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Thou shalt not discuss duality - what's that all about?

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The response was strong and swift and the message unmistakable when Fredericton Mayor Brad Woodside suggested in a tweet that the costs of duality should be discussed. And that message wasn’t just for the mayor, it was for all of us - don’t you ever dare suggest we discuss duality.

Because he did bring it up, francophone mayors demanded an immediate apology, with the Mayor of Dieppe even suggesting a boycott of the upcoming Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference, apparently because Mayor Woodside is the President.  

Most New Brunswickers, including Mayor Woodside, are not against bilingualism. Neither are they bigots. Most of us understand that we are an officially bilingual province, and that duality is part and parcel of that. And most of us understand that it is enshrined in the constitution.

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But what many of us don’t understand is that it is somehow outrageous to suggest we even talk about it. It can’t be the fact it is in Canada’s Constitution that places it out of bounds. We talk about all manner of things that are in the constitution, all the time. How often has the Charter of Rights and Freedoms been openly discussed for instance, and that’s part of the Constitution?

But for whatever reason, any discussion of duality is out of order, out of bounds, never to be mentioned, at least not in polite company, and certainly not in public.

In a province that prides itself on openness and tolerance, why is that?  

I’m not talking about the dinosaurs that backed the old Confederation of Regions Party in the early 1990s. I’m talking about reasonable and fair New Brunswickers who understand and respect the necessity to protect the francophone culture, but don’t understand why, in a province that is on the verge of bankruptcy, we can’t consider common-sense solutions such as having English and French kids travel to their respective schools on the same bus.

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Why, these New Brunswickers wonder, are we running separate school buses over the same streets when there is room on one bus to accommodate everybody? There are other examples but this is the one that has become a symbol of what some see as the apparent waste of duality.

Do these duality-driven costs amount to much? I have no idea.

What I do know is that when you refuse to talk about these things people will sometimes jump to outrageous conclusions.  The costs may very well be grossly exaggerated, and probably are.

But until governments and politicians change their attitude and agree it is time they explained to New Brunswickers why, for example, we need to run two half-filled school buses when one would do the trick, these questions will remain, as will the outrageous conclusions.

How has refusing to address these issues worked out so far? 

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In his recent State of the Province speech, Premier Gallant made an impassioned plea for New Brunswickers to get onside with his government’s efforts to reduce spending. He said something to the effect that we all have to be part of it.

No question our financial situation is a mess and it has to be addressed. But what is compromising Premier Gallant's effort to get necessary buy-in from New Brunswickers is that many see his, and others, reluctance to even discuss duality in the context of saving money as an excuse not to be supportive.

The Premier’s phone conversation with Mayor Woodside where he told him duality is not on the table has apparently silenced the mayor. But it does nothing to satisfy a whole lot of other fair-minded New Brunswickers who are simply looking for answers to what they see as legitimate questions.

I have been working in communications all my adult life and I have not seen an example yet where a refusal to discuss something leads to a better understanding of it.

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