throughout its existence, the Parti acadien would spend an enormous amount of time and energy reflecting on its raison d'être and working through ideological conflicts.

In the 1970s, New Brunswick's Acadie did not seem ready to rally behind an Acadian political party. One wonders whether it will ever be ready for such a party. Yet during the 1978 election, many believed that the miracle was about to happen. Armand Plourde, in the riding of Restigouche West, came very close to making history and becoming the first elected member of the Parti acadien, but that fall evening would be the peak of the Parti acadien's electoral success.

Our political scientists and sociologists could possibly explain why New Brunswick Acadians could not get behind such a political party, when the province's anglophone community, on two occasions, gave its support, rather significantly, to parties whose sole purpose was to abolish the rights of the Acadian community. Why did the Confederation of Region and the People’s Alliance of New Brunswick manage to make inroads into the English-speaking community when it was impossible for the Parti acadien? As a jurist, I will not venture to answer that question.

The early 1970s also coincided with the election in Fredericton of a new government led by the Conservative and unilingual anglophone Richard Hatfield. After 10 years of a government led by one of its own, the Acadian community was apprehensive about the relationship it would have with this new government. Would the government be sympathetic to the requests of the Acadian community? Would it want to challenge the reforms of the Robichaud years?

Richard Hatfield would govern the province without interruption until 1987. After years of reform under Robichaud, New Brunswickers elected a government whose objective was not to reform political-administrative structures, but simply administer affairs without causing too much turmoil.

Hatfield came to power at the time of the October Crisis in Québec and therefore was aware of the problems that linguistic and cultural issues can raise. He was convinced that New Brunswick was in a privileged place linguistically in Canada and that it could serve as an example during this period of constitutional uncertainty. On the other hand, he did not intend to proceed too quickly on the matter. A pragmatic man, he preferred the politics of small steps.

He knew that it was impossible for him to lead the province without having Acadians on his team. However, only three Acadians were elected to the new government in the 1970 election. To the astonishment of many, he appointed them all to cabinet, including Jean-Maurice Simard, the member for Edmundston, who became the minister of Finance in the new government.

During the 17 years Hatfield led the province's destiny, the language issue was omnipresent. Among other things, he inherited the request for a linguistically homogeneous school board for the Acadian community in Moncton. Acadians in that city, like those in several other municipalities in the province, rejected so-called bilingual school boards in which they felt constrained and poorly represented. Language debates were agitating the city at the time, and the issue of school management only exacerbated the passions.

For reasons that had much more to do with political pragmatism than a deep conviction of the merits of duality, Hatfield decided in 1972 to separate the Moncton Bilingual School Board into two linguistically homogeneous entities. He gave himself two years to convince the Anglophone population, which was fundamentally opposed to this solution, of the logic of his decision, or better yet, he hoped they would have forgotten the issue by the next provincial election in 1974.

Duality in education also marked my first official steps in the language struggle. In 1972, as a young high school student in Bathurst, I campaigned to ensure that the new high school that would open its doors would be linguistically homogeneous. Bathurst Anglophones had always had a homogeneous high school, Bathurst High School. Meanwhile, Francophone students had to attend a "bilingual" high school, École secondaire Mgr LeBlanc High School. If they wanted to follow an industrial or secretarial training program, they had to go to Bathurst High School. With the announcement of the upcoming opening of a new comprehensive school, the time had come, according to many, to provide Bathurst with a French-language high school, but this was not the initial plan of the government nor of the school board.

I remember a meeting with the Minister of Education of the time, in Petit-Rocher, during a byelection, where, with other young people, we took him by surprise and asked him to designate the new school as a francophone school. I also remember an eventful meeting with the Bathurst Bilingual School Board where one lady called me a "separatist" and another accused me of trying to turn New Brunswick into the new Northern Ireland while hitting me on the head with her sign. At 17, it was quite an experience. But the government agreed with us and designated the school as a French-language school. Wonderful memories!

During the 1974 election campaign, Hatfield understood that the issue of duality in the Department of Education was of paramount importance to the Acadian community. Acadians unequivocally told him that they no longer accepted the current situation. It was clear that the Department of Education was not taking their needs into account and was not receptive to their requests. The solution lied in an administrative duality that would give the Acadian community control over the decisions that affect it.

