official languages act new brunswick anniversary future photo by dmitry-ratushny-67024-unsplash

The next 50 years of the Official Languages Act

Anniversaries are powerful motivators. The milestones force us to reflect on what has passed and what is to come in that next span of time.

This April marks the 50th anniversary of New Brunswick’s Official Languages Act, which set this province on a course of preserving, protecting, and promoting the Acadian culture. I would believe that what that meant in 1969 is different than what is means in 2019, and that we are poised for a major shift.

I was born in the late 1970s, with my closest French-speaking relative my grandmother’s grandmother. I obviously do not know first-hand what it felt like to be an Acadian in 1969. But I can imagine that the Official Languages Act came about from a place of fear. I imagine there was a clear and present danger obvious to most Acadians. Their language, and therefore their culture, was being bombarded by the gaining prominence of English that came with changing population patterns and technological advances. I can imagine that fear, because it’s similar to what my Gaelic-speaking relatives describe happening to their language and culture in Cape Breton, only no one came along with a plan to save it then. I also have a distinct sense of what was lost, because I’m part of the generations that didn’t have the opportunity to learn, to live, or to work in that language of choice. I often find myself jealous of what New Brunswick has accomplished for bilingualism in the province, despite the imperfections in the system.

When I talk about language separation in this province with my Francophone New Brunswick friends, I don’t sense any fear among them now. Fifty years of protecting, preserving, and promoting the Acadian language has created a strong community that exists beyond a geographic border. In my experience, today’s Acadian parent is not afraid that their child’s culture is under attack. They are afraid their child’s future in this province is in jeopardy because of threats posed by our economic condition. Most people I know would gladly see their children share a bus ride if it mean thousands of dollars saved or reinvested in classroom resources.

Now, I understand that the 1993 amendment to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the right to “distinct educational institutions” as well as “cultural institutions … necessary for the preservation and promotion” of both the English and the French linguistic communities in New Brunswick. We can’t just put everyone on the same buses or scrap the existing school system to offer a truly bilingual option. But is there not room for reflection and reassessment? Our priorities have certainly shifted somewhat in 50 years; perhaps our policies must, too. While we’re at it, let’s remember there are other cultural groups in this province that also deserve to feel safe and secure in the future of their language and customs.

A review of the provincial act is due no later than December 31, 2021. Similarly to the Auditor General’s admonishment that constant attempts to change our education system has led to instability rather than improvement, so should we be wary of shifting our approach to bilingualism too often. But it is imperative that we examine the intent of the act and how it relates to today’s reality, not the New Brunswick of five, 10, or 50 years ago.

We’re stalled. Everyone in this province, no matter what language we speak at home or what traditions we carry within our families, needs us to take the next step forward. Maybe that’s revising some policies, maybe that’s implementing others. I don’t know that answer, but I know we need it sooner rather than later.

A version of this post appeared originally in the Times & Transcript. Click here for more of Jenna Morton’s column, She Said.

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