Language Skills Act

An Act respecting language skills

This bill was last introduced in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session, which ended in September 2013.

Sponsor

Alexandrine Latendresse  NDP

Introduced as a private member’s bill.

Status

This bill has received Royal Assent and is now law.

Summary

This is from the published bill. The Library of Parliament often publishes better independent summaries.

This enactment provides that persons appointed to certain offices must be able to speak and understand clearly both official languages.

Elsewhere

All sorts of information on this bill is available at LEGISinfo, provided by the Library of Parliament. You can also read the full text of the bill.

Votes

  • June 5, 2013 Passed That the Bill be now read a third time and do pass.
  • Feb. 27, 2013 Passed That the Bill be now read a second time and referred to the Standing Committee on Official Languages.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

May 29th, 2013 / 6:10 p.m.
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Liberal

Stéphane Dion Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, QC

Mr. Speaker, we are talking about a bill that should have been completely useless. We should not have even had to discuss it because, it seems to me and to most Canadians, it should go without saying that our officers of Parliament should have to be bilingual.

Mr. Speaker, even you are not listening to me. I do not see the point in continuing.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

May 29th, 2013 / 6:15 p.m.
See context

Liberal

Stéphane Dion Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, QC

Mr. Speaker, now that everybody is listening carefully, I am saying that we are discussing a bill that we should normally not have to discuss, something that has been taken for granted and that Canadians thought was done already.

The obligation for officers of Parliament to be bilingual and to speak Canada's two official languages is something that seemed self-evident until this Prime Minister appointed a unilingual Auditor General. That was a shock. The party to which I belong reacted so strongly that it refused to vote in favour of the appointment of that Auditor General. We left the House without even voting.

I would like to thank my colleague for preparing this bill, which we of course support and which will ensure that officers of Parliament are required by law to be bilingual at the time of their appointment. It made no sense to take them on as unilinguals and to say that they would learn the other official language on the job, while working. That would mean learning French because we know very well that a unilingual francophone will never be appointed. They will appoint unilingual anglophones and say that this is not a problem because the appointees will learn French.

It is insulting to tell Canadians that the incumbents of such crucially important positions will be asked to devote considerable time and effort to learning a language when they are over 40 or 50 years of age. They have better things to do. They must be able to understand both official languages at the time of their appointment.

The reasons for that are obvious. First, the role of an officer of Parliament, whether that of auditor general or another officer such as the commissioner of official languages, is to be able to speak with parliamentarians, to discuss matters with them and to understand them and make themselves understood.

Many of my colleagues are unilingual. To be elected in Canada, people do not need to be bilingual. They only need to convince voters that they are the best candidate. It is very important to be understood when speaking to, let us say, the Auditor General, and to understand what the Auditor General has to say. Since MPs are at the service of Parliament, they should be able to be understood by all parliamentarians.

That is the first reason. The second reason is that, in order to make decisions, officers of Parliament must read a large amount of information that comes to them from across Canada, including from Quebec, New Brunswick and many places in Canada where information is in French. How can they understand that information on their own if they cannot read it on their own? They need that information to make decisions. Competency includes the ability to read in both official languages.

The third reason is that the office in question, like the Office of the Auditor General, must also be able to work in both official languages. However, if the head of that office is a unilingual anglophone, everything will be done in English. The person at the top must therefore be able to understand both languages so that the office can operate in both languages.

There is another essential reason. The auditor general and the other officers of Parliament are not mere bureaucrats, but rather communicators. They must communicate their information to Canadians. Nuanced communication is not possible if they cannot speak to Canadians in both languages. I can say that the entire saga leading up to the sponsorship scandal would have been entirely different if the auditor general at the time had been unable to speak French. And I say that having experienced the event first-hand.

The other reason that the Auditor General and other officers of Parliament should be bilingual is to send the right message to the youth of our country. If they have ambition and want access to all the responsibilities of their country, they should learn the two official languages.

It is key for people to do that when they are 18 years old because it will be much more difficult when they are aged 48. When they will perhaps want access to these responsibilities, it may be too late. We need to send this message now, through this bill. It is key to shaping our country and the ability for Canada to pay tribute to its two official languages.

It is an incredible asset for us to have two official languages that are international languages. We need to be sure that it will be part of our future. We need to send a message that the most important responsibility, including yours, Mr. Speaker, is to be able to address fellow Canadians in the two official languages.

The Conservative government finally agreed to accept these arguments, and we are glad of that. I think it is important to emphasize that here where we are all together. It was not easy. They proposed amendments, but those amendments will not prevent us from voting in favour of the bill. Still, I would like to take this opportunity to say that those amendments were not useful. They added nothing very positive. They actually weakened the obligation to be bilingual. It has been weakened, but I think it is still strong enough. The ability to speak and understand both official languages well is a prerequisite for appointment. That will do; we can live with it. The bill is still “votable” despite the amendments that weaken it.

The Conservatives also eliminated clause 3, which provided that the governor in council could, by order, add offices to the list established in clause 2. In that way, the government could have added to the list of offices for which bilingualism would be mandatory, without returning to Parliament. A belief in bilingualism is a belief in making it more widespread. The government did not want to give itself that power; it wants to come back to Parliament. That does not change much in the end, because if a government really wanted to add more offices, it could come to Parliament and make a convincing argument. If it did not want to, no law could make it do that. Thus, it is not a useful amendment.

With another amendment, the governing party also eliminated clause 4 concerning interim appointments to the offices mentioned in Bill C-419. This clause read:

In the event of the absence or incapacity of the incumbent of any of the offices listed in section 2 or vacancy in any of these offices, the person appointed in the interim must meet the requirements set out in section 2 [that is, the bilingualism requirements].

We know what the Conservatives are trying to do, but they will not succeed. Once this bill has been passed by the House of Commons and the Senate, there will be no way to exempt any interim office holder from the law. According to the law, the interim incumbent must be bilingual. When a Canadian is given such a serious responsibility, whether permanently or temporarily, that person must meet the requirements set out in the law. If the law requires an auditor general to be bilingual, then an interim auditor general must also be bilingual. If the government were to defy this law, it would be defying common sense and leaving itself open to legal action.

Thus, despite these efforts by the Conservatives, this is still a good bill. I implore the government not to play games. We are ready to send it to the Senate quickly. I have talked with my Senate colleagues; they are ready to proceed quickly. The bill will be voted on in the House and sent to the Senate. The Senate will look at it carefully, as senators always do, but they can do it quickly. They must ensure that this bill becomes law and does not fall into limbo when the government decides to prorogue the House in an attempt to revive its moribund government.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

May 29th, 2013 / 6:20 p.m.
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NDP

Élaine Michaud Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have the opportunity today to speak to Bill C-419, An Act respecting language skills. I want to extend my sincere thanks to the member for Louis-Saint-Laurent for having introduced such a worthwhile bill. We often run into each other because our ridings are side by side. I can attest to the outstanding work she does each and every day. The bill she introduced is yet another example of her good work.

I would also like to tip my hat to the member for Acadie—Bathurst, the NDP official languages critic, who has always been a fervent supporter of bilingualism and francophone minority communities. I want to applaud his efforts, which helped contribute to this bill's success.

As I said, I am very proud to support Bill C-419, which is designed to ensure that the 10 officers of Parliament are bilingual.

Having been raised in a perfectly bilingual military family, I have always cherished both official languages. I grew up watching both Passe-Partout and Sesame Street, and learning both French and English at home.

At a very early age, I was taught the importance of bilingualism in Canada as a way to better understand two of our founding nations and their culture. I was also taught that speaking both of Canada's official languages would offer me better employment opportunities, especially if I wanted to work in the public sector. Therefore, I have always believed that it was an essential prerequisite for the highest-ranking public servants to master both official languages in order to be appointed to such important positions.