Hatfield got the message, and, upon his re-election, he proceeded to divide the Department of Education into two linguistic divisions, with the exception of the ministerial position and administrative services. To achieve this, he once again had to rely on his powers of persuasion and party discipline, since many members of his party were not in favour of a division along linguistic lines for schools and the department.

Even with this action, the school problem was not solved. A way to apply the concept of school duality throughout the province had to be found. Conflicts erupted in Bathurst and Dalhousie, and if a solution were not found quickly, these could degenerate into language clashes such as those that occurred in Moncton.

To find a solution to this dilemma, the government appointed a task force on the organization and boundaries of school districts co-chaired by Jean-Guy Finn and Forbes Elliott. The mandate of this committee was to restructure the province's bilingual school boards. In 1980, the Finn-Elliot task force recommended the abolition of bilingual school districts in favour of linguistic homogeneity, that is, the extension to the local level of the duality already recognized at the administrative level.

This transformation did not happen without opposition. Many parents, including some Francophones, rejected the separation of school boards. Parents in Bathurst, Grand Falls and several other communities gave eulogies for bilingual schools. In their view, the bilingual school was the guarantor of harmony and understanding between Anglophones and Francophones, they were what ensured that their children would learn both official languages. At times, it became like vaudeville, such as when Anglophone parents celebrated the virtues of bilingual schools when in fact, their children who had been educated in these schools were unable to even say "yes" or "no" in French.

For the Acadian community, the road to autonomy inevitably required duality in education, and when it finally was successful, the community had every reason to rejoice. It was a great victory! Duality was finally going to define the province's language planning. With duality, it was possible to create spaces where Acadians could exercise political power by themselves. This was a Canadian first, and other Francophone communities had to wait for the adoption of section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada before finally being recognized as having the right to manage education in their language.

Although Richard Hatfield's government responded positively to this request from the Acadian community, it met with little electoral success with Acadians. The first breach in the Liberal stronghold of the Acadian vote occurred during the 1978 general election. In that election, the Parti acadien obtained its best electoral results, winning 12 percent of the vote in the 23 ridings where it fielded candidates. The Parti acadien's gains were mainly at the expense of the Liberal Party. Once again, the Conservatives were hardly represented in the Acadian regions. Nevertheless, the Conservative Party formed the government again, escaping defeat by only two seats. To remain in power after the next provincial election, it had to find a way to make a breakthrough in the Acadian community.

Jean-Maurice Simard, the MLA for Edmundston and the francophone lieutenant in the Hatfield government, saw the opportunity. He knew that, since Louis Robichaud's departure, the Liberal Party had been hesitant to identify with the Acadian community. Robert Higgins, the party leader in the early 1970s, had remained distant from the Acadians. Despite his Acadian ancestry, Joseph Daigle, who succeeded Higgins in 1977, did not seem to hold their claims in high esteem either.

Paul-Émile Richard, then an editorialist for the daily L'Évangéline, described the discomfort of Joseph Daigle and the Liberal Party with the Acadian community in these terms:

"I have the impression that the Liberal Party is missing the boat by insisting on giving an image of neutrality on the Acadian question. Liberal Party strategists are even trying to hide the leader's Acadian identity. Anglophones do not have to try to hide their cultural identity in order to be accepted in any of the traditional parties, so why do they keep the Acadian issue out of the Liberal Party? To win anglophone votes, of course. So how should Acadians feel in this party that has traditionally enjoyed their overwhelming support? The Liberal Party seems to have nothing to say about the Acadian people and their legitimate demands, and then we say we are surprised if the Parti acadien takes so many votes from the Liberals. »

Contrary to what Paul-Émile Richard said, it is not the Parti acadien that took Acadian votes from the Liberals, but rather the Conservative Party. With its internal conflicts, the Parti acadien did not obtain significant support from the Acadian community and did not build on its relative successes in the 1978 election. Jean-Maurice Simard saw this as a golden opportunity to be seized if the Conservative Party was to gain the confidence of the Acadian community. The Convention d'orientation nationale des Acadiens (CONA) in 1979 would provide him with the opportunity to achieve this goal.

