Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
First of all, I want to thank the members of the committee for inviting me to speak today on the important plan to amend the Official Languages Act of Canada.
When you live outside the city of Ottawa and the province of Ontario, and especially when you live in the Atlantic provinces, you often get the impression federal government bodies have forgotten you. It's also something of a surprise and a joy to receive an invitation to come and speak to you.
I don't intend to speak for too long because I prefer to answer your questions.
However, I will take the liberty of making a few opening remarks and outlining some ideas for amending the Official Languages Act.
As you know, the Official Languages Act was passed in 1969. Mr. Samson and I were there at the time, and we remember it well. We were also there when it was replaced in 1988—Mr. Arseneault wasn't yet born—by a new act inspired by provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was adopted in 1982, more specifically by sections establishing the principle of the equality of status of English and French—section 16—and guaranteeing the right to be served by federal institutions in the language of one's choice—section 20.
The act thus provided for a scheme to implement the provisions of the Charter, and the official language minority communities received it favourably at the time. Should it be amended today? Probably, because I think statutes should be regularly revised in response to changes in society. Should we start over from scratch? I don't think so. The foundational aspects of the 1988 act are still sound. In my view, improving it and clarifying some of its parts so they meet the needs of Canada in 2018 would be enough.
I would emphasize, however, that the act cannot be a response to all the problems and challenges facing the minority communities. We live under a federal system in which the provinces have certain exclusive jurisdictions. If we don't want to wind up in endless court battles, we will have to respect the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments, while guaranteeing the development and vitality of the official language minority communities.
That being said, it's essential that the provinces also shoulder their responsibility to protect the official language minority communities, particularly the francophone communities outside Quebec. We shouldn't give the impression that official languages issues are solely a federal government responsibility. Provinces such as New Brunswick must fully accept their responsibilities in this field.
I'm aware that, in light of current events, it's hard to imagine the provinces agreeing to play their role, but we also don't believe the federal government can solve all problems with a single statute.
I have a list of amendments and subjects that could be addressed in the new act, and I'm going to touch on them briefly. Given the time allotted to me, I prefer to answer your questions.
I obviously want to revisit the bilingualism of judges at the Supreme Court of Canada. Subsection 16(1) of the act should be amended, but that won't be enough. Section 5 of the Supreme Court Act, which concerns the composition of the court, must also be amended.
Since I'm a lawyer, I would emphasize that there should be an assessment of the ability of judges and the courts to speak both official languages. A self-evaluation is currently done by candidates for judicial appointments, and we know it's often inadequate.
Equal weight should also be assigned to decisions rendered in both official languages.
I submitted a suggestion several years ago, but I want to take another look at it. I'm talking about statutory protection for the Court Challenges Program.
I recommend that another amendment be made respecting the implementation of specificity. I would like to clarify a point here. I've obviously read the briefs submitted by the Société de l'Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick requesting that the specificity of New Brunswick be recognized in the Official Languages Act. I must admit I see problems ahead as a result of that request. If the Official Languages Act is to recognize the specificity of all the provinces, the process will be endless. However, this could be done by regulation.
I believe an amendment was recently made to the regulations on the provision of services in both official languages recognizing that there must be an active offer of service wherever a minority school is located. We could go even further. The federal regulations on specificity should also acknowledge the specificity of the provinces.
In other words, I don't understand—I had to go to the Supreme Court of Canada to compel the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to discharge its linguistic obligations in New Brunswick—why the federal government wouldn't acknowledge that the active offer of service exists on a de facto basis across New Brunswick given that New Brunswick has decided to extend its obligations to include the entire province. We can do the same in Ontario and recognize that an active offer exists in the regions designated by the French Language Services Act.
Next, we must specify what is meant by "positive measures" in part VII of the act. I don't like people telling me that a positive measure is anything that isn't negative; that's not enough. We should define by regulation what we mean by positive measures.
I'll be prepared to answer questions on this aspect since I brought the lawsuit in response to the cancellation of the Court Challenges Program. In my view, the federal government's lawyers had quite an odd interpretation of positive measures, but we can come back to that.
