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Questions on bilingualism dominate N.B. languages commissioner’s committee appearance

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New Brunswick’s official languages commissioner faced multiple questions about bilingualism from MLAs during an appearance before the committee on privileges, procedures and legislative officers on Tuesday.

But bilingualism does not feature in the Official Languages Act, which only prescribes that New Brunswickers be able to access government services in the official language of their choice and has nothing to do with how many speak both languages.

“We deal with complaints from individuals who allege failures under the act, so individuals that are unable to get services in the language of their choice,” commissioner Shirley MacLean said during her appearance.

MacLean appeared before the committee to answer questions on her office’s annual report, released in December.

Read more: N.B. languages commissioner reports complaints related to COVID-19 briefings

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The sole question from the government benches came from Sherry Wilson, who asked what role MacLean has in addressing “the issues in English New Brunswick” around French-language education.

“What people have to keep in mind is the Official Languages Act is not about bilingualism,” MacLean said.

“The education system is excluded from the act. That being said, I certainly will not be hesitating, if I’m given permission to do so, to promote bilingualism in schools.”

The tension between what is and isn’t part of the act was also apparent during questions from People’s Alliance MLA Michelle Conroy, who asked what the commissioner’s role is in ensuring those who only speak one of the two official languages can find work.

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“Our office doesn’t deal with employment matters,” MacLean replied.

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“The act exists to ensure that both linguistic communities are able to receive services from government in the language of their choice.”

The questions and further comments from Wilson, including that she hears complaints from anglophones who have lost their jobs because they are unable to speak French, drew comment from Liberal MLA Jean-Claude D’Amours, who mused that education on the scope of the act may be necessary for MLAs.

Wilson shot back, saying she has “read it a couple of times and (does) understand it,” claiming that MacLean could be helpful in addressing concerns about the lack of anglophones who become fluent in French.

“Moving forward, to find real solutions, we need all work together and I’m hoping with the review that this is done in a way that some of the real challenges will be met,” Wilson said.

“What I would love to see is a committee set up to maybe work to address that not everyone in the province is bilingual.”

Read more: New Brunswick premier to appoint two commissioners to review Official Languages Act

Premier Blaine Higgs has, in some ways, muddied the waters as the province prepares to embark on the legally mandated review of the Official Languages Act.

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Higgs said he wants the review to examine how more of the province can become bilingual, even if that’s not included in the legal parameters.

“It’s like, let’s just think outside of the box a little bit and the educational process we know is key to that and let’s just not tie our hands,” Higgs told reporters when the first steps of the review were announced.

The review has yet to begin as the province continues to search for two commissioners to lead it and must be completed by the end of the year.

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The previous review, conducted under the Alward government, took two years to complete.

MacLean voiced some concern over the inclusion of education in the review, and over the timeline, saying that she understands how long reviews of legislation can take due to her training as a lawyer.

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She also backed a recommendation from former commissioner Michel Carrier that a standing committee on official languages be created to deal with issues and reviews of the act. Both the Liberals and the Greens have voiced support for such a committee.

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