Ms. Alexandrine Latendresse (Louis-Saint-Laurent, NDP)
moved that Bill C-419, An Act respecting language skills, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
She said: Mr. Speaker, I am very proud to rise here today to introduce my private member's bill, Bill C-419, to the House and to answer questions from my hon. colleagues.
First of all, I would like to take a moment to sincerely thank my friend and colleague, the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst, for all his support and the huge efforts he has made regarding my bill. I do not know anyone who advocates for bilingualism as passionately and eloquently as he does. I hope his bill requiring Supreme Court judges to be bilingual will enjoy as much success as mine.
If I may, I would like to take the time to provide some more detailed information about the substance of my bill. I know my colleagues are already aware of what Bill C-419 proposes, but I would like to begin by clearly defining the foundation for the changes proposed in this bill.
My bill has already received quite a bit of media attention, which makes me very proud. My bill has inspired people to take the time to contact my office, looking for more information and asking some excellent questions. During my speech, I will draw on some of those very relevant questions in order to ensure that my approach remains clear and can be easily understood.
Bill C-419 is actually very simple. The bill's official summary states that “persons whose appointment requires the approval by resolution of the Senate, the House of Commons or both Houses of Parliament must understand English and French without the aid of an interpreter and be able to express themselves clearly in both official languages”.
Those few people whose appointment must be approved by one house or both houses are commonly called “officers of Parliament”. Therefore, Bill C-419 would require that officers of Parliament be fluent in Canada's two official languages when they are appointed.
For people watching at home, I want to stress again that this bill would not require that all elected federal MPs be bilingual. That would be an amazing proposal, but it is a different kettle of fish and not what we are working on today. This bill only refers to officers of Parliament, those senior officials who, as I just explained, are appointed by the House of Commons or the Senate, or by both the House and Senate.
There will still be unilingual MPs in our Parliament. That is totally normal. However, just as government operations must adapt to the needs of Canadians, Parliament must adapt to the needs of elected MPs. This means that officers of Parliament must adapt to the needs of MPs, no matter what their language background.
A question that naturally springs to mind is: how many officers of Parliament are there in total?
Who are they? First of all, these are people who have expertise like few others, who fulfill an essential role in our democratic system. The Parliament of Canada has to be accountable to Canadians. That goes without saying. This accountability is guaranteed through the work of officers of Parliament. In a way, they are akin to safeguards, alarm systems and safety nets. They guarantee the legitimacy of the parliamentary system. They are there to support the government in its obligation to keep Canadians abreast of what it is doing. When the government fails to disclose everything, officers of Parliament can go through the government's paperwork to ensure that everything is in order, legal and fair. They are the eyes of Canadians in the drawers, wastebaskets and paper shredders of the government. Understandably, officers of Parliament are a valuable resource in our system. They are the most reliable component of the entire parliamentary process.
How many are there? Roughly 10. Why do I say “roughly”? Because this is not a precise and well-defined category. There is a bit of a grey area. The precise definition of who is an officer of Parliament and who is not—and for many other categories for that matter—seems to be more a matter of tradition than anything else.
My bill focuses on 10 positions. What are they? I will list them: the Auditor General of Canada, the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, the Commissioner of Official Languages, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, the Information Commissioner of Canada, the Senate Ethics Officer, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada, the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada and the President of the Public Service Commission of Canada.
That is all of them. Canadians are not always aware of the important role these various people play. Every year, these officers of Parliament table reports that have a major impact on how political life in Canada unfolds. If any inconsistencies are noted, the government will be required to explain those to the opposition and, by extension, to Canadians, to whom we are all accountable.
The system is perfect not because it prevents abuse but because any abuse will always be detected in the end. The safety measures are an integral part of the system and help to ensure that the system functions properly. However, to be able to detect this abuse, officers have to be able to understand what they are told and what they read.
Imagine if the former auditor general, Sheila Fraser, had not been bilingual. It would have been much harder for her to understand the complexity of the sponsorship scandal, since it was centred in Quebec. When officers have to analyze such sensitive and complex documents, it is of the utmost importance that they be able to do so in the language in which those documents were written. A mastery of both official languages was absolutely essential for Ms. Fraser because, despite the excellent work of the translators and interpreters, she might have missed some nuances that were key to understanding the scandal. Let us not forget that, without Ms. Fraser, this charade might still be going on.
