TORONTO — CANADA'S constitutional debate has been thrown into turmoil because the premier of Alberta has questioned one of Canada's sacred cows - bilingualism.
"We need to find a way to remove the irritants among us, and enforced bilingualism has become such a symbol across the country," Alberta's Donald Getty said at the Edmonton Rotary Club Jan. 9.
Mr. Getty voiced what a lot of Canadians (35 percent of English Canadians in one recent poll) and the Reform Party of Canada have already said: The quarter-century experiment with official bilingualism has been a flop. Getty says it should be scrapped; he responded to criticism by saying French-speaking Quebec, which is not officially bilingual itself, never wanted the policy.
By this week the heat was turned up high on an issue that most politicians want left on the back burner.
"This is going to be a shot across the bow for Quebec and it's going to make it difficult for Quebec to look upon these constitutional discussions in a positive sense," says Gary Filmon, premier of the province of Manitoba.
Everyone from Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark to Quebec politicians says Getty's remarks can only aid the cause of Quebec separatists. Ontario Premier Bob Rae criticized Getty's remarks on bilingualism before the constitutional Committee on National Unity in Ottawa on Jan. 13. And even Quebeckers who want independence say that as long as Canada is one country, it should stay bilingual.
Bilingualism has been the law of the land since 1969. It was the dream of then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
Official bilingualism applies to federal services in every part of Canada. There may be just 655 French-speaking people in Red Deer, Alberta, (population 54,425), but every one can be served in French in any federal office. Likewise an English-speaking Quebecker can be guaranteed English-language service in the post office or the tax office.
"If you tamper with that [linguistic duality], you're touching the core of the country," says Bernard Landry, vice president of the pro-independence Parti Qucois.
Keith Spicer, a former commissioner of official languages, says the law gives people the right to be served in both languages, but it doesn't force anyone to learn the language.
"Institutional bilingualism means, paradoxically, that every citizen has a legal guarantee to remain blissfully unilingual forever," he says.
But official bilingualism requires bilingual civil servants: 29 percent of federal jobs require a person who speaks both English and French; 59 percent require only English; 7 percent only French; and 5 percent either. Opponents say that favors French-speaking Canadians who make up less than 25 percent of Canada's population of 27 million.
In Alberta there are only 65,000 French-speaking people in a population of 2.7 million. But language is an emotional issue.
"We should not have French shoved down our throats," the unilingual Getty said three years ago.
"Support for official bilingualism is lower on the prairies than elsewhere, but it's still evenly split," says Mag Burns of the Winnipeg, Manitoba-based polling firm Angus Reid and Associates.
"Getty is speaking to a strong constituency in Alberta. But even people who agree with him might question his timing."
One politician said Getty's speech sounded as if it could have been written by Parti Qucois leader Jacques Parizeau because of the support it raised for the separatist cause inside Quebec.
Making French-speaking Canadians feel at home in English-speaking Canada - and not second-class citizens in their own country - was one of the reasons for bringing in the official bilingualism program, which is still supported by 61 percent of English Canadians and 92 percent of French-speaking Canadians.
His political opponents say Getty is trying to steal the thunder from the Reform Party of Canada, which opposes official bilingualism and is running ahead of the Progressive Conservative Party in the polls.
And the issue is unlikely to disappear. On Jan. 22 the Committee on National Unity travels to Edmonton, the capital of Alberta. Getty's remarks will be on everyone's mind.
"He is certainly putting the united Canada we know in a very difficult, awkward situation," says Andre Ouellet, a Quebec member of the federal House of Commons who is on the committee studying Canada's future.