When I was a parliamentary guide here in 2007, it was a point of pride for me to point out to visitors from other countries that bilingualism was a prerequisite for our highest-ranking public servants as a proof of the importance that was given to bilingualism in Canada.

Unfortunately, as has often been the case since I became a federal MP, the Conservative government has denied that basic principle since winning majority status. It appointed a unilingual English Auditor General who is still not able to respond to questions in French during press conferences.

Bill C-419 aims to fill a major gap in the current legislative framework, and that gap was made obvious with the Conservatives' ill-advised appointment. This bill also clarifies the language obligations of the 10 officers of Parliament. Given that their functions and roles require them to interact with parliamentarians and Canadians, they must be able to communicate with parliamentarians and Canadians in the official language of their audience's choice.

It was insinuated, in committee and elsewhere, that we were trying to violate the language rights of officers of Parliament, but that is clearly not the case with Bill C-419. In fact, there is nothing keeping an officer of Parliament, such as the auditor general, from conducting a press conference entirely in English. The important part is that they be able to respond to questions in French when necessary.

We are not trying to deny officers of Parliament the right to work in French. On the contrary, we are trying to guarantee the language rights of every Canadian. It is a matter of respect for all Canadians, whether they live in a minority language situation or not, and respect for the MPs they elected to represent them.

As a member of the Standing Committee on Official Languages, I had the opportunity to study my colleague's bill in detail and I saw the merits of it. I understood the need for this bill. The original version of it was excellent. It responded directly to the concerns raised by the appointment of the current Auditor General, among other things.

This bill received support from members of all parties represented in the House. Unfortunately, at committee stage, the bill was butchered. The committee's Conservative majority did everything in its power to limit the scope of the bill, going so far as to insinuate that the NDP was trying to institute measures that would discriminate against the hard of hearing. I have heard it all since I have been in Parliament. They also eliminated the preamble of the bill, which provided the definition of officer of Parliament.

Without that part of the bill, this concept remains rather vague.

The Conservatives also removed any mention of the fact that the Constitution recognizes French and English as Canada's two official languages that receive equal privileges in Parliament. They removed that. This is not something controversial. This should be common knowledge for everyone in the House, regardless of their party or whether they are unilingual or not. That was not the issue. I thought it was a real shame that the Conservatives did not want to include these fundamental principles in the final version of Bill C-419.

Quite honestly, when we look at their record when it comes to official languages, especially when it comes to defending the French fact and the French language in Canada, we are hardly surprised.

Consider the appointment of a unilingual anglophone Auditor General. We spoke about that in the House. The government promised that, in less than a year, Mr. Ferguson would have a sufficient mastery of the French language to at least be able to answer questions. That is still not the case today. It was truly unrealistic to make such a promise given the scope of the Auditor General's duties. It was absolutely illogical and inconceivable to think that, in just one short year, he could gain a sufficient mastery of the language of Molière to be able to answer people's questions and interact with them without the help of an interpreter.

Consider also the appointment of unilingual anglophone judges to the Supreme Court. For years, the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst has been fighting to try to change the law and ensure that, even in the Supreme Court, people can really choose the language in which they want to interact. They can make that choice now, but there is no guarantee that the judges present will understand everything and that these people will truly receive equal treatment. They may receive less time to plead their case because the interpreters need time to do their job. Judges who do not have a good knowledge of French may not be able to grasp the subtleties in the documentary evidence.

We have here a host of problems that the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst and other members of the NDP have been trying to resolve for years. We are faced with the same situation today: judges appointed to the Supreme Court do not understand French, not even the most basic French. This is problematic, and this government has an unbroken record of inaction in this regard.

Another example is the closure of the Maurice Lamontagne Institute library, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' only French library. This government shut down the library just to save a few bucks.

When we look at the different decisions this government has made, we unfortunately get the impression that French represents additional costs for Canadian taxpayers and that it is not necessarily considered a fundamental value or foundational principle of Canada. French is seen as a constraint and an obstacle to overcome, rather than “the language of ambition”, as the Commissioner of Official Languages so eloquently described it.

I want to get back to the closure of the Quebec City maritime search and rescue centre. There are some rumours in the papers that the government has apparently decided to reverse its decision to close the centre, but it still refuses to confirm that.

We tried to raise the issue several times at the Standing Committee on Official Languages. We moved some motions. When the Commissioner of Official Languages appeared the last time, we even asked a number of questions about this issue. The commissioner completely agrees with the NDP that the government must guarantee bilingual services at the Halifax and Trenton centres. That is not currently the case. Both the Auditor General and the Commissioner of Official Languages illustrated that.

However, to save a few million dollars, the government is prepared to jeopardize the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people who use the St. Lawrence and who have the misfortune of being francophones in this country. That is really too bad, but it reflects the attitude we saw in committee.

Although the government was reluctant, we managed to keep the essence, the spirit of the bill. We are proud of that. Once again, I want to congratulate my colleague for working so hard and for being patient while working with members from all the parties. I am not always patient, so I admire that a lot.

The NDP has always been firmly committed to protecting the language rights of Quebeckers and all Canadians.

I hope that all parliamentarians will join the NDP in supporting this excellent bill, Bill C-419.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

May 29th, 2013 / 6:30 p.m.
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NDP

Dan Harris Scarborough Southwest, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the member for Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier for her work at the Standing Committee on Official Languages and for her impassioned speech here today.

I have the honour of rising today to support Bill C-419 introduced by my colleague from Louis-Saint-Laurent.

I had a rather unusual youth. I am a Franco-Ontarian born in Toronto. My father's family is anglophone and has lived in Scarborough for over 90 years, while my mother comes from a francophone family from Sherbrooke and Montreal. When I was young, living in Toronto, I was very fortunate to get my education at the Petit Chaperon Rouge francophone daycare, the Georges-Étienne Cartier Catholic elementary school and the Bishop de Charbonnel Catholic high school. I understand what it means to be part of a linguistic minority.

I was also lucky because my anglophone father, David Harris, studied in Montreal so he could learn French. He has now been teaching French to young anglophones in Scarborough for 25 years. Linguistic duality is very important for me and my family.

Bill C-419 is intended to make a positive change by ensuring that future officers of Parliament work in both official languages from the time they are appointed, so that Canadians receive services in the official language of their choice.

It is indeed my privilege to rise this evening to speak to a very important and critical bill, Bill C-419, an act respecting language skills.

As a fluently bilingual franco-Ontarian with deep familial roots in Quebec, my support for the bill is partly technical and partly personal. I have lived my whole life with the linguistic duality of Canada, and understand the importance of protecting our traditional language rights.

When I was a member of the Standing Committee on Official Languages after being elected in 2011, I had the distinct honour of working with Mr. Graham Fraser, the Commissioner for Official Languages here in Canada. I developed a strong respect for Mr. Fraser in his view about official languages. His testimony in particular about the bill at committee was very important and provided a very important summary of the bill. He said:

Bill C-419, which was put forward by the New Democratic MP for Louis-Saint-Laurent, is to the point and unequivocal. Its purpose is to ensure that persons whose appointment requires the approval by resolution of the Senate, House of Commons, or both Houses of Parliament, can understand and express themselves clearly in both official languages without the aid of an interpreter from the moment they are appointed. It is an important bill for the future of Canada's linguistic duality. I therefore support it unconditionally.

The bill is a response to the controversy caused by the Conservative appointment of a unilingual Auditor General in November 2011. While the notice of vacancy clearly indicated that proficiency in both official languages was an essential requirement to the position, the Conservative government sadly ignored this.