Officers of Parliament have a clear mandate: to uphold, promote and monitor integrity. They have the right to know everything, to ask anything and to understand everything that is happening within their jurisdictions.
The Auditor General of Canada must conduct independent audits of government operations. He reviews the accounting, checks the accuracy of financial statements and decides whether the government is using public funds effectively and fairly.
The Chief Electoral Officer is the senior official responsible for the administration of federal elections and referendums. His office is responsible for registering political parties, maintaining voter lists and enforcing the Canada Elections Act.
The position of Senate Ethics Officer is held by one of the senior officials of the Senate who are responsible for ensuring that the Senate institutions run properly. The Senate Ethics Officer is responsible for enforcing the Conflict of Interest Code for Senators.
Next, the President of the Public Service Commission of Canada is the head of the commission. The commission—and I am quoting the by-laws and operating principles of the Public Service Commission—"is an independent agency mandated by Parliament to ensure a public service that is competent, non-partisan, representative of the Canadian population and able to serve the public with integrity and in the official language of their choice.”
Whether we are talking about the Commissioner of Lobbying, who ensures that elected officials fulfill their rights and obligations under the Lobbying Act, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, who is responsible for giving confidential advice to public office holders, or the Commissioner of Official Languages, whose job is to ensure that everyone abides by the Official Languages Act, they all protect Canadians, elected officials and the system.
Our system is precious and reliable. It exists for all of us, and officers of Parliament play an essential role in maintaining the excellence and sustainability of the system. It is easy to see. These senior officials must all deal with Canadians from both of Canada's linguistic groups and must consult documents written in both languages. Their understanding of French and English is essential.
Bilingual candidates have generally been appointed to these positions in the past. Everyone acknowledges the fact that the ability to interact in both languages is a prerequisite if we want the job to be done well in a timely manner. In other words, tradition has been a kind of precedent.
Being bilingual in French and English is a competency. Since Canada adopted institutional bilingualism, anyone in this country who wants to become bilingual can do so. It is a matter of putting in the time; all of the tool to get there already exist. I will be very specific. I am talking to those who may not entirely understand. Institutional bilingualism simply means that the government adapts to its citizens; not the other way around. One thing remains clear: linguistic duality will always exist.
No one is trying to create a culturally bilingual state. Not at all. The anglophone side will continue to live, dream and love in English, and the francophone side will continue to do the same in French. Bilingualism is seen as a plus, but it is not an obligation in this country. When Canadians who live in linguistic minority communities talk about bilingualism, they often mix up certain concepts. Some say mean things, others say incorrect things and others dream about multicultural utopian futures. There is no shortage of opinions.
I would like to make some things clear. People often use foreign examples—European ones, specifically—to support their opinions, but those examples do not necessarily reflect our situation. People name officially bilingual countries in Europe, assuming that it is the same thing and that we should either act the exact same way or the complete opposite way.
One of the countries most often mentioned is Belgium. However, it is actually not an appropriate example. While there are parallels between our situations, the Belgian model does not really apply to the Canadian situation. First, the country’s very small size is a factor. There is no need to deploy resources far from Brussels, since the federal capital is readily accessible to everyone. As we know, that is not the case for us.
Second, the linguistic dividing line in Belgium is very firm, and ultimately it has made Belgium a completely decentralized, even divided, country. Flanders and Wallonia live side by side, but they manage their own cultural affairs without really needing to consult each other. Canada tries to do things quite differently. We want to live together.
If fact, if there is a European country whose language situation better reflects Canada’s, it is Finland. Finland is officially bilingual. Finnish and Swedish are both protected in the Finnish constitution. The Finnish government adapts to the Swedish minority language group by providing it with all government services in Swedish. In Finland, children systematically learn both official languages in school. Our situation is similar. Although the Swedish-speaking minority mainly lives within a well-defined geographic area, its members do still live all over Finland.
The Finnish government makes sure that all services it is responsible for providing to the public are available in both languages.
That is institutional bilingualism. The government arranges things to include everyone. No one is obliged to be something they are not. No one tries to impose their language on anyone else. That is the most appropriate system for Canada, for our demographics and our geography.
It will come as no surprise to anyone if I say that of the two languages, French is the one in the minority in Canada. This naturally creates a situation with which we are already familiar. More French speakers than English speakers are bilingual. This is not a criticism directed at the majority; it is simply an observation.