With respect to the powers of the Commissioner of Official Languages, we obviously have to discuss the creation of a language rights tribunal. Contrary to what you might think, this isn't a new idea. It was previously proposed by Victor Goldbloom when he was Commissioner of Official Languages and revived several times in the 1990s. Having sat on the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, I don't understand why the Official Languages Act couldn't provide for a similar system in which the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages would be responsible for conducting investigations but would refer to the language rights tribunal cases in which it couldn't secure the cooperation of federal institutions. The tribunal would have the authority to issue enforceable orders, as does the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
So these are the amendments in question. There are others, which we can come back to during our discussion.
Canada will be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Official Languages Act this year. The rights recognized under this quasi-constitutional act are fundamental rights rooted in our commitment to equality and respect for minorities.
However, these values are unfortunately questioned by certain governments, and I would remind you here that the Government of Ontario is not the only one. Although the situation of New Brunswick is less compelling and discussed less extensively at the national level, it's also a cause for concern, even though language rights there are attacked in a less visible fashion.
Sometimes I would like the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages of New Brunswick to be abolished because that would mobilize more people. In recent years, we've observed a troubling decline in political commitment to language rights in New Brunswick—by all parties, and I'm not playing politics here. Of course, the rise of the People's Alliance on the political stage increases that concern.
The principle, object and nature of language rights are now well established. I agree with the remarks my colleague the Honourable Michel Bastarache made before the committee when he said it was unacceptable that we should have to appear before the courts in 2018 to assert language rights that have been recognized for 50 years.
Furthermore, as the three decisions in 1986 showed, the courts don't have a consistent approach either. We shouldn't take it for granted that they'll always interpret our rights generously. That's why, today, we should build on the gains we've achieved in recent years.
Sometimes I feel we spend our time reinventing the wheel, constantly fighting, again and again, the same battles we thought we had won. There comes a time when you wonder whether there really is a political will to implement language rights. I even wonder whether a revised Official Languages Act, even the best one in the world, will change anything in this state of affairs if there's no political will to implement these rights.
What has to be changed in Ottawa and in certain provinces is the majority perception of linguistic equality. In other words, language rights are not merely the business of the minorities; they are also the business of the majority, whose perception must be changed. Unfortunately, that change will come from neither an act nor the courts; it will come from a political message and the political commitment of all political stakeholders.
Thank you for your attention. I'm ready to answer your questions.
Perhaps we could meet for a few beers after class. I have about 50 questions I'd like to ask you, but I'm going to focus on one or two.
Over the past month, we've discussed the issue of the two founding peoples, which is essential. You said the majority had to understand that, and I entirely agree with you. The issue has been poorly presented, poorly understood and poorly supported. However, it's more difficult to rely on the act to do all the work. I don't want to downplay the importance of including tools in the act. I've had experiences with certain politicians, whom I won't name. I know several deputy ministers, particularly in the Brunswick, and I told one of them I understood why he didn't wonder what he could do to help the Acadians when he went to bed at night. I also told him he had a responsibility and duty to understand the situation. That will is necessary.
Providing tools can help support the will, but some politicians want to survive. They say they want to help the francophone minority in Nova Scotia, for example, but they wonder how they can justify that to the majority. So the issue gets complicated. They have to be provided with tools. Here's an example. Supplementary funding was granted to the English-language school boards in Nova Scotia to provide training to newcomers who spoke neither English nor French. They were offered that training in English.
I reacted by saying we had a responsibility to educate, in French, assimilated Acadians who were entering our schools at the age of five and couldn't speak the language used at the institution, the language of one of the founding peoples. I was initially turned down, but, as a result of that thinking, we received funding for students who were entering the schools and couldn't speak the language used at the institution.
Here's another example. I think the present Nova Scotia government is very much in favour of supporting francophones. That wasn't the case when the Dexter government, which everybody knew, was in power. The NDP didn't support the minority. It's incredible, but that's what we experienced. The present government says there's a will, but it also relies on tools. For example, it says that the francophone school boards have a connection with the Charter and the Constitution and that it will help them for that reason. Nova Scotia is the first province in the country that has considered the possibility of drafting an education act in French solely for francophones.
My preamble is always longer than my question. Nevertheless, the will can't necessarily be cultivated by means of a statute. Consequently, I wonder what essential points in the act will help provide people of good will with the necessary tools to promote this to the anglophone majority.
