New Brunswick’s recent provincial election has exposed deep regional divisions. Whether linguistic, cultural, political or socio-economic, these tensions have highlighted the need for all members of the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick to act quickly to unify our province, while recognizing the diverse realities of its regions. At a time of growing public calls for action, it seems more important than ever to us as senators to remind the MLAs that they have unique legislative instruments to help them act in the interest of all regions of our province.
We know that New Brunswick has its own Official Languages Act and An Act Recognizing the Equality of the Two Official Linguistic Communities. However, we often forget that our province’s status is unique and that the language rights of its people transcend any jurisdictional issue. New Brunswick is distinct in that these rights are entrenched in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as non-negotiable constitutional rights. Furthermore, the recognition of the equality of New Brunswick’s linguistic communities has been codified and elevated to the status of a fundamental right.
These rights were in fact enshrined thanks to the efforts of successive provincial governments: first, in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms part of the Constitution Act, 1982, and, second, through bilateral negotiations with the federal government after the failure of the constitutional reforms of the Charlottetown Accord.
These rights and obligations are applicable regardless of which government is in power. With the adoption of New Brunswick’s first Official Languages Act under Louis J. Robichaud, the Act Recognizing the Equality of the Two Linguistic Communities in New Brunswick under Richard Hatfield and the inclusion of section 16.1 in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms under Frank McKenna — history has shown us that all parties in power have in their own way contributed to strengthening language rights in New Brunswick.
These rights have no political affiliation, nor should they. They belong to all New Brunswickers, whom MLAs pledged to represent on September 14.
We are calling on the parliamentarians of the 60th Legislature to build on the vision and actions of their predecessors to fully recognize the non-negotiable nature of language rights and to ensure that those rights are rigorously applied to all decisions, whether they involve bills, regulations or policy.
Of course, we cannot overlook the enormous divide that appears to separate the regions of our province. It has existed for a long time, and we recognize that there are a variety of contributory factors and many solutions to it. But we cannot ignore the fact that these divisions are inextricably linked to language issues.
The recurring political and social tensions in New Brunswick relate to rights that we have already acquired, involving issues settled long ago. More than ever, New Brunswickers expect their provincial representatives to take action and eliminate the disparities between official language communities.
As we have said before, the government should apply a language lens when developing its social and economic policies in order to uphold the linguistic communities’ right to substantive equality and ultimately soothe the regional divisions exacerbated by the recent provincial election. This would enable the MLAs to identify disparities between the communities and better address their specific needs. In addition, subsection 16.1(2) of the Charter confirms the role of the New Brunswick Legislature and government to not only protect the rights of linguistic communities, but also promote the right to equality. MLAs must meet the positive duty required of them under the Charter.
Our provincial representatives now have a robust legislative toolkit allowing them to ensure that language rights are fully respected and thereby help rebuild bridges between all regions of our province. It is up to parliamentarians to use these tools wisely and effectively.
In closing, we wish to congratulate the MLAs from all parties on their recent election and express our deep gratitude for their commitment to serving New Brunswickers.
This article appeared in the October 5, 2020 edition of The Telegraph-Journal.