Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-233, which was introduced by my colleague.
First, I would like to remind members that the Bloc Québécois believes that the protection of French in Quebec requires an asymmetrical approach, which is why the bill is specifically tailored to Quebec with respect to the knowledge of French required to obtain citizenship.
In a way, we are pleased that the federal government is recognizing for the first time, albeit it timidly, that Quebec's situation and the status of French are unique. I would like to quote from this fall's throne speech:
Our two official languages are woven into the fabric of our country.... The Government of Canada must also recognize that the situation of French is unique. There are almost 8 million francophones in Canada within a region of over 360 million inhabitants who are almost exclusively anglophone. The government therefore has the responsibility to protect and promote French not only outside of Quebec, but also within Quebec.
This is in stark contrast to what we have seen in the past. The government is now talking about the importance of protecting the French language in Quebec. However, the government needs to walk the talk, and that is what the Bloc Québécois wants to achieve with this bill.
The notion of citizenship is closely tied to politics. It always has been, and that is still the case. The main differences between a permanent resident and a citizen are the following: the right to vote or run in elections; the right to hold a job requiring a specific security clearance, such as a position with a company that does business with National Defence; and the right to sit on a jury. All of this requires some knowledge of French, and the French-language test required for citizenship is not very difficult. Candidates are required to be able to interact in everyday situations or to ask simple, basic questions to express their needs in day-to-day life. They are not asked to compose poetry or write in Alexandrine verse.
This is not the first time that this bill has been introduced. What I find unfortunate is that, in the past, there seemed to be a determination to nip the bill in the bud. I am thinking of former MP David de Burgh Graham, who said the following concerning the bill at the admissibility stage, and I quote:
My wife speaks five languages. French is not one of them. When she got her Canadian citizenship, we had just moved to Quebec. I had already lived there; she came to Quebec with me. She would have had to return to Ontario or stay in Ontario to get her citizenship, and I think that's against the values of our Constitution, our charter. I cannot support that on constitutional grounds.
No evidence was ever provided to show that the bill was unconstitutional, aside from an opinion that was not supported by legal advice, and the clerks of the House had found the bill to be constitutional. It therefore seems that some were determined to kill the bill from the start, which I think is unfortunate.
This time, the bill has gotten further in the process. It has been deemed admissible. After second reading, the bill will be sent to committee, where expert witnesses will speak to various issues. I think it would be a shame to abort the process now and kill the bill again before it even gets off the ground. The argument is that we should not vote in favour of the bill because it would hinder many people from obtaining citizenship.
I would like to point out that, to obtain citizenship, a person has to have spent 1,095 days in Canada. That is a good opportunity to learn the basics of French. I would also like to point out that not having citizenship does not prevent anyone from working or getting health care, because permanent residents can do both of those things.
I think it is a shame that people are refusing to send the bill to committee. The purpose of this bill is to protect the French language, so I think it is a shame to miss this opportunity to see what other obstacles to citizenship exist.
Some people have said that making knowledge of French mandatory would prevent a lot of people from obtaining Canadian citizenship. However, in November 2019, which is not so long ago, Statistics Canada reported that the citizenship rate among recent immigrants had dropped between 1996 and 2016 and had declined much more dramatically after 2006. Even without the requirement to pass a French test, there has been a decrease in citizenship uptake. It would have been interesting to examine the reasons for this decrease in committee.
I also find it odd that the government claims that knowledge of French would be an obstacle to obtaining citizenship, when we know that one of the obstacles to citizenship is the cost of the tests that are required to obtain citizenship. In the 2019 election campaign, the Liberals promised to make the test free, but it still costs $630 per person. For a family of two adults with children, that could mean up to $1,200, $1,800 or $2,400. That is a lot of money, and it is a major obstacle to citizenship. This could also have been studied in committee.
There is another aspect that could have been studied in committee, although I admit it is rather upsetting. In some cases, to obtain permanent resident status and to access other stages of the immigration process, the person needs to already have knowledge of one of the two official languages. However, we are seeing an imbalance when it comes to the tests that are administered. The Commissioner of Official Languages has received several complaints about the cost of tests in French, which is not the same as the cost of tests in English. We see that the cost of these official language proficiency tests is twice as high in French as it is in English. We also see that those who choose to take these tests in French get their results much later.
Fundamentally, there is already an imbalance when it comes to knowledge of one of the two official languages. That is something that could also have been looked at in committee. This has been going on for some time. The government has made several promises on this, but it has not kept them.
Furthermore, these tests are developed and also marked in France, not Quebec. The tests given to many immigrants are not necessarily appropriate. I will give a very simple example. In France, the meals are called “petit-déjeuner”, “déjeuner” and “dîner”, whereas the terms used in Quebec are “déjeuner”, “dîner” and “souper”. This can lead some people to make mistakes and possibly fail the test. For example, a U.S. citizen stated that when she took the test, she was asked to role-play a conversation where she had to order something at the Bistro du Louvre. The different expressions used in Quebec and France were a thorn in her side.
By not sending this bill to committee, we are missing opportunities to improve access to citizenship in general. We are denying ourselves the chance to identify obstacles to citizenship. We are also missing an opportunity to examine how knowledge of the official languages is evaluated in Canada, not just in Quebec. This is a missed opportunity for the provinces and territories as well. We could also have examined the criteria, in particular for obtaining permanent residency.
That is the very essence of the bill. If it does not go to committee, the claims that this bill would make it difficult to obtain citizenship will remain unsubstantiated. We will not be able to determine whether the bill could help strengthen the French fact and ensure that newcomers will fulfill the duties that come with citizenship and that they will be able to fully and completely participate in all that citizenship entails, such as the right to vote and the right to run in elections.