On that point, however, I would like to mention Quebec's English-speaking minority. The last four decades have had an enormous impact on how that segment of our society has come to see itself. Political events and the development of new sentiments in Quebec have compelled these million individuals to reinvent themselves and adapt.
I would like to take this opportunity to tell the anglophones of Quebec that we are proud to live with them and that our future will be a shared one, just as our past has been.
We might think, then, that this bill would benefit francophones more because they are more aware of the need to learn the second language than are anglophones, who are the victims of an odd sort of prejudice precisely because they are part of a majority all their lives. However, I believe that this is a completely false argument.
You do not suddenly become an officer of Parliament by surprise in the middle of a career as a clerk in Saskatoon or as an undertaker in Sorel, without seeing it coming. Someone who is already moving in circles from which he or she may emerge as a candidate for that kind of position is well aware of Canadian law and knows that bilingualism is a requirement.
We are causing harm to no one by requiring bilingualism as a precondition by law. On the contrary, we are doing a lot of good, and here is why.
I have just returned from Moncton, the capital of Acadia, where I had the opportunity and pleasure to meet with several Acadian cultural organizations. Passing through Acadia always does an enormous amount of good for your national feeling. The people you meet there are often extraordinary. Acadia is a land of rare, even unique dynamism and vitality.
So I went to meet with those organizations to present this bill to them. The Acadians long ago made a clear choice for their future. New Brunswick being what it is, they decided that bilingualism was an asset, and they thus made it part of their vision for society.
New Brunswick is the only Canadian province expressly referred to in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Its bilingualism is protected, and that is clearly set out in the act.
Reaction to this initiative was very positive. All the organizations offered their support for my bill. To them, it was clearly consistent with the general thrust of the goals we have set for ourselves as a country. I was very pleased to see that this bill met some genuine political expectations in Acadia.
Acadians live as a linguistic minority. They are therefore extremely sensitive to that fact and know how to advocate for their rights. From the outset, of course, they are a people of uncommon strength of character. As a Quebecker, I can say that, whereas we in Quebec complain like souls suffering in the limbo of our thwarted desires, Acadians often forge ahead, make demands and win.
It is an unusual privilege to be able to travel across our country and see how attached people are to their language rights.
Perhaps we should stop viewing ourselves as the Trojans of North America.
We need only talk to each other and listen to each other because Canada is a fundamentally open, progressive, fair and good country. We are the envy of the entire world as result of these values that define us and that Canadians fully embrace.
I am personally convinced that we have every interest in joining forces and working together. That is ultimately the only way for Canada's two linguistic communities to reconcile. What some have for too long called two solitudes can ultimately prove to be two solicitudes.
Hon. Christian Paradis (Minister of Industry and Minister of State (Agriculture), CPC):
Mr. Speaker, today I am pleased to announce that our government fully supports the primary objective of this bill and that we will be proud to vote in favour of it.
It is an honour for me today to present our Conservative government's response to Bill C-419 respecting language skills for officers of Parliament to ensure that all officers of Parliament are able to express themselves in our great country's two official languages. This support is in line with our party's long-standing tradition, our legacy to Canadians and our vision for our country's future.
I began to get involved in the Conservative Party as a teenager some years ago. Time unfortunately passes quickly, but I was already a proud Quebecker then. The more I learned about the history of our people and of our country, the more I realized how the Conservative Party had laid the foundation of this country in a way that would enable our nation to survive and prosper.
As the Prime Minister often says, our country was born in French, in Quebec City, in 1608. When our founders laid the groundwork for our modern Canada in 1867, they chose the confederation model, led by Conservatives John A. Macdonald and Georges-Étienne Cartier, to enable our nation to grow in our great country.
I should also note that it was in 1959, under the Conservative government of the Right Hon. John Diefenbaker, that simultaneous interpretation was introduced here in this House. As I did not support the Liberals' policy, which was mainly about keeping Quebec in its place, it was clear to me that promoting Quebec's identity, the French language and respect for provincial jurisdiction was part of the Conservatives' DNA in Quebec.
I therefore enthusiastically joined the Conservative Party, and time has proven me right. Years have passed since the government of the Right Hon. Brian Mulroney made the principle of the advancement of official languages the central component of the Official Languages Act.
However, when I meet people and our supporters on my travels in Quebec, I can see they are still moved by that vision for our country and our nation. I know they are as proud as I am to see how our government and the Prime Minister have taken up the torch.
