Language Disputes Threaten Canadian Confederation Again

KIMON VALASKAKIS, a University of Montreal economics professor, sees a number of economic, political, and cultural factors pointing in the direction of an imminent ``meltdown'' for Canada. Jeffrey Simpson, a top Canadian newspaper columnist, calls the Canadian confederation ``gravely ill.'' With most of the media focused on the breakup of the Soviet Empire, the renewed, non-violent turmoil between French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians has escaped outside attention. There are signs of a revival of Quebec separatism - a desire for a sovereign Quebec joined only in a customs union with English-speaking Canada.

Mr. Valaskakis, in a book about to be published, even speculates about the possibility of a Canadian breakup leading to a voluntary political union with the United States - ``not an unthinkable finale to the process which is presently unfolding.'' He adds: ``... this finale, perhaps a generation away, is rooted in the history of this continent.'' This ``galloping continentalism'' would validate the ``manifest destiny'' theories that were once popular in the US. An American journalist, John L. Sullivan, wrote in 1840: ``The United States has the manifest destiny to overspread the continent alloted by Providence to the free development of our multiplying millions.''

The Canadian political and cultural scene was deeply stirred in 1987 and 1988 by a bitter fight over the free trade agreement reached by the Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney with the US. An election in autumn of 1988 was fought over the issue, with the leaders of the opposition Liberal and New Democratic parties battling the agreement. Their decisive loss meant the deal went into effect on Jan. 1, 1989.

Now the Canadian political scene is being riled again by fresh language disputes. In the latest, the Sault Ste. Marie city council voted January 29 in favor of a resolution declaring English the official language of the municipality. The resolution responded to a petition with 24,700 signatures collected by the city's Association for the Preservation of English Language Rights. Mayor Joseph Fratesi protested that the resolution ``has nothing to do with anti-French and everything to do with economics.''

Mr. Fratesi was referring to a new Ontario law requiring that provincial services be available in French at head offices and in 22 designated areas in the province. This law, though, exempts municipal governments like that of Sault Ste. Marie.

Whatever, the passage of the resolution echoed through Quebec and Canada as a whole. Another Ontario town, Thunder Bay, is considering passage of a similar resolution this week. Some 26 other Ontario municipalities have declared themselves English-only; 30 have passed bilingual resolutions.

To some degree, anglophone emotions were aroused by a law in Quebec banning the use of English-only signs if visible from outside.

Another emotional issue is the Meech Lake constitutional accord which would enlarge provincial powers and describe Quebec as a ``distinct'' society. This accord is held up by the failure of two provinces to ratify it.

The national mood has turned sour, with surveys showing a sharp decline in public support for bilingualism. Many English-Canadians are tired of the language dispute, less interested in keeping Quebec in Canada.

For the separatist Parti Quebe,cois, the fuss is welcome. Speaking of the English-only resolutions in Ontario, party leader Jacques Parizeau said: ``It is another indication that the dream of a bilingual society can never be achieved.

Valaskakis, in his book entitled ``Canadian Meltdown or Renaissance? The Nation at the Crossroads of the Nineties,'' warns that ``Quebec has more to lose from the disintegration of Canada than the English provinces, with the exception of Ontario.'' Breakup could result in the merger of English Canada with the US, leaving Quebec isolated. Quebec might then take the ``Louisiana route,'' joining the US and sacrificing its culture and becoming a tourist attraction rather than a genuine way of life. Or, he writes, it could take the ``Puerto Rico route,'' winning a special status but at the expense of ``an inevitable marginalization.''

Aside from the language issue, Valaskakis sees other trends fueling the meltdown process. One is the perennial confrontation between the federal and provincial levels of government, reflected in the debate over the Meech Lake accord. Another is inadequate team-work between the public sector and the private sector. A third is turbulence in the labor markets. Fourth is ``the vagueness of Canada's raison d'^etre, in the light of the new continentalism brought about by the Free Trade Treaty and its sequels.''

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