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Manitoba History: Review: Russell Doern, The Battle over Bilingualism: The Manitoba Language Question, 1983-85

by Donald A. Bailey
University of Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 13, Spring 1987

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The Battle over Bilingualism: The Manitoba Language Question, 1983-85. Russell Doern. Winnipeg, Cambridge Publishers, 1985. 227 pp. ISBN 0-9692313-1-8.

Like much else in his political career, the late Russell Doern’s second book is a mixed achievement. It reveals that he valued his province’s history, yet misunderstood one of its most important features. He supported multiculturalism, yet misconstrued the original contribution of Franco-Manitobans to that particularly Prairie-Canadian flowering. He admired good writing, yet produced a frequently flawed book. Nonetheless, at several points he made worthy contributions to Manitoba society, and this book, too, has its merits.

The book’s principal merit is simply its contribution to the archival record of events during the three years when attention was focused on the Manitoba language question. Here we have the full text of Mr. Doern’s 9 June, 1983 letter to his constituents and of his 22 June appearance on CJOB’s Action Line, hosted by Peter Warren. We have reprintings of principal newspaper advertisements, Mr. Doern’s record of receipts and expenditures financing the opposition to the proposed amendments to the Manitoba Act, his sometimes fanciful suppositions of the sums financing the pro-bilingual side and the purposes to which they were directed, and his memory of events in 1983-84, especially as he and his allies participated in them. Unfortunately, it is a precarious archive, for its factual and typographical errors ornament the underlying misunderstandings that pervade the book. For example, news reports of July 1982 are dated 1983 and it is written that George (sic) Forest lost his court case “at every level” (all on p. 18), whereas he essentially won four out of six judgements. Mr. Doern frequently misinterprets the interconnections between the Forest and Blaikie cases and Roland Penner’s proposed amendments. He contradicts himself, as to whether he had six or seven years of French (pp. 62 and 84) and whether a January 1984 Grassroots Manitoba meeting was organized or spontaneous (pp. 157-58), and he often presents a confusing chronology of events (e.g., pp. 169-70). Given his years of active support for the N.D.P., it is bemusing to find him referring to “political action committee donations” (p. 30), when what he must have in mind are the initials PAC (“pre-authorized chequing”).

Nonetheless, the book reminds us of how confused the N.D.P. government was on many issues, too, at the time, and of how badly it defended itself, through its own lack of information, its own distortions of the amendments’ implications, and its bullishly inept reaction to much of the criticism. Few on either side of the controversy, even yet, seem aware that the Franco-Manitoban Society sought nothing in 1982-83 that it had not been after from the Weir, Schreyer and Lyon Governments (though Sterling Lyon, at least, should have remembered this). Thus, the S.F.M. owed nothing to Serge Joyal or to his misused speech of March 1983. Similarly, the link between federal financing of the defense of French in the west was rarely (in the book, never) connected to similar support for English in Quebec, either as to its timing or as to its amounts and objectives. These examples of the failure to provide accurate immediate contexts for many aspects of the language controversy are, in the long term, less important than the pervasive misinterpretation of the place of French-Canadian rights in our provincial and national histories and, indeed, of the endurance of most cultural minorities in the last two thousand years of world history. Continuing misunderstandings of the larger context have to be what drove Mr. Doern and his allies; they help explain why these individuals persistently misinterpreted such key words as “official,” “bilingual,” and “entrenchment” as they apply to Canadian experience.

Such considerations force us to re-examine our definition of intolerance and bigotry. It was certainly unfair for the N.D.P. government and the Franco-Manitoban weekly La Liberte to depict the amendments’ opponents as bigots at the very outset of the controversy, and there is some justice in Mr. Doern’s opening claim, “The anger and frustration of the people of Manitoba during the battle was (sic) directed at the Pawley administration, not at their French-speaking neighbours.” (p. 2). No constitutional amendment, on so socially sensitive a topic, should have been introduced and defended as it was — but then, neither should it have been opposed as it was. Prejudice manifests itself as a very subtle phenomenon indeed, when persons speaking one of Canada’s national languages are warmly welcomed, so long as they use only the other national language in their public, official interactions, but not when they assert their historical right to use their own. And what does account for an erratic selection among diverse facts and for an emotional fixation on administrative bungling of official bilingualism that is lacking when highways, health or hydro are mishandled? Both Mr. Doern’s book and his actions in 1983-84 have been fairly condemned for their confusions, biases, petulence, vainglory, and factual inaccuracies. But these considerations should not blind us to the fact that his early questions to his caucus contained some kernel of good judgement or that he was one of the first to discern the real dangers of the mid-winter modifications of the proposed amendments (in contrast to his and others’ depiction of imaginary dangers in the previous spring’s original proposals). If Mr. Doern was as intimately involved in the municipal referenda campaign and the organization of Grassroots as his book describes, he did play a key role in allowing the opponents to triumph, for the Legislative Opposition could not have kept up its abuse of parliamentary traditions without widespread public support. Perhaps he was more than a nuisance, more than someone who lowered the tone of the debate and aggravated the potential for inter-ethnic bitterness.

Yet, in the long run, will it all matter? Manitoba has been so expert at ignoring its constitutional obligations, court judgements trying to remind it of the same, and even the role played by Franco-Manitobans in the origins of the province and in the flourishing of multiculturalism on the Prairies, that it could easily have frustrated the proposed amendments too, had they carried. On the other hand, services and communications are, everywhere but in Canada, so inextricably bound up with the language(s) of the laws themselves that Manitoba will gradually expand its official bilingualism as long as there is the will to honour the original section 23. Entrenchment is often important, but public convictions are more so. Manitobans now under-stand their history and constitution better than they did in 1983-84. While The Battle over Bilingualism does not suggest that Mr. Doern learned very much at that time, the emotional controversy he encouraged gave the province an opportunity for discussion that the government had hoped to avoid. French will be both privately and officially used in Manitoba long after this book is forgotten.

Page revised: 21 March 2017

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