In recent years, our Conservative government and our Prime Minister have written a new chapter of history by recognizing the great nation of Quebec. Quebec now has a seat at UNESCO. We have also invested significant amounts of money in our communities to promote our official languages and cultural diversity under the roadmap for linguistic duality. Our government continues to be clearly committed to promoting our official languages in Canada and on the international stage.
That is why the Prime Minister travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo in October for the Sommet de la Francophonie, an organization in which Canada plays a true leadership role. Not only did we host the Sommet de la Francophonie in the magnificent city of Quebec in 2008, but last year that city also hosted the very first global forum on the French language.
As I said earlier, Conservatives in Quebec are proud of our government’s achievements and have also expressed their support for the principle of this bill. The Quebec caucus has listened to them, the Prime Minister has also listened to them, and even more importantly, we share their belief. It is therefore entirely natural for us to continue to build on our tradition and support the idea that this bill advances.
We do see a number of technical issues in this bill that we will be able to resolve when we examine it in committee, and we will be pleased to bring our contribution and our Conservative know-how to that task. The approach we are going to take will be constructive, with the aim of ensuring that this important bill is passed. We will therefore go forward with a pragmatic approach, an approach that acknowledges our history and builds for the future. In other words, a Conservative approach.
If there is one place in Canada where an example should be set and our principles of promoting our official languages honoured, it is certainly the Parliament of Canada. Our Acadian and Fransaskois friends, the Brayons, and Quebeckers—all are well aware of what a treasure a language is.
Our support for this bill will send a clear message that today more than ever, promoting our official languages is a guiding principle for the federal government, not just because Canada was founded in French, but also because French must be at the heart of our future.
Hon. Mauril Bélanger (Ottawa—Vanier, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I listened carefully to what the minister said. I served on the Standing Committee on Official Languages for a year and never understood the Conservative approach. In any case, we will certainly get back to that issue eventually.
I grew up in northeastern Ontario, in Mattawa, and went to school in North Bay. A local lawyer by the name of Dick Tafel was so adamantly anti-francophone that he became one of the best allies the francophone population could have. Indeed, each time he sent a letter to the North Bay Nugget or spoke on a radio or TV show, his comments were so shocking that they really brought us together.
As a member of this House, I saw something similar happen in 1997, when the Ontario provincial government led by Mike Harris decided to shut down the Montfort Hospital, the only French-language hospital in Ontario. There was a public outcry. Less than two months later, 10,000 people gathered at the Ottawa Civic Centre. It was the start of a legal and public campaign that lasted seven years.
The former Ontario government gave in, and the Montfort Hospital is now twice the size it used to be. It even has a 20-year contract with the federal Department of National Defence. No one will ever dare attack the Montfort Hospital again, because the reaction was so forceful. So each time I talk about it, I thank Premier Harris, who lashed out at us so strongly that we stood up for ourselves, with great results.
I believe we are now in a similar situation. In 2011, the Prime Minister and his government appointed a unilingual Auditor General, even though information published in the Canada Gazette said that in order to be eligible, candidates had to be bilingual, that is, fluent in both French and English. But the Prime Minister sidestepped that requirement and announced the job would be filled by a unilingual person. We all remember how strongly the media and the House reacted to the news.
My party did not want to support the initiative in any way, not even vote against it, and the Liberal members walked out of the House. We could not stomach watching the Prime Minister and his government turn back the clock on such an important issue. A multitude of complaints were filed with the Commissioner of Official Languages, who wrote a scathing report about the government. A number of my Conservative friends—indeed, I have Conservative friends, well, Progressive Conservative—told me they were very uncomfortable with this decision, and they still are.
Again, there was legal action. The matter is currently before the courts. One of my friends, the hon. Jean-Jacques Blais, a former solicitor general and minister of national defence in the Trudeau government, brought this case before the courts because it is disrespectful of Canada's Official Languages Act, a quasi-constitutional law. This will go through because we will see that the government did indeed fail in its duty.
We have before us today Bill C-419, a wonderful initiative by the hon. member for Louis-Saint-Laurent. I have already commended her on this, and I am doing so again. I did not mention it, but according to some media reports, the Prime Minister apparently admitted to his caucus this fall that it was a mistake to appoint a unilingual Auditor General. I wonder whether the mistake he was talking about was violating the Official Languages Act, failing to comply with the criteria that he and his government came up with themselves, or prompting a reaction, the sort of mini-tsunami we are currently seeing, because Canadians will stand up for linguistic duality whether the Conservatives like it or not. Such is the nature of people who, as my colleague from Louis-Saint-Laurent says, want to live together respectfully. That is where things stand today.
