New Brunswick is often presented as the poster child of Canadian bilingualism and linguistic harmony. It’s the only officially bilingual province and its demolinguistic makeup is unique in the country. While francophones represent no more than 4 per cent in the rest of the provinces outside Quebec, they make up a third of New Brunswick’s population. However, the commonplace idea that New Brunswick is an oasis of linguistic harmony conveniently ignores the palpable frustrations and tensions that exist within both linguistic communities and the complex issue of linguistic coexistence.

In 2015, an online petition calling for abolition of linguistic duality and official bilingualism gathered more than 10,000 signatures. That same year, the CBC announced it would put to an end to anonymous comments on its website after Acadians complained about the overtly racist comments that accompanied most language-related articles. In 2016, the proposition to rename a park and a court in Moncton in honour of two Acadians – a poet and an architect – was met with widespread opposition. These two people, opponents argued, didn’t represent their community – didn’t share their identity. Though Acadians make up a third of the population and have been present in the city since its foundation, 95 per cent of Moncton’s street names are in English.

The relative harmony and institutional accommodation of official language minorities in New Brunswick belie a problematic situation over the five decades since official bilingualism was adopted. In the 1970s the Parti Acadien, a francophone nationalist party, proposed the creation of an Acadian province as an alternative to official bilingualism. The party presented candidates only in Acadian regions, and never managed to get a candidate elected.

In the 1990s the Confederation of Regions party, an anglophone nationalist party, proposed to abolish official bilingualism. The CoR presented candidates only in anglophone regions, yet rose to official opposition in 1991. Since then, the political consensus seems to be that discussion of official languages is taboo. In 2011, two Conservative MLAs questioned the relevance of official bilingualism, and they were forced to apologize. Another Conservative MLA criticized linguistic duality in health care in 2012 and was ousted from the caucus after he refused to retract. The same year, when the Official Languages Act underwent its 10-year review, the Conservative minister in charge decided to do so behind closed doors given what she called the “emotional” nature of the issue.

Five decades after the adoption of the Official Languages Act, and more than 30 years after the enshrinement of linguistic duality in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, language continues to be contentious. Underneath the veneer of harmony lie frustrations on both sides of the linguistic divide, frustrations that the main political parties have failed to address. These tensions are in large part due to the very nature of the province’s linguistic regime and the ambiguous goals it has been given.

New Brunswick’s linguistic regime and its critics

Though New Brunswick is officially bilingual, the linguistic regime has never sought to create a bilingual population. Rather, the province’s linguistic regime is founded on two distinct, though complementary, principles – institutional bilingualism and linguistic duality – that seek to ensure the right of every New Brunswicker to be unilingual. In the context of stagnant economic growth, these two principles have recently been criticized both for being too costly and for stifling employment.

Linguistic duality has received the most criticism. Adopted in 1981 by the provincial Conservatives and enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by the provincial Liberals in 1993, it refers to the right of both linguistic communities to distinct educational institutions and distinct health networks. In both education and health care, duality seeks to create linguistically homogenous environments to protect the minority language. While there is only one Department of Education, each community has its own school districts. Though there is only one Department of Health, there are two health networks, francophone and anglophone. The language of work and administration in a given hospital depends on the network that manages it, but all health care facilities are required by law to provide services in both official languages.

Critics have highlighted two main problems with duality. First, they argue, duality is comparable to racial segregation. It is unfair, they say, to separate children based on language. Duality is divisive as it separates the people along linguistic lines. Second, they argue that duality is inefficient. It is too expensive for this “have-not” province. New Brunswick cannot afford to duplicate its services to accommodate a minority group and needs a “common sense approach” to language.

Both of these arguments are at least partly ill-founded. First, whereas racial segregation aims to ensure domination over a group defined by ethnic or racial traits, duality aims to create an environment where a minority language group – the Acadians – can thrive. It is a means to protect a minority, not to ensure domination over it. Language is a complex skill that needs certain conditions to thrive and grow. Duality has created such an environment. As a skill, a language can be learned, but also lost. Bilingual schools throughout the country – up until the 1990s in some areas – led to massive linguistic assimilation because of the appeal and social and cultural power of English in North America. The idea of one school for all neglects the complex power relations inherent in language, and the need for a minority group to have spaces where its language can circulate freely.

Second, while duality does entail some administrative duplication, it doesn’t duplicate all institutions and services. Merging all school districts and health networks wouldn’t magically reduce their cost by half. There would be as many students and sick people as before. Moreover, the linguistic composition of bilingual schools would vary greatly across the province. Linguistic communities aren’t spread evenly. In the northeast over 90 per cent of the population is francophone, whereas in the southwest over 90 per cent is anglophone. Bilingual schools would look completely different in different regions, and would therefore yield uneven results with regard to language. These new bilingual institutions would also need bilingual employees, not only to offer services in both languages but also to enable employees to work in the language of their choice. The alternative to duality cannot be common institutions whose default language is English.