Given the protection of language rights embedded in the Constitution and the long history of custom and tradition, it is very unfortunate and disappointing that this type of bill is even necessary. However, the appointment of the unilingual Auditor General for Canada seemed to indicate the Conservative government's willingness to ignore our rights and traditions and roll back our official language rights.

We cannot let this happen. As parliamentarians we must do everything we can to protect our language rights when they are threatened. For that reason I thank in particular the member for Louis-Saint-Laurent for bringing the bill forward and for getting support from all parties to ensure that kind of situation never happens again.

The bill helped tremendously in that effort. The bill of the member for Louis-Saint-Laurent clearly seeks to clarify the linguistic requirements for officers of Parliament to ensure that this type of situation does not happen again. It is a question of respecting the linguistic rights of Canadians and the members who represent them.

Officers of Parliament must be able to communicate with members of the Senate and the House of Commons as well as Canadians in the official language of their choice.

The bill, when adopted, would ensure that future holders of the ten following positions should understand both French and English without the assistance of an interpreter, and be able to express themselves clearly in both official languages when they take office.

It recognized that fluency in both official languages is essential for anyone holding the following positions. Unfortunately, as my colleague from Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier mentioned, there were some changes at committee that added a bit of nuance or a lack of clarity in the bill.

The 10 positions that we are speaking of as officers of Parliament are: the Auditor General of Canada; the Chief Electoral Officer; the Commissioner of Official Languages for Canada; the Privacy Commissioner; the Information Commissioner; the Senate Ethics Officer; the Conflicts of Interest and Ethics Commissioner; the Commissioner of Lobbying; the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner; and the President of the Public Service Commission.

Each of the above offices was created under legislation that specified, among other things, the terms of employment and the nature of the office's relationship with Parliament.

In my opinion, all of the positions I have just mentioned are officers of parliament. This is important, because officers of Parliament must work closely with Parliament and must interact with parliamentarians on a daily basis. It is essential that these officers can work with members in both official languages and must therefore be proficient in both official languages at the time of their employment.

Why must officers be bilingual at the time of their employment? First, we have the Constitution, which stipulates that French and English are the official languages of Canada. Second, French and English have equal status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of Parliament. Third, parliamentarians have the right to use either French or English during debates and work in Parliament.

I want to take a moment to express the joy and pride that I have being a member of the NDP caucus, with so many of our members being fluently bilingual and those who are unilingual are making tremendous efforts to learn Canada's other official language so they are better able to do their jobs and interact with their colleagues and other people in Parliament. I am incredibly proud of the number of MPs who are working on that day in and day out. Almost every day when I pass by the lobby, I can see two or three of our members working on that other official language to gain the skills to be better parliamentarians.

Again, this bill only became necessary following the appointment of a unilingual auditor general. Shortly after the announcement, the NDP filed a complaint with the Commissioner of Official Languages for Canada.

In June 2012, the commissioner in his final report about his investigation concluded that the position of auditor general should have been filled by a candidate who was proficient in both official languages. For the commissioner under the Official Languages Act, the Office of the Auditor General, as well as the Auditor General himself, is required to provide services in both official languages as a public figure of a government institution which responds to Parliament.

He also concluded that the Privy Council Office, which manages Governor-in-Council appointments, failed to comply with its obligations under the Official Languages Act.

According to the commissioner, “Historically, the appointment process for officers of Parliament was administered by the Senior Appointments Secretariat at the Privy Council Office. The process does not contain precise language proficiency provisions for incumbents of these positions. It is when the position becomes vacant and a recruitment strategy put in place with specific selection criteria that linguistic requirements are determined”.

In the case of the Auditor General, the requirements did state that the auditor general should be proficient in both of Canada's official languages.

Respect for Canada's two official languages has always been a priority for the NDP. Bill C-419 is consistent with this priority. We want all MPs to give their support to Bill C-419 so it soon becomes law. Proficiency in both official languages at the time of appointment must be recognized as essential, particularly for the 10 offices targeted in the bill.

With the adoption of Bill C-419, we are taking the first step in ensuring that all future officers of Parliament are bilingual and then we can move on to other aspects, like ensuring that Supreme Court of Canada justices are bilingual so they can hear court cases in both official languages without the need of interpretation.

I believe everyone who ever aspires to those high positions and roles should take it upon themselves to learn the other of Canada's official languages, if not already bilingual, so they can apply for these positions and take on the roles that we have in the institutions of Parliament, the Supreme Court and elsewhere to ensure that Canada's linguistic duality is not only respected, but enriched through those additional appointments of bilingual officers of Parliament.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

May 29th, 2013 / 6:40 p.m.
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NDP

Annick Papillon Québec, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak to Bill C-419 today. I want to congratulate my colleague from Louis-Saint-Laurent, whose riding is next to mine, on her wonderful, excellent work.

My colleague introduced Bill C-419 after a unilingual anglophone was appointed Auditor General in November 2011. At first the Conservative government defended the appointment of the Auditor General and opposed the bill.

Fortunately, the government has since changed its mind and seems to now support the NDP's bill. If it passes, Bill C-419 will ensure that future appointees to the 10 officer of Parliament positions set out in the bill will be required to understand French and English without the assistance of an interpreter and will have to be able to express themselves clearly in both official languages.

In short, Bill C-419 sets out the 10 positions for which bilingualism is considered an essential qualification. Because of the nature of the work, these positions require the individual to communicate with all parliamentarians and Canadians in the official language of their choice. It is a matter of respect.

I am happy to see that the bill has made it through the important step of being studied by the Standing Committee on Official Languages. The essence of the bill remained intact, which is excellent news.

However, I have to wonder why the Conservatives did not explain some of the amendments they proposed to the structure of the bill. The Conservatives removed the preamble, which emphasized the importance of the equal status of French and English in parliamentary institutions and in the Constitution.

When he was called upon to speak to the bill, the Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser, spoke in favour of including such a preamble in the bill. He said:

I have heard no arguments for deleting this preamble. It is practical, and I consider it useful. It expresses the spirit of the bill, its goals and objectives, so that ordinary people can understand why the bill has been introduced. It also describes the bill's overall aims.

It is unfortunate, but it has become apparent that, when the Conservatives amend legislation, far too often they remove the context and historical references. It is truly disgraceful. That kind of attitude must be denounced and corrected. I suggest that the Conservatives change their approach.

I sometimes get the impression that the Conservative government is confused about its definition of bilingualism. You have to admit that it is hard to reconcile how, on the one hand, the Conservatives claim to be advocates for official languages and yet, on the other hand, they impose budgetary restrictions at the expense of bilingualism. The fact is that if you peel away the rhetoric, French is far too often given second-class status. There are so many examples attesting to this that it is impossible not to doubt the sincerity of the Conservative government.

Here are the plain facts. The government appointed a unilingual anglophone to the position of Auditor General. The Conservative government also appoints unilingual anglophone judges to the Supreme Court of Canada. It is the Conservative government that coerces francophone public servants to work more often in English. It was under a Conservative government that the pilots who travel on the Saint Lawrence River between Quebec City and Montreal had to file a complaint last winter with the Commissioner of Official Languages because they were unable to communicate in French with the crews of two Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers. Finally, it is also this Conservative government that does not see the problem with closing the only bilingual rescue centre in Canada, perhaps even in North America.

There is no doubt that the state of bilingualism in Canada is cause for great concern. Last year, the Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser, expressed his fear that the $5.2 billion in spending cuts called for by Ottawa between now and 2015 would result in a number of unwelcome surprises, such as a reduction in the services provided in both official languages. Unfortunately, the commissioner’s predictions seem to be coming true. The members on the other side of the House do not know where the money is going. Furthermore, in the blink of an eye, $3 billion that was supposed to go towards fighting terrorism has gone missing. Had the government invested in bilingualism, perhaps we would not be where we are today.

