N.B. bilingualism debate flares as parties' battle for power unfolds
SAINT JOHN, N.B. -- A resolution from an Acadian seaside town council has fired a warning shot across the bow of the New Brunswick Tories, as the municipal councillors try to rally wider francophone support condemning any minority government propped up by the People's Alliance party.
The resolution on the bilingualism issue from Cap Pele councillor, Hector Doiron, was addressed to both the Progressive Conservatives, with 22 seats, and the Liberals, with 21, as they continued Wednesday to struggle over which party will form a minority government following the tight Sept. 24 election.
However, the People's Alliance, with three seats, has only confirmed an informal, verbal commitment to support the Tories for a year and a half -- putting leader Blaine Higgs in the crosshairs of francophone concerns.
The right-leaning alliance has called for an end to linguistic duality in some government services, such as school busing, and has urged the abolishment of the office of the official languages commissioner.
The Liberals have said they won't hold talks with People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin, even as Premier Brian Gallant has pursued a coalition with the Green Party, which also won three seats.
Any form of coalition with the small, populist party drew strong words in Doiron's resolution, as his document argued even an informal deal should be regarded as an assault on Acadian rights.
"The People's Alliance Party has no legitimacy in attacking fundamental rights of the Acadian and francophone community of New Brunswick and in having a platform that does not respect the country's supreme law, The Constitutional Act of 1982," says the document, written in French.
Meanwhile, comments from former Supreme Court of Canada judge Michel Bastarache that a significant slice of anglophone New Brunswickers had voted "to abolish bilingualism" made headlines on Wednesday in the province.
Bastarache argued before the Senate committee on official languages that the People's Alliance was "created to oppose bilingualism, to oppose francophone schools and francophone hospitals."
People's Alliance issued a news release responding to the municipal leaders' critique, saying the party's policies were being portrayed incorrectly, and referring to the Cap Pele councillor as a Liberal partisan.
"The People's Alliance from day one has said we respect bilingualism and the rights of both official language groups to receive service in their language of choice anywhere in the province," said the release.
"As most are aware, (school) transportation based on language has not been legally designated as an acquired right."
Still, the municipal council's resolution may reappear at an upcoming annual meeting of the francophone association of municipalities, representing 50 of the province 104 municipalities, said the group's director, Frederick Dion, in an interview.
"It (the Cap Pele resolution) is not clear. It's more like a statement at this point. ... It's not impossible that the resolution or another form of it could be presented to the members," he said.
The association also published a resolution last week urging parties not to form a coalition with the People's Alliance.
Meanwhile, Higgs said Wednesday his party believes in co-operating with all members of the legislature, and is merely seeking assurances the smaller parties won't move to bring down his government.
He said the resolution from Cap Pele goes too far because his party has made clear it will maintain its support for bilingualism, as laid out in the party's constitution.
"We've been very clear that our party constitution and our party principles aren't changing," he said.
"I think it's an overreaction. We saw it during the election process. It's a serious overreaction against me. I found that most disturbing. I found it almost a personal attack on myself."
Gallant has said he'll go forward with a throne speech on Oct. 23, even as recounts are unfolding this week in three ridings with close results -- one held by the Tories, one by the Liberals and the third by the Greens.
Recounts started Wednesday in Saint John Harbour, where there was a narrow Liberal win, and Memramcook-Tantramar, where the Green candidate defeated a Liberal rival by 11 votes.
A lawyer for the Progressive Conservative candidate in the Saint John district has alleged that about 40 electors voted twice in the riding, which was won by the Liberals by a 10-vote margin.
The recounts in both ridings were expected to continue Thursday, while a third vote recount has been ordered for Thursday in the riding of Oromocto-Lincoln-Fredericton, a seat the Tories won by 93 votes.
-- By Michael Tutton in Halifax