Paragraph 32(2)(a) of the Official Languages Act already provides that the government should have regard not only to demographics, but also to the specific characteristics of the communities.
At the time, in 1990, I appeared before the parliamentary committee that was examining the regulations made under the act to provide that the government should look beyond demographics and consider specific characteristics. Unfortunately, that wasn't being considered at that time. So I'm pleased with the amendment that has since been made to ask the government to consider certain institutions, such as the schools, in implementing the regulations.
I think we can go even further, and that's what I was referring to earlier. I know that many groups have requested that these specific characteristics be acknowledged in the act itself. Unfortunately, I don't agree: in that case, we'd have one specificity for Quebec, another for Nova Scotia, a third for New Brunswick and so on, and the act would become thoroughly unmanageable. However, we could do it in the regulations.
Consequently, the regulations could state that they respect the language rights recognized in a province. For example, there should be no reason to require a francophone from New Brunswick to prove significant demand in order to obtain a service from a federal organization. I had to take the RCMP to the Supreme Court on this issue, but the resulting judgment applies solely to the RCMP. It should in fact apply to all federal institutions because New Brunswick has agreed to recognize the equality of the linguistic communities.
We can do the same for Ontario and acknowledge the specific legal characteristics of the provinces in order to expand the scope of the regulations.
, and good morning, Messieurs Paradis, Clarke and Choquette and members of the committee. I'm Geoffrey Chambers, the president of the Quebec Community Groups Network, a not-for-profit linking 58 English-language community organizations across Quebec. We serve Quebec's English linguistic minority communities, which are referred to collectively as the English-speaking community of Quebec. Joining me at the table is Stephen Thompson, our director of government relations, policy and research.
I have a few points before we begin.
I'd like to restate our condemnation of the decision of the Government of Ontario to abolish the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner and cancel plans to create a new French-language university. English-speaking Quebeckers stand firmly behind Franco-Ontarians and indeed all French-speaking Canadians living in linguistic minority communities. We understand and support their struggle. We are in this together with them, and they can count on our ongoing support.
We would also like to acknowledge the leadership of Senators Tardif and Cormier, and your honourable colleagues on the Senate Standing Committee on Official Languages in inspiring the Government of Canada's review of the official languages regulations and the ongoing national discussion, for which we are here today, on modernizing the Official Languages Act.
Finally, we take this opportunity to unequivocally offer our support and register our agreement with the principles and concepts advanced by the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada in their brief to this committee. There's no daylight between our mutual objectives of improving how the Official Languages Act works and advancing the linguistic rights of all Canadians.
There can be no doubt that the act must be modernized and that this work must be completed and accomplished quickly. The Federal Court's decision in FFCB v. Canada and the Commissioner of Official Languages' paralysis to pursue part-VII-related complaints are real and they're happening now. Last year's Borbey-Mendelsohn report on linguistic duality in the federal public service workplace highlighted continuing challenges for English and French Canadians to realize their rights under parts IV and V of the act. Many federal institutions are failing to meet their obligations under part VI of the act when it comes to employing members of our community in their workforce in Quebec.
The Official Languages Act is a lifeline for English-speaking Quebeckers. The act is the only language-rights legislation that protects the interests of English-speaking Quebeckers as a community. The act sets out quasi-constitutional rights for English-speaking Quebeckers, including the right to access federal services in English, the representation of English speakers in the federal public service, and those workers' rights to work in English. Further, the act provides the framework for much needed financial support for the community's institutions and networks.
I'm going to pass the next section over to Stephen.
It was a pleasure for me to be here this morning to hear Michel Doucet's testimony. We are both members of Statistics Canada's advisory committee on language statistics, which met yesterday.
When considering the modernization of the act, our thinking was guided by the following principles, which must be woven into the fabric of new legislation.
First is the equality of status of English and French. There can be no separate status; nor can the law be written to differentiate approaches to either language. Flexibility to meet the unique needs of individual official language minority communities and achieve substantive equality can be achieved through effective consultation.
Second, a new act should provide for robust, mandatory and properly resourced consultation at all levels, including a formal mechanism for consultation at the national level. This is a major concern of English-speaking Quebec, which is not equipped to equally participate in national-level official languages discussions; nor is its presence adequately felt or seen here despite the size of our community.
Specific recommendations are contained in our written brief. I will, however, highlight the following.
