I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to the 24th meeting of the Standing Committee on Official Languages. Today's meeting is taking place in a hybrid format, pursuant to the motion adopted by the House on January 25, 2020.
The committee will spend the first hour on a briefing on the Government of Canada's public reform document for the modernization of the Official Languages Act. The committee will spend the second hour on its study of the government measures to protect and promote French in Quebec and in Canada.
This is a reminder that all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair.
Unless there are exceptional circumstances, the use of a headset with a boom microphone is mandatory for everyone participating remotely.
I would now like to welcome the witnesses. With us for the first hour is the Honourable Mélanie Joly, the member for Ahuntsic—Cartierville and the Minister of Official Languages, as well as Denis Racine, director general of the official languages branch at Canadian Heritage.
I see someone's hand is raised. Before we hear from the minister, I'm going to give the floor to Mrs. Lalonde.
It's a pleasure to be here, and I'm glad to see you are healthy.
Thank you, honourable members. I'm pleased to have this opportunity, so thank you for inviting me. I hope you are all healthy as well. I'm joining you from Montreal.
As you know, on February 19, I presented a public reform document for the modernization of the Official Languages Act, entitled “English and French: Towards a Substantive Equality of Official Languages in Canada”. A lot has changed in a year, and when confronted with change, we can either stand in its way or be open to the opportunities. The Canada we know was shaped by people who seized opportunity in a changing world. Canada takes pride in being a diverse country, a bilingual country.
Having two official languages is one of our greatest strengths. The French language is alive and well in North America because Canadians—specifically, Quebeckers, Acadians and French speakers all over the country—made a commitment to protect it throughout our history. More than 50 years ago, we chose a modern vision of our country, a country where our two official languages would play a prominent role. The Official Languages Act gave millions of francophones from coast to coast to coast the right to access federal services in their language. English-speaking Quebeckers also have that right, and young people in official language minority communities have the right to attend school in their mother tongue.
In Canada, language is more than an abstract notion. It is our connection to the past and the vehicle for telling our stories. That is true not just of English and French, but also of indigenous languages, which our language policies must take into account.
Our world is changing. Globalization has imposed certain languages to facilitate trade. At the same time, international trade and digital technologies are promoting the use of English. In the face of these changes, our two official languages are not on equal footing. There are eight million francophones in Canada, within North America, a region of over 360 million inhabitants who are almost exclusively anglophone. It is our responsibility to protect French and to offer a modernized vision of our linguistic duality. We must take action so that all Canadians can identify with the objectives of the Official Languages Act. Our two official languages must stand on more equal footing. The government has a responsibility to ensure that everyone in the country has an opportunity to learn French, speak French and live in French, as is the case for English.
For a language to be living, it must have a strong culture. Francophones must be able to make their voices heard, especially in the digital world, where English is dominant. To that end, federal cultural institutions must promote French content.
The government also recognizes that, in order to protect and promote French, the private sector must be mobilized. People should have the right to be served and to work in French in businesses under federal jurisdiction in Quebec and in regions of the country with a strong francophone presence. A committee of experts has already been created to examine how best to formally recognize these rights and provide recourse under federal legislation, in consultation with the affected sectors.
Nevertheless, when it comes to respecting bilingualism in the workplace and an individual's right to work in the official language of their choice, the federal public service must lead by example. The government will put forward concrete measures to ensure greater compliance with language obligations.
The English-speaking community in Quebec must be able to protect its rights and also to have access to key institutions that are clearly vital to the future of the community. We will stand by their side.
We will also be strengthening the powers of the Commissioner of Official Languages and continuing to promote the use of French abroad, particularly in international organizations. The Government of Canada will make it its duty to attract and facilitate francophone immigration outside Quebec.
Moreover, all of our institutions must be bilingual, including the country's highest court. The Official Languages Act [Technical difficulty—Editor], at the Supreme Court, judges must be bilingual. In our efforts to modernize the act, we will promote bilingualism by eliminating waiting lists for French immersion programs. We will also continue to support communities and all those looking to assert their constitutional language rights.