I do not intend to dwell at length on CONA. Those who are interested can read what I had to say in my book, Le discours confisqué. Suffice it to say that in the aftermath of CONA, political parties reacted in different ways. Instead of analyzing the results and learning from them, the Liberal Party simply claimed the delegates were led to a conclusion by a biased questionnaire and by the shenanigans of certain Parti acadien activists. The Conservative Party remained officially silent in the aftermath of CONA. But Jean-Maurice Simard listened and understood the political message and he launched his idea of a law that would recognize the equality of the two linguistic communities.

On July 16, 1980, on the last day of the Legislative session, Jean-Maurice Simard, then President of the Treasury Board, introduced Bill 84, which later became Bill 88, whose purpose was to recognize the equality of the province's two official language communities. In his recent book, Michel Bastarache, the author of this bill, explained that he had initially proposed a more ambitious project, but had been asked to narrow its scope.

The bill introduced by Simard gave the two linguistic communities the right to distinct cultural, educational and social institutions. As Simard explained, the bill in no way intended to divide the province on linguistic grounds. Rather, it sought to promote access for a greater number of Francophones to the various manifestations of the province's political life. To do so, duality was necessary. He said the bill would serve to curb the assimilation of francophones, that it would stimulate anglophone culture, and allow all citizens to share the province's resources without prejudice or discrimination. According to its sponsor, the Act Recognizing the Equality of the Two Official Language Communities in New Brunswick is also a vehicle for reorganizing New Brunswick society.

The project described by Simard, if it were to become reality, would pose a real challenge for the government, a challenge that could only be met through the absolute and complete commitment of the province's political figures. A vigilant observer would note that the bill did not receive much enthusiastic support within the Conservative caucus. Few members of the House spoke publicly in favour of it.

The first reactions of the Acadian community to this bill were negative. The SANB, among others, felt that the bill did not go far enough. It criticized the bill for referring to the linguistic community and not to the Acadian people. The bill was worrisome because of its uncertain and vague wording. The SANB pointed out that it lacked teeth and did not provide any recourse for citizens whose rights would be infringed. Furthermore, the bill made no mention of administrative regions and did not speak of decentralization.

To convince the Acadian community of the bill’s merits, Jean-Maurice Simard went on a crusade. His first stop was the special general assembly of the SANB in Saint-Léonard, on November 15, 1980 - at that time ministers and politicians attended the organization's annual meetings. At the meeting, Jean-Maurice Simard said the bill "is the result of the change in mentality and prolongs the government's action in this area by giving it an irrevocable character”. The time had come, in his opinion, to declare that in New Brunswick there are not only individual rights, but also collective rights.

Simard added that, in the spirit of the Bill, the province would review the Education Act and the Civil Service Act. He also committed to amend any other legislation that did not respect the principle of equality of the two linguistic communities. Unfortunately, Simard's promise would never see the light of day. Despite its reservations, the SANB decided at the end of its special general meeting to support Simard's bill.

The government could not count on the Liberal Party’s support in this process. The Liberal Party took advantage of the general apathy towards this bill to declare that the bill had no place in the New Brunswick context. Before the Law Amendments Committee of the Legislative Assembly, the Liberal Party asked that the government table a white paper explaining the objectives of the bill. Joseph Daigle said that linguistic relations in New Brunswick were too delicate to be used for political purposes. He maintained that the government must proceed as the Robichaud government had when the Official Languages Act was adopted, and first table a resolution that would explain the objectives of the Act.

On the Anglophone side, the opposition was also making itself heard, albeit for different reasons. At a meeting of Moncton City Council, for example, only Councillor Léopold Belliveau gave his support to the bill, which he saw as a way to improve the lot of the Acadian community. On the other hand, Georges Rideout found the concept of duality offensive. In his opinion, duality would have the effect of dividing New Brunswick into two distinct communities that would go their separate ways. This bill, he argued, would be a step toward separation. Another councillor, Norm Crossman, said that bilingualism is necessary in the northern part of the province, but he did not understand why it would be essential in Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John. He said the bill was an attempt to take away the right of municipalities to choose in which language they wish to operate.

Gary McCauley, the Liberal MP for Moncton, said that Simard's bill came dangerously close to creating the conditions for the birth of an Acadian province. He added that the federal Liberal caucus saw the bill as a weapon that would allow the Parti acadien to call for the creation of a separate Acadian province. He compared Simard's work to that of the Parti Québécois. McCauley found the bill in poor taste and believed it would divide the two language groups economically in addition to encouraging diversity in education, language and culture.

