Bilingualism, biculturalism bottom line

Posted on October 8, 2012
Filed Under Commentary, Economic & Political Philosophy | Leave a Comment

I dream of a New Brunswick which is, truly bilingual and multicultural. In my fantasy, every child in the province would learn in English and French from day one of school, including kindergarten. Books, magazines, cartoons, movies, and music in both languages would be part of the daily routine. Every student graduate of a New Brunswick high school would have been exposed to classic, modern and popular culture in both languages. We would all know and respect the social, cultural and linguistic treasures contributed to the world by the English and French language countries of the world.

Surely no one could question that we would all be wiser and our lives richer as a result.

I think it is unlikely and impractical that we could all also learn the Mi’ikmaq and Maliseet languages. However, there can also be no doubt that we have learned and could continue to benefit even more from studying their culture, nature lore and traditional governance.

With a knowledge of two languages and three cultures as a foundation, it would be much easier for us to tap into Spanish and Italian treasures as we do Irish, Scottish and others now.

The main reason I dream of this is because of a fantasy I have of the new, New Brunswick culture that could and would evolve when we all had such an arsenal of linguistic and cultural ammunition. It already happens to some extent. The most exciting performance I ever saw on a Parliament Hill Canada Day celebration was when Leahy and La Bottine Souriant played together. The distinctive Atlantic sound we love in music contains obvious elements of French, Scottish, Irish and African tones and rhythms with a keen edge I attribute to the influence of the rich but harsh North Atlantic coastal environment.

Many years ago, I coined the comment that some people would rather fight than win to describe the bitterness of internecine rivalry between the 773 and 622 telephone exchanges in Miramichi.

Sadly, I am beginning to realize that the same destructive urge permeates and dominates relations between Francophones and Anglophones in New Brunswick.

Our beloved province is the Greece of Canada with a large proportion of its government revenues coming in the form of welfare from other more prosperous regions of Canada. Something akin to the Irish and Scottish clearings from Europe is taking place as both Anglophone and Francophone youth emigrate west.

Beginning from a base of traditional regional political disadvantage, we are also confronted with the collapse of our forest industry, modernization and stresses on our fisheries, a tiny population, and the global economic bias to urbanization.

We desperately need a lever, not an anchor, to give us any chance to survive much less thrive.

And yet many of us concentrate on making it even more difficult for us to succeed.

Unilingual Anglophones are bitter that bilingualism means that so many of the best and prized civil service jobs are reserved for bilingual, most often Francophone, citizens. They rail about having French “rammed down our throats”.

Francophones resent that some people, who want their money and support for their institutions, don’t want to serve them in their own language. Francophones, like the Irish, have historic resentment and bitterness about English abuses in the past. Francophones, like First Nations, are phobic about assimilation. It is almost a mantra among Francophones that, if you put one English and 50 French students in one group, within a year you will have an English group.

When Justin Trudeau speaking to a teachers’ convention in New Brunswick, said that he thought it would be best if French and English students studied together, he was promptly publicly spanked and his idea disavowed by both the provincial and federal Liberal parties.

So here we are. Anglophones resent the disproportionate influence of Francophones in the New Brunswick job market and services. Francophones are determined to preserve and expand the services and access they have to every aspect of life to be equal with Anglophones.

When I once suggested to a Francophone friend that Anglophones would need help from the Francophone community to overcome the barriers to a majority learning a minority language, he rejected the idea. He said that the Anglophones had not helped and encouraged the Francophones so should not expect any special consideration in the other direction.

The net result is an increasingly segregated population. Michel Carrier, the language commissioner for New Brunswick does not like me using that term. I think it is because everyone knows that segregation never leads to unity.

If the only negative effects of segregation and duality were the loss of social unity and shared cultural benefits, that would be a sad enough story in itself. Unfortunately, I fear we are reliving the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. When the people set out to build a tower to heaven, God gave them different languages so they could not communicate and the tower project failed.

If a bountiful New Brunswick is our heavenly project, segregation and disunity among us will destroy us.

Because so many of us are not bilingual, opportunities for jobs and especially promotions are limited. In practical terms, what this means is that, even if one member of a family is bilingual or does not need to be, a couple often leaves because the other is not and needs to be to follow his or her vocation in New Brunswick. If the unilingual nurse leaves, the electrician spouse goes too.

If there is no opportunity for unilingual Anglos in Restigouche County, they leave and there is a smaller market for Francophones to serve and less potential for things like hospitals, or even roads, to serve them.

If citizens of Carleton County, where there are very few Francophones, have no future in the provincial or federal civil service, they come to view government more as them rather than us. That is already a fact of life in the West where every first-language English young person knows they will never head the RCMP, any federal department, or branch of the military. Even an bilingual westerner is excluded if the second language happens to be Chinese or Tagalog. The same applies in the unilingual French regions of Quebec.

There is an expression that people often vote with their feet. That means that whether it is a majority or a minority that is exerting power, people who are put at disadvantage can and will leave. Greece is emptying out now. There is a flood of emigration to Australia, Brazil, and every part of the world. Greeks are not reproducing at a rate fast enough to replace themselves and many Greek men will live as perpetual children in their parents’ homes rather than work in what they see as menial tasks in, for example tourism. Greeks are on their way to extinction as a people.

It would appear that the Francophones who favour and insist on dualism control the political demands of that segment of New Brunswickers. It would appear that Anglophones are not willing to make a serious effort to become a truly bilingual province on their own.

There was a line in a TV mini series “Empire Falls,”. “The heart, like the river, goes not where it will but where it must.”

I fear my fantasy for New Brunswick is just that, a fantasy.

I fear that both Anglophones and Francophones have rejected a truly bilingual and bicultural New Brunswick.

We resist the idea of amalgamating our municipalities so Maritime union is incomprehensible, especially in view of the dilution of Francophone influence that would entail.

In my opinion, we will not face the facts and we would rather fight than win.

As is so often the case, in the words of the late Walt Kelly’s immortal cartoon possum, Pogo, “We have met the enemy and it is us!”.

The bottom line of that is failure.

On we go. DAC


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