According to an article in the daily newspaper Le Devoir, budget cuts are forcing departments to reduce the number of documents they have translated. This is evidenced by the fact that the production rate at the Translation Bureau dropped by 9% in 2011–12, with a further drop of 17% forecast for 2012–13. Moreover, departments are asking francophone staff to write their reports in English in order to save time and money.

In my opinion, the situation is, quite simply, unacceptable. Ottawa is even streamlining the office of Commissioner Fraser. In future, it will have to use money from its own budget to update its computer systems in order to process complaints more efficiently.

If the government really cares about bilingualism, as we do on this side of the House, logically, it should be providing the commissioner with more resources so that he can do his job properly.

Recently, I read in a newspaper that bilingualism has stagnated over the past decade. This is really appalling. We want more and more people across Canada, geographically the second-largest country in the world, to be proud of their Canadian history, which endowed us with two official languages.

These two languages allow us to bring together people from all continents. We should be more proud of that. That is why it is important to invest in this area and to tap into Canadian pride regarding our two wonderful official languages, French and English.

In 2002, the Prime Minister said that Canada is not a bilingual country. Ironically, today he is saying that it is his duty to protect the French language throughout this country. How times have changed. Again this week, however, according to an article in Le Droit, the Commissioner of Official Languages said that he needed to weigh his options for forcing the government to abide by the Official Languages Act when appointing judges, ambassadors, deputy ministers and heads of crown corporations.

Last year, Graham Fraser asked that the Privy Council Office, the Prime Minister's department, take into consideration the Official Languages Act when determining the language requirements for thousands of positions filled by Governor in Council appointments.

In the commissioner's opinion, if a position requires a bilingual candidate, the government should ensure that the selection committee respects that criterion. One year later, the government has remained silent on that recommendation.

Here is part of a letter that Mr. Fraser wrote to the member for Acadie—Bathurst, who does outstanding work on the Standing Committee on Official Languages:

[The Privy Council Office] has yet to follow through on our recommendations...We are currently weighing our options for ensuring that the [Privy Council Office] fulfills its key mandate of helping the government meet its commitments pursuant to part VII of the Official Languages Act.

Part VII of the act stipulates that the federal government must work to enhance the vitality of linguistic minority communities and promote the use of French and English in Canadian society. It is important to note that it is in no way necessary for everyone appointed by the Privy Council Office to be bilingual, but those who work with the public must, generally speaking, be proficient in both languages.

There needs to be objective criteria governing language levels for each position, and that is why Bill C-419 is so important.

To conclude, I invite all of my colleagues, from all parties on this side of the House as well as the Conservatives across the aisle, to support this bill. Too many mistakes have been made in the past.

People who show real leadership are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move forward. That is what this bill is proposing. It is a significant bill because it concerns official languages, one of the pillars of Canada's history. We have an opportunity here to show unity and vote unanimously on a bill that concerns us all. This would be a step in the right direction.

It is time to show Canadians that although parliamentarians may sometimes disagree on many issues, we can stand together when it comes to respecting Canada's official languages. We can say they are a source of pride and that we must invest more so that one day we can all speak both languages in order to communicate better with each other and live in a better society.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

May 29th, 2013 / 6:55 p.m.
See context

NDP

Manon Perreault Montcalm, QC

Mr. Speaker, first of all I would like to congratulate my colleague from Louis-Saint-Laurent on her bill concerning bilingualism as a hiring requirement for officers of Parliament. This gap is totally unacceptable and has lasted for far too long. Needless to say, the subject of this bill, namely Canada's linguistic duality, is a key issue.

Respect for Canada's two official languages is a priority for the NDP. This bill is very timely, since this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Laurendeau-Dunton commission.

A Statistics Canada study released on Tuesday tracking bilingualism from 1961 to 2011 shows that young people are less and less exposed to French, and few immigrants are bilingual.

The Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser, has also expressed concern about the statistics shown by this study. This trend is not a good omen. The study tracked the evolution of bilingualism in Canada since the Laurendeau-Dunton commission was created. That is what laid the foundations for Canada's policy on bilingualism.

When it comes to public life and bilingualism in Canada, certain concrete measures have far-reaching effects. This is why my colleague introduced this bill.

This is about defending bilingualism in Canada, so we need to take meaningful action to do that. Obviously, we all know that this bill stems from the controversy generated by the appointment of a unilingual Auditor General in November 2011, when the job posting for the vacancy clearly said that proficiency in both official languages was an essential qualification for the position.

In spite of the government’s change of direction on this bill, the fact remains that its track record in this regard is not a glowing one, and its negligence is detrimental to Canada's linguistic duality. The most blatant example of this was the appointment of Michael Ferguson as Auditor General.

That is why the NDP decided to take action by introducing a bill to recognize that officers of Parliament must be fluent in both official languages at the time they take up their positions. I am therefore glad that the government has ultimately listened to reason on this issue, at least with respect to officers of Parliament. That is a start. The Conservative government has a chance to stop taking us backward on official languages. This is a simple matter of respecting the language rights of Canadians and the parliamentarians who represent them.

Proficiency in both official languages at the time of appointment must be recognized as an essential qualification for the 10 key positions identified in the bill. The policy on official bilingualism must apply to officers of Parliament. If it does not, Canada's linguistic duality will be seriously undermined.

Let us now look at this bill, and how important it is, in greater detail.

By the nature of their duties, officers of Parliament have to be able to communicate with parliamentarians and Canadians in the official language of their choice. We know very well that this was not the case for the appointment of the Auditor General.

Accordingly, if the bill is enacted, future occupants of the 10 positions in question will have to understand French and English without the assistance of an interpreter and will have to be able to express themselves clearly in both official languages when they take up their position. It therefore recognizes that proficiency in both official languages is essential to the performance of their duties.

The following positions will be affected by these measures: Auditor General of Canada, Chief Electoral Officer, Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada, Privacy Commissioner and Information Commissioner.

Under this bill, the appointment of a unilingual person to the position of Auditor General or to any other of the 10 key positions would simply have been impossible.

This bill has brilliantly managed to clarify the linguistic obligations of officers of Parliament so that this kind of situation will never occur again. Only 10 positions are affected by the bill, which thus acknowledges that proficiency in both official languages is essential in performing the duties of officers of Parliament. Consequently, officers must have that proficiency at the time they take up their duties, for a number of reasons.

The Constitution provides that English and French are the official languages of Canada. English and French enjoy equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in the institutions of Parliament. Parliamentarians have a right to use English or French in the debates and proceedings of Parliament.

Since officers of Parliament maintain close ties with Parliament and must interact with parliamentarians, it is essential that the incumbents of those positions be proficient in both official languages at the time they are hired. This is also quite obviously a simple matter of respect for our official languages, which, under the Constitution, have the same status in Canada, and for both linguistic groups.

Everything thus stems from the NDP's actions in this matter because the NDP filed a complaint with the Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada following the appointment of a unilingual individual to the position of Auditor General.

In June 2012, the commissioner concluded in his final investigation report that the position of Auditor General should have been filled by a candidate with proficiency in Canada's two official languages. In the commissioner's view, the Office of the Auditor General is required under the Official Languages Act to offer services in both official languages, and the same is true of the Auditor General himself as the public face of a federal institution that reports to Parliament.

He also concluded that the Privy Council Office, which manages Governor in Council appointments, had failed to meet its obligations under the Official Languages Act.

According to the commissioner, historically, the appointment process for officers of Parliament was administered by the Senior Appointments Secretariat at the Privy Council Office. The process does not contain precise language for fluency provisions for incumbents of these positions. It is when the position becomes vacant and a recruitment strategy is put in place with specific selection criteria that linguistic requirements are determined.

