Sunday, April 13, 2008

Lost People in a Highly Charged Debate

Most people know of my heritage. I am a proud member of the Maliseet community at Tobique. A relatively small First Nation nestled along the St. John River and located within short proximity of Perth Andover, New Brunswick. Our people have been inhabitants of this land for many centuries. We are holders of significant rights and special relationships with the Federal and Provincial government since Confederation and the inception of this Province's birth.

While growing up, my mother made the determination that our native language was more important than learning French. English was necessary since mastering this skill was the way to become better educated and to "get the good job." They didn't teach Maliseet in school, there wasn't an immersion program, and there certainly weren't sufficient resources to teach those who wanted to learn or maintain the language. Well, I did OK learning and comprehending the language and have the ability to teach most aspects of my language to my children. But hold on!

At the beginning of the school year my wife and I were forced into the difficult decision of answering which program our daughter should enrol. We chose early french immersion. Why? Well, like many parents we believe that without learning this language her options for employment will be limited. It's a shame we think like that, but many anglophone parents believe this to be true. I remember when all three of my daughters were born and while holding them I recall saying to myself thank god they are healthy. While raising them (and we still are) we do so in a manner where we hope they exceed all our expectations of them in life. Nobody wants mediocrity for their children and neither do we. However, I have come to the realization (as I have with my 16 year old) that no matter how much you want for your children to succeed in life we can only guide them so far. My 16 year old wants to be a journalist now after years of saying she wanted to go to veterinarian school. As her father I support her decision. Pushing her away from her goal is simply unproductive. At the end of the day, I want her to be healthy, happy, and to choose a career that she enjoys. I think as a parent that's all I can ask for.

So, why is it that some (and I say some) Parents feel compelled to believe that success will only be driven by the opportunity to learn French. Is it really because we are the only officially bilingual province in Canada or is it because of the loss of potential career opportunities? I don't know. I have heard a multitude of arguments both for and against, but if people really believe that you can't find suitable employment in our Province without being bilingual, I respectfully beg to differ. Doctors, Nurses, Lawyers, Tradesman, Business owners/operators, I know lots of them and many are unilingual and have done fine for themselves.

Of the many people that I speak to in my riding on this issue some believe their children will not be able to work for the government some day because they need french to do so. On reflection, there seems to be a deeper issue here that people just aren't saying but rather masquerading in flowery language. Is it the way government assess and employs people that has them frustrated? I hear this quit a bit: If you have a degree and have the requisite experience to perform the job well, should you be turned away because you can't speak French? Sure, if you are working in areas with a high population of French speakers I can see the argument, but what if you aren't? I was raised to believe that the best and most qualfied person should get the job. If having french as a second language is a necessary component of applying for employment than it holds true that every person should have the opportunity to learn French like my colleague, Kelly Lamrock, has been saying.

It would be an overstatement if I were to say the removal of EFI has been contentious. Many parents, academics and politicians have called this an attack on the French culture. I disagree. The French culture is alive and well and is legally entrenched in our Country's highest law and New Brunswick's Official Languages Act. Like First Nation's people, there is a special relationship between the francophone and the Crown. The difference being of course the legal protection of one language versus the slow erosion of another. The elimination of EFI is a removal of a program and not a culture.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same of the Maliseet and Mi'kmaq who have become lost people once again in this highly charged debate.

Thank you for taking the time to read,



D Stewart said...

In regard to the argument that as a unilingual New Brunswicker you will never be able get a job within the provincial government..I have always thought a solution to combat that over used and I think erroneous assumption would be for the government to simply post the numbers of positions filled yearly by bilingual/unilingual persons. Surely a straightforward thing to do and an easy way to quell what I have to think is a all to common misconception.

T.J. Burke said...

An excellent idea!

Spinks said...

We chose early french immersion. Why? Well, like many parents we believe that without learning this language her options for employment will be limited. It's a shame we think like that, but many anglophone parents believe this to be true.

True if you want to work for the provincial government in New Brunswick or for the Feds in Ottawa. Otherwise if your daughter is educated and talented, there are still many doors open. It's important here in N.B. but you've lived in the U.S. T.J.. At the risk of being politically incorrect, most of the world could care less if you know French or not. Your mother was quite correct that you have to have English and in N.B. we don't do a very good job of teaching the Anglophone children their own language. No wonder N.B. is falling behind. It would be nice if we spent half the energy going into the French debate on English. Unfortunately even raising the question risks one of being labeled a bigot. *sigh*

Christina Taylor said...

Attack on a culture might be an overstatement - this is not the next Deportation, after all. But I have no doubt that this will harm the Francophone culture, regardless of good intentions. I can recall being in 1st or 2nd grade and playing with our French neighbours in French (and I was only in 'Enriched Core' as EFI wasn't yet available in my area). what will happen now? If different language children play together at all, it will be English. Many mixed language families relied on EFI as a way to allow both parents to participate in their children's education, while teaching both languages. How especially sad for those families with kindergarten students who put their children in the anglophone system based on the availability of EFI, only to have it snatched out from under them. To children of that age, the language will be lost to them. Assimilation happens one person, one policy, and one generation at a time.

detailer said...

T J , my wife is french and I am english. This bilingualism hurts both french and english. My wife was fluent in french but not classified bilingual because she could not write french. She was educated in english. Bilingualism was silent for a long while, but thanks to your government and the latest supreme court ruling, it is starting to resurface, I hope you are happy. Having total french forced on every child in grade five is completely wrong and , I feel against our human rights. A lot of lawyers I know are not aware of kelly's Law.Do you expect some one will challenge this in court? The french are ever so slowly changing things to their advantage, then some day we will say, how did this come to pass? I am not a racist but I DO WANT my charter of rights protected. Other provinces must think we are crazy spending so much money on bilingualism.