Our government's vision is rooted in the studies conducted by this committee, so I thank you. I also want to thank you for examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the government's ability to deliver information in both official languages. I know you met with my colleague Mr. Duclos, the President of the Treasury Board, and Health Canada officials on the subject, so I, too, would be happy to answer any questions you may have in that connection.
Lastly, I want to thank the department official who is with me today, Denis Racine. He can answer more specific questions related to the official languages branch at Canadian Heritage.
Thank you, all.
It's going to be a pleasure to answer your questions.
I thank the minister for being with us this afternoon. We appreciate it.
We will be able to discuss your reform plan in detail. Unfortunately, I confess to having had some difficulty following your government's intentions over the past few years, simply because they reveal a lack of consistency. In this regard, may I remind you of the following two facts.
With respect to the right to work in French in federally regulated businesses in Quebec, the Liberal Party of Canada voted against our bill, which was aimed at precisely that objective. You say you now want to impose bilingualism on Supreme Court judges. Yet you voted against our bill, which also required the application of this principle.
After multiple failures, instead of correcting the course by introducing a bill to modernize the Official Languages Act, you are seeking to buy time by releasing a document that provides no funding, no timetable, and no additional consultations. For years, there has been much rhetoric about francophones and the francophonie, but little action to protect French.
Here today, Ontario's francophones are being dealt a new blow. Laurentian University, a flagship institution, has just cut hundreds of positions and dozens of programs in French. Political scientist Stéphanie Chouinard has even called the situation at this francophone university a “bloodbath”.
Francophones in Northern Ontario are therefore very worried. That is why the University of Sudbury, with the support of the Assemblée de la francophonie de l'Ontario, has announced a plan to transform itself into an independent French-language university. This is a proactive and crucial step that we in the NDP are championing.
Since the question is clear, I would like your answer to be fairly short.
Thank you, dear colleague.
Obviously, we want to make sure all official language minorities, including the English-speaking community in Quebec, are protected. We have constitutional obligations towards them, and we will abide by them and protect them.
That is why, for the first time, in this reform document we are making sure that first and foremost there will be an obligation on the part of the federal government to protect [Technical difficulty—Editor] institutions that are really vital to the future of a given community. Obviously, we're thinking about universities, cultural centres and the importance of a health care system and a school system, etc. That's the idea.
The second point that is fundamental also for the English-speaking community in Quebec, and for all official language communities, is the court challenges program. We want to make sure that the court challenges program is protected under the Official Languages Act, therefore we'll continue to do that.
Finally, we recognize that the English-speaking community has specific needs when it comes to funding its different organizations. It is also the case for official language minority francophones outside Quebec, and we'll continue to play a role in supporting their operations and their different projects.
Thank you, dear colleague.
I know that you have worked very hard, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Immigration, on the issue of francophone immigration in the past.
The reality is that the demographic weight of francophones outside of Quebec is declining. We have to make sure that we maintain it at 4%, and I hope that we can increase it in the future. This will require an immigration policy that recognizes that there must be francophone immigration. We must attract francophone immigrants to our country, welcome them and, ultimately, integrate them. These francophone families who come to settle here and who may come from North Africa, Lebanon or Europe must have the reflex to send their children to French-language schools, even if they are outside Quebec, in a minority situation.
The objective of the reform document is to ensure that the Official Languages Act recognizes the federal government's obligation to establish a national francophone immigration strategy. This is going to be a game changer, because the federal public service is going to find itself with the obligation to integrate this into all national immigration strategies.
We will also continue to respect the agreement between Quebec and Ottawa on the francization of immigrants. This is fundamental to the future of the French fact in Quebec. Moreover, I will be happy to continue to work with my counterparts in Quebec on these issues.
Thank you, dear colleague.
Thank you for your advocacy on this file. I think we can definitely count you as an ally.
Obviously, we want to make sure that we get rid of waiting lists when it comes to French immersion. Too many parents are putting their kids on waiting lists across the country, and that's unfortunate. Every time we lose a child who can't go to French immersion, we lose a citizen who can become bilingual.