Providing services and a workplace environment in both official languages requires certain institutional arrangements that have also been criticized. Indeed, the other main criticism of the linguistic regime is the unfair advantage given to bilingual people in the public sector. Which brings us to the other branch of the linguistic regime: institutional bilingualism.

Institutional bilingualism refers to the right of all citizens to interact with the state and receive services, and for public servants to work, in the official language of their choice. To ensure this right, a certain percentage of civil servants need to be proficient in both official languages. According to the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick, 41 per cent of public sector jobs require bilingualism.1 The law applies solely to the public sector. Any linguistic requirements in private sector jobs are unrelated to official bilingualism; they are, rather, a reflection of the growing market value of multilingualism in a globalized economy.

Nevertheless, these linguistic criteria for certain public sector jobs, as well as for a growing number of service jobs in the private sector, have come under criticism from a number of unilingual anglophones who feel disadvantaged in the labour market. The uneven distribution of bilingual skills in the province does tend to favour francophones. Over 70 per cent of francophones are bilingual, compared to under 16 per cent of anglophones. This disparity is in part due to the English’s appeal as the world’s most dominant language. But it doesn’t mean that English is more naturally or easily learned (52 per cent of francophone Quebecers cannot speak English). According to the 2006 census, the employment rate of bilingual New Brunswickers was higher (62.5 per cent) than that of unilingual anglophones (56.6 per cent) and francophones (41.9 per cent).2

Duality and official bilingualism go hand in hand. They ensure that, in a province where there are two official languages but where the majority of citizens speak only one language, unilinguals have access to services and a workplace environment in the language of their choice. Duality guarantees unilinguals – the majority of whom are anglophones – access to public sector jobs in health and education. Abolishing duality would drastically increase the need for a bilingual workforce in the public sector, to the detriment of its critics, who deplore the unfair advantage supposedly already given to bilingual workers.

Unilinguals in a bilingual province

Since its adoption in 1969, institutional bilingualism has served one main purpose: guaranteeing equal rights to public services in both official languages. By declaring the state bilingual, institutional bilingualism indirectly protects the right of individuals to be or remain unilingual. This right for unilinguals of both official languages to receive equal services doesn’t apply to their respective rights to employment. Yet, the regime does create a public service and, more generally, a society where bilingualism becomes a marketable and valued asset. This is where New Brunswick’s language policies have failed. They protect the rights of unilingual citizens, but fail to foster and expand bilingualism. Between 1951 and 2001, the number of bilingual people did double, but it peaked at 34 per cent of the population and has since decreased.

While every premier since Louis J. Robichaud in the 1960s has touted bilingualism as an economic advantage, efforts to foster this skill and increase the number of people who possess it have been timid at best. Bilingualism played a major role in Moncton’s revival as a service hub in the 1990s. The city is now the province’s economic engine and has had the largest growth in its population per capita of any city east of Ontario. Moncton became a call-centre hub, in large part because of its bilingual population.

Yet few efforts have been made to widen this skill. Bilingualism is considered something of a naturally occurring resource that can simply be extracted. New Brunswick therefore has an economy that increasingly relies on language skills – WestJet announced it would be creating 400 jobs in Moncton, the vast majority of which require bilingualism – yet it continually produces more unilingual citizens than bilingual ones. The province’s education system fails at fostering these valuable language skills, especially among the anglophone majority.

Language is a form of power. In multilingual contexts, a language’s ability to circulate freely and to be understood determines its power to create community, shape opinion, organize action and influence behaviour. The regime enables French to circulate freely in certain spheres of society, thereby granting it value and power in both the public and private sectors. Critics have tended to focus on revoking language rights from the minority, thereby reducing its value and its power. Very few voices publicly call for improved French second-language education. Acadian culture and language are tolerated, and sometimes even celebrated, but very rarely embraced by the majority. To embrace a language is to give it power. When a majority refuses to learn or acknowledge a minority language, it is expressing its power and domination.

The province’s political parties have largely neglected these power relations at the heart of linguistic coexistence. As a result, New Brunswickers have never learned how to discuss language.

Recognition of language groups

These fundamental discussions concerning language rights and skills are complex, and both official language groups have had trouble finding productive ways to express their frustrations and aspirations. There are two main reasons for this.

