...From the North down
When Preston Manning's Reform party broke through in Western Canada during the 1993 federal election, many other Canadian political leaders -- notably, the leadership of the Liberal, New Democratic and Progressive Conservative parties -- quickly moved to condemn the party as a threat to Canadian unity.
Many mused that the party may have been an even greater threat to Canadian unity than the Bloc Quebecois or Parti Quebecois -- ironically on the eve of a 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum that would nearly tear Canada to shreds.
Oddly enough, one of the fronts on which the Reform party was attacked was that of language policy. Opponents of the party insisted that the party would introduce regressive language policies, and overturn official bilingualism.
This, in one sense, was true. Preston Manning was prepared to overturn official bilingualism.
But Manning also had a far more progressive alternative in mind. Manning had promoted a Fair Language Policy, in which government services would be delivered not merely in French or English, but in any language appropriate, where appropriate.
Manning noted that many communities in Alberta and Saskatchewan still had significant Ukrainian-speaking communities, and questioned why government services in those communities should be obligated to deliver services in French, but not in Ukrainian. Manning noted that there were many such under-served language groups across Canada.
These groups range from Chinese- or Japanese-speaking Canadians in Vancouver to Farsi-speaking Canadians in Montreal. Manning firmly insisted that all of these communities should be able to be served in their first language.
With the recent passage of Nunavut's Official Languages Act, it seems that Manning's fair language policy is a good idea whose time has finally come.
In order for the act -- which will establish five Inuit languages, primarily Inuktitut and Innuinaqtun, as official languages in Nunavut -- to take effect in Nunavut, it must pass through Parliament.
Upon its introduction by Conservative MP Leona Aglukkaq, the House of Commons quickly passed the legislation. Now, the Senate may refer the bill to its legal and constitutional affairs committee for some scrutiny.
"We are as much concerned for the other aboriginal languages, to help them to have the tools and the books and teaching materials needed to promote the use of aboriginal language by aboriginal people," noted Liberal senator Serge Joyal. "That's why we want to make sure that we know what we are voting on, and it is our role and duty by the constitution to review that kind of legislation. But we want to do it expeditiously so that nobody is waiting, you know, being frustrated that it's not happening."
Joyal noted that some scrutiny is necessary to find out how the act will impact federal agencies providing services in Nunavut.
"I believe that if this chamber has an abiding principle, it is that we do not consent lightly and without examination to the diminution, however slight, of minority languages because that precedent can come back to haunt us, our children or our grandchildren. I do not want to go there," added fellow Grit Senator Joan Fraser.
Whether or not the Liberal party's Senate caucus is going to attempt to block the bill remains yet to be seen. While there was no partisan divide on the issue in the House of Commons, many Conservative Senators -- such as Hugh Segal and Gerald Comeau -- seem to think the act is ready to be passed in Parliament.
When this act finally does pass -- provided that Michael Ignatieff exerts some control over his Senate caucus -- it will have been a very long time coming. It could prove to be the first step in reinforcing official bilingualism -- itself a satisfactory first step in terms of language policy -- with a policy that will provide a Fair Language Policy for all Canadians.