Saturday, May 31, 2008

Commissioner of Official Languages says N.B. has key role in promoting linguistic duality

Times & Transcript Staff, May 30th, 2008

OTTAWA - A very large majority of experts still believe that early immersion is the best way to learn a second language, says Commissioner of Official Languages Graham Fraser in his annual report, which was tabled yesterday.

It's just one of the reasons Canada's top language bureaucrat is concerned about recommendations made by a commission charged with reviewing French as a second language in New Brunswick.

Education Minister Kelly Lamrock sounded the death knell for early immersion in March when he announced sweeping reforms of the French second-language system based on a controversial report by Jim Croll and Patricia Lee.

The report has been blasted as containing flawed data and faulty logic with some parents still pressuring the government to back down on the changes.

"It's always unfortunate when a mechanism that achieves excellence is eliminated," said Fraser, adding he remains encouraged by the government's goal of having at least 70 per cent of high school graduates who can function effectively in a second language.

Fraser, however, reserved his most scathing criticism for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Minister of Canadian Heritage Josee Verner, citing their lack of leadership on the file.

He laid out a series of seven recommendations aimed at improving the implementation of an official languages strategy in Canada.

"The situation almost feels like a Samuel Beckett play that could be called 'waiting for the action plan,'" he said.

"I'm not interested in spending another year watching a drama in suspended animation as the government marks time."

Minority language groups are concerned that the Conservatives have yet to earmark cash for programs promoting linguistic duality, said Acadie-Bathurst NDP MP Yvon Godin.

That's despite receiving a report from former New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord in March suggesting a minimum of $1 billion in new money be spent on programs for official languages, he said.

"(The government) is doing this on the backs of minority language groups," he said.

When Godin grilled Verner in the House of Commons on Thursday about the status of the money, the minister skirted the questions by thanking Fraser for producing the report, saying she would study its findings carefully.

The report's central theme, said Fraser, is leadership, adding a bilingual province such as New Brunswick should strive to be a role model for other governments.

"Linguistic duality has to be considered a value, rather than a burden or another obstacle that bureaucracies have to overcome," he said. "I think that New Brunswick has the potential to lead the way in that regard and making it part of its provincial identity; making it something that people aspire to; and really show the way for the rest of the country."

Fraser also said replacing retiring Supreme Court Justice Michel Bastarache of New Brunswick with another bilingual judge would illustrate leadership on the part of the federal government.

The complement on the top court should be a reflection of our Canadian identity, he said.

"It is essential that judges who sit on Canada's highest court be bilingual in order to understand both versions of the law and to be able to understand lawyers and citizens in the official language of their choice without the need of an interpreter," said Fraser.

The report also noted that federal government agencies and departments in New Brunswick received 49 language complaints in the past year, accounting for about eight per cent of the national total.

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