One of the reasons for that is definitely the lack of French teachers. We want to do two things. First and foremost is working with provinces and territories to recognize diplomas, and particularly French teachers with diplomas. That's the first one.
The second one is working with the to create a new immigration pathway to be able to provide permanent residency to French educators coming from around the world who want to offer their knowledge and expertise to our kids. I think that will be welcomed by our colleagues across the country.
I had the chance to talk to the Manitoba ministers of education and francophone affairs yesterday; Mrs. Squires is one of them. They particularly saw that as good news for Manitoba. I think we can all work in the right direction to make sure we can offer more French teachers to our French immersion system, to French second language but also to our French schooling system itself—the French education system, which is the system for the minority in Manitoba and across the west.
The committee is resuming.
Today, the committee is meeting on its study of the government measures to protect and promote French in Quebec and in Canada.
I'll remind you that all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair.
Interpretation is provided.
I would now like to welcome our witnesses, who will begin our discussions with seven and a half minutes of opening remarks, followed by rounds of questions.
This afternoon, we have Sheila Risbud, president of the Association Canadienne-française de l'Alberta. With her is Isabelle Laurin, the executive director.
We also have Alexandre Cédric Doucet, president of the Société de l'Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick. He is accompanied by Ali Chaisson, the executive director.
Ms. Risbud, you have seven and a half minutes for your opening remarks. The floor is yours.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, dear committee members, ladies and gentlemen.
Thank you for inviting me to appear before this committee to discuss government measures to protect and promote French throughout Canada, particularly in Quebec, as well as in Acadia and the Atlantic provinces.
The entire Canadian Francophonie is pleased that, at this time, the federal government is showing a genuine desire to focus on promoting the sustainability of French in Canada. We have every right to hope that Minister Mélanie Joly's vision will finally, once and for all, chart a course towards real equality.
At the Société de l'Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick, or SANB, we believe that the protection and promotion of French across the country cannot be achieved without the actual implementation of Part VII of the Official Languages Act.
In preparing for this appearance, I came back to reading a brief by the late Acadian Senator Jean-Maurice Simard entitled “Bridging the Gap: From Oblivion to the Rule of Law” published in 1999. As Senator Simard pointed out:
[In] ... his 1998 Annual Report, the Commissioner of Official Languages demonstrates that the strategy for implementing Part VII of the Act, more than 10 years after it went into effect, is inadequate throughout the government as a whole.
Ladies and gentlemen, 22 years later, we must admit that the strategy for implementing the act is still inadequate.
As part of the current modernization of the act, it is essential that we aim for innovative and structural solutions by the communities themselves a greater say in their own future. In 2021, more than 50 years after the adoption of the Official Languages Act, francophone minority communities should be able to stand on their own. However, for several reasons, that's not currently the case. With some exceptions, there has been no change for many years in the funding model for programs designed by, for and with Canada's francophone and Acadian communities.
For the SANB, given the thousands of taxpayer dollars invested over the past few decades, we say that the Canadian francophone, but even more so the Acadian, taxpayer deserves better. Senator Simard, with his great foresight, understood that there were problems with the application of the positive measures in Part VII and the funding regime for advocacy organizations. He also suggested that the Privy Council Office should be the one in charge of Part VII of the Official Languages Act, because its authority is cross-cutting and applies to various departments. We agree with him. In fact, the SANB made the recommendation in its brief to the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages in 2018.
Several issues could benefit from the federal government's reappropriation of the spirit of Part VII. The federal government can, but above all must, renegotiate trilateral agreements with the provincial governments and with the communities themselves that would provide a lasting framework for the vitality of the French language across the country. This includes rural economic development, immigration, post-secondary education, new technologies and digital technology. This redefinition of our relationship would allow us to move beyond a sterile logic of consolidating gains through endless court battles.
Before concluding with a few concrete recommendations, I'd like to emphasize the crucial importance of continuing to talk more about official languages in order to combat disinformation and strengthen national unity, especially in the context of health crises where we all need to come together across the country.
