Mr. Speaker, as always, I would like to salute all the people of Beauport—Limoilou tuning in this afternoon. I would also like to salute my colleague from Saint Boniface—Saint Vital, who just gave a speech on Bill C-91. We worked together for a time on the Standing Committee on Official Languages. I know languages in general are important to him. I also know that, as a Métis person, his personal and family history have a lot to do with his interest in advocating for indigenous languages. That is very honourable of him.
For those watching who are not familiar with Bill C-91, it is a bill on indigenous languages. Enacted in 1969, Canada's Official Languages Act is now 50 years old. That makes this a big year for official languages, and the introduction of this bill on indigenous languages, which is now at third reading, is just and fitting. That is why my colleague from Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, the Conservative Party's indigenous affairs critic, said she would support the bill when it was introduced back in February. Nevertheless, we do have some criticisms, which I will lay out shortly.
The bill's purpose is twofold. Its primary purpose is to protect indigenous languages and ensure their survival. Did you know that there are 70 indigenous languages spoken in Canada? The problem is that while some languages are still spoken more or less routinely, others are disappearing. Beyond ensuring their survival, this bill seeks to promote the development of indigenous languages that have all but disappeared for the many reasons we are discussing.
The second purpose of the bill, which is just as commendable, is to directly support reconciliation between our founding peoples and first nations, or in other words, reconciliation between federal institutions and indigenous peoples. As the bill says, the purpose is to support and promote the use of indigenous languages, including indigenous sign languages. It seeks to support the efforts of indigenous peoples to reclaim, revitalize, maintain and strengthen indigenous languages, especially the more commonly-spoken ones.
Canada's official opposition obviously decided to support the principles of this bill right from the beginning for four main reasons. The first involves the Conservative Party's record on indigenous matters. Our record may not have been the same in the 19th century, and the same could be said of all parties, but during our 10 years in power, Prime Minister Harper recognized the profound tragedy and grave error of the residential schools. He offered an official apology in 2008.
I want to share a quote from Prime Minister Harper, taken from the speech by my colleague from Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo:
The government now recognizes that the...Indian residential schools policy...has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language.
That is why my colleague from Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo said:
We acknowledged in 2008 that [the Canadian government at the time was] part of the destruction of these languages and cultures. Therefore, the government must be part of the solution in terms of helping to bring the languages [and culture] back, and part of that is Bill C-91.
This is why I said that reconciliation is one of the objectives of this bill, beyond the more tangible objective. That is the first reason the Conservatives will support this bill on indigenous languages.
The second reason is that, under Mr. Harper's fantastic tenure, we created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was an important and highly enlightening process.
There were some very sad moments. Members of indigenous nations came to talk about their background and share their stories. They put their cards on the table for all to see. They bared their souls and told the Canadian government what they go through today and what their ancestors went through in the 19th century. Not only did the Conservatives offer a formal apology in 2008, but they also created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to promote reconciliation between indigenous peoples and the Government of Canada and all Canadians. Our legacy is a testament to our sincere belief in reconciliation. I am sure that is true for all MPs and all Canadians.
Now I will move on to the third reason we support this bill. I am the critic for Canada's official languages, French and English. That is one of the reasons I am speaking today. When I first saw Bill C-91 on the legislative agenda, I considered the issue and then read the Official Languages Act of 1969. The final paragraph of the preamble to the Official Languages Act states that the act:
...recognizes the importance of preserving and enhancing the use of languages other than English and French while strengthening the status and use of the official languages....
When members examine constitutional or legislative matters in committee or in debates such as this one, we need to take the intent of the legislators into consideration. When the Official Languages Act was introduced and passed in 1969, the legislators had already clearly indicated that they intended the protection of official languages to one day include the promotion, enhancement and maintenance of every other language in Canada, including the 70 indigenous languages. Clearly that took some time. That was 50 years ago.
Those are the first three reasons why we support this bill.
The fourth reason goes without saying. We have a duty to make amends for past actions. Those who are familiar with Canada's history know that both French and English colonizers lived in relative harmony with indigenous peoples for the first two or three centuries after Jacques Cartier's arrival in the Gaspé in 1534 and Samuel de Champlain's arrival in Quebec City in 1608. Indigenous peoples are the ones who helped us survive the first winters, plain and simple. They helped us to clear the land and grow crops. Unfortunately, in the late 19th century, when we were able to thrive without the help of indigenous peoples, we began implementing policies of cultural alienation and residential schools. All of that happened in an international context involving cultural theories that have since been debunked and are now considered preposterous.
Yes, we need to make amends for Canada's history and what for what the founding peoples, our francophone and anglophone ancestors, did. It is a matter of justice. The main goal of Bill C-91 is to ensure the development of indigenous languages in Canada, to keep them alive and to prevent them from disappearing.
In closing, for the benefit of Canadians watching us this afternoon, I would like to summarize what Bill C-91 would ultimately achieve. Part of it is about recognition. The bill provides that:
(a) the Government of Canada recognizes that the rights of Indigenous people recognized and affirmed by section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 include rights related to Indigenous languages.
