Saint John — Crosswalks in Saint John’s uptown core are once again at the centre of controversy — but this time, it’s not for rainbow or camouflage paint.
Anyone who spends time in uptown Saint John is familiar with crosswalks that advise vision-impaired pedestrians when it’s safe to cross the street, pointing them in the right direction and offering an audible 20-second countdown. While the devices are applauded by organizations like CNIB and the Premier’s Council on Disabilities, not everyone is a fan.
In January the Association Régionale de la Communauté francophone de Saint-Jean told the Telegraph-Journal that the English-only signals violated the Official Languages Act, and while there was probably no ill intent, City Council now has an opportunity to right the wrong.
“Mistakes happen,” spokesperson Jonathan Poirier said at the time. “I’m confident Council will do the right thing and make its crosswalks fully inclusive for all.”
As expected, Mayor Don Darling told taxpayers to brace themselves because the City of Saint John would bend over backwards to accommodate the request.
“I said it before and I’ll say it again — Saint John is the most welcoming community in Atlantic Canada, and goshdarnit we’re going to prove it, come hell or high water! I think my record on the topic speaks for itself.”
While Darling’s commitment to building an inclusive city is undeniable, he said it’s somewhat ironic that Saint John is the city under the microscope.
“Saint John is the only city in the province with a verbalized crosswalk countdown, which I would argue is better than no countdown at all. So now, even though we have the safest, most inclusive crosswalks in New Brunswick, we’re being told we’re not inclusive enough. Geez.”
AROUND THE PROVINCE
Since 2002, municipalities have been required to have traffic signs in both English and French under the province’s Official Languages Act. Whether or not voice signals should be included depends on whom you ask.
Darling said Saint John does its best to comply with the legislation, even though it’s the least francophone city in the province. According to the 2016 census, 4.67% of Saint John’s population reported speaking French at home. Fredericton (6.8%) and Moncton (31.9%), meanwhile, are home to considerably larger francophone communities.
“We have the fewest French speakers in New Brunswick, but we’re the only ones being told to install French crosswalk signals. That’s messed up,” the beleaguered mayor remarked.
In an emailed statement to The Manatee, a City of Moncton spokesperson defended their decision to only do the bare minimum when it comes to crosswalk safety.
“Had we bothered making our crosswalks more accessible to the visually impaired in the first place, by golly, you betcha, we would have included bilingual voice prompts. No question. It’s the law, after all.”
WHAT RESIDENTS ARE SAYING
Back in Saint John, some are criticizing the initiative as an unnecessary expenditure for an already cash-strapped city, but the main question on everyone’s mind is how the bilingual countdowns will work. Everyone seems to have their own ideas.
“I think it will alternate numbers in French and English,” mused uptown resident Harvey O’Neill. “It will start with twenty, then go dix-neuf, eighteen, dix-sept, and so on.”
But his friend, Bobby Lewis, disagrees.
“I see two options. The first they do it in Chiac. ‘Le walk sign est on’ has a certain ring to it. The other option would be to first countdown in English, and then in French, or vice-versa, for 40 seconds in total.”
For groups like the Premier’s Council on Disabilities, a 40-second countdown would be welcome news.
“For years we’ve heard complaints from folks with mobility issues that 20 seconds just isn’t enough time to safely cross the street. It didn’t seem to matter when it was ‘just a safety issue,’ but if a fight over language is what makes it happen, we’ll take it.”