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May 6th 2009

Message from the Commissioner of Official Languages on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of the adoption of the first Official Languages Act

An anniversary to celebrate our two official languages… and to inspire further progress

It happened in 2004 at the launch of Louis J. Robichaud’s biography. The book signing was coming to an end, and I went up to the former Premier. He congratulated me on my appointment, and before long, we were discussing the state of bilingualism. He told me that the progress achieved since the passage of the first Official Languages Act went beyond anything he could have imagined back in 1969. He was visibly proud and delighted by what he was seeing and hearing.

What seems natural to us today when it comes to official languages was not the case in 1969. That is what the “father” of the first Official Languages Act had noted over the years. This 40th anniversary is an opportunity to pay tribute to the political courage of Louis J. Robichaud, as well as that of then Leader of the Opposition Richard Hatfield. Let’s not forget that this legislation was passed unanimously.

Forty years later, it must be acknowledged that a great deal of progress has been accomplished. One simple question will serve to illustrate my contention: Would it be possible to imagine the Mayor of Moncton refusing to allow the city’s residents to speak French before the municipal council today? Yet, that is what happened in 1968, and that event left more of a mark on the popular imagination than did the passage of the first Act.

We have certainly made progress. Does that mean we have achieved real equality? No. And there is still a way to go. In that regard, I welcome the provincial government’s recent announcement that it is developing a strategy to enhance the application of the Official Languages Act. That is a step we have been recommending for several years, and I am certain it will be productive.

Our advancement toward real equality also requires a change of attitude, and even culture. Too often, the Official Languages Act is seen as a necessary evil rather than a symbol of respect and equality. Too often, the spirit of the Act is neglected in favour of a very specific, limited interpretation. Too often, people traffic in myths instead of going back to the facts and accepting the necessary consequences of official bilingualism.

Forty years after the adoption of the first Act, time has to come to embrace a more generous vision toward official languages. It is the hope I have for all of us on this very special occasion.

CONTACT PERSON: Hugues Beaulieu, Director of Public Affairs and Research, Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick, (506) 444-4229, 1-888-651-6444 (toll-free), e-mail hugues.beaulieu@gnb.ca.