Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Lost Moment For Leadership

Legislative committee meetings in late June aren't often big news stories, so if we do nothing else, let's recognize that poor Glenn Tait and Sherry Wilson have at least managed to buck the odds When they came out and critiqued the cost and principle of duality in our education system, they made news as government backbenchers in the usually-muzzled Alward government. That isn't easy.

Perhaps in recognition of how rare this dubious achievement was, the Alward Message Control Center somehow managed to ensure that the story survived the long weekend and continued on into the next one; first by inexplicably having the Premier publicly complain that his MLA's weren't returning his calls, then by issuing one of the stranger "apologies" imaginable.

In language befitting one of those odd statements hostages are forced to read, Tait and Wilson apologized for "asking questions", and referenced the fact that their party, the PC's, actually believe in duality. The Premier at no point appeared to explain why the party believes this, and poor Tait and Wilson disappeared, presumably to a re-education camp where they will be treated to daily self-criticism sessions.

What was odd about the statement, by the way, is that a real apology usually is offered in the words of the person apologizing, and explains what they feel they were wrong to do and what they have learned. This statement had a strange Orwellian feel to it, as if two MLAs signed it but have no real sense of what they did wrong, if anything.

People have correctly taken umbrage at the fact MLA's are apologizing for asking questions, because sincerely asking questions is exactly part of an MLA's job. Michel Carrier, who passionately and logically defended the policy of duality in education, even welcomed afterwards the opportunity to explain why duality is the right policy, and called for more teachable moments.

The pity here is that the Premier of New Brunswick didn't rise to the occasion and do the same, leaving the historic responsibility of our premiers to explain and lead to faceless backroom spin doctors.

I don't believe in criticizing without offering up what I would do differently, so let me offer some specific suggestions.

First, please understand that I'm not defending Sherry Wilson and Glenn Tait. As some of you may recall, I once had to stand up to a prominent member of my own party, Justin Trudeau, when he questioned the need for duality while visiting here. I did that by appearing in unscripted interviews and explaining why duality was the right policy. When I was asked if he should apologize, I said this....

"No, I don't think any politician should apologize for expressing what he believes. But I would like him to change what he believes, because I think he spoke without understanding the New Brunswick reality and if he reflects, he will change his view."

I think a forced apology is meaningless in this case, and I think that's why no one seems really satisfied here.

First of all, even the line "asking questions" is really a lie. The reason Tate and Wilson are in trouble is because they don't ask questions. If you read the transcript, certain things become clear.

They aren't bad people, but they haven't taken any time to learn what should be basic civics for MLAs. They don't really know what the difference is between duality and bilingualism, so they kind of lurch about between examples of what they like and don't like hoping something coherent comes out.
The things that get them in hot water aren't questions --they are statements of opinion. Tate never does ask a question, he rhetorically asks if having separate schools is bilingualism or segregation, and then answers himself "to me, that is not bilingualism", and just asks the commissioner to respond to his statements. Wilson states that "there must be a more cost-effective way" with no suggestion that she might not know enough to make that statement.
The thing they really don't get is that raising the canard about cost is offensive to francophones. After all, elections cost money. Having a Legislature costs money. having trials instead of a police state costs money Yet these give force to real rights each of us have as free people. No one ever says "I don't want to come off as being against democracy, BUT can we really afford having an election every four years?". The reason they don't is that the right is so accepted you just accept it as a cost. When you ask if bilingualism or duality is affordable, yup expose not a question but a belief that it isn't a real right in your mind.

The real "apology" is, of course, changing your mind. But Tait and Wilson were ill-served by the spin doctors here. They first lie about what they really did, then in the words of others say they are sorry for contradicting party policy without explaining why they now support the policy. All this may explain why francophones again see a Conservative Party that accepts their rights begrudgingly, and anglophones see a premier who ran on openness muzzling his caucus.

In their own words, it might have been cleaner had Tait and Wilson said something like....

"I've had a chance to reflect on what I said in committee today, regarding maintaining duality in education and the financial costs of allowing kids to be educated in their own language.

I'm elected to ask questions, and I'm always going to ask if there are better ways to do things. But I made a mistake today when I went beyond asking questions, and made some statements without thinking things through.

I want everyone to know that I do understand that in an English community where kids will hear English everywhere, francophone kids need a place where there own language can develop first. I also understand that for francophones who fought hard for that right, it must be insulting to hear someone like me, who had the comfort of growing up with my own language all around me, to suggest that their right is negotiable when money is tight. After all, I would never suggest educating English students in French only schools was an OK way to save money.