This all began in 1969. At the time, the Trudeau government passed the Official Languages Act in this House and in the Senate. It became a quasi-constitutional statute, in which both Parliament and the executive, or cabinet, have an equally important role to play. This is the history behind this bill. In Parliament, we must be able to obey the law, to follow the example, to add new conditions, new prerequisites to the law in order to keep pace with this evolving issue.
If this were a static issue, Canada would still be caught up in the same squabbles as in the 1930s, when francophones were fighting for the federal government to issue bilingual cheques. Imagine. That was the big battle at that time. I admit that we have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
Today, the Conservatives are saying that they will support this bill, but that is not exactly what the minister is saying. They will support the basic principle of the bill. I would like to warn my NDP, Liberal and Conservative colleagues. I know the Conservative Party's tactics. In the House they cannot decide to proceed in camera, at least not yet.
The Conservatives cannot go in camera in the House. If they did so, they would have Canadians revolting against them. However, they do it regularly in committees.
So if in committee, they decide that they do not like something and that they want to amend it, they could easily require the meetings to be held in camera, since they have a majority. With all due respect, I really do not trust this government. I have seen too many situations where they manipulate things.
Today, the Prime Minister is having his Quebec lieutenant, the Minister of Industry, talk. It is also important that they tell us that they do not intend to water down the bill, to gut it, or to come up with a scheme involving in camera meetings or the Senate, since we know full well that a private member's bill can be stalled almost indefinitely in the Senate. We used to have this ability in the House but not so much any more because the committees must report to the House about a bill within a certain time frame. They can request that the deadline be extended, but they must still report to the House. However, such is not the case in the Senate.
Is the government trying to pull a fast one on us today? This is exactly is why the House must be on guard. My colleague, the Liberals' official languages critic, will ensure that that this does not happen in committee. If necessary, we will alert the Canadian public once again. There must be an outcry, since we cannot allow the government to do something like that.
I know a number of Conservative members who are in favour of linguistic duality. They are here in this House and are listening. I hope that they will also have the courage to go talk to their Prime Minister to ensure that the government will not be scheming behind closed doors to remove all meaning and legitimacy from this bill.
In conclusion, I would have preferred that it not come to this. The government announced that it was looking for a bilingual candidate, it hired a consulting firm to do the hiring and it appointed a unilingual candidate. That shows a lack of natural justice for all of the unilingual anglophones and francophones in the country who would have applied for this position. They did not apply because they thought that the government would keep its word, but that was not the case.
Now we are having a debate that I believe could have been avoided, but the government chose not to avoid it. When we tried to bring this to the Standing Committee on Official Languages, the Conservative majority totally and systematically opposed it.
That is why I am questioning the government's good faith. The Conservatives had their backs against the wall because of Canadians' desire to honour linguistic duality. They saw that in the polls. They ignored the act and their own eligibility criteria, and in doing so they were caught off guard and claimed to support the principle. So we must be careful. If they support the bill and it passes in the House, it will then have to pass in the Senate so that it receives royal assent and comes into force immediately, since these are all mechanisms that could cause further delays, which is unacceptable.
Ms. Élaine Michaud (Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am proud to rise today in the House to support Bill C-419, An Act respecting language skills. I want to take a moment to congratulate and thank my colleague from Louis-Saint-Laurent for doing an exceptional job in bringing this bill before the House. This matter is one that needed to be raised and this could never have been accomplished in committee. I would also like to acknowledge the tireless efforts of my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst on behalf of official language minority communities.
If Bill C-419 is adopted, hopefully without amendment, it will ensure that future appointees to the 10 officer of Parliament positions will be required to be bilingual at the time of their appointment.
Earlier, my colleague listed the 10 offices covered by the bill, so I will not bother repeating them.
The bill would require persons appointed to these offices to be able to express themselves clearly in English and French and to understand both languages without the help of an interpreter at the time of their appointment.
Each office targeted by the bill was created pursuant to legislation setting out the terms and conditions of appointment and the nature of the office’s relationship with Parliament.
Officers of Parliament have a special, close relationship with Parliament and elected officials. They interact on a regular basis with parliamentarians. For that reason, it is very important that incumbents of these key offices understand and speak both official languages at the time of their appointment.