This is a bit like what happened with the Official Languages Act, which, thanks to its section 82, takes precedence over other acts. It is also related to section 23 on school boards and the protection of anglophone and francophone linguistic minorities across the country. This bill would create the same situation with respect to section 35 and indigenous laws in Canada.
The legislation also states that the government may enter into agreements to protect languages. The Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism may enter into different types of agreements or arrangements in respect of indigenous languages with indigenous governments or other indigenous governing bodies or indigenous organizations, taking into account the unique circumstances and needs of indigenous groups, communities and peoples.
Lastly, the bill would ensure the availability of translation and interpretation services like those available for official languages, but probably not to the same degree. Federal institutions can cause documents to be translated into an indigenous language or provide interpretation services to facilitate the use of an indigenous language.
Canadians listening to us should note one important point. I myself do not speak any indigenous languages, but for the past year, anyone, especially indigenous members, can speak in indigenous languages in the House. Members simply need to give translators 24- or 48-hour notice. That aspect of the bill is about providing translation and interpretation services, but those services will not be offered to the same standard as services provided under the Official Languages Act. However, it is patently clear that an effort is being made to encourage the development of indigenous languages, not only on the ground or in communities where indigenous people live, but also within federal institutions.
I would also point out that the bill provides for a commissioner's office. I find that a little strange. As my colleague from Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo said, for the past four years, the Liberals have been telling us that their most important relationship is the one they have with indigenous peoples. I understand that as a policy statement, but I think it would be more commendable for a government to say that its most important relationship is the one it has with all Canadians.
Now I will talk briefly about the current Commissioner of Official Languages. Many will understand the link I am trying to make with the new indigenous languages commissioner position that will be created. Right when all official language minority communities across the country are talking about the need to modernize the act, today the Commissioner of Official Languages released his annual report and his report on modernizing the act. Most Canadians want bilingualism that is even more vibrant and more wide-spread across Canada. At the same time, there are clearly important gaps in terms of implementing the Official Languages Act across the entire government apparatus.
I have a some examples. A few months ago, the National Energy Board published a report in English only in violation of the OLA. At the time, the Minister of Tourism, Official Languages and La Francophonie said that was unacceptable. The government's job is not to simply say so, however. She should have taken action to ensure that the National Energy Board complies with the Official Languages Act. Then, there were the websites showing calls for tender by Public Services and Procurement Canada that are often riddled with mistakes, grammatical, syntax, and translation errors and misinterpretation. Again, the Minister of Tourism, Official Languages and La Francophonie told us that this was unacceptable.
There is also the Canada Infrastructure Bank, in Toronto. The Conservatives oppose such an institution. We do not believe it will produce the desired results. In its first year, the Canada Infrastructure Bank struggled to serve Canadians in both official languages. Again, the minister stated that this is unacceptable.
These problems keep arising because of cabinet's reckless approach to implementing, as well as ensuring compliance with and enforcement of, the Official Languages Act across the government apparatus. It has taken its duties lightly. The minister responsible is not showing any leadership within cabinet.
When cabinet is not stepping up, we should be able to count on the commissioner. I met with the Commissioner of Official Languages, Mr. Théberge, yesterday, and he gave me a summary of the report he released this morning. He said that he had a lot of investigative powers, including the power to subpoena. However, he said that he has no coercive power. This is one of the main issues with enforcement. For example, the majority of Canadians abide by the Criminal Code because police officers exercise coercive powers, ensuring that everyone complies with Canadian laws and the Criminal Code.
The many flaws and shortcomings in the implementation of the Official Languages Act are due not only to a lack of leadership in cabinet, but also to the commissioner not having adequate coercive power. The Conservatives will examine this issue very carefully to determine whether the commissioner should have coercive power.
The provisions of Bill C-91, an act respecting indigenous languages, dealing with the establishment of the office of the commissioner of indigenous languages are quite vague. Not only will the commissioner not have any coercive power, but he or she will also not have any well-established investigative powers.
The Liberals waited until the end of their four-year term to bring this bill forward, even though they spent those four years telling us that the relationship with indigenous peoples is their most important relationship. Furthermore, in committee, they frantically rushed to table 20-odd amendments to their own bill, as my colleague from Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo pointed out.
How can the Liberals say their most important relationship is their relationship with indigenous peoples when they waited four years to table this bill? What is more, not only did they table the bill in a slapdash way, but they had to get their own members to propose amendments to improve it. It is not unusual for members to propose amendments, but the Liberals had to table a whole stack of them because the bill had all kinds of flaws.
In closing, I think this bill is a good step towards reconciliation, but there are no tangible measures for the commissioner. For instance, if members have their speeches to the House translated into an indigenous language and the translation is bad, what can the commissioner do? If an indigenous community signs an agreement with the federal government and then feels that the agreement was not implemented properly, who can challenge the government on their behalf?
There is still a lot of work to be done, but we need to pass this bill as quickly as possible, despite all of its flaws, because the end of this Parliament is approaching. Once again, the government has shown its lack of seriousness, as it has with many other bills. To end on a positive note, I would like to say that this bill is a step toward reconciliation between indigenous peoples and the founding peoples, which is very commendable and necessary.