Senator Jean-Maurice Simard said it well:
… the Government of Canada specifically has a duty not only “to correct the (multidimensional) erosion of the minorities”, but also to promote their vitality and actively support their development so as to that strengthen an important (and the most fragile) part of the foundation of Canada’s linguistic duality. In so doing, it would also strengthen Canada's national identity and prospects for unity.
In 2021, how do we get to the point of real implementation of Part VII of the act? To answer that question, the SANB humbly recommends that you first create a joint committee of the Senate and the House of Commons on official languages to oversee the process of modernizing and implementing the federal Official Languages Act; the revision of provincial-federal agreements to ensure that funds for the promotion of official language minority communities don't end up in the general funds of the provinces; the signing of direct agreements between the federal government and community institutions such as school boards through the official languages in education program, without the intervention of the provinces; the implementation of an asymmetrical funding regime that would give small francophone communities across the country the opportunity to flourish in an equitable manner, while recognizing that some provinces, including New Brunswick and Ontario, have special needs because of their francophone critical mass.
Moreover, the SANB reiterates its recommendation regarding the distinct character of New Brunswick in the preamble of a modernized Official Languages Act. New Brunswick and Quebec are the only two provinces that have a specific language regime.
Finally, the last recommendation is to sustain our post-secondary institutions in francophone minority communities. On that point, I would add that it is not because we don't hear publicly about the Université de Moncton and the Collège communautaire du Nouveau-Brunswick doesn't mean that their funding, admissions and sustainability aren't issues.
With all of this in mind, the SANB asserts that the implementation of Part VII of the Official Languages Act must be seen as the real driving force behind the role that the Canadian government must play in order to give communities the tools, autonomy and institutional freedom necessary to ensure the continued development of French in Canada.
Thank you, and I will be happy to respond to any questions or comments.
My name is Sheila Risbud, and I'm the president of the Association canadienne-française de l'Alberta, the ACFA.
The ACFA was founded in 1926, and today it represents 268,000 French-speaking Albertans, a number that increased by more than half between 1991 and 2016.
Today, I'd like to focus on the situation of Campus Saint-Jean, the only French-language post-secondary institution in Alberta and west of Manitoba.
Founded in 1908 by the Oblate Fathers, the institution became a faculty of the University of Alberta in 1977 as a result of an agreement between the University of Alberta, the Government of Alberta, the federal government and the Oblate Fathers. The role of the Oblate Fathers in this agreement is now assumed by the ACFA.
The Campus Saint-Jean is essential to the vitality of the francophonie in Alberta and western Canada.
In recent years, Alberta's French-speaking community has experienced some of the largest growth in the country. This growth is creating an increased demand for French-language services in a variety of areas, but especially in education, as you mentioned earlier. For example, over the past 20 years, enrolment in French-language schools and French immersion schools in Alberta has doubled.
Alberta is therefore facing a significant need for a qualified workforce and a shortage of French-speaking teachers and other education professionals. It is also important to remember that it is these teachers and professionals who are needed to provide French-language education guaranteed by section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Campus Saint-Jean therefore plays a fundamental role. To do this, it welcomes more than 900 students per year, an increase of more than 40% since 2014, despite the two increases in the average number of students required to be admitted.
However, Campus Saint-Jean suffers from a severe operational and structural financial deficit, which affects its ability to meet this demand. In terms of operational underfunding, Campus Saint-Jean receives provincial grants for only 70% of its full-time students. In Alberta, faculties have enrolment quotas and receive funding based on those quotas. However, for Campus Saint-Jean, registrations and demand far exceed the quota.
While for other faculties, the quota allows for a certain amount of allocations and students can always enrol in another university, the situation is completely different for Campus Saint-Jean, because there is no other similar French-language institution in Alberta. So denying enrolment is contrary to Campus Saint-Jean's mandate to ensure the vitality of the francophone community and is therefore intended to assimilate and weaken the French fact in Alberta.
Last year, the Government of Alberta also made further budget cuts of 13.3%. As a result, Campus Saint-Jean was forced to reduce its course offerings by nearly 20%. The ACFA had to launch the “Sauvons Saint-Jean” campaign to take legal action against the Government of Alberta and the University of Alberta. I would also like to mention that additional cuts are expected in the new fiscal year and that there are still concerns in the francophone community about the restructuring initiative undertaken by the University of Alberta to clean up its spending.