Thus Bill C-419 also offers a solution to the absence of specific provisions regarding the language skills of officers of Parliament.

This bill is particularly important for the francophones of all countries, including Quebeckers. Quebec's National Assembly unanimously condemned this appointment and the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne strongly denounced it.

The response of the Commissioner of Official Languages and francophones across the country is clear, as is the NDP's approach. We will no longer tolerate unilingual appointments to such important positions.

In conclusion, and because we are dealing with important positions, I would also like to tell the Conservative government again how important it is that judges on the Supreme Court be bilingual, and this should be the second logical step to be taken by the government.

The debate is not over. We still have not swallowed the appointment of the unilingual Justice Moldaver to the Supreme Court. With the government's continued refusal to include bilingualism as a selection criterion for the appointment of judges, English is becoming the main language of an institution that is central to Canadian public life. Therefore, there is still much work to be done in terms of bilingualism in Canada, and it is high time that this changed. The time for defending the principle of unilingual central institutions, such as the Supreme Court, has come and gone.

I said earlier and I repeat that my colleague’s bill will remedy this deplorable situation regarding officers of Parliament. Proficiency in both official languages is essential for some positions.

As we know, the NDP is firmly committed to protecting the language rights of Canadians, and we hope that all parliamentarians will support Bill C-419 so that it becomes law.

I am sure members will agree with me when I say that this bill is very important for francophones in all countries, and especially the constituents of Montcalm, who for the most part are French-speaking. Many of them have Acadian roots. Therefore, for the four municipalities of New Acadia and for the NDP members from Quebec, respect for both official languages is a priority, but for the people in my riding of Montcalm, being served in French is not a choice, it is simply a very legitimate right.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

May 29th, 2013 / 7:05 p.m.
See context

NDP

Alexandrine Latendresse Louis-Saint-Laurent, QC

Mr. Speaker, today I would like to thank all of my colleagues for their kind words.

This is the ultimate chance for me to express my deepest gratitude to everyone. I am thankful to all members for believing in this bill. We are going through a rough week in Parliament, and I believe it is a welcomed change to see that everybody is of one mind on at least one topic.

I have enjoyed listening to what was said in the House during the debate. I am impressed by the attachment felt and expressed by my colleagues toward Canadian bilingualism.

If we look back just a short 50 years, we can clearly see all of the progress that has been accomplished in matters of minority linguistic rights in this country.

Linguistic diversity is a wonderful thing. In this particular case, Canadian society is very fortunate. We have made a choice to become a state where two languages will be equal in rights. For all those small French-speaking communities across the prairies, for the Franco-Ontarians, for the dynamic and creative Anglo-Quebeckers and for the wonderful Acadian nation, this decision embodies one very clear need, that being survival.

The days when we thought the only way for us to live together was to trample each other are not far removed from us. Terrible things were said, insults were exchanged and injustice often had the upper hand.

Looking back, we can see that somehow, by believing in this crazy ideal, we have changed and succeeded. This House of our common understanding represents this leap forward that we have accomplished. The Parliament of Canada, true to the ideals of state bilingualism, functions in both official languages and, if I may add, functions very well, in English and in French.

Once again, I would like to salute the hard work of the talented translators and interpreters who contribute every day to making this institution all that it hopes itself to be. What we have here is a case of genuine excellence, and I believe all Canadians should be proud of this. Our most grateful thanks to all them.

However, translators and interpreters cannot do everything. They cannot be everywhere all the time. As well, certain positions necessary to the proper functioning of Parliament require a skill that elected officials do not need. Officers of Parliament are an integral part of the system. In fact, they are the safeguards embedded in the system that make sure everything is lawful, proper and in order.

As such, the individuals who hold these positions are as important as the security staff on the Hill. The friendly security guards protect the physical integrity of this Parliament whereas the officers of Parliament protect its moral integrity.

It goes without saying that both groups need to be bilingual. Both groups need to be available for elected officials and Canadians at large, in English or in French.

Fortunately, it appears that we are all in agreement and saying that the list of 10 positions proposed in Bill C-419 includes people who must be bilingual in order to do their job. I think that this list, which is the cornerstone of my bill, kept as it is, even with the amendments put forward in committee, helps strengthen the foundations of our Parliament.

We are contributing to the effectiveness of Parliament and we are adding a greater sense of respect for this institution that, after all, represents all Canadians. Thanks to our goodwill, we are making tangible improvements. Furthermore, we are sending a clear message to the people of Canada. We are reiterating to them that bilingualism is a guarantee of excellence in the federal administration and that, in addition to opening doors, bilingualism first and foremost opens hearts.

I imagine that we will always have our little squabbles. Language is, after all, the highest and most impregnable bulwark of identity. As soon as there is the tiniest question about the place of honour that language holds in our pride in our identity, anyone and everyone gets up in arms. We start saying “we” instead of “I” and we ascribe cohesive intentions and ideals to millions of people who do not even know each other.

Let us keep in mind that we have sometimes courted disaster by trying to be too proud and too strong. I believe that my generation has understood that a fluid identity is a good thing and a clear, firm step towards the other. This is a multi-faceted world, and the people of my generation are too busy experiencing this diversity to martyr themselves to the cause of national retrenchment. My generation is no longer afraid it will disappear—it is only afraid of not being able to reach its full potential.

I encourage young Canadians growing up in linguistic minority communities to believe in their own language and the benefits it offers. I would remind young people who are part of the linguistic majority, Quebeckers and English Canadians, that the world will open up to them if only they open up to it. I beg them not to turn inward because they are unwilling to learn. If they open their hearts to other languages, they will never regret it.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

May 1st, 2013 / 6:20 p.m.
See context

NDP

Alexandrine Latendresse Louis-Saint-Laurent, QC

moved that the bill be read the third time and passed.

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to rise today and speak about my bill at third reading. Right from the beginning, this bill has had incredible support from all the parties, which makes me especially proud.

I would like to start right away by extending my thanks and gratitude to some hon. members who, with their support and wise counsel, helped make Bill C-419 a real success.

First, I would like to thank the member for Ottawa—Orléans for his contribution to the final version of the bill. His enthusiasm for protecting language rights is probably already well known across all the French-speaking communities in Ontario. I extend my sincere thanks to him. As he himself kindly said to me in committee,

[Member spoke in Russian, as follows:]

Bolshoi spasibo.

[Translation]

My thanks also go to the members of the Standing Committee on Official Languages, who all contributed in a caring, intelligent and visionary manner to this bill. The member for Winnipeg South Centre, the member for Durham, the member for Pickering—Scarborough East and the member for Etobicoke—Lakeshore gave their clear support and full consideration to the bill.

The member for Saint-Laurent—Cartierville also expressed his strong support during his remarks on this subject. It is always reassuring when a great intellectual of his calibre unequivocally supports one's proposals. I truly appreciate that and thank him for it.

Several other government members have believed in Bill C-419 from the beginning, and I would like to remind them that their timely support did not go unnoticed. Without their good will, this bill would have died a long time ago.

Naturally, I would also like to thank the many NDP members who contributed to my bill. One person in particular deserves to be mentioned. I would like not only to thank the member for Acadie—Bathurst, but also to give him a big hug and let him know that I will be forever grateful. I can take a breather now, but his battle wages on, and I wish him all the success he deserves.

I feel fortunate to be celebrating the second anniversary of my May 2011 election to Parliament during the first hour of the third reading of my bill. Never could I have dreamed of coming so far so fast. I am very proud of that and of having been able to work so productively with all parties in the House of Commons.

The fact that Bill C-419 has reached third reading proves to Canadians that we know how to work together. Even though our political visions can be poles apart, we fully agree on certain points.