With attitudes such as these, it is not surprising that language rights progress so slowly in New Brunswick!

In general, New Brunswickers did not seem to understand the purpose of the bill. It is true that New Brunswickers are not accustomed to being challenged on sociolinguistic issues. Moreover, the province's linguistic communities have never, throughout their existence, discussed these issues frankly, with the possible exception of the public hearings of the Guérette-Smith advisory committee, where dialogue mostly gave way to fanaticism, as we will see in a forthcoming text. The majority of New Brunswickers, including many francophones, accepted the status quo, which had become a handicap to the development of the Acadian community.

Faced with this lack of interest, Jean-Maurice Simard declared in January 1981 that the Conservative government would not put its future at stake to force the adoption of a bill that no one seemed to want. The timid reactions of the Acadian community to the project could very well result in the withdrawal of the legislation.

That is when the tide started to turn in favour of Simard’s project. Several municipalities and Acadian organizations, including the Fédération des caisses populaires, publicly expressed support for the project. On the government side, Premier Hatfield broke his silence on this issue. He put an end to the speculation that he did not support the bill by delivering a passionate speech at a meeting of Conservative supporters in Moncton. Referring to the fact that the bill had been widely criticized for being nothing more than a declaration of principles, he pointed out that the Magna Carta, the great English charter, is similarly a declaratory statement and yet it has marked history.

The Liberals, on the other hand, thought the public reaction was evidence of the population’s lack of interest in the bill. They suggested the bill should be allowed to die on the order paper and that a white paper should be presented leading to an amendment to the Official Languages Act. However, as we will see, when the Bastarache-Poirier and Guérette-Smith reports which proposed such amendments were tabled, the Liberal Party did not support them.

The Liberal Party was not opposed to the principle of equality, but rather to the method by which it was to be achieved: duality. For them, bilingualism remains the only solution. It would be preferable, they said, to make changes to existing legislation and programs to ensure that both language communities evolve within a single political community, and that could not be achieved through Simard’s Bill.

In any event, on July 17, 1981, in the final hours of the legislative session, An Act Recognizing the Equality of the Two Official Linguistic Communities of New Brunswick was unanimously adopted by the Legislative Assembly. The Liberals, who had opposed the bill, rallied to it without exception. The magic of New Brunswick politics happened again!

It is true that the Act Recognizing the Equality of the Two Official Linguistic Communities is nothing more than a statement of principle, the expression of a vague and indeterminate will to achieve equality. The lack of specific means of implementation and the fact that this Act does not take precedence over other legislative measures in the province clearly indicates that government authorities had no intention of converting this formal equality into substantive equality.

Despite its obvious shortcomings, however, the Act is a step forward in the development of the Acadian community. For the first time, a law proclaims equality of collective rights. The Acadian community would now be able to count on an additional tool to support its claims. Moreover, its entrenchment in 1993, in section 16.1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would give the provisions a broader scope than initially planned, but to be effective the Acadian community must still use it, because rights that are not used end up being forgotten and disappear.

With this legislation, the Conservative Party will have built its Trojan horse, which allowed it to make a breakthrough, a fleeting one I agree, in Acadian ridings that were until then part of the Liberal fortress. Hatfield did not play a major role in the law’s adoption, but he gave his Acadian lieutenant, Simard, free rein over it.

Unfortunately, the law had little impact on the demands of the Acadian community. It never delivered the promises made by Simard during the debates surrounding its adoption. In the conversations I had with him before he died, Simard expressed his bitterness and regret that the Acadian community had not been able to make better use of this unique tool that had been given to it. I agree with him in part, but the blame must also be placed on the political class, which, as soon as this bill was passed, wanted to forget about it and refused to implement it in its policies and programs. Fredericton was acting as if this law did not exist! Collective rights yes, as long as you don't ask for them to be implemented!

In my next text, I will discuss the constitutionalizing of language rights, as well as efforts to modernize the Official Languages Act, which ended in the rejection of the Bastarache-Poirier and Guérette-Smith reports. I will also discuss the end of the Hatfield government and the impact it had on the Acadian community.

1] There are no other footnotes to this text other than this one. If references are needed, I will be happy to provide them or you may consult my two books, Le discours confisqué, and Les droits linguistiques au Nouveau-Brunswick.

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