In addition, the federal funding received by Campus Saint-Jean under the official languages in education program, the OLEP, hasn't changed since at least 2009. In real dollars, this funding has been gradually reduced, despite the increased demand for education services offered by Campus Saint-Jean.
Campus Saint-Jean is in dire need of renovations if it is to maintain its infrastructure. However, in recent years, the Government of Alberta has repeatedly refused to address these needs and has provided no provincial contribution equivalent to that offered by the federal government. The most recent stalemate is an $8 million infrastructure project that has been approved by the federal government but is currently on hold due to the provincial government's failure to contribute to the project.
In recent years, the Government of Canada has made several commitments, whether in the Action Plan for Official Languages 2018-23, in the mandate letters to Minister Joly or in the recent language reform document. While these commitments are much appreciated, they are not yet accompanied by concrete measures, which we fear are too late.
Investments in French-language post-secondary institutions, and particularly in Campus Saint-Jean, are needed now to maintain and develop a network of institutions that protects and supports French in Canada, strengthens the vitality of our communities and increases bilingualism among Canadians.
Over the past year, the ACFA has proposed various solutions to the federal government to save Campus Saint-Jean, including a complementary contribution to Campus Saint-Jean under the OLEP funding; the creation of a French-language post-secondary education fund for western Canada, as demand is on the rise; and finally, the increase of funding for French-language post-secondary institutions and its indexation, under the OLEP.
While education is a provincial jurisdiction, the ACFA also believes that the federal government should use its spending power to protect linguistic minorities and, in so doing, protect French in Canada. For example, the Government of Canada could make exceptions for funding initiatives in the area of post-secondary education without parallel provisions. The paralyzing framework created by this type of provision hinders positive action towards our community. This type of provision should be eliminated or, at a minimum, provide more flexibility and discretion for the Government of Canada.
In conclusion, the need for concrete action is urgent. Campus Saint-Jean can't wait for the modernization of the Official Languages Act, which is dragging on, or for the release of the next Action Plan for Official Languages, which is scheduled for 2023.
The ACFA hopes that concrete measures will be included in the next federal budget, which will be released on Monday, and counts on the support of committee members.
Thank you for your attention.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
First, let me welcome the witnesses. Their testimony was very interesting. I would have liked to be able to hear them.
If there's one word I took away from those two excellent statements, it is “now”. We need money now. Yesterday, at Laurentian University, we saw the urgent need. We can see it again today at Campus Saint-Jean, and in the Atlantic provinces.
I want to congratulate Ms. Risbud for her efforts on behalf of Campus Saint-Jean. She has specifically requested that the committee look at funding for post-secondary institutions.
I would like to inform the members of the committee that, as a result of my conversation with Ms. Risbud, I introduced the motion, which was unanimously passed, asking that the committee call on the federal government to take responsibility for section 23 of the charter, as the witness mentioned. The Minister's mandate letter also mentions the need to support post-secondary institutions. It is important to stop making excuses for not participating because the provincial government does not want to participate.
Enough is enough. It is our responsibility as a federal government. We, the Conservatives, want to help you and we are committed to doing so within the first 100 days following an election. Minister Joly came to us promising us the world in a white paper, but we are not sure when such promises will be fulfilled. It talks about consultation, but we have been asking for a modernization of the Official Languages Act for five years.
Ms. Risbud, my question is very simple. You have asked the federal government for additional funding for Campus Saint-Jean, which is a pillar in the west. What is the Minister's response to your request for a contribution to support Campus Saint-Jean?
Thank you very much, Mr. Blaney.
My thanks to the witnesses for their presentation.
My family and I are connected to Campus Saint-Jean. My father took courses there in the 1940s. In addition, I am Franco-Albertan through my mother, whose last name is Beaudoin. You could say it's in my blood.
This situation is very important. You are here before a federal committee. We are discussing how the federal government can help you, and you have made some very good suggestions. I hope they are implemented. There is also a lot of talk about the white paper. As my colleague has already said, there are a lot of fine words, but we want real action.