First, recognizing a linguistic group is inherently different from recognizing religious, sexual or ethnic groups. Nondiscrimination can take many forms: allow Sikhs to wear a turban instead of the traditional RCMP Stetson, allow Muslim women to take the citizenship oath without uncovering their faces, allow gays and lesbians in the Canadian armed forces, legalize same-sex unions, and so forth. In all these cases, recognition takes the form of passive nondiscrimination. Recognizing the minority group doesn’t entail transforming one’s own identity, or acquiring a skill – just not getting in the way of someone else’s expression of their identity.

Language, on the other hand, is a skill. Recognizing a linguistic group means not only tolerating its presence but also enabling its language to circulate freely in certain areas. A linguistic group exists only insofar as its language can circulate. The vitality of a linguistic group – in other words, its level of recognition – is directly related to its ability to circulate freely in as many places as possible, to give its speakers access to the widest array of goods and services.

If recognizing a linguistic minority implies acquiring its language, is unilingualism in a bilingual society a form of discrimination? Is it discriminatory not to provide a service in a given language? There certainly is a difference between refusing to serve a francophone and refusing – or not being able to – serve a francophone in French. Yet, both can be considered forms of discrimination.

In 2015, a group in Richmond, B.C., filed a human rights complaint after a series of condo meetings were held in Mandarin only, given that it was the majority language in the building. They argued that this constituted a form of discrimination that effectively excluded non-Mandarin speakers from taking part in the meetings. This is an eloquent example of the power of language. In 2010, French was briefly forbidden at the Moncton Casino’s card tables to prevent cheating, since many employees were unilingual anglophones.

In 2010, a group handed over a petition with more than 4,000 signatures to Dieppe’s city council asking it to adopt a bylaw regulating the language of commercial signs. Dieppe forms part of Greater Moncton along with Riverview and Moncton proper. With a population of about 25,000, Dieppe is the largest majority-francophone city outside Quebec. Though 75 per cent of its population is francophone, most commercial signage was in English. The group asked the city to implement a bylaw making both French and English mandatory on all signs. The city accepted this proposition and adopted bylaw Z-22.

The same group then asked Moncton’s city council to do the same. Moncton is, after all, officially bilingual. Though a third of Moncton’s population is francophone, less than 20 per cent of commercial signs contain French. After consulting with local businesses, most of whom rejected this idea, the city refused to adopt the bylaw, preferring incentives and education to regulation.

The idea of regulating the language of commercial signage attracted widespread criticism from anglophones. Such a proposition would go against freedom of speech, they argued. They shouldn’t be forced to express themselves in a language that doesn’t reflect their linguistic or cultural identity. Francophones argued that the city’s current linguistic landscape didn’t adequately reflect its demographic composition and had adverse effects on their sense of belonging to the city. What does it teach our young children, who are learning to read in French, when their language is absent from the city where they live?

One question was never asked though: why did shop owners, who defended their right to express themselves in the language of their choice, overwhelmingly use that right to exclude the francophone population? Recognition goes beyond the mere question of rights: it implies acknowledging groups with whom we create a society, and finding ways to include them.

Policy and path dependency

In New Brunswick, language policy has had some side effects that make this recognition difficult. Policy instruments designate groups, defining their rights and their access to certain resources. These bring with them a certain inertia. In this case, the adoption and institutionalization of the linguistic regime in New Brunswick has had a profound effect on Acadians. It has given their language political – much more than social – recognition, and has redistributed vast resources to their institutions, especially their schools. Prior to Louis J. Robichaud’s reforms, there were considerable financial disparities between anglophone and francophone schools, which for the most part have been eliminated.

Schools have become the cornerstone of Acadian identity and the main tool in promoting and defending French. Duality has meant that Acadians can manage their own schools. Duality has, in a sense, created two solitudes. Francophone schools try to promote French and limit the use of English (it’s generally forbidden to speak English in the hallways and to play English music on the school radio or at musical events). Meanwhile, anglophone schools haven’t made French as a second language a priority. The two school systems function as parallel units.

Duality was initiated to protect the minority language, but it has had the adverse effect of inhibiting cooperation between the linguistic communities. Since 1989, francophone schools throughout the province have celebrated “Provincial French Pride Week” in March. This week-long celebration of French language and Acadian culture is confined to francophone schools. Imagine if Black History Month were directed only at Black people. Imagine if feminism were taught only to women.

In 2014, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development adopted a 10-year plan for language and culture in francophone schools.3 This plan sets guidelines for linguistic and cultural identity construction, mobilizing hundreds of associations, academics, parents, teachers and others. But the scope of the discussion has been limited to French schools. Francophones haven’t framed their cultural identity in a way that included the anglophone majority, even though anglophones’ ability to communicate in French has enormous implications for the Acadians’ position.