Parts IV, V, VI and VII of the act are intimately connected yet implemented separately without coherent accountability. How can an institution fulfill its part IV obligations if it does not employ sufficient numbers of minority-language Canadians or allow federal civil servants the right to learn and work in their minority language? How are the official language minority's institutions and organizations visible to federal institutions, which are committed to taking positive measures to enhance vitality, if they exclude minority-language Canadians from their regional workforces? A siloed approach to implementing parts IV through VII of the act does not work.
We also draw the committee's attention to the chronic underemployment of English-speaking Canadians in the federal civil service in Quebec outside of the national capital region. From this perspective, several federal institutions are not meeting their obligations under this section of the act, which is vague and lacks regulation to make it enforceable.
Clarity and accountability must be brought to part VII of the act, and the must by provided the authority to implement its commitments. We also insist on strict transparency provisions on federal investments made under part VII from all recipients, including provincial and territorial governments. Clear definitions of “positive measures”, “enhancing the vitality of”, and “supporting the development of” official language minority communities must be included. Responsibility without authority, like “in consultation with”, must be expunged.
We also call for a more focused role for the Commissioner of Official Languages, and the establishment of an administrative tribunal with the power to sanction transgressions of the act.
The QCGN's objectives in this discussion are not only to offer suggestions on how to make the act work more efficiently and effectively but to seize this opportunity to strengthen the language rights of Canadians. As I said in my opening statement, we firmly believe that Canada's English and French linguistic minority communities are in this together, and in that spirit we outline the following three goals:
With regard to part V, on language of work, this section of the act starts out well:
English and French are the languages of work in all federal institutions, and officers and employees of all federal institutions have the right to use either official language.
but it then goes on to severely limit these rights, based on geography. Technology has made geography, in terms of work, largely obsolete. Moreover, locating national institutional headquarters outside of the national capital region often results in the absurd situation of imposing on offices obligations for bilingual services to the public, due to the nature of their service, without the workers in those offices having the right to work in their official language.
In terms of employee relations, every federal civil servant must have the right to use the official language of his or her choice, and the right to learn his or her second language.
Part III of the act already provides a number of obligations for federal courts and tribunals regarding the administration of justice. These obligations should remain, and should be enhanced in an important way. Judges of the Supreme Court should be able to understand the official languages chosen by the parties, without the assistance of an interpreter.
Further, the act should create a federal obligation under part VII to encourage and assist provincial governments to ensure that access to the entire justice system is available in both official languages. A bilingual judge is of little use if the clerk cannot work in the minority language, and other court functions are not available.
Parts IV, V and VI of the act should be applicable to all federally regulated private enterprises. The only private businesses in Quebec that are not subject to the Charte de la langue française are federally regulated businesses and undertakings such as chartered banks, telecommunications companies and transportation companies.
Proposals to extend the application of the the Charte de la langue française to these entities would not only be constitutionally incoherent but would have the effect of territorializing constitutional language rights, which would pose an unacceptable threat to French and English linguistic minority communities across the country.
Extending the Official Languages Act, on the other hand, to federally regulated businesses and undertakings would not only fix a mischief in the law that exists in Quebec, it would ensure that these businesses experience the economic benefits of working in Canada's two languages across the country, and create language rights under the act for thousands of workers within federally regulated businesses across the country.
It would also provide a right to work and a right to service in the minority language from federally regulated businesses in every province. Therefore, it would be a win for both French and English minorities, and for the French and English majority populations across the country.
Thank you very much, and we look forward to your questions.
There are a number of umbrella problems, but I think you have referred to what we would probably regard as the most pressing question, which is that the right of English-speaking Quebeckers to receive health services in their language is limited to the specific obligations codified in something called an “access plan”. You can't, as an English-speaking Quebecker, walk into A health institution and say, “I want this thing in English”—unless, when the institution looks it up, it finds out that it's obliged to do it, that it's written down that you have to get that in English.
Those plans are, for the most part, eight years old, out of date, and do not correspond to the institutional structure that was changed four years ago under Quebec's Bill 10. We're working very hard with the provincial government to put in place a new set of plans. Until they're in place, that right—which, in our view, should be an absolute right but which is, in fact, a limited right of access only when there is a defined service and which should be sorted out—would be our number one priority.
