The following opinion letter was submitted to New Brunswick’s daily newspapers on November 12, 2020 by the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick, Shirley C. MacLean, Q.C.
We have many reasons to be proud of our province. This pride of belonging resonates in all regions of New Brunswick for a variety of reasons: our great quality of life, our cultural diversity, our many natural wonders, and our warm and welcoming people.
We should all also be proud that our province is the only one to recognize English and French as its two official languages. In fact, New Brunswick’s Official Languages Act, first adopted in 1969, was even adopted before the federal Official Languages Act. In this regard, we are truly national trailblazers.
There is however a great deal of misinformation regarding the Official Languages Act and official bilingualism in New Brunswick. As the Legislature reconvenes in Fredericton, I call on our legislators, both seasoned and new, to stand up for language rights for all New Brunswickers.
Language rights in our province go beyond simple rights; they are obligations under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Under the Charter, English and French are the official languages of New Brunswick and have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Legislature and the Government of New Brunswick. The Canadian constitution also confirms the authority of the Legislature and the Government of New Brunswick to advance the status, rights and privileges of our province’s two official languages.
Although it is part of my mandate to investigate, submit reports, and make recommendations aimed at ensuring compliance with the Official Languages Act, my role is also to promote the advancement of both official languages in the province. That said, it is also incumbent on our provincial legislators to promote the advancement of our two official languages as enshrined in the Charter.
We do not have to look far to see a linguistic divide in our province today. As Bernard Richard said so well in an editorial about New Brunswick’s two linguistic communities following the September 14 election: “La réalité demeure qu’on se connaît mal et qu’on ne se comprend pas.” (The reality remains that we don’t know each other very well and that we don’t understand each other.)
It is with this in mind that I invite our elected provincial officials to set a good example and learn about the legislative framework of official languages in our province, and in addition to go even further and revisit and seek to understand the cultural history that led to the creation of a bilingual New Brunswick. In short, we must not simply understand language rights, but also understand why these rights exist.
The Sixtieth Legislature of New Brunswick, which will open in the coming days, presents a golden opportunity for our legislators to demonstrate a real commitment to language rights. The last review of the New Brunswick Official Languages Act in 2013 requires a review of the latter no later than December 31, 2021. This review process will allow Members of the Legislative Assembly to survey New Brunswickers and experts in the field to identify the legislative changes necessary to ensure respect for English and French as official languages and to ensure the equality of status and equal rights and privileges of the official languages with regard to their use in all the Province’s institutions.
The Official Languages Act prevails over almost all other Acts in our province. This status reflects the importance given to language rights within our legislative framework. The review of the Official Languages Act is a task fraught with responsibilities that will require diligent and persistent work. It will be necessary to know how to refute the “common sense” discourse and improve the Act in order to protect the interests of our linguistic communities. We will have to seek to improve the Act to ensure that the government complies with its constitutional obligations with respect to our two official languages. Because it is by advancing the equal use of English and French in the institutions of the Province that we will contribute to the vitality of our official languages, and more particularly to the vitality and protection of the French language, which is in a minority situation across much of the province.
It is about time we learned to understand each other in New Brunswick. Different political ideologies will continue to exist indefinitely, and some areas of our province will remain basically more Francophone or more Anglophone; that is nothing new. Nevertheless, all of our elected representatives must recognize the merits and the importance of the Official Languages Act. Such recognition from the seat of democracy in New Brunswick can only promote the progress of respect for our two official linguistic communities and contribute to the vitality of our two official languages.