The following opinion letter was submitted to New Brunswick’s daily newspapers on April 7, 2022 by the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick, Shirley C. MacLean, Q.C.
Last fall, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick commissioned a public opinion survey to take stock of New Brunswickers’ views on multiple aspects of official languages in the province: attitudes towards bilingualism, the relationship between linguistic communities, the quality and importance of language instruction in our public schools, perceptions of identity, and the delivery of government services in either official language.
The results, released on April 4, are clear: a strong majority of New Brunswickers (81%), from all regions of the province, support the concept of the Official Languages Act and bilingualism. This most recent survey echoed themes from a similar survey conducted by the Office of the Commissioner in 2009. At that time, support for official languages in the province stood at 82%.
New Brunswickers continue to show majority support for bilingualism today, despite the fact that an openly anti-bilingualism political faction has been active in the province for the past 12 years. These are encouraging results that, in my view, support the theory that the majority often remains silent while minority voices are unfortunately amplified, often with the help of social media, which can create an echo chamber effect.
In reality, official languages and mutual respect between our two linguistic communities are fundamental values in New Brunswick. Overall, the vast majority of us are proud of our status as Canada’s only bilingual province and want to continue to foster and nurture a New Brunswick where we preserve and promote the equal status, rights, and privileges of the English and French linguistic communities.
Support for the Official Languages Act and bilingualism is centred on respect for both official languages, while opposition to bilingualism is found primarily among Anglophones who cited the notion of privilege for Francophones or bilingual New Brunswickers with respect to access to public service employment opportunities. It is important to note that this opposition was expressed by a minority of survey respondents and does not reflect New Brunswickers as a whole.
This notion of favouritism for Francophones and bilingual workers in the province is a long-standing myth. According to recent data obtained from the government, unilingual Anglophones have access to 55% of government jobs in Part I of the provincial civil service.
The Official Languages Act seeks to ensure that New Brunswickers can access government services in the language of their choice – it does not dictate that all government jobs must be filled by bilingual employees. Certainly, in order to provide services in both official languages, a number of positions in the province are designated bilingual, but through a team approach, unilingual employees are often able to work collaboratively with their Francophone or bilingual colleagues to provide public services in accordance with the Official Languages Act.
Furthermore, I believe that the myths and discontent underlying the opposition are rooted in a lack of understanding of the Act and its objectives. The survey results showed a low level of awareness of the Official Languages Act and of the existence of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages in general. This tells me that I still have work to do as Commissioner.
The Official Languages Act does not impose bilingualism on New Brunswickers. It exists to ensure that everyone in New Brunswick – our neighbours, our colleagues, our friends – can receive government services in the official language of their choice. It is at the root of our identity as a province: two linguistic communities, two languages, with their histories, their richness, and their possibilities.
Beyond their practical application here in the province, our language rights are also recognized in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a component of the Constitution Act, the supreme law of our land. Enshrined in the Charter, the equal rights and privileges of English and French in New Brunswick are not up for debate.
I therefore encourage all of you to be proud to affirm your unequivocal support for both official languages in our province. Our status as a bilingual province is part of our identity and the vast majority of us are proud of it. Show your support openly, don’t be afraid to assert your belief that every New Brunswicker, whether Anglophone or Francophone, has a fundamental right to speak their language in public institutions. Together, we can change the narrative around official languages and bilingualism.