I can claim victory today because all parties collaborated for the purpose of protecting the rights of Canadians in minority language communities. What we are doing today strengthens the very foundation this country is built on. Many of us here in Canada's Parliament, along with thousands—millions, even—of Canadians, sincerely love this country's two official languages. I am one of those Canadians. My love for English in no way diminishes my attachment to my own language. Divisiveness has never arisen because of language itself, but because of political constructs relating to it.

More and more, I have come to realize that political divisions are often unhealthy. Not only are they ridiculously artificial, but they can also prevent people from thinking honestly about the problems we are facing. Today we have a rare opportunity to celebrate together. We have stepped away from the scourge of adversarial politics, and that is a good thing.

Bill C-419 has emerged from committee significantly abbreviated. Though it is now a relatively short and simple bill, it originally contained a number of different elements related to one central issue.

This core element, the list of the 10 officers of Parliament, was supported by four other elements: a preamble, an explanation of the language requirements for the 10 positions, the flexibility to allow the Governor in Council to add more positions to the list and, finally, clarification on acting positions.

These five separate elements were discussed, and only one of them remained unchanged: the list of the 10 positions in question. Fortunately, this is the most important element. Had this element been altered, it would have changed the very nature of the bill. The fact that it remained unchanged is a victory because everyone found the compromise acceptable.

I would like to explain the changes made and the reasons for them. First, the original version of Bill C-419 contained a preamble. The purpose of this preamble was to better define what is meant by an officer of Parliament. Since this category is not clearly set out in the act, we thought it would be appropriate to include a specific definition of this term. In so doing, we wanted to prevent any future doubt.

Here is the definition of an officer of Parliament that was contained in the preamble of the original version of the bill: officers of Parliament are persons appointed with the approval by resolution of the Senate, the House of Commons or both Houses of Parliament.

This clarification eliminated any legislative hesitation regarding the nature of the positions set out in the new law. Throughout my speech, I emphasized that this preamble was included by way of explanation and as a preventive measure.

Except that, in the end, it was not retained. This decision does not pose a problem, but it does weaken the bill. I am certain that some people do not like this grey area which has been purposely created. The decision was made not to use a clear definition of what an officer of Parliament is or is not.

In general, there was agreement that, although this category is not clearly defined, it is specific enough to not cause any harm. Thus, the preamble was deleted.

The second element on which we could not agree was a phrase in the main clause of Bill C-419. In attempting to state what we meant by a clear understanding of both official languages, we believed that it would suffice to say that the candidate must be able to understand English and French without the assistance of an interpreter.

Although the preamble and a legislative detail that we deemed to be important were eliminated, in this case the government suddenly wanted to give a definition that was as broad as possible.

First, we heard that, if we applied the letter of the law, the use of an interpreter by the incumbent of any of the 10 positions would be strictly prohibited in any circumstance.

That is obviously not the case. Requiring the incumbent to be bilingual at the time of his or her appointment does not at all mean that the person can never use the services of an interpreter. I defended the notion that it would be obvious whether or not the incumbent was bilingual from the very first words they spoke in both languages. After all, either you understand a language or you do not. You cannot get by for very long.

However, the issue of an interpreter was too unpopular. To eliminate any merit it may have had, the principal meaning of interpreter was expanded to include sign language interpreters. First of all, we did not want to hinder the candidacy of individuals with hearing loss. Only afterwards, I was accused of trying to exclude the candidacy of people who are completely deaf.

That was obviously not the objective of those six words. The reason I used that turn of phrase was mainly because it is found in the Official Languages Act in reference to the appointment of superior court justices:

Every federal court, other than the Supreme Court of Canada, has the duty to ensure that...(c) if both English and French are the languages chosen by the parties for proceedings conducted before it in any particular case, every judge or other officer who hears those proceedings is able to understand both languages without the assistance of an interpreter.

However, the member for Ottawa—Orléans was able to propose a compromise that was acceptable to everyone. He suggested that we introduce the concept of clear understanding to replace the idea of understanding without the aid of an interpreter. I would like to thank him for this wise addition, without which we would not have moved forward. There is no more mention of interpreters.

The first version of Bill C-419 would have given the Governor in Council the ability to add positions to the list in the future, as needed.

With that clause, we were hoping to make it easier for future governments to amend the law and rectify a language skills problem.

For example, it is easy to imagine that if a new officer of Parliament position were created, the government would want to add it to the list. The way the bill has been amended, Parliament alone can make that addition, not the Governor in Council. That provision was taken out.

Legislators will therefore be required to introduce a bill to add a position to the list. The NDP had no issues with allowing the Governor in Council to add positions to our list, as needed.

Lastly, we felt it was necessary to specify that those appointed to one of the 10 offices listed in Bill C-419 on an interim basis must also meet the requirements.

It could happen that a candidate appointed to a position on an interim basis could end up being permanently appointed to fulfill those duties. Requiring interim appointees to be bilingual would encourage the government to seek out qualified candidates from the start.

We were told that lack of available candidates and the urgency of the situation required extraordinary measures and, in such cases, for the common good, a unilingual person could do a fine job in the interim position.

I maintained that among 33 million people, there should be enough talented candidates who meet the language requirements of institutional bilingualism. I was accused of speculating and of not having studies to back up my blind faith in the bilingualism of elite Canadians.

I am disappointed that the clause regarding interim appointments was taken out. It weakens the bill slightly and opens the door to future problems. However, despite my reluctance, I am confident that even in the most extreme cases—although it may not be explicitly required in the bill—future governments will make every effort possible to comply with the language skill requirements, even for interim positions.

Overall, I am satisfied with the final result, even though all the satellite provisions were removed from the bill. The most controversial points of Bill C-419 were debated fairly, but were eliminated for reasons that could be described as short-sightedness. The essence of Bill C-419 remains intact: the list of the 10 officer of Parliament positions that must henceforth be bilingual to comply with the law.

On that point, I never for a moment doubted the good will of everyone who worked on my bill. Parliament is accountable to all Canadians, regardless of their language background, and respect for institutional bilingualism remains one of the fundamental agreements that exists between all Canadians for the future.

Adding this list of 10 positions to the legislation will only strengthen our union. We just added another building block to the structure of our agreement. I was pleased to see how solicitous the members of the Standing Committee on Official Languages were in order to come to an agreement.

As a final point, I would like to look ahead to our shared future. What will the Parliament of Canada look like in 2113? That depends on Canadians and on the direction they would like to take. The ground beneath our feet makes up the second-largest country in the world, one that is blessed not only with abundant natural resources, but also tremendous human potential. Our bilingualism is one of those assets. It enables us to be at the forefront of several cultural movements at once. We must not waste our cultural treasures.

If I had just one wish for 2113, it would be that Canada's aboriginal peoples come and join us in the House with the concentrated strength of a cultural and linguistic renaissance. I truly hope that 100 years from now, the languages that emerged from this country's land are more vibrant than ever and are heard in this Parliament every day, in what will truly be a Parliament for all Canadians.

That is why I will conclude by thanking the House in Huron, the language of my riding.

[Member spoke in Huron as follows:]

Tia:wenk.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

May 1st, 2013 / 6:30 p.m.
See context

NDP

Alexandrine Latendresse Louis-Saint-Laurent, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague from Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière for asking a good question that was raised several times during the second hour of debate and in committee.

I believe that it absolutely does not. It does not restrict any officer of Parliament's freedom to speak one language or the other in Parliament, which is one of our constitutional rights. All we are asking is that they have the ability to do so. If officers of Parliament decide to speak only English or only French in the House, that is fine. They have that right. All we are asking is that they have the ability to understand and express themselves in both languages.

