“Mr. Speaker, have the honorable member from Lac LaBiche speak white.” Telling words – uttered over half a century ago in the Alberta Legislature when a MLA dared to speak in that other official language.
Yes, since then Alberta has come a long way. We have Francophone school boards, one of the best – if not the best – French immersion programs in the country, a rich and diverse Francophone community, an entire French-speaking campus at the U of A, bilingual postsecondary programs, a new Francophone quarter under construction in Bonnie Doon, and the list goes on. I suppose we should all be content that in English-speaking Alberta, we have all these great French resources, and all blindly sing Kumbayah together in happiness and gratefulness. Right?
The strong presence of the French language in Alberta did not appear by magic – nor did it materialize by the good will and affinity of its government. After undergoing nearly a century of assimilation projects orchestrated by our ever so cunning elected officials, the Francophones of Alberta had to go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada to have their Charter rights respected. Others in the West faced similar attitudes from their “democratic” governments. In doing so, we found out that for decades, the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba had illegally been neglecting to print their laws in both official languages. Canada’s Bad-Ass West: those cowboys, disguised in public office suits, respectin’ them laws when they damn well feel like it.
And the day of wonder came. Ottawa tamed the Wild West. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, they changed the law to finally be in sync with what developed democracies call a “state of law.” Congratulations Alberta – you finally got the hang of this foreign concept at the end of the twentieth century. Alberta adopted the Language Act, amended the Elections Act, the Municipalities Act, and Alberta Education was now on the Charter train, respecting the Francophone minority’s constitutional and fundamental right to education. Francophones could finally catch their breath.
Or so they thought.
Old habits die hard, I suppose. Up to their old tricks again, the Alberta Government seems to be leaning towards their historical wild tendencies – yes, those same ones we all thought were buried in the graves of unconstitutionality and discrimination. And the scary part is that this resurrection of rowdiness is no longer headed by a grade 8 educated premier. No, ironically, none other but a Queen’s Council lawyer and distinguished Canadian seems to be steering the ship this time.
In all its wisdom, the government of Alberta has asked taxpayers what they believe should be cut. We have a deficit and we need to cut spending – this is no news flash to anyone. So if you go to http://www.budgetchoice.ca/2012/index.php?s=5, you get to vote on what you want to see cut, from seniors’ to postsecondary funding, to health care and environmental programs. But, if you look under the “Culture” section, you’ll be given four choices. Surprise – out of the four, you get to cut the Francophone Secretariat. This is where we run into problems.
The Francophone Secretariat is the government-funded body serving as the voice of French-speaking Albertans in government, and works as the liaison between the Francophone community and those elected into public office. After over a century of wounds, brought upon by discriminatory policies geared towards Francophones, God only knows that having a liaison between the government and its French-speaking citizens is a good thing. Except, now, that relationship is on the menu for permanent political deep-frying.
The Supreme Court has ruled again and again that linguistic rights in Canada are so fundamental to the makeup of this country and to human rights that they must be given the most vast and liberal protection in interpreting the Charter. In a recent decision rendered by the Ontario Court of Appeals, the Court ruled that the government could not remove Ottawa’s only designated Francophone hospital. Its reasoning is that the Charter is a basic elementary platform, and that if governments choose to offer supplemental programs for the vitality and protection of official minorities, then they cannot easily and carelessly take those resources away. Ontario and Alberta have different circumstances and realities, but in looking at the Ontario case, we see where the courts are leaning on the issue of language rights today. The Courts have reached such an understanding of the Charter in interpreting article 16.3, “Nothing in this Charter limits the authority of Parliament or a legislature to advance the equality of status or use of English and French.” Likewise, article 24 has been interpreted as a tool of historical repair, geared to reconciling injustices towards English and French linguistic minorities throughout the course of Canada’s history. In fact, one of the underlining unwritten principles of the Canadian Constitution is the protection of minorities. In the fight for same-sex rights, the government of Alberta was sued, yet again, for violating the Charter in failing to protect homosexuals in its human rights legislation. In its decision, the Supreme Court said, “If equality rights for minorities had been recognized, the all too frequent tragedies of history might have been avoided.” The same can be said for language rights. Let us not forget that the Charter binds all governments’ laws and actions.
Yet, here we are again, trucking down memory lane. Heading back to the stone age of lawlessness or, rather, selective lawfulness. The Francophone community is being tested once more. No, the government has not touched the funding to the Francophone Secretariat. In fact, half the funding for this public organization comes from the Federal Government, which, by the way is conveniently and negligently not stated on the website. However, while no actual funding has been cut (yet), the spirit and attitude of the current government vis-à-vis its official linguistic minority is unsettling and concerning, to say the very least. In a country where governments are bound and encouraged to take positive measures to ensure the survival of official language minorities, Alberta’s recent move is unbecoming. To give the majority the option to abolish services for minorities – official minorities at that – is not what Canada is about. It’s not what the Charter is about. And it’s not what this province should be about.
Unfortunately, the cat’s out of the bag. The Redford government’s true colors are showing – not only are they showing; they are shining bright and clear, in the full of view of the public, put on the world-wide web for everyone to see, as if no political, legal or constitutional consequences can touch them. Well, if one were diligent, and looked at precedent, we’d see that the country’s top court does not share Alberta’s historical stance on the French language. Alberta, while it may sometimes opine otherwise, is part of Canada, and, as rich and great as it may be, it is not immune from Charter obligations.
What’s sad, though, is that every so often, Alberta is needed a friendly reminder from Ottawa that it is not an island. The shame is that those cordial wake-up calls cost significant resources for the government, and cost the taxpayers unnecessary waste. But above all, the recent stunt pulled by the government has served as a harmful instrument, deepening scars and rattling memories of hurt, against a group of Canadians whose language, which was once spoken by the majority in the West, is now constantly faced with hostility, ignorance and antagonism.
Tread carefully, Alberta. Or we may have to respectfully knock on Beverley McLachlin’s door and politely ask Mom to sort this out – again.
Stéphane Erickson is a Bilingual B.Com graduate from the University of Alberta and current J.D. & LL.L. candidate at the University of Ottawa.
CC photograph courtesy of k-ideas on Flickr.