Canada's language issue enters campaign

Canada's long-simmering issue of minority language rights is spilling over into the race to replace Pierre Trudeau. It is showing signs of forcing unexpected political realignments, underscoring the unprecedented political importance of Canada's Anglophone West.

Many of Premier Trudeau's legacies to Canada are clear, among them the place minority language rights have won in the country's Constitution and on its agenda, and the political alienation of Canada's West. (The Liberals hold no parliamentary seats west of Winnipeg, Manitoba.)

Increasingly, western Canadians have resented Mr. Trudeau's insistent federalism. Among other things, they were irked by aggressive bilingualism that seemed to force a ''foreign'' language on an English West.

The Liberals will choose a new leader in June, to face Conservative leader Brian Mulroney in the coming election. Mr. Mulroney is a bilingual Quebecker. The Tories are banking that he will be able to wrest a decisive number of seats from the Liberals in their Quebec stronghold. The West could thus be crucial in determining which party will govern Canada next.

At the campaign's start, language rights quickly became a campaign issue. When front-runner John Turner declared his candidacy, he said language rights were a purely provincial matter. That remark distanced him from Liberal policy - and a federal constitutional requirement - that language rights are a national concern.

In 1981 Manitoba lawyer Roger Bilodeau challenged the constitutionality of an English-only speeding citation. To prevent legal chaos, the government of Manitoba struck a deal with the federal government, Mr. Bilodeau, and the Franco-Manitoban Society. It would translate 400 of the province's 4,500 English-only laws into French, extend French services in the province, and entrench French as an official language.

The Tory opposition brought the province's political process to a standstill in February. And as Turner spoke, the federal Cabinet was poised to refer the question of language rights in Manitoba to the Supreme Court. His statement turned politics upside down.

''I happen to agree with Mr. Turner on the issue,'' said Manitoba Conservative leader Gary Filmon.

Manitoba Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs did not: ''I don't know whether he hasn't done his homework, or just hasn't watched what happened in this province in the last nine months.''

Turner's chief rival for the Liberal leadership, Energy Minister Jean Chretien, chided that language rights ''in every province have become a Canadian responsibility through the Constitution.''

The Tories were also at odds. Mulroney, who is committed to bilingualism, had spoken strongly in federal Parliament in favor of a unanimous resolution encouraging the Manitoba government to ''persist in its efforts to fulfill the constitutional obligations of the province.'' He flew into Manitoba last week to deliver a passionate appeal for party unity. His large conservative audience heckled any reference to entrenchment of French rights.

Five Tory MPs from Manitoba have openly disagreed with Mulroney. Mr. Filmon accused him of meddling in the language issue. Turner has attempted to clarify his remarks, with mixed success. The federal Cabinet and Bilodeau announced they will proceed to federal court.

The West will account for a quarter of the Liberal leadership votes, and a quarter of the seats in the House of Commons. Some Liberals feel Mulroney's potential popularity in Quebec prompts the choice of John Turner, who is expected to have strong western backing. Others feel the earthy Mr. Chretien will win Quebec and some western votes. All agree the language issue will force a tense trade-off between eastern and western votes.

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