An Economic Exploration of Bilingualism, Part Two

In contrast with Montreal’s unique bilingual nature is New Brunswick, which is the only officially bilingual province in the country. That province often sets the pace for bilingual policy and with a roughly 33/66 per cent split between Francophones and Anglophones, it is proving ground for Canada-wide application.

New Brunswick’s largest linguistic minority are the Acadians, which is a group that the English had marginalized by the mid-18th century onward. Taking inspiration from the Franco-Quebecois awakening in the 1960s, the Acadians demanded greater inclusion in the then-Anglo dominated New Brunswick. The relatively poor and more isolated Acadian regions were able to use their size to elect a Francophone premier in 1960 who implemented an equalization plan that improved infrastructure and government services in those regions. This transformation amounted to a greater centralization of power in Fredericton. Nine years later, the provincial government enacted the Official Languages Act, which gave the French population equal status in the province. Most of the premiers elected since the enactment of that bill have been bilingual and sensitive to Francophone demands.

Today, New Brunswick remains Canada’s second-most bilingual province, with roughly 30 per cent of the population identified as bilingual (second only to Quebec with around 42 per cent).

It is important to note the differences between New Brunswick’s “brand” of bilingualism and that of Montreal. As I write in Part One, there has been no conscious effort in Montreal to promote bilingualism: it has arisen spontaneously from various structural and socioeconomic forces. The Anglo-Montrealer minority has had to bend to the will of the much larger Francophone majority and, thus, has not been a significant political force in the city. On the contrary, New Brunswick has an Anglophone majority with a very large, nationalistic Francophone minority. Bilingualism has been chiefly a political concern for New Brunswickers and has been largely manufactured, rather than spontaneous. It arose out of mobilization and demands for parity by what was then a marginalized minority, rather than economic necessity (or efficiency). Moreover, the movement had manifested itself largely through government: legislation, the civil service, and various social programs are bilingual imperative. The province’s education system, although segregated by district and language, focuses primarily on producing future generations of bilingual New Brunswickers. (In New Brunswick, the proportion of students enrolled in French immersion schools is the highest in Canada.)

Not all of New Brunswick’s linguistic history has been political, however, as much of the drive for bilingualism in the province was economically necessary. Statistically, bilingual members of the labour force end up with higher incomes, and boasting a bi- or multilingual workforce is an economic boon. In fact, it can measurably contribute to economic growth. Consequently, provincial governments in New Brunswick have focused on promoting bilingualism as a unique brand on the national and international scene to reap economic gains similar to those of multilingual European countries. At the same time, the province is quickly losing younger workers (especially bilingual Francophones), and the government is worried about upsetting the linguistic balance. In response, the provincial government has attempted to court Francophone and bilingual immigrants–a tough task with many competitors. Nonetheless, the province has experienced growth in service industries arguably attributable to this “bilingual branding.”

Once again, however, one must note that this “economic bilingualism” is the product of a planned effort by New Brunswick’s government and Francophone communities. In reality, the language of business and most government activities is English, which also tends to dominate public affairs. Very few Francophone New Brunswickers are unilingual, while many of their Anglophone counterparts speak only one language. Unlike in Montreal, there is much less pressure for Anglophones to learn French, and much more pressure for Francophones to learn English.

New Brunswick’s government is right to promote bilingualism as an economic asset. Evidence does show that multilingualism in places such as Switzerland can satisfy demands for internationally-accessible services.  Yet, New Brunswick is unlikely to become a world financial centre, which mutes the benefit.

However, the way government promotes bilingualism matters. Requiring all services to be in both languages is unnecessary, especially in areas skewed towards one linguistic group or another. The government justifies this structure by asserting that members of both groups live all around the province, but it is highly unlikely that individuals living in an area dominated by the opposite group will be unilingual. As the Fraser Institute study cited above shows, this kind of policy is quite costly. New Brunswick would be better off directing these resources into promoting bilingual education, which, in addition to its economic benefits, would probably do more to serve–and better integrate–both linguistic groups than blanket regulations mandating bilingual services.

In essence, the state should tailor its strategy toward providing tangible benefits all New Brunswickers, and take a step back to let New Brunswickers form their own unique socio-linguistic identity.

Leo Plumer is an AIMS on Campus Student Fellow who is pursuing an undergraduate degree in economics and political science at McGill University. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies