OTTAWA - The federal government is giving New Brunswick $10 million to support francophone immigration, less than half of what Premier Shawn Graham had been seeking, and $6.2 million for economic development.
The Conservatives are also bringing back a version of the court challenges program they axed to save money in 2006, a decision that provoked criticism from the commissioner for official languages and triggered a lawsuit by francophone groups.
The money will flow over the next five years as part of a $1.1 billion plan Heritage Minister Josee Verner announced Thursday afternoon in support of official languages.
"We believe in the self-sufficiency initiative of New Brunswick and they asked us to help in this way," said Verner.
Five weeks ago, Premier Shawn Graham revealed his government was asking Ottawa for $5.8 million a year for three years to help recruit and offer settlement services to francophone immigrants.
Graham's office could not be reached for comment.
New Brunswick will also qualify for portions of another $20 million in federal funding provided by Citizenship and Immigration Canada for francophone immigration across the country, said an official who did not have details.
Francophone groups have pressed for the provincial government to maintain the traditional one-third francophone, two-thirds anglophone linguistic balance in New Brunswick even as the Graham government strives to boost the population.
Greg Byrne, the provincial cabinet minister responsible for population growth, has said the government shares the goal of maintaining that balance.
The track record shows that English-speaking newcomers have comprised the vast majority of the province's immigrants in recent years.
The new language rights program will only pay for court challenges against government decisions that threaten language rights as a last resort.
Applicants will have to try mediation first by going to an expert panel reporting to an independent institution, such as a university, that the government has not chosen yet.
This approach will encourage "amicable settlements," said MP Pierre Lemieux, Verner's parliamentary secretary, and avoid "lengthy, expensive and stressful legal proceedings."
NDP official languages critic Yvon Godin, the MP for Acadie-Bathurst, reacted with disbelief that the Conservatives would see constitutional rights as something to be negotiated.
"When you negotiate, it's give-and-take," said Godin. "And give and take means the community will have to give something away to have a result.
"The court challenges was about 'you broke the law, we want a judge to make a decision.'"
The new program to support linguistic rights will get $1.5 million a year, but it will not be funded until 2009.
Godin said that's tantamount to not having a program at all because "we'll have an election by then."
Unlike the court challenges program, it will not fund cases launched on the grounds they violate the rights of visible minorities, women, religious minorities or the disabled.
Lemieux said other tools, such as the human rights act, exist to protect those rights.
Graham Fraser, the country's official-languages watchdog, said the new Conservative road map will require detailed study, but "my initial reaction is one of relief.
"This plan should enable the institutions involved to continue with their current initiatives."
Fraser said he was pleased the new plan includes arts and culture.
Marie-Pierre Simard, president of the Acadian Society in New Brunswick, was en route to Ottawa Thursday and could not be reached for comment.
The Conservative road map replaces a five-year Liberal action plan for official languages, which expired in March. Its funding crested at $810 million.
Verner's plan follows nation-wide consultations by former New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord, whom Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed as a special adviser on linguistic duality last December.
Godin argued that Lord's recommendations and Verner's plan both relied heavily on the work of the Commons committee on official languages.
The $1.1 billion larger funding envelopes include $280 million for education in the language of the minority, $190 million for second-language education and $174 million for access to health services