My colleague from Louis-Saint-Laurent has already explained the crucial roles played by the officers of Parliament targeted by the bill. In light of these roles it is critically important that they be able to interact in both official languages in order to carry out their mandate effectively, while helping to preserve and uphold Canada’s linguistic duality, a value of tremendous importance to NDP members and many other MPs from all parties represented in the House.
In the past, there was a custom in Parliament that the government would generally appoint bilingual individuals to officer of Parliament positions. Unfortunately, in the fall of 2011, the Conservative government decided to completely ignore that custom and made the extremely controversial appointment of a unilingual English-speaking Auditor General, in spite of the fact that the job posting clearly stated that proficiency in both official languages was an essential requirement for appointment to the position.
That decision was a clear insult to francophone communities in and outside of Quebec, an insult magnified by claims that no bilingual candidate could be found who was as qualified as the unilingual anglophone candidate.
I still remember the indignation of the member for Ottawa—Orléans, a Conservative member, who voiced his objections at a meeting of the Standing Committee on Official Languages. He spoke out against his government's decision. And so from the outset, there was no unanimity either among the Conservatives or in the opposition.
Given the little regard the Conservatives have for the importance of that custom, which recognizes that English and French have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of Parliament, francophones in Canada have reason to ask questions and to be concerned.
Given the ease with which the government broke that tradition, which was designed to ensure that the language rights of Canadians and of their elected representatives are respected, and the ease with which it ignored a crucial prerequisite for the position of Auditor General of Canada, it seems clear to me that we need to enact Bill C-419 now, to prevent this kind of situation from happening again.
I listened carefully to the speech by the Minister of Industry a little earlier, and I would like to set the record straight.
I am fortunate to sit on the Standing Committee on Official Languages. Over the course of the various studies and meetings we had with various groups of witnesses, I observed that the Conservatives’ standard for bilingualism was not what was advocated by most official language minority groups. Since winning a majority, the Conservatives have made many decisions that strongly suggest that bilingualism is not a priority for them, even though they have decided today to support the bill in principle. They want to propose amendments.
They are not yet ready to decree that the people who work in the 10 positions listed in the bill must be bilingual upon assuming office. The willingness expressed today does not change the Conservatives' record since they won a majority.
There was a great deal of debate about the appointment of a unilingual anglophone Auditor General who, to this day, still cannot answer any questions asked of him in French at press conferences. This is a problem, because he was supposed to be able to speak fluent French within a year, which is impossible. I am also thinking of the appointment of Supreme Court judges and the closure of the library at the Maurice Lamontagne Institute, the only French-language science library at Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Those decisions were made at the expense of the needs and best interests of francophone communities across Canada. They also fly in the face of the government's obligation to comply with the Official Languages Act and to ensure respect for our languages and the accessibility of services in French in all federal institutions.
Another government decision demonstrates its indifference towards linguistic duality, and that is its careless and ill-advised decision to close the maritime search and rescue centre in Quebec City. It is the only centre of its kind in Canada that can provide emergency services in French to the francophone recreational boaters and fishers in the St. Lawrence River.
In addition to answering over 1,500 distress calls in French every year, the search and rescue centre officers help coordinate ground operations. They work with local stakeholders who often speak only French. The need to be understood in one's mother tongue during an emergency at sea is obvious. The government's decision could put many people's lives at risk, or even worse, cause loss of life.
On the other side of the House, the Conservatives are saying that this will not be a problem and that bilingual services can be provided by the centres in Trenton and Halifax, but we know that that is not the case. Several groups and organizations have already publicly called on the government to reverse its decision. Even the Commissioner of Official Languages has expressed his concerns to the government, but so far, he has had no response.
On November 19, the NDP held public hearings in Quebec City regarding the closure of the maritime search and rescue centre. We heard the same thing from the Corporation des pilotes du St-Laurent central, the staff of the emergency centres and a retired employee of the maritime search and rescue centre, among others. Clearly, this decision goes against the best interests of our francophone communities.
Given all the troubling findings I have just mentioned, we very clearly need a bill such as the one introduced by the hon. member for Louis-Saint-Laurent in order to protect Canada's linguistic duality and stand up for the French language in Quebec and Canada by taking real action. We must do so now.