I was very pleased to hear about the increase in the number of people who speak French in Alberta. That is very encouraging. You mentioned that there are more than 46,000 students in French immersion.
In Alberta, the training of francophone teachers who wish to offer courses at the elementary and secondary levels is a major problem.
Can you tell us about the training of teachers in Alberta for these programs?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I thank our witnesses for being with us.
My first question is for Ms. Risbud of the Association canadienne-française de l'Alberta.
Ms. Risbud, I'm very pleased to learn that the francophone population has increased, and doubled in schools in recent years. Unfortunately, the shortage of teachers and the problems with Campus Saint-Jean, which trains teachers for those schools, seem to be creating a vicious circle.
You said that the federal government seemed open to increasing operational funding for Campus Saint-Jean. Apparently, however, they are facing resistance from the Alberta government. If you have to rely on Jason Kenney to make the right decisions, it's a little like the play Waiting for Godot: you might be waiting a very long time.
Do you think there's any way to get around the dollar-for-dollar matching contribution rule, and that the federal government could do what it did with the Université de l'Ontario français and provide the funding itself? The funding is absolutely crucial to ensuring the sustainability and survival of Campus Saint-Jean in Alberta.
Thank you, Mr. Doucet. I'd like to think that concrete measures will be taken quickly. I hope it will reassure you to know that, should there ever be a change in government, we Conservatives would be ready to act very quickly, within our first 100 days.
I will now turn to Ms. Risbud.
You stated that, from 1991 to 2016, the number of Franco-Albertans increased by 50%. I feel those are great results. However, I found some of your other comments disturbing, and I will rephrase them in my own words: They have a foot on the oxygen line. By cutting off supplies, they are keeping the number of francophones using the language outside Quebec from going up. I feel that the current governments are using that approach. Not increasing a budget means decreasing it, given the cost of living index. The demand and the enrolment are there, but unfortunately, we don't feel that current governments are willing to [Technical difficulties].
What should be done most urgently to get results and stop the bleeding? In the past, it has worked. The numbers from 1991 to 2016 are proof of that. But right now, in Quebec and everywhere else, you can feel that French is declining. It's urgent that we take action. In your opinion, what would the top priority be? How could we get through to our governments and convince them to act swiftly?
Mr. Chair, I will be speaking first, and I'll be sharing my time with Ms. Lalonde.
As I said earlier, I am from Manitoba, as is Mr. Mazier. As is the case in Alberta, demand for French education is growing rapidly and our education system is not keeping up. From what we've heard today, it's been a difficult year for Franco-Albertans and the ACF over the issue of chronic underfunding.
What future do you see for the Franco-Albertan community, and more largely, francophones in western Canada, if provincial governments seek to undermine the rights of franco-westerners through underfunding?
In response to some of the comments I've heard, I would be very worried if provinces abandoned their responsibilities with respect to higher education in this way. It could be a very slippery slope, and that, thankfully, hasn't happened in Manitoba.
Could you comment on that? I know there are former colleagues of Mr. Kenney's on this committee. What would be your message to him, through them, and how can all members of this committee forge federal-provincial co-operation in this area of French higher education?
That's great, thank you very much.
My dear witnesses, thank you for joining us today. I am taking notes as you share your ideas and suggestions with us.
Ms. Risbud, I would like to go back to something you said: the provincial government is not prepared to help you. Personally, I find it interesting to see that, when provinces become conservative by democratic means, my colleagues in the Conservative Party try to find excuses instead of ways to work together. Since 2015, the Francophonie outside Quebec has seen no one but the federal government.
I'd like to hear you talk about your own experience. I feel that you are going to say the same thing as I do, that postsecondary studies in French are a fundamental pillar supporting the long-term viability of the French fact outside Quebec.
In your experience, therefore, and in terms of postsecondary studies in French, how can provincial governments cause negative consequences for the long-term viability of French in minority situations? That is what you are experiencing in Alberta, despite an increase in the number of francophones and of those who want to study in French.