Alliance supporters grumble as petitions to dismantle bilingualism collect dust

An ardent opponent of official bilingualism who takes credit for the success of the People's Alliance says the populist party has let him down on the language issue.

Jason McBride and some other members of his Facebook group, United Citizens of New Brunswick, have been grumbling that Alliance Leader Kris Austin and his two fellow MLAs haven't been doing enough on bilingualism since getting elected in 2018.

McBride, a vocal critic of official bilingualism and an administrator of the group page, said he is no longer an Alliance supporter because Austin has not introduced McBride's "thousands" of anti-bilingualism petitions in the legislature.

"The LEAST KRIS AUSTIN and the rest of his group can do is actually present the petitions to government," McBride wrote in a comment. "They have been in his office for 6 MONTHS." 

"PANB has to do something with this FILE soon!" said Bruce Messer, a member of the group.

CBC

In an interview, Messer said he's generally happy with the Alliance MLAs but would like a blueprint before the next election for how they plan to address bilingualism.

"Is it different from what the past Progressive Conservative party or the Liberal party has done?" he said. "What will their approach be? We have to see the blueprint before we can make decisions."

A 'common sense' approach

McBride's petitions call for a referendum on repealing official bilingualism, which has been the law in New Brunswick since 1969 and entrenched in the Constitution since 1982. 

Austin said McBride promised to deliver petitions with "thousands" of names last August, but they turned out to have only about 2,400 signatures, some dating back five or six years.

He said that's one reason the party won't present them. Another is the petitions go far beyond his party's position, which he says is to demand a more "common sense" approach to official bilingualism and not "tackle the Canadian Constitution."

"We've never called for the elimination of bilingualism, we've never called for a referendum on bilingualism," he said. 

Video spurs debate

When McBride brought the petitions to Austin at the legislature last August, he posted a selfie video arguing his group led directly to the Alliance's election breakthrough.

"As a result of this movement, the People's Alliance party now has three seats in the legislature," McBride said. "We finally have an MLA sitting who's willing and able in the fall session to be able to present this pile of petitions." 

On Jan. 26 McBride reposted the August video. "I haven't seen him mention them since," he said of the petition. "Have you?" That triggered the online discussion. 

Facebook/United Citizens of New Brunswick

McBride contacted CBC News about the delay but did not respond to an interview request. 

Since the 2018 election, the Alliance has supported the Progressive Conservative minority government during confidence votes in the legislature.

Austin has argued that gives him leverage over government policy but has reminded supporters that doesn't mean the Alliance can achieve all its objectives. 

"The folks that supported us understand the situation that we're in and that we're making progress on several files," he said, pointing to the creation of "floater" positions at Ambulance New Brunswick filled by unilingual paramedics.

He said most Alliance supporters understand his position and aren't looking for what McBride wants.

"We're not getting flooded with emails from supporters who are taking that approach," he said. 

Last spring, Austin hinted in the legislature he would try to amend the Official Languages Act to exempt ambulance paramedics. But he said other paramedic issues have been a priority and his bill probably won't be introduced in the current session.

Others disagree

Some of the Facebook group members defended Austin, calling on the critics to help elect more Alliance members in the next election and pointing out the party has only three MLAs in the 49-seat legislature. 

Matt Wood said Austin must "strategically navigate" that reality until the next election.

But others were critical: Austin "just said what people wanted to hear," member Peter Robinson said.

Long-time Alliance supporter Joshua MacDonald commented, "Even my confidence is starting to shake," adding that Austin's votes for some PC actions "made me cringe."

Discontent among supporters of a populist party in the New Brunswick legislature is not new: in 1991, the anti-bilingualism Confederation of Regions Party won eight seats and formed the official opposition, but the party was soon plagued by bitter internal feuds.

Some of those battles were fuelled by anger from grassroots party members that the party's eight elected MLAs weren't doing more to dismantle bilingualism.

One of those former COR MLAs, Greg Hargrove, weighed in on McBride's Facebook discussion, saying anti-bilingualism activists "had our chance" with COR, but anglophone voters abandoned the party, "so shut up and suck it up because you brought it on yourselves."