The Prime Minister allegedly admitted that this decision was a mistake. In my opinion, it is too little, too late. This decision should never have been made since, from the very first day, the job posting very clearly indicated that the candidate had to be proficient in both official languages. We should never have to discuss this basic principle since it is in our Constitution and is part of our laws and our parliamentary work in its simplest form. We must ensure that all elected MPs can represent their constituents and do their work properly. To do so, they must be able to interact with the officers of Parliament in the language of their choice, which will make their work as efficient as possible and allow them to properly represent their constituents.
We are not asking that all public servants be bilingual. We understand that that is an unattainable goal. We cannot force everyone to be bilingual. What is more, it is unnecessary in many parts of Canada. However, it is essential that the people who hold the 10 key positions set out in my colleague's bill be bilingual because they interact with the public, hold press conferences and provide direct services to Canadians and elected members. There is no question when it comes to these people: they should simply be bilingual from the day they take office. Our country is based on the principle of linguistic duality, and that should be reflected in all the appointments the government makes to important positions such as these.
I hope that members of all parties will support this bill as it is written because it is exactly what francophone communities in Canada need.
Hon. Michael Chong (Wellington—Halton Hills, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to add to this debate. It gives me an opportunity to reflect on the progress that we have made in Canada in promoting both the use of English and French throughout the country.
In particular, I would like to touch on the progress made in advancing linguistic duality in federal institutions.
The evidence is clear. A great deal has been achieved over the last 40 years.
This includes institutions such as those covered by Bill C-419, which is a bill whose core objective the government supports.
If we look back to the time when the Official Languages Act was put into place in 1969, most Canadians across the country then had to communicate with the federal government in the language of the majority. There were only limited government services provided in French in a country where more than one in four Canadians spoke French as their first language. Today, the vast majority of Canadians have access to federal services in the official language of their choice.
They can access information through a number of bilingual services such as 1-800 numbers, in person and telephone services, as well as publications and websites that include real-time updates available on wireless devices.
Today, there are approximately 200 federal institutions that are subject to the Official Languages Act.
This includes 80 institutions that are part of the core public administration. It also includes 120 crown corporations, privatized entities, departmental corporations, and separate agencies such as the 10 offices listed in Bill C-419.
In addition, certain organizations, such as Air Canada and VIA Rail, retained their language obligations after they were privatized.
When taking into consideration all institutions that are subject to the act, we find 510,000 employees spread out over every nook and cranny of the world’s second largest country.
Every one of these institutions is responsible for applying the act within their organization, including designing and delivering effective official language programming.
In short, the vast range of services the government provides is covered under the act, which is quite a feat when we consider that the Government of Canada has more lines of businesses and points of service than any other Canadian organization, public or private. In fact, the Government of Canada is unmatched in terms of the scope, reach and impact on the lives of Canadians.
Like any multinational, we have offices in most countries around the world and provide a multitude of services. We have people working in the Arctic, while others work on space exploration. We have food inspectors, forensic scientists and even volcanologists. The range of jobs is incredibly vast and we employ some of the most highly skilled people in the country. Many are internationally recognized for their expertise and for their accomplishments. This makes the Government of Canada a key to Canada's competitiveness in the global economy and our two official languages are an economic advantage.
I am proud to say that, in everything we do, we are committed to respecting the language rights of Canadians.
The federal institutions subject to the Official Languages Act continue to take necessary steps to ensure that their services and communications with the public are available in both official languages. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
Our recent annual report on official languages for 2010-11 shows that there has been consistent improvement over the last three years in creating and maintaining a bilingual work environment.
In concrete terms, the percentage of incumbents of bilingual positions serving the public and who met the language requirements of their position continued to grow. In 2011, it reached 94.3% in the core public administration.
The report shows that the percentage of bilingual positions in the core public administration is now more than 40%. In the National Capital Region, it has increased to 65%.
This is a dramatic change from 40 years ago when the percentage of bilingual positions was less than 10%.
Additionally, the report shows that, based on the 2006 census data, both official language communities are relatively well-represented in federal institutions.
Finally, I might add, the report highlights some of the measures federal institutions have taken to show strong leadership in the area of official languages. This includes the use of official-language action plans, but also simple but effective measures such as adding official languages to the agenda of executive management committee meetings. These examples demonstrate the steady progress that has been made in the promotion of linguistic duality in our federal institutions.
The bottom line is this. Over the past 40 years, we have gone from a nearly unilingual public service to a bilingual one.
Our government recognizes that it was not easy to get to this point. We also recognize that there is more to do. That is why we announced earlier this year a series of pan-Canadian consultations on official languages as part of our broader commitment to linguistic duality and our two official languages.
