Winnipeg — Manitoba is doing a good job keeping up its reputation as the capital of anti-French feeling in Canada. A battle to put French language rights into law has brought some ugly sentiments to the surface of this political debate, ideas which in Manitoba have been around for more than 100 years. It is, and has been, a debate that has national political importance in Canada.
The New Democratic Party (NDP) government of the south-central province of Manitoba has introduced legislation to provide more services in French for the province's substantial French-speaking minority. It would translate laws into French and provide other government services in Canada's second official language.
It is a battle that goes back to 1890, when the English and the Scottish majority of the new province passed a law banning teaching of French in the province's schools and using French in the legislature and the courts.
French-Canadian nationalists have always used this as an example of how English- and French-speaking Canadians have never gotten along. In Quebec, where the French are in the majority, the separatist Parti Quebecois struck back in the 1970s with Bill 101, which takes harsh measures against the English language , such as banning of English signs.
One of the people bringing the French-English rift to a head is Stirling Lyon , the leader of the Conservative opposition in Manitoba and a man whom French-speaking Canadians regard as a beacon of bigotry. It is Mr. Lyon's party that is raising such a stink about the rights of French-speaking people in Manitoba.
Manitoba's mildly socialist NDP government under Premier Howard Pawley is trying to right the wrongs of the past 93 years. Indeed, it is partly being forced to by an order of the Supreme Court of Canada, which wants Manitoba to become a fully bilingual province, as it was when it joined the Canadian confederation in 1870. But because of pressure from voters, the NDP government has already watered down some of its proposals. One member joined the anti-French camp, though he was expelled from the caucus.
The fight in Manitoba has national significance because it helps the cause of separatists in Quebec and hurts the national Progressive Conservative Party and its new leader, Brian Mulroney. To win a national election, the Conservatives need votes in Quebec. They have one of Quebec's 74 seats in the federal Parliament; the Liberals have the rest. Con-servatives are not trusted in Quebec because of issues like language rights in Manitoba.
Mr. Mulroney is from Quebec and speaks English and French with equal ease. He was elected leader because the Conservatives saw the chance to break the Liberal hold in Quebec. Mr. Lyon and Manitoba Conservatives are not doing Brian Mulroney any favors.
Mr. Mulroney favors expanding French language rights in Manitoba, but Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau has tried to lure him into a political trap, making him choose between his principles and party solidarity.
The outcome of the Manitoba issue could affect the next federal election. Mr. Trudeau appears to enjoy the fight with the new Tory leader and now seems likely to stay on as leader of the Liberals to do battle with the Conservatives for the sixth time since he became leader in 1968.