Anonymous said...

The language jobs debate is simply a given-you can look at the federal and provincial job listings and count all the ones that ask for bilingualism.

As for the weird argument about job applications, people forget that being bilingual IS a skill and there aren't many jobs where only one person is applying. If two people apply with similar skills, I guarantee the one who is bilingualism will get the job (I know this from personal experience).

As for THIS policy, it IS true that 'everybody should have the opportunity to learn french', which means it goes without saying that ALL kids should have EFI available to them. To rob ALL kids of that opportunity is a weird way of levelling the playing field, sort of like taking away everybody's vote because some people can't vote.

There are lots of ways of ensuring people learn languages, just like there are ways of ensuring all people are literate-there are third world countries that do that for heavens sake. This policy certainly doesn't do that, or even address the problem, which is why the debate has been so 'hot'.

For the french culture, this has been the least of their worries. The northeast and northwest have largely been plundered of industry, and acadians can be as insular as anybody else. If the anglos aren't able to learn french as readily, that leaves more of the high paying jobs available to them.

As for native languages, that's another complicated issue. In one instance, this is why native councils have set up their own schools instead of using 'nearby' schools (for one thing they have to pay to send their kids to other schools). Plus, at council schools they can have the opportunity of teaching their own languages and cultures.

In cases where they can't, this is partly why there is such a fight for self government. Language rights, like all rights, requires organization and public policy challenges. But to compare the two, it took acadians centuries as a disenfranchised minority to challenge the establishment, and that's a battle that natives have not even started (linguistically I mean).

There has been movement in revitalizing the language, and you can even take courses in it at UNB and STU, and as the native population grows, and other populations stagnate, who knows what the future can be. It could well be that three official languages, or maybe even NO official languages is the future. Many countries are now on their fifth and sixth 'official language', but it depends what is meant by 'official'.

william said...

Indeed, the questions of how minority language rights should be handled, how this interacts with majority rights (given that the minority is much more likely to be blingual) and how other cultures, indigenous and immigrant, are impacted are deep and difficult. These questions need to be addressed.

But what has this got to do with cancelling EFI? Removal of EFI in not needed to allow these questions to be addressed. It does not help with any proposed solutions.
- William Hughes

detailer said...


nbt said...

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same of the Maliseet and Mi'kmaq who have become lost people once again in this highly charged debate.

Great point, TJ. It's interesting how often native issues get forgotten (and sometimes left out) because the focus remains on old [unwinable] debates.

JSavoie said...

Dear Mr. Burke,

I truly respect your efforts to protect the rights and meet the needs of Aboriginal people in this province. I agree that they, too, have become lost in this debate. My concern is that you make this statement by pitting the needs of Francophones against those of Aboriginals. This may not have been your intent, but it reads to me that the needs of one minority group are being met at the expense of another. I think it is unfortunate to send out this message, when in reality, the needs of neither groups are being addressed by Mr. Lamrock’s decision. Just under 30% of students in this province are in Francophones schools and there are no changes being made to address their underperformance in literacy and math (in fact, they are doing worse than their Anglophone counterparts in the Core programs). As you have expressed to me, Aboriginals children have their own share of educational challenges and needs that are not being addressed, as well. I would prefer to see both groups receive the attention they deserve.

I also feel the need to address a second comment about the French language being alive and well. I beg to differ. Enrolment in Francophone schools has steadily declined in the last 10 years, at a much faster rate than enrolment in English schools. I have been on the playground of my children’s French school where the majority of kids speak English. I’ve step into the classroom and listened to the quality of French spoken in our French schools and I can tell you that French is not alive and well. Granted, this is a problem in areas where Francophones live as a minority group. However, as urbanization continues to attract individuals from smaller Francophone communities to larger centers dominated by the English language, this trend will intensify the loss of French language proficiency overall. Maybe this is a losing a battle and the reality of globalization where English is the language of business will eventually override other languages. This is a struggle for all linguistic minorities - there will always be a pull towards the majority language, especially in younger generations. It is unfortunate that the languages of Aboriginals have not received the same legal protection as the French language. I support your efforts to fight for this. But please, be careful in making comparisons across minority groups. After all, we all want choices for our children that meet our educational and cultural needs.


Jo Anne Savoie

T.J. Burke said...

Thank you all for your contributions.

Anonymous said...

Just as a note, a blog is one of the best ways to 'spread a message', so more blogs on that aboriginal issue would certainly be welcome, especially from somebody with personal experience. In fact, translating and posting a couple in an aboriginal language would be pretty interesting. I tried to find language resources online but could find none.

I couldn't even find out whether schools in native areas even teach the native languages. If they don't, then that's a big issue that we should see more about, and a blog is a good way to 'advertise' policy changes. Unfortunately, the media in NB largely ignores native issues (and labour issues, and environment issues) until they hit a crisis mode, so blogs are really the only way to find out this stuff.

Spinks said...

Unfortunately, the media in NB largely ignores native issues (and labour issues, and environment issues)...

Are you kidding mike? That's practically all that's in the news!

Rob said...


Rob said...

Unfortunately, the previous link didn't work:

(Oklahoma Cherokee students are excelling in an early immersion program)

I have no idea whether such a project would work in NB, but it's interesting to see how other parts of the world save languages.

Anonymous said...

In todays Telegraph Journal:

main article on 'license plate lady'
story on harper pledging flood aid (bailout?:)
story on education
story on costco coming to city
story on provincial testing
several other stories on education

So WHERE exactly are all these native and labour issues Spinks? Even the CBC doesn't have any.