These consultations will permit us to follow up on the Roadmap for Canada's Linguistic Duality, which we launched in 2008 and which was an unprecedented government-wide investment of $1.1 billion over five years.
The roadmap provided investments in a number of priority sectors, including health, justice, immigration, economic development, and the arts and culture. It resulted in a number of initiatives that have promoted both official languages in Canadian society and ensured that linguistic duality remains a distinguishing feature of the Government of Canada.
The consultations demonstrated our government's desire to listen to the concerns and ideas of Canadians who are deeply committed to this country's two official languages. It is in the same spirit of openness and collaboration that the government has considered Bill C-419 in front of us today.
Like the sponsor of this legislation, I along with the Prime Minister and cabinet believe that the 10 positions listed in the bill should be proficient in both official languages. We therefore support the intent of Bill C-419. However, we feel that there is a number of technical issues that need to be examined in front of committee so that the bill could be implemented responsibly and effectively. The government will therefore propose amendments that would be fully consistent with the spirit of the legislation but which would strengthen the bill and the language requirements it would create.
Our government is determined to build on Canada’s sturdy foundations, which include a desire by English- and French-speaking Canadians to share a common future. Over the years, we have seen countless efforts to ensure that Canada’s official languages continue to be a strong part of our national identity.
In particular, we have seen federal institutions over the last 40 years make important strides in making linguistic duality an integral part of their everyday operations. I assure all Canadians that their government is committed to building on this record of achievement and the record of national unity.
Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker.
Ms. Mylène Freeman (Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, among the values I hold dear are respect for both official languages and the promotion of those languages. I live that value every day as a bilingual person. I always try to speak to people in their own language, so that we understand each other well. I think the officers of Parliament ought to be able to do the same.
It is inconceivable that the officers of Parliament would not be able to perform their duties in both official languages. The hon. member for Louis-Saint-Laurent has presented a bill covering the 10 officers of Parliament. These people occupy very senior positions in our system. Among them are the Auditor General of Canada, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Commissioner of Official Languages, the Privacy Commissioner and the Information Commissioner.
As well, there are the Senate Ethics Officer, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, the Commissioner of Lobbying, the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner and the President of the Public Service Commission.
These are all people whose appointments require approval by resolution of the Senate, the House of Commons or both Houses of Parliament. They can be considered officers of Parliament based on the fact that we appoint them despite whatever relationship they have with the Houses.
It is the NDP's opinion that bilingualism is one of the key qualifications for these positions. It is not just an asset, which is not a skill or something that should be considered apart from skills; it is an essential skill to fill these positions properly.
It has been customary to appoint bilingual individuals, because the ability to speak both official languages is obviously part of being able to do the job. Unfortunately, recent appointments show that we need to entrench the government's responsibility in the law.
I am very happy that the Conservative members are considering voting in favour of this bill. Since the Prime Minister himself has admitted it was a mistake to appoint a unilingual person to the job of Auditor General, it makes sense for the members opposite to support this bill in order to clarify the bilingualism requirements for these 10 officers of Parliament.
I grew up as a francophone outside of Quebec. That really opened my eyes to the importance of having access to the French language throughout the country. I have met francophones from across the country. However, I would also like to point out that there are anglophones in Quebec who often speak about access to English within the province. In my riding, this is something that is of great concern. These people understand that it is important to have access to certain documentation and colloquialisms in their own language.
Therefore, when we are talking about agents of Parliament, they need be able to understand all members of the House in their native language, in the language they are best able to communicate in. I think that is quite necessary if we are to properly go about democracy in this country.
As my colleague from Louis-Saint-Laurent said so well, we want to make Canada a place where we live together side by side, respectfully, speaking either official language, and working together. If the officers of Parliament are not fully able to understand us in the House, it will be more difficult to build a good future for Canada.
It seems to me that this is a major double standard. We talk about a bilingual country, but our parliamentary officers are not operating in both languages. The Constitution provides that English and French are the official languages of Canada. French and English have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of Parliament. Parliamentarians may use either French or English in the debates and other work of Parliament, and they work closely with the officers of Parliament. Therefore, I appeal to members from all parties to vote in favour of the bill by the hon. member for Louis-Saint-Laurent, which would clarify the bilingualism requirements for these 10 very important officers of Parliament.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me time to speak on this bill.