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New Brunswick premier calls for ‘tolerance’ amid bilingualism tensions

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WATCH ABOVE: Balancing the books wasn’t the focus of Premier Brian Gallant’s speech at the Saint John Chamber of Commerce Monday. The Premier instead chose to address the challenge of balancing a province with two official languages. Global’s Jeremy Keefe reports – Sep 26, 2016

New Brunswick’s premier is making a passionate plea for tolerance on bilingualism, as he seeks to debunk long-standing “myths” of its costs amid a perceived increase in linguistic tensions.

It is Canada’s only officially bilingual province, and Premier Brian Gallant says it takes work, co-operation, and frank discussions to make it work.

“I have seen too many times, people unfortunately not being as tolerant as we would like. It has had a direct impact on my family and people that I love. I think this lack of tolerance and pragmatism explains some, if not a lot of the tension. But there are also a lot of misunderstandings, myths and exaggerations that need to be debunked,” Gallant said Monday in a speech to the Saint John Board of Trade.

He said while there has been some uproar over the need for separate school buses for French and English students in New Brunswick, it should be noted that the per student cost is actually three per cent less than in neighbouring Nova Scotia.

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READ MORE: ‘It’s racist’: New Brunswickers unhappy with treatment of unilingual employees

“Yet many focused on this issue in order to spark tensions – of course, they didn’t cite the real facts in doing so,” Gallant said.

The government has asked the New Brunswick Court of Appeal to examine the issue.

“Is there an absolute right to distinct buses along side a distinct school system? Or is there not? Or is there some middle ground? Those are fair questions and that’s why we’ve asked the highest court in the province to answer them,” Gallant told the crowd.

READ MORE: Constitutional case over bilingual school busing in New Brunswick gets underway

Gallant blamed the downturn in the economy and the growth of social media for a perceived rise in linguistic tensions in the province.

“Nowadays those on all sides of an issue have a platform to express their views, and they can express those views to hundreds – people they might never have found before. It seems that those who might be a bit more radical will have an opportunity to disproportionately influence the dialogue,” he said.

Gallant grew up in a home where his father was francophone, and his mother was anglophone, and the three children were bilingual.

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Gallant recalled being 10 years old and speaking with his mother on a pay phone from school where he was in French immersion. A teacher overheard him speaking English and scolded him. Gallant said he tried to explain that his mother didn’t speak English, but the teacher kept insisting that he speak French, and he hung up on his mother.

“We do not live in a world that is black and white. We need to protect the minority language but we have to be pragmatic about it. When a child can’t tell his mother what time to pick him up from school, it plants a seed of tension in both of them,” Gallant said.

READ MORE: New Brunswick language commissioner reviews complaints of English-only service

He said most people in the province have stories – positive and negative – on how they have been effected by bilingualism.

He said too many people believe that you have to be bilingual in order to get a government job in the province, but he said 55 per cent of civil service jobs in the province are English only.

The French school system does cost a bit more per student than the anglophone system, he said, but that’s because the French system has fewer students and doesn’t have the same economy of scale.

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He told the business audience that bilingualism and diversity are benefits to the province’s economy and social fabric.

He will give the same speech, but in French, on Wednesday to business leaders in Caraquet.

Gallant said his government will have announcements later this week concerning adult second language training and French immersion.

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