Evidence of meeting #29 for Official Languages in the 43rd Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was english.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Robert Leckey  Dean and Full Professor, Samuel Gale Chair, Faculty of Law, McGill University, As an Individual
Anne Meggs  Former Director of Research, Office québécois de la langue française, As an Individual
Denis Bolduc  General Secretary, Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec
Gilles Grondin  Union Advisor, Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec
Lucie Lecomte  Committee Researcher

3:35 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Emmanuel Dubourg

I call this meeting to order.

Welcome to meeting number 29 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages.

The committee is meeting to hear witnesses for the study on government measures to protect and promote French in Quebec and in Canada.

To ensure an orderly meeting, I would like to outline a few rules to follow. First, I would like to take this opportunity to remind all participants to this meeting that screenshots or taking photos of your screen are not permitted.

Members and witnesses may speak in the official language of their choice. Interpretation services are available for this meeting.

Before speaking, click on the microphone icon to activate your mike. When you are done speaking, please put your mike on mute to minimize any interference.

I remind members and witnesses that all comments should be addressed through the chair.

For the sake of the interpreters, when speaking, please speak slowly and clearly.

Unless there are exceptional circumstances, I believe all participants are equipped with a headset and a boom microphone.

The witnesses will be with us this afternoon for the entire meeting. I would now like to welcome them. First, I would like to thank them for accepting our invitation.

We welcome, as an individual, Robert Leckey, dean and Samuel Gale professor, Faculty of Law, McGill University; also as an individual, Anne Michèle Meggs, former director of research at the Office québécois de la langue française; and finally, both from the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec, general secretary Denis Bolduc, and union advisor Gilles Grondin.

Each witness or group of witnesses will have seven and a half minutes for their speech. As always, I will show a yellow card to let you know you have one minute left. When you see the red card, that will mean that your speaking time, or that of the committee member addressing you, is up.

We will start with Professor Leckey.

Professor Leckey, you have the floor for seven and a half minutes to deliver your speech.

3:35 p.m.

Professor Robert Leckey Dean and Full Professor, Samuel Gale Chair, Faculty of Law, McGill University, As an Individual

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and good afternoon.

As dean of the Faculty of Law at McGill University, I am proud of the bilingual and bijural character of the faculty. Our program, which is offered in both French and English, integrates common law and civil law. Indigenous traditions also have an increasingly important place. Each year, we have a bilingual student body from all across the country. If I may offer one piece of advice to the government, it would be to strengthen French as a second language in universities across Canada.

As a constitutional scholar, I am devoting my time this afternoon to briefly establish a context for the reform document and to deal with some questions it raises. Official bilingualism is deeply rooted in the Constitution. Section 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867 includes, among other things, the right to use English and French in the houses of Parliament and in the courts of Canada.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms enshrines official bilingualism at the federal level as part of the Constitution. Subsection 1 of section 16 reads:

16.(1) English and French are the official languages of Canada and have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and government of Canada.

This fundamental principle, that the official languages are equal in status, is therefore a constitutional imperative.

I should also emphasize that language rights under the Charter cannot be subject to the notwithstanding clause.

Furthermore, respect for minorities is one of the underlying principles that breath life into our entire Constitution and are recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Reference Re Secession of Quebec. The court emphasized that, while the language provisions are the result of political compromises, they reflect a broad principle related to the protection of minority rights.

The reform document proposes significant changes to the Official Languages Act. In areas of federal jurisdiction, the Act is the expression of those constitutional guarantees. The Act is quasi-constitutional in nature. In the event of a conflict, it prevails over other federal laws. In light of all this, any amendment to the Act must therefore be carefully and thoughtfully considered.

Let's be clear. Robust and meaningful official bilingualism at the federal level is often at odds with provinces' laws, policies and spending priorities. In each province, official language minorities thus look to the federal level for support and defence of their rights. We saw this most recently in the cry for help regarding post-secondary education in French in Ontario. The same is true in my home province of Quebec, the sole jurisdiction where the official language minority is English speaking.

It appears that the legislative proposals would represent a fundamental shift in the framework and the purpose of the Official Languages Act. It's certainly open to Parliament to shift policy within its constitutional boundaries, but I wonder whether the proposals would amount to a shift away from the equality of status of both official languages as enshrined in the charter's text. That text is appropriately interpreted in the light of the principle of the protection of minorities.

Let me share two examples.

First, the paper calls for recognizing within the act the linguistic dynamics of the provinces and territories. This includes recognizing for the first time in federal law that Quebec has declared French its official language. This seems to be a sea change. As it stands, the framework of the act is province neutral. The same legal principles apply across the federation. What effect would this have on the interpretation of language rights for official language minorities?

Recall that provinces vary. New Brunswick has constitutional language rights. Ontario has legislated ones. Some have none. Would this principle peg the demands of the federal act to those varying provincial guarantees? Given the act's symbolic significance, might courts detect in such legislative language a warrant for differential interpretation of the charter's linguistic guarantees, including section 23?

