It's a seemingly innocuous red and white banner - incorporating a maple leaf and elements of the English and Scottish flags - but to some New Brunswick francophones, it's a dangerous flirtation with intolerance.
A decision this week by town council in the northern community of Bathurst to allow the symbol of the Anglo Society of New Brunswick to fly near the Town Hall on Sept. 18 has sparked a sharp backlash.
At the same time, rhetoric is heating up in Moncton about the possibility of a law, such as the one in Quebec, that would give prominence to French on signs.
"We think it's a step backward," Bruno Godin, director of La Société de l'Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick, said of Bathurst's vote to approve flying the Anglo Society's flag. "The decision will ... give them more publicity than we think they deserve."
French became one of New Brunswick's official languages in 1969, and in 1981, the province recognized the equality of its English- and French-speaking communities. New Brunswick's status as Canada's only officially bilingual province hasn't eradicated historic tensions between the two groups.
Mr. Godin rejected the idea that the Anglo Society banner and the Acadian flag flying outside Bathurst town hall year-round are equivalent.
"If it was a British flag, we would not have any problem with that," said Mr. Godin, whose organization promotes the Acadian community. "It's a group with only one goal: to be anti-francophone. It's not a cultural group."
Anglo Society co-president Matthew Glenn, who acknowledges his group was formed to counter the influence of Mr. Godin's group, said he is tired of being tarred as a bigot. He lives among francophones, he said, worked with them for years, and members of his family are French-speaking. But he also believes the province's English-speakers are threatened.
The belief that power in New Brunswick is being monopolized by francophones, who make up about one-third of the province's population, is deeply rooted among some anglophones.
"There's a silent war going on in New Brunswick," said Moncton business owner Barry Renouf.
"I'm not against the French in New Brunswick," he stressed. "We're [in defence of]any person who is having problems because of forced bilingualism."
He's a strong critic of a bylaw passed last month in Dieppe, adjacent to Moncton, requiring that French have prominence on commercial signs. A similar idea is circulating at Moncton City Hall and, in spite of one councilor's opinion that "the city does not belong in the boardrooms of our businesses," Mr. Renouf is planning to move his business out of town. He is afraid a sign law would be applicable to existing companies.
"We're losing our rights," he charged.
That view comes as a surprise to the Acadian society's Mr. Godin, who said relations between the linguistic groups, while sometimes tense, are getting better.
"I think we're going forward, but any time we raise the issue of French and English, it's always an emotional debate," he said.
Mr. Godin called it foolish to "go back in time" and is hoping Bathurst council will reconsider the flag issue.
Bathurst Mayor Stephen Brunet said the town regularly approves flags to fly in a specific area near Town Hall. But because of criticism when the Anglo Society got approval to fly its flag there six years ago, the latest request faced extra scrutiny.
"We received the request and I said I'm not making this [decision] because it will be controversial," he said. "So I brought it to council, who voted. And democracy ruled."
Mr. Glenn said he isn't trying to cause trouble. But nor does he care about easing language tensions - in fact, he'd be happy for them to ramp up.
"This has been going on for years and it's starting to heat up," he said. "I hope it comes to a head because I'm sick and tired of being pushed around by a minority."Report Typo/Error