Of course, there are many other issues. There's some possible threat to our educational institutions under the educational reform that's being discussed. That could be quite worrying, but it hasn't happened yet. There are marginalized communities around the province that have a very difficult time getting any kind of service, because they're in small numbers in distributed areas.
So there are other things to discuss.
However, I think you were mentioning health and social services as being at the top of our agenda, and that would be pretty accurate.
To take the edge off that a little bit, overall, yes, we are under-represented in Quebec. There are institutions that are doing quite well, but there are institutions that are doing quite poorly, obviously.
Corrections Canada in Quebec employs about 3,700 folks, and about 150 are anglophones. The effects of that are obvious if you are an English-speaking prisoner at the federal training centre in Laval or you're in Donnacona.
I don't think this was done deliberately. I don't think there's any mischief being done here. It's just that they just don't know.
For example, English-speaking Quebeckers are overrepresented in the Canada Border Services. The English-speaking communities tend to be along the border, and those jobs tend to need bilingual people. So if you know an uncle or have a father or sister or know somebody else who works there.... Those are the connections, as we all know, that get you the job.
If you are in places such as Corrections Canada, ESDC, National Defence or some of these other institutions where you don't have those connections to the community, there's no attraction or realization for young people, and they have a hard time getting the jobs.
That being said, we met with the Clerk of the Privy Council last year. Mr. Wernick was very interested in this. We are right now working with the Quebec Federal Council and the Public Service Commission to find ways to increase the numbers of English-speaking Quebeckers working in the federal civil service in Quebec.
Thank you very much.
I want to start by acknowledging that your support for the francophone community in Ontario was so well received, and honestly, the fact that you acted so quickly in supporting the community is something that I, as a Franco-Ontarian, really appreciate, and I know the community also really appreciated it. So thank you for that collaboration and the fact that you were so quick on the button, as we say.
Also, I want to recognize the fact that, as a Franco-Ontarian, I understand that it's not a one-size-fits-all approach when you're trying to examine the law, to make sure that if on one side for francophones it's one thing, it should be the same for the anglophones. I understand the differences in reality.
Mr. Blaney was asking about challenges, and I think for me it's always a learning opportunity to better understand not only the challenges but the solutions that you want to propose, so we can support those in making sure we recognize in the next law the support for the anglophone community in Quebec.
I understand the realities for the health services. There has to be better alignment with the transfers and with how we ensure there are some linguistic clauses with Quebec. I'm not sure how to do it, though, or how to frame it. You mentioned a couple of ideas. Do you want to maybe continue by telling us what exactly we should change in this law to support your needs?
If I may, I would like to start with your first point. The organized French-speaking population of Ontario is a model in terms of its capacity to make representation and provide effective leadership on its issues for the English-speaking community in Quebec.
If you go back 50 years, you might say that the English-speaking community in Quebec was better situated in regard to institutions and to its socio-economic circumstances, but as we know, English-speaking Quebeckers are less well off economically than any other linguistic group in the country now, so that's a change in the model.
Also, we're situated in a relationship with our provincial government wherein our institutions are being eroded. It may be that we had a full range of hospitals that were all built by the community 50 years ago, but now they're all bilingual hospitals that service everybody. They are good hospitals, and they are for the most part able to give good service in our language, but I say “for the most part” because there are examples where that's been eroded out of existence. The Sherbrooke Hospital, which Mr. Blaney will remember from his youth, was eliminated. It was eliminated based on a promise that the obligation to provide service in English would be transferred to the CHUS, and it wasn't. They changed the rules in the middle, and it went away.
We need to have a set of devices to address those questions. The Franco-Ontarians have developed those very devices. Their commissioner—who we are very concerned is being eliminated—is an example of a device. We would like to have somebody in Quebec who would intervene if there's a failure of service. We have no such office in Quebec.
There are many other examples I could mention, but it would take too long. I've referred mostly to provincial structures, but we would like to see the federal government take an active role in supporting those kinds of things.
To pick up on one of your other points, the federal government does provide active support, much of which is diverted and ultimately unavailable to the communities because of the lack of transparency and the lack of accountability in the transfer system now. I know the federal government is taking that position that they want to improve the way those funds flow. I know there's push-back. We would like you to know—