I don't apologize for asking questions that I hear, and we shouldn't hide from the fact that a lot of people in my riding wonder about why we pay for two systems. But as an MLA, I have a chance to learn from people whose experience is different than my own. I should have asked more questions before I opened my trap and expressed strong opinions,and I will do better next time."

As for the Premier, he deserves credit for having swiftly laid down the law to his party. And yet......

There are times in leadership when, for all the nastiness and noise in politics, a leader rises to the occasion and reminds us of the better angels of our nature. That comes with the job, and the way one commands this bully pulpit often separates leaders from lieutenants in politics.

It would not have killed the Premier to show he doesn't just accept the political reality of supporting duality, but that he supports the idea and is willing to explain those views and persuade others. It would not have been a bad idea to consider coming out and making a statement like this.....

"Today, I reminded two of my MLAs that our government, and our party, support the principle that both English and French citizens of New Brunswick deserve their own school system, in their own language.

Glenn and Sherry aren't bad people. As they said often in their comments, they understand that having two languages and two great cultures is a good thing for New Brunswick. What they hadn't thought about was that learning your own language is a little different if you grow up French than if you grow up English.

We have done pretty well, here in New Brunswick, with two cultures each learning over the years what it's like for the other guy. Because even good people can sometimes wonder why we need two school systems, and why education is a little different than other services where it's enough just to offer bilingual services, I wanted to explain why it's so important to me that my party support duality in education.

Part of what makes us who we are is the culture we share with people around us. We know Canadians are different from Americans -- we have our own shared historical moments, from Paul Henderson's goal to Terry Fox's Marathon Of Hope. We have our own history we learn in schools. We may watch CSI and House, but we also have our Rick Mercers and Hockey Night in Canada. It's the little things we share that make us who we are.

Being English in Woodstock, my kids never had to wonder who they were. They never had to look for English shows, or music, or books. It was just how the world works.

Over the years, I've learned that not everyone grows up like that. If you're growing up French in Saint John, The Simpsons and Katy Perry and most of what goes viral on YouTube is there in the majority language. If you join a community team or club, the kids there will mostly speak English. To learn your own language, and to learn it perfectly, you need one place where you grow up living in that language only.

Trust me on this. I've struggled to learn French and I'm proud of that. But even speaking a second language well isn't the same as fully commanding your native language. When I speak French, I'm not really able to be completely me. I can get my ideas across, but it's more formal. My personality, my humor, the expressions I use, my own way of looking at the world, and even the little ways of phrasing things I probably picked up from my parents and their parents, that isn't there. Everyone can only be who they are if they have a language they don't just learn, but that they command, one that lets them not just ask where the bathroom is, but that gives them a personality and all the tools to express who they are.

That doesn't mean francophones don't want their kids to be bilingual. We all want our kids to share and know as many cultures and languages as possible. But we only fully do that when we first know who we are. In North America, the world does that for us anglophones. For francophones,yup have to do it despite the world around you.

Education is just different. For those who think you can just ram them together and teach bilingually, let me tell you you're wrong. The French equivalent of Shakespeare isn't translated Shakespeare. That might tell you how Hamlet ends, but we teach our kids Shakespeare to learn how language can create image and nuance and emotion when it's used by a master. In French, you do that with Rostand and Moliere and, here, Chiasson and Leger. We should all know that Trudeau gave us the Charter, but each group may wish to understand our own language's history in greater detail. And the folks who know how to design a curriculum in one don't usually know the other.

And for those who want one bilingual school, or one shared school bus, I'd ask this....does that mean you're ready to accept that all teachers have to be bilingual. All bus drivers? After all, anything less means one group isn't really equal -- they are just adapting to someone else's system.

That's why education is different. In a second language, we may get by, but we all need a language where our personality shines through. I want that for my kids. Francophones want the same for their kids. It is right, and it is a right. And just like voting, or having a fair trial, rights aren't things you need to justify when times are tough. They are just the cost of living in a society as blessed as our own.

Good people can always ask if there's a better way to do something, and we all have to stop and remind ourselves why we have the rights we do. That's why I wanted to explain why I wanted Glenn and Sherry -- and all of us -- to think about how someone else's experience might be different than our own. Not because I said so, but because it's the right thing to do."

Premier Alward is a good man with a tough job. But it's a job he asked for. And in this first moment of leadership, he shrank when the job called on him to lead.





  2. Excellent article. I've shared it as well. I have to add one more thing.... that is that when someone questions the cost of duality AND questions the need for "too many" jobs requiring bilingualism in the same conversation... that is pretty close to a person stating that they don't believe in citizens being served in their own language. After all, requiring bilingualism in a job is a cost-cutting measure - it prevents the need for duality in every job. So when they suggest "there must be a better way", and apparently that is in their mind neither duality nor bilingualism, what are they suggesting exactly?