This tendency to evacuate the anglophone majority from francophones’ collective projects is also manifest in immigration issues. New Brunswick has an aging and declining population. Immigration has been presented as a potential solution to this demographic problem. The linguistic regime gives francophones the right to “francophone immigration.” To respect the linguistic composition of the province, the provincial and federal governments have stated that a third of all immigrants should be “francophone.” Public resources have been directed toward recruiting and retaining immigrants from francophone countries. However, these immigrants are faced with a difficult situation. Not only do we ask them to become a minority within a minority – which is by no means a comfortable place to be – but they quickly find out that English is a necessary skill in the labour market.

Conversely, efforts by anglophone school districts to attract immigrants have had some success. Faced with declining enrolments, some school districts, in partnership with the province, actively recruited Korean families. Koreans now represent the second largest immigrant community in New Brunswick. While these immigrants are helping boost enrolment numbers at anglophone schools, their employment prospects, and ultimately their probability of staying in the province, will remain somewhat limited if they do not learn French. Will they stay?

Without a clear policy on second-language education, immigrant parents are left with a difficult choice: either they send their children to anglophone schools, where they will learn the majority language but risk not learning French, or they send them to minority francophone schools, where they will most likely learn some English but will be schooled in a marginalized language. Will they feel part of the Acadian community?

This dilemma was particularly clear in the school enrolment of the recent influx of Syrian refugees to the province. Both linguistic communities welcomed the arrival of refugees. They were seen as a much-needed demographic boost. Acadians demanded that the linguistic balance of the province be respected and that a third of all children be enrolled in francophone schools. The federal government warned the Acadians that refugees should not be seen as an opportunity for their community, that the situation was urgent and complex, and that were these refugees from a francophone region things might be different. Parents were left to choose the language in which their children would be schooled. As of September 2016, 85 per cent of parents had chosen anglophone schools.

Language rights and policy in New Brunswick are aimed at protecting linguistically homogenous communities, rather than promoting bilingualism. These are indeed two very different goals. Each community having a right to its own institutions, its own services, its own immigrants, they tend to fight for their respective share of resources rather than strive to work together. In the face of a declining population, Acadians are putting all their efforts at attracting immigrants to their schools, rather than improving French second-language education in anglophone schools where the majority of immigrants end up enrolling. There’s a simplistic conception that whatever happens in “their” school is not “our” problem.

Rights and policies have shaped language and identities in New Brunswick in ways that limit collective action, cooperation and unity. While the ideal of promoting and defending linguistic communities is a noble one, in their refusal to set clear goals and formulate a common societal project, these policies are based on a static definition of language and identity. By focusing exclusively on political recognition, they fail to foster social recognition.

Transforming identities

The language debate in New Brunswick has historically been framed as a French problem. The province – or perhaps should we say the anglophone majority – has sought to find reasonable accommodation with the Acadian minority, without ever clearly embracing its language and culture as a fundamental part of the province’s identity. Conversely, Acadians have historically sought to shelter their identity from the anglophone majority’s dangerous influence. Anglophones are a menace rather than potential allies. Equality for Acadians has meant the right to be self-sufficient as a distinct community and limit any interaction with the anglophone community. However, insofar as both groups seek to be self-sufficient and distinct from each other, inequalities and frustrations are bound to grow. Acadians have everything to gain by encouraging their anglophone neighbours to learn French. And anglophones have everything to gain by learning French and enriching themselves with new francophone cultures.

New Brunswick has a unique demography and faces daunting economic and social challenges. These challenges will be overcome much more easily if the province’s population learns to work together and strives to create a common bilingual people. For this to happen, the majority will need to let go of some of its privilege and embrace the language and culture of a group with which it has been sharing a territory – for better and for worse – for over four centuries. Acadians, for their part, will need to take risks and encourage and embrace bilingual anglophones. Both groups need to let go of their old reflexes. They cannot thrive if they continuously compete for resources and fight for the right to ignore each other.

New Brunswick is Canada’s only bilingual province. It’s now time for New Brunswickers to become a bilingual people.


1 Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick, Annual Report 2014–2015 (Fredericton: Governement of New Brunswick, 2015).

2 Dialogue New Brunswick, 40 Years of Official Bilingualism in New Brunswick: Looking at the Social and Economic Impact of the Official Languages Act (Fredericton: Government of New Brunswick, 2010), p. 21.

3 Groupe d’Action de la Commission sur l’École Francophone, Politique d’aménagement linguistique et culturelle : un projet de société pour l’éducation en langue française (Fredericton: New Brunswick Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, 2014), retrieved here.