Banish, forever, the linguistic elephant in the room

The hideous strength of intolerance is measured most often by its banality; by a flimsy, cardboard sign hastily speared into a grassy boulevard of a busy Moncton roadway, a sign that, only two months ago, pronounced: “There are no jobs for English New Brunswickers here!”

As Canada’s second smallest – and, by some accounts, least prosperous – province reels from a nearly unsustainable budget deficit, an insupportable long-term debt and the sort of painful self-examination (about the size of its public sector and cost of its social services) normally reserved for the therapist’s couch, the land of the purple violet is inching towards another round of angry rhetoric over linguistic rights.

And, as with any chronic mental disorder, there’s only so much the saner segments of society can do about it.

From time to time, the country’s only officially bilingual province finds the temptation to tear at the scabbed-over wounds, inflicted by old prejudices and sensitivities, roundly irresistible. From time to time, its focus blurs, its mouth dries and it begins to shake as an inchoate rage rises behind its eyes. Sometimes, it takes only a comment from a retired heart surgeon, an anglophone, a Tory backbencher to light the ancient pyre.

And so it was this September that Dr. Jim Parrott, a Saint Johnarea, Progressive Conservative MLA broke party ranks by declaring that his government is unresponsive to health reform in the province. Worse, he all but accused it of pandering to cultural requisites that, he implied, escalate the cost of care by duplicating its delivery in English and French languages. He paid the inevitable price. He now sits out his term, unforgiven, as an independent.

For his part, Parrott insists he has been misunderstood. Maybe he has, but he must have appreciated the minefield into which he ventured. For this is a subject no one in this province willingly broaches (at least, no one who cares about the condition of his own skin). For this reason, the opinionated doctor may have done New Brunswick an unwitting favour, though it’s doubtful many will thank him for the service.

The French and English chattering classes have closed ranks, characterizing his comments and actions as, at best, imprudent and, at worst, reprehensible. The men and women on the street don’t care or, if they do, think he’s either a hero or a villain, depending almost entirely on the pronunciations of their last names. But somewhere, in all of this, come the voices of reason.

One of these is Aldéa Landry’s. She’s a prominent businesswoman in Moncton, who was a senior government minister during the Frank McKenna years. She was around during the last, great nervous breakdown when the far-right, demonstrably anti-French political movement, the CORE party, gained enough purchase in the early 1990s to nearly upend the achievements of a generation of “equal opportunity” reform. Now, in newspaper articles, she advises calm. Let’s not rush to judgment. Mostly, she says let’s talk. About everything. And, of course, she’s right.

These manufactured feuds profit no one – not English, not French. As Landry points out, if costly duplications exist in the current health-care system, the province must work together to eliminate them if only to provide the linguistic parity the law requires and most New Brunswickers expect. In fact, there must be several ways to accomplish this without savagely curtailing the constitutional rights of 38 per cent of the voting public.

In the end, it’s a conversation that’s long past due, and the saner segments of society must moderate the debate in the interests of duality, not duplication.

If a province composed of at least two distinct cultural groups expects to prosper in a developed world that cares nothing for internecine rivalries and parochial imbecilities, it must abandon hoary tropes and simmering, secret resentments and, finally, address that elephant in the parlour; finally, order it to leave.

New Brunswick’s perilous economic circumstances demand nothing less. But even more importantly, its hungry soul cries out for the decency of its neighbours, the relevance of its government and the courage of its citizens, who declare in one triumphant voice, on a sturdy sign in the middle of a boulevard: “There are jobs for all New Brunswickers . . . ici!”

3 Comments to “Banish, forever, the linguistic elephant in the room”

  1. Avatar Rupert Penjab // November 8, 2012 at 10:18 am // Reply

    You are missing the mark. The reality of the situation is ONLY 32-33% of the population is of acadian descent. Of that 32-33% less than 5% does not have any English, so, it is in fact, 5% of the population who would be disenfranchised if french was to magically “leave the room” tomorrow.
    Discounting “goofy pieces of paper with names at the bottom” what is it costing us to pander to 5% of the population? (“costing us” being costs out of government general revenue, and of course I am not telling anyone what they can and can’t do in the privacy of their own home…. this including, but not limited to the language they choose to speak)

  2. Avatar Jennifer Johnson // November 15, 2012 at 1:06 pm // Reply

    I’ll do it – Dr. Jim Parrott – THANK YOU for opening this can of worms.

    Bilingualism is required in the delivery of services in NB. Duality is not. The intent of having a bilingual province has been lost. My belief is that NB can have ONE health system (not two), ONE NBCC/CCNB system (not two), ONE education system (not two). For a province of ~750K, can we really afford to needlessly replicate this? No, we can’t.

    In healthcare, the system is increasingly regionalizing to larger centres while small communities are losing essential services. If you ask someone in Caraquet or Hartland if they’d rather have their local ER 24/7 than a bunch of senior management, they would probably tell you they want boots on the ground. And in this world of scarce health delivery professionals, in whichever language you can get them.

    In education, we are doubly paying for a choice to split the community college system. If you ask someone in Neguac or Dalhousie if they would rather have two community college systems with 2 sets of senior executives, or a college in their town, they would probably throw the doors open to having a college in town so they can stop the brain drain to their communities.

    Dr. Jim Parrott’s messages are real. The government has been pussyfooting around them for too long, responding in crisis mode to special interest groups and their lawyers. It’s time for real change in how the province is governed.

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