I do not think that this restricts constitutional rights at all. At any rate, I believe that the member himself does not agree with this criticism of my bill.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

May 1st, 2013 / 6:30 p.m.
See context

NDP

Alexandrine Latendresse Louis-Saint-Laurent, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague from Jeanne-Le Ber, who is a member of the Standing Committee on Official Languages and who was a big supporter of my bill when it was studied in committee. I thank him for his work on this bill and for his question.

This bill sends a very good message to all those young people who work very hard to learn a second language. Being able to speak more than one language is a great skill to have in life. I speak three languages, and I cannot believe the doors that has opened for me. That is the message this bill sends. We are saying that it is very important for them to speak both languages if they want to hold this country's highest offices.

I recently had the opportunity to share that point of view. I visited a school in my riding and spoke to 11- and 12-year-olds in English immersion. It was amazing to be able to explain to them that what they are doing is very important and that speaking English would really help them. For example, if they want to become an officer of Parliament, this is the kind of job that will require English.

It is an excellent message to encourage our young people to learn as many languages as possible.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

May 1st, 2013 / 6:35 p.m.
See context

NDP

Raymond Côté Beauport—Limoilou, QC

Mr. Speaker, I congratulate the member for Louis-Saint-Laurent on her success. We are about to pass a very important bill.

This is not about blame, but I simply want to point out that when the bill was introduced, the Minister of Official Languages originally said that the government would not support it. I am happy to see that he has changed his mind, and I congratulate my colleague for getting the support of all the parties in the House.

I would like her to explain this turn of events and how she helped make this happen.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

May 1st, 2013 / 6:35 p.m.
See context

NDP

Alexandrine Latendresse Louis-Saint-Laurent, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague from Beauport—Limoilou for his question.

When we asked the Minister of Official Languages the same question, his response was that the bill was neither useful nor necessary. I think the events that followed the appointment of the unilingual Auditor General showed that the legislation was flawed in that respect. As long as there is no clear direction or law for this type of situation, we have no guarantee or assurance that the law will be observed.

As a result, most members of the House understood the usefulness of a piece of legislation that makes it absolutely clear that bilingualism must be mandatory for people appointed to those positions. I am very pleased to have been able to meet with members from all parties to convince them of the merits of this bill.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

May 1st, 2013 / 6:35 p.m.
See context

Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière
Québec

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Works and Government Services

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to provide the government's response to Bill C-419 on language skills. We signalled our intention to support the intent and the core objective of this bill. However, when this bill was studied in committee, some technical issues needed to be addressed to strengthen it as the legislative foundation for linguistic duality among the 10 positions listed in the bill.

Our approach is a practical one that demonstrates both our agreement with the spirit of the legislation and our desire to make it an effective legal foundation for something we all believe in.

Linguistic duality is one of the pillars of Canadian history, culture and democracy, and this government is determined to strengthen it in our public institutions. We believe that the individuals occupying the 10 positions listed in the bill should be proficient in both of Canada's official languages. However, there were a number of technical issues with this bill that needed to be examined more closely in committee before it could be implemented.

If the first version had been passed, persons whose appointments required the approval of the House of Commons or both chambers would have had to understand English and French without the aid of an interpreter and be able to express themselves clearly in both languages at the time of their appointment. In addition, the bill provided the Governor in Council with the ability to add officers to this list. It also provided that in the case of an incumbent's absence or incapacity, the person appointed in the interim would also have to meet these requirements.

We would rather give the language skills requirement a stronger legal foundation. Let me list the reasons for the amendments that were made to the bill when it was being studied by the Standing Committee on Official Languages.

First, the preamble indicated that the bill is grounded on the principle that the 10 officers of Parliament identified therein need to communicate directly with parliamentarians in both official languages. We believe this did not take into account the constitutional right of all Canadians, including the officers listed in Bill C-419, to speak in the official language of their choice in Parliament.

Our second objection is that the bill, to be meaningful, should also specify the type of language skills required, which it did not do with sufficient clarity in its original form. This requirement, as it is currently proposed in the bill, does not distinguish between written and oral expression.

With the amendments adopted at committee, it is now more clearly laid out that candidates must understand and speak both official languages at the time of their appointment. Without specifying the type of language skills required, it would have been difficult to evaluate whether or not a candidate meets this requirement.

Third, we believe that due to the constraints the bill imposes on the selection process of senior officials, the ability to add to the list of officers should lie with Parliament rather than the Governor in Council.

Our fourth concern is that the language skills requirements would also apply to interim appointees. This could hamper the government's ability to make timely and effective interim appointments to ensure the continuity of an institution's operations.

In addition, this requirement could create a de facto language skills requirement for those people occupying other senior positions within the 10 organizations listed in the bill.

The Standing Committee on Official Languages has successfully mitigated the risks associated with these issues. We believe that the bill now has a stronger basis for the introduction of these requirements for the 10 positions listed in the bill. We are committed to promoting linguistic duality in Canada and strengthening the use of our two official languages.

We understand that linguistic duality is at the heart of our identity as a nation, and it contributes to our historical and cultural wealth. It empowers official language minority communities across the country and contributes to Canada's economic vitality. It strengthens the resilience of our federation through the provision of services in both official languages.

Indeed, linguistic duality permeates all fields of our society, and is a social, cultural and economic asset for Canadians not only at home, but also abroad. Bilingualism, for example, opens Canada to la Francophonie.

Through this international organization, Canada can help promote democratic institutions, human rights, the rule of law, peace and human security.

At the same time, we benefit from the political, cultural, scientific and other contributions made by other members. In fact, this government's long-standing commitment to bilingualism was shown in 2008 by the Roadmap for Canada's Linguistic Duality 2008-2013: Acting for the Future. The roadmap laid out the path to build on Canada's linguistic duality for the future with an unprecedented government-wide investment of $1.1 billion over five years.

Clearly, as we reaffirmed in the 2011 Speech from the Throne, “Canada's two official languages are an integral part of our history and give us a unique advantage in the world”. The government has not wavered from that. That is why it recently announced the Roadmap for Canada’s Official Languages 2013-2018: Education, Immigration, Communities. This new roadmap unites the efforts of about 15 departments and agencies of the Government of Canada, as well as those of our partners, to take action in these three key areas.

By recognizing that the individuals occupying the 10 positions listed in Bill C-419 should be proficient in both official languages, we are acting on our beliefs and strengthening Canada's linguistic duality for the future. Our position is consistent with the spirit of the original bill, and we want to ensure that the introduction of these language requirements has a solid basis in law.

As for appointments to the 10 positions listed in the bill, there are many relevant considerations in addition to language skills to be taken into account. These include formal education, practical experience, abilities, personal suitability, knowledge and expertise. We will continue to consider all the criteria that allow us to appoint the most suitable candidate.

We look forward to working with the members of this House to pass this landmark legislation, which will be good for Canada and all Canadians.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

May 1st, 2013 / 6:45 p.m.
See context

Liberal

Marc Garneau Westmount—Ville-Marie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak about this bill. It seems that everyone supports it, even though the government unfortunately made some amendments to it. It is quite obvious that officers of Parliament must be bilingual. In an ideal world, we would not need a law for this. However, it seems that the Conservatives need such a law because they recently appointed a unilingual Auditor General. We therefore need a law to remind the government of its responsibilities. That law will be Bill C-419. I would like to congratulate the hon. member for Louis-Saint-Laurent for sponsoring it.

In committee, the Conservatives used their majority to make useless amendments to the bill. On behalf of his Liberal colleagues, the hon. member for Saint-Laurent—Cartierville voted against each of these amendments, which served to eliminate the preamble and two of the four clauses from the original bill.

