Fredericton, January 19, 2010 – Comments from the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick

On November 9, 2009, the Dieppe City Council proceeded with the first reading of municipal By-law Z-22, which regulates the language of external commercial signage in Dieppe. This is a first in New Brunswick: no municipality has ever legislated in this area before.

New Brunswick’s Official Languages Act does not apply to the private sector, and consequently, commercial signage is excluded from its scope. However, the topic is of great interest to us. In fact, it touches on some fundamental questions that are at the heart of the Official Languages Act and An Act Recognizing the Equality of the Two Official Linguistic Communities in New Brunswick.

In our opinion, it is important that any regulation dealing with language of signage be recognized as a measure that fully respects the idea of equality of our two linguistic communities. Only then will it be able to inspire other municipalities to act so that commercial signage better reflects the bilingual nature of our province.

The By-law

For several years, the City of Dieppe has made considerable efforts to have commercial signage reflect its linguistic reality more closely, especially since 75% of Dieppe’s residents are francophone. Those awareness efforts have borne fruit, as shown by the results of a study conducted by the committee set up to promote the French language and heritage in Dieppe. However, the municipal council considered it preferable to opt for “a more direct route to equality via the use of signs in both official languages,” as the City explains in a circular that it sent out to Dieppe merchants.

By-law Z-22 stipulates that the message or the content of any new exterior signs will have to be bilingual or French. The by-law targets only the description that appears on the sign, for example, shoe store; the business name is not affected. Moreover, the by-law will not apply to current exterior signs unless they are modified or moved.

Awareness Raising or Regulation: A Common Objective

While awareness raising seems to have reached its limits in Dieppe, that does not mean it is no longer a viable option. In other settings, it can be an effective engine of progress. In that regard, there is a major project by the Association francophone des municipalités du Nouveau-Brunswick. Entitled Notre paysage linguistique [Our linguistic landscape], this project relies mainly on an approach comprising awareness raising and incentives.

Whether the method used is awareness raising or regulation, the objective when it comes to language of signage is the same: give the French language its rightful place. And this is not only a question of respect; the very vitality of the language is at stake. It is generally acknowledged that a linguistic landscape in which English dominates is an assimilation factor. And with good reason: in such circumstances, English is seen as the dominant language, which strengthens its draw. Also, unilingual English signage indicates that the French language is a secondary language, and thus less pertinent, less important. It is easy to imagine the devastating effect that may have on young francophones and their cultural identity. And what about immigrants who arrive in a city where the signage is in English only? Can we expect them to want to learn French?

The vulnerability of the French language in North America is not in question. The ever-present threat of assimilation is there to remind us of it. The Supreme Court of Canada recognized this fact when it ruled on the signage issue a few years ago.

It is interesting to note that francophones and anglophones have different perceptions regarding the future of the French language. A recent survey by Continuum Research indicates that 55% of francophones feel that the future of the French language is threatened, whereas only 22% of anglophones share that view. Those percentages show there is a need to better explain the significant challenges confronting the French language. They also support the validity of measures that will enable the francophone community to achieve real equality, something that is essential to its growth and development.

Equality and Duality

The first part of By-law Z-22 is very interesting, because it contains several references to the equality of New Brunswick’s two linguistic communities. It is therefore understandable that some were surprised to find that the by-law provides that signage may be in French alone. These people asked themselves, “Wait, aren’t English and French equal in our province?”

According to the information we obtained, the option of French-only signs is intended to take into account organizations that offer their services exclusively in French, such as a newspaper or a radio station. The intent of this option is therefore not to force businesses that serve only one community to become bilingual.

The option of French-only signs in Dieppe seems to be inspired by the legal framework (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, legislation, court judgments) governing the promotion and protection of linguistic minorities. Obviously, a minority linguistic community will try to take advantage of these legal protections to preserve and promote its language and culture. We should also mention the contribution of An Act Recognizing the Equality of the Two Official Linguistic Communities in New Brunswick. That legislation provides that the two communities are entitled to distinct institutions within which cultural, educational, and social activities may be carried on.

We believe that the City of Dieppe could take these same principles into account in allowing unilingual English signage in the case of businesses or organizations that exercise a cultural mission within the anglophone community in Dieppe. Examples might include a local newspaper or an independent bookstore. Such a measure would not detract from the objective pursued by By-law Z-22. Furthermore, it would clearly show that the City of Dieppe is not trying to diminish the status of English or retaliate against the anglophone community, as some have implied. It would thereby be obvious that the intention is to treat both linguistic groups the same, while offering the francophone community an important tool for its development and growth. Consequently, By-law Z-22 would be considered a necessary measure in this quest for real equality and could in a way encourage other municipalities in the province to deal with the issue of commercial signage in a more proactive fashion. Francophones elsewhere in the province could then enjoy, individually and collectively, the benefits of a linguistic landscape in which French and English are treated on an equal footing.

We understand the City of Dieppe’s objectives with regard to the language of signage. Our comments seek to ensure that By-law Z-22 achieves the hoped-for goals and at the same time adds to the efforts to promote the equality of our two official languages throughout the province.

For more information:

Hugues Beaulieu
Director of Public Affairs and Research
Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick
506-444-4229 or 1-888-651-6444