Tories shed historic language albatross: MPs back bill on bilingualism

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Dec 11 17:32:01 UTC 2005

>>From the Toronto Star, Dec. 10, 2005. 11:11 AM

Tories shed historic language albatross
MPs back bill on bilingualism

Issue divided Tories in the past

OTTAWAL Quietly, shortly before the election, the Conservative party
disposed of a divisive issue that has haunted it for almost four decades:
official bilingualism. Four days before the Martin government fell,
Governor General Michalle Jean signed into law a bill that, in the past,
could have torn the Conservatives apart. The first amendment of the
Official Languages Act since 1988 was given royal assent on Nov. 24,
having been passed with the support of the Conservatives.

The legislation formally known as S-3, because it originated in the
Senate, introduced by since-retired Liberal Senator Jean-Robert Gauthier
requires the federal government to promote French-speaking minorities
outside Quebec and the English minority in Quebec and gives them the right
to go to court if the federal government doesn't take their interests into
account. It is a major amendment to the law, which passed under the radar,
noticed only in the respective minority media. It was the last public act
for both Gauthier and retiring Liberal MP Don Boudria, who sponsored the
bill in the House of Commons.

According to University of Toronto political scientist Lawrence LeDuc, the
Tories in this election are "learning from the mistakes of the last one."
"Four days before the government falls (Nov. 28) and an election is
called, they don't want to have the headlines bringing up an issue like
that," Le Duc says. Publicly, Conservative MPs insist that their party's
support for the amended version of the bill was never in doubt.

"Bilingualism is one of the founding principles of the Conservative
party," says MP James Moore, referring to the party program drawn up
during the merger of the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian
Alliance, and reconfirmed at the new party's first policy convention in
March. But privately, Conservatives acknowledge that the support came
after the caucus was reminded by veteran Tory senators of the way the
language issue had split the party in the past, to the benefit of the
Liberals. "Don't do this to Stephen Harper," Senator Hugh Segal told the
party caucus, reminding the MPs of how former PC leader Robert Stanfield's
caucus had been torn apart over the language issue, and how the Liberals
tried to do the same thing when Brian Mulroney arrived in the House of
Commons as Conservative leader in 1983.

"Hugh Segal had an impact," a Conservative MP, who asked not to be
identified, told the Star. Following Segal's speech, Harper told his
caucus they had to vote in favour of the bill, sources say. So, when the
vote on the amendment in the Commons came in November, no Conservatives
raised any opposition, and the bill sailed through. It was the final
chapter in a long process for the Conservatives of coming to terms with
language policy. Senator Marjory LeBreton, who, like Segal, saw what Tory
rebels did to Stanfield in 1969 and again in the early 1970s, pointed out
in an interview that Mulroney had won seats in ridings with significant
francophone populations in 1984 because of his position in support of
official bilingualism.

In 1969, when the Official Languages Act was introduced, a group of
Western Conservatives followed former prime minister John Diefenbaker's
lead and voted against the legislation, undercutting Stanfield's
leadership. In 1974, Stanfield barred former Moncton mayor Leonard Jones
from running for the party because of his crusade against bilingualism.
But the controversy further damaged Stanfield's position in the party. In
later years, when the Liberals wanted to divide the Conservatives, they
would introduce motions reaffirming the principles of bilingualism.

But when they tossed this hand grenade to Mulroney, the newly elected PC
leader responded by making it clear that he would expel from caucus any
Tory who voted against it. In 1988, when Mulroney's government introduced
legislation to bring the law into conformity with the Charter of Rights
and Freedoms, there were renewed threats of a caucus revolt. It took all
the pacifying, soothing skills of then-deputy prime minister Don
Mazankowski who had himself voted against the act in 1969 to bring the
rebels into line. And after the Progressive Conservatives were reduced to
two seats in the 1993 election, the Reform party attracted a number of
vociferous opponents to the language policy.

But following the merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive
Conservatives, the new party endorsed bilingualism, stating: "We believe
that English and French have equality of status, and equal rights and
privileges as to their use in all the institutions of Parliament and the
government of Canada." It was a phrase that Harper quoted again and again
when he campaigned in Quebec in the 2004 election. However, the party
remained vulnerable on the issue. During that election campaign, when
then-official languages critic Scott Reid mused aloud about how a
Conservative government would loosen the language requirements for public
servants, the Liberals seized on this as evidence that the Conservatives
would dismantle the language law.

Similarly, later in the campaign, the Liberals took advantage of a leaked
email suggesting that Conservatives would reduce the language requirements
for Air Canada. "Never would I have thought I would have seen the leader
of a political party like Stephen Harper show publicly an ambiguity toward
official languages, show an ambiguity in regard to the linguistic
minorities,"  Martin said a week before the 2004 vote, as the Liberals
mounted their assault on Harper and the Conservatives. "It's terrible,
it's unacceptable."

Smarting from the attacks, Harper made sure that the party, at its first
policy convention, endorsed official bilingualism. And he insisted the
caucus support Bill S-3. The Martin government was sufficiently discreet
about changing the law that it never introduced its own amendment, and it
took a private member's bill to get the changes passed. Boudria, who
sponsored the legislation in the House, gave credit to a number of people
for ensuring that the bill became law. Indeed, it seemed as if there were
a quiet conspiracy to get the bill through.

Toronto Liberal MP Tom Wappel let Boudria's bill replace his own in the
waiting list of private member's bills; Official Languages Commissioner
Dyane Adam worked behind the scenes and before committee, helping the
parties reach a consensus; New Democrat MP Yvon Godin argued strenuously
for the bill. Even Bloc Qubcois MPs, who opposed the bill because they
claimed it could infringe on Quebec's jurisdiction and wanted an exemption
for Quebec, refrained from asking for a roll call vote, which would have
delayed the bill, possibly killing it.

Mauril Blanger, minister responsible for official languages, worked with
Conservative senators to help them reassure the party. But the critical
element was the Conservatives' endorsement of the bill, which gives
unprecedented support to linguistic minorities. And it took Harper's
decision with his caucus to make sure the issue did not emerge again in
the election, as it has done so often before. And in the process, he may
have driven a wooden stake through the heart of an enduring demon in the
Conservative party.

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