Does the proposal resile from the Supreme Court's affirmation that language rights must in all cases be interpreted purposively, consistently with the preservation and development of official language communities in Canada?

Second, the paper proposes to create or strengthen rights with respect to French but not English. This would be another big first in federal language law. For instance, the paper proposes stating in the act's preamble and provisions that English predominates and that French must receive increased protection and promotion.

Another example concerns the protection and promotion of French. The paper proposes rights to work and rights to service in federally regulated enterprises with respect to French alone. Would these proposals effectively differentiate the status of English and French within a quasi-constitutional law?

In conclusion, I invite the committee to carefully consider these interesting proposals. Given their potential for consequences both direct and indirect, they deserve close consideration. I will follow the developments with the utmost interest.

I thank you for your attention.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Emmanuel Dubourg

Thank you very much for your opening remarks, Professor Leckey.

Ms. Meggs, you have the floor for seven and a half minutes.

3:40 p.m.

Anne Meggs Former Director of Research, Office québécois de la langue française, As an Individual

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

It's an honour to address the committee this afternoon.

First, allow me to tell you about the professional experience that has led me here.

I began my professional career with the Government of Canada working on official languages programs in education. I also served as chief of staff to the Minister responsible for Francophone Affairs in Ontario when the first French Language Services Act was passed. I was director of accountability planning for the ministry responsible for immigration in Quebec. I also served as director of research and evaluation at the Office québécois de la langue française.

I will focus on the second and third objectives of the meeting today, which are about the Government of Canada's language framework and possible amendments to the Official Languages Act to better protect French.

Efficiency implies results commensurate with the resources invested. Outside Quebec, it can be said that the results are very mixed. Inside Quebec, the question does not even arise because, to date, the Government of Canada's language framework has included no measures to protect or promote French in Quebec. It has done so only for English.

With respect to the framework's impact on provincial measures to protect French, outside Quebec, the situation of French would likely be even more tenuous without the language provisions of the Canadian Constitution and the support the federal government provides to the provinces for French-language education at all levels and to certain French advocacy groups. In Quebec, the opposite is true. The Government of Canada's language framework is paradoxically designed to protect the country's majority language. Let's be clear, only one official language is at risk in Canada, and that is French.

Here are some of the consequences in Quebec of the federal government's language framework on the provinces' efforts to protect French, as well as on social cohesion in Quebec.

The Canadian Constitution contains several sections that have been used to repeal large portions of the original version of the Charter of the French Language. This has limited the Quebec government's ability to legislate in favour of French, for example, with respect to the language of speeches in the National Assembly, translation of laws, bilingualism in the courts, commercial signage, and access to English-language schools.

The application of Canada's bilingual framework also has a significant effect on the linguistic fabric in Quebec. It is impossible for the Quebec government to impose French-only commercial signage. Everything under federal jurisdiction projects an image of bilingualism in Quebec, putting English on an equal footing with French in federal buildings, on bridges, at ports, in parks, in all federal advertising, and even in any advertising for federally funded events.

Federal public administration is not subject to the Charter of the French Language, which prioritizes services and the right to work in French. In the portion of the nation's capital located in the territory of Quebec, bilingualism is quite simply imposed .

The Canadian language framework also puts up hurdles for Quebec to defend French outside Quebec. It creates a false symmetry between French outside Quebec and English inside Quebec, even in areas of exclusively provincial jurisdiction, such as health care and education. What is good for French outside Quebec is also good for English in Quebec. If Quebec criticizes the closing of a French hospital in another province, it undermines its own leeway in managing its health care system. The same thing goes for education.

This false symmetry also impedes social cohesion in Quebec. If it had been recognized from the beginning of the debate in the 1960s that French needs protection across Canada, the foundations would have been laid for consensus on the measures needed to achieve that goal. Now we find ourselves with legislation that has underlying funding to protect English in Quebec and for groups that defend English.

Finally, let's talk about integrating immigrants to Quebec into the French language. The Canada-Quebec Accord relating to Immigration is the only document I know of where the federal government deviates even slightly from the principle of linguistic symmetry. In fact, it recognizes the importance of ensuring the “integration of immigrants in Québec in a manner that respects the distinct identity of Québec”. The transfer is calculated based on the number of non-francophones admitted to Quebec, and it is stated that language integration courses will be in French. The rest of the immigration process is managed by the federal government. So everything is bilingual.

Someone arriving in Quebec from abroad can choose either official language for work or study permits, for permanent residence and for access to citizenship. Every step of the way, the message is clear: in Quebec, English is an official language of their new country. They are allowed to choose English, and it's even fine if they do. This is the exact opposite of the message that Quebec is trying to convey, and it forms the basis for the Accord, namely the assertion that French is an inclusive, participatory language.

Now, what to do? Could the Official Languages Act be amended to remove those encroachments on the Quebec government's ability to act in favour of French in Quebec, and even outside Quebec?

Unlike Dean Leckey, I am not