Despite these amendments, we still support Bill C-419 since the most important element of the bill remained intact. The most important thing is that officers of Parliament be bilingual when they are appointed.

It is essential that the Auditor General of Canada be bilingual when he or she gets the job. The Chief Electoral Officer of Canada must also be bilingual. 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—all must be bilingual on the day that they are hired.

The Conservatives' amendments weakened the bilingualism requirement. However, the requirement set out in the amended version of the bill is still meaningful. It states that anyone who is appointed to these positions “must, at the time of his or her appointment, be able to speak and understand clearly both official languages”.

The Conservatives also did away with clause 3, which stated: “The Governor in Council may, by order, add offices to the list established in section 2.” That is unfortunate because, if they believed in bilingualism, they would have made it easier to expand the list. It would have been nice if the government had been able to take the initiative to add new positions to the list of those with a bilingualism requirement. However, at least we can rest assured that the government will not be able to remove any positions from the list without parliamentary approval.

The government side also removed clause 4, which pertained to interim appointments to the positions covered by Bill C-419. This clause read: “In the event of the absence or incapacity of the incumbent of any of the offices listed in section 2 or vacancy in any of these offices, the person appointed in the interim must meet the requirements set out in section 2.”

That clause was removed, undermining the clarity of the bill but, fortunately, not changing the fundamentals. Once Bill C-419 becomes law in Canada, all newly appointed officers of Parliament will have to be bilingual, whether the position is occupied by a permanent or an interim appointee.

Interim appointees will be subject to the same requirements as permanent ones. They will have to deliver the goods and fulfill all requirements of the position as set out in the law.

If the law states that bilingualism is a skill inherent to the job, that skill will always be mandatory. It cannot be optional. If the government were to make a bad decision to appoint a unilingual interim officer, it would be breaking the law and would be subject to legal action.

The Conservatives also cut the preamble to Bill C-419. They refused to say why. All they said was that the preamble was not necessary. It is not necessary, but it is useful. A preamble makes the legislator's intentions clear. In this case, the main problem with cutting the preamble is that now, nowhere does it say that the bill is about officers of Parliament.

This is what the fourth whereas said:

And whereas persons appointed with the approval by resolution of the Senate, the House of Commons or both Houses of Parliament must be able to communicate with members of those Houses in both official languages;

Now that the fourth whereas is gone, nowhere in the bill does it say that the 10 positions subject to bilingualism under Bill C-419 are given to “individuals appointed with the approval by resolution of the Senate, the House of Commons or both Houses of Parliament”.

Since both the preamble and the fourth whereas are gone, positions not appointed by Parliament can be subject to Bill C-419.

In committee, my colleague, the member for Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, suggested adding the CEO of CBC and the president of the CRTC to the list in the bill. These two officials are not appointed by Parliament, but who would object to the notion that they should have to be bilingual? The Conservatives, apparently.

My NDP colleagues voted in favour of the member for Saint-Laurent—Cartierville's amendment, and I thank them for that. However, the Conservatives scuttled it. Let us keep that in mind in the future. Since there is no longer a preamble, there is nothing standing in the way of adding more government-appointed positions to Bill C-419 in the future.

Let me get back to the important thing, which is that, by law, officers of Parliament must meet the following criteria.

First, they should have the ability to study matters in both official languages. This is the only way to ensure fair and credible investigations and decisions.

Second, they should be able communicate with parliamentarians who are, in many cases, unilingual. One cannot provide satisfactory service to Parliament if one can speak to some of its members only through an interpreter.

Third, they should be able not only to communicate with all Canadians, but also to listen to them and follow what they are saying. The role of officers of Parliament is not only to be competent public servants, they must also be competent communicators. They must communicate the conclusions of their research with accuracy and subtlety in both languages.

We must state and demonstrate to young Canadians that some positions with national responsibilities in this country require a mastery of both official languages. We should honour the bilingual character of our Parliament, of our country and of our future by supporting Bill C-419.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

May 1st, 2013 / 6:50 p.m.
See context

NDP

Tyrone Benskin Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to congratulate my colleague from Louis-Saint-Laurent for the vision she conveyed through Bill C-419. She identified a flaw in our laws with respect to the importance of Canada's linguistic duality, and she came up with a bill to address the issue.

I would also like to thank the government for supporting this bill, despite dissecting it a bit. Nonetheless, what the bill clearly states is that officers of the Parliament of Canada are required to be bilingual at the time of their appointment. That is very clear and important.

This private member's bill was born out of a diplomatic miscalculation on the government's part by engaging a unilingual Auditor General.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Ferguson in my second week of my immersion class in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. He was starting his class. I found him to be a very nice gentleman and he has proven to be a very capable gentleman. The issue is that to serve Parliament and the Canadian public, he needs to be able to speak French and to understand it as a second language. Despite his honest attempts to do so, he is not yet at that point. This is an issue, because the government should have engaged someone at the very beginning who was able to communicate in both official languages as an agent of Parliament.

When I say both official languages, it is not a choice and it should not be a choice. Canada's character as a bilingual country was set many years ago. Many people and grassroots organizations go to great lengths to try not only to promote their language and their culture, but, in many cases, to make it survive.

We have various organizations in the Acadian community and the Franco-Canadian community that work on a daily basis trying to promote and show the importance of their culture and their language outside Quebec.

It is really difficult. At the Standing Committee on Official Languages, we often hear about the challenges facing organizations when it comes to financial support and the types of programs that are available. In western Canada, we see how important immersion schools are, but not enough teachers go to teach French there.

It is very important for the survival of French across Canada. We, as leaders in our country, have to set an example. We, as leaders in our country, in particular the government, have to set the example that both official languages are important.

It is not simply a question of the “coolness” of being able to speak two languages. It is important to the search for jobs in this country. It is important to the preservation of both our cultures, the anglophone community in Quebec and the francophone community outside Quebec. We have to be leaders by setting examples. Hiring a unilingual parliamentary agent does not send the right message.

I asked my colleague a little while earlier about the importance of our young people learning a second language. Again, it is not about the “coolness” of speaking two languages. It is about their future. It is about those young lawyers, accountants and business people who might one day hope to share their talents with this place as an auditor general, a privacy commissioner or as a higher-up in the government hierarchy. It is important to send the message that they should start learning that second language now; in other words, if they are francophone, learning English, if they are anglophone, learning French. They should study in both official languages so that as they grow and excel in their career, they are open to those opportunities to serve Canadians in both official languages.

When Bill C-419 went in it was a strong bill. It was very well thought out. Unfortunately, as I alluded to earlier, there was a bit of dissection going on, and in many cases it was hard to understand why. This bill set out to create clarity in the hiring of 10 specific agents of Parliament.

In article 2, the need to understand both official languages without the aid of an interpreter or an interpretation device was again, to be diplomatic, misconstrued as not being able to get counsel on the meaning of a word.

As an actor I spent two years at Stratford performing Shakespeare, and also did so outside of Stratford. I adore the English language. Every now and then I have to pick up a dictionary or ask somebody the meaning of a word. That is not what the intention of article 2 was. It was to make sure that when these agents of Parliament are not in a room that has simultaneous interpretation, they have the ability to go out among the members of the public and listen to their concerns in both official languages.

Article 3, which allowed for the Governor in Council to add to or adjust the list in particular ways, was simply meant as a means of expediting the creation of a new position for an agent of Parliament.

The importance of article 4, to have the interim individual able to continue the work of the agent of Parliament while looking for a permanent replacement, is paramount because it prevents that work from coming to a halt.

In conclusion, I would like to again congratulate my hon. colleague for her work. I applaud the government for supporting this bill. It is an important bill. We hope that the importance of hiring a government agent who is bilingual at the time of his or her hiring is clear.