Manitoba rises above its history on francophone rights

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On June 30, French-language rights in Manitoba came full circle.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/07/2016 (2281 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On June 30, French-language rights in Manitoba came full circle.

That day, the last one of its first legislative sitting, the newly elected Pallister government made history with the adoption of the Francophone Community Enhancement and Support Act.

This was a historical gesture on many levels. First, it comes almost exactly 100 years after schools offering instruction in French and all other languages except English were abolished. The right to instruction in French has, of course, been re-established in Manitoba over several decades; however, restoration of the right to French-language services, abolished unconstitutionally in 1890, is of more recent vintage.

Secondly, adoption of the new act occurred the day before Canada Day this year, a coincidence that was not lost on the many francophone Manitobans who had an extra reason to celebrate Canada’s birthday.

Finally, with this simple gesture, Manitoba has been propelled to the forefront of provinces that have progressively enhanced French-language rights at the provincial level in recent decades.

More important still is the content of the new act. First, the act adopts a linguistic definition of the word “francophone” rather than an ethnic one. For purposes of the act, “Manitoba’s francophone community means those persons in Manitoba whose mother tongue is French and those persons in Manitoba whose mother tongue is not French but who have a special affinity for the French language and who use it on a regular basis in their daily life.”

This definition recognizes new social and demographic realities in Manitoba, including the ever-growing numbers of bilingual anglophones who have studied French not only for utilitarian reasons (such as for jobs) but who are active in the francophone community’s social and cultural institutions, where they are greeted with open arms. It recognizes as well the arrival of growing numbers of francophone immigrants, whose cultural traditions are often far removed from those of Manitoba’s traditional francophone community.

Finally, Manitoba’s francophone Métis are recognized in this definition, and they as well are finding their place in the francophone community, as broadly defined by the government and without sacrificing their Métis heritage. Indeed, the word “Métis” is itself of French origin. All told, this encompasses many, many Manitobans, of diverse backgrounds.

At the national level, Manitoba is being recognized as a leader among provinces because of its explicit legislative recognition of the francophone community. In an interview following tabling of the bill by the Pallister government, François Boileau, Ontario’s French Language Services Commissioner, said Manitoba is henceforth a “beacon” in the field. In his view, the Manitoba bill is more progressive than Ontario’s, which was adopted in 1986 and was seen at the time as a benchmark for provinces that are not officially bilingual, which are all provinces except New Brunswick.

In Boileau’s view, the new act goes much further not only in terms of its inclusiveness but also because of its overriding objective of ensuring development of the francophone community as a dynamic element in Manitoba society, including the concept of the “active offer” of services in French, that is, “the provision of French-language services whereby these services are to be made evident, readily available and easily accessible to the public and are to be of comparable quality to English-language services.”

A final major aspect of the new law is the creation of a francophone affairs advisory council, comprising, on a roughly equal basis, senior provincial government officials and representatives of the francophone community.

All of this, of course, stands in stark contrast to the recent history of French-language rights in Manitoba. Almost from the outset, after the creation of Manitoba in 1870, the language and religious guarantees painstakingly negotiated by Louis Riel were abolished, first in 1890 then in 1916. It was Manitoba’s Progressive Conservatives, starting with Duff Roblin in the 1950s and 1960s, who began the long road to full recognition of these rights.

Following the Supreme Court’s Forest decision in 1979, attempts to restore constitutionally these long-denied rights culminated in what many recall as Manitoba’s French-language crisis in 1983-84. After another Supreme Court decision in 1985 settled the issue, another Conservative, Gary Filmon, adopted Manitoba’s first French-language services policy in 1989, which he expanded in the late 1990s following tabling of the Chartier Report, which recommended the creation of bilingual service centres in various parts of the province.

Although the new Francophone Community Enhancement and Support Act was initially drafted by the Selinger government, it is fitting that it be adopted by a new Conservative-led legislature as one of its first major initiatives.

Raymond Hébert is a professor emeritus and author of Manitoba’s French-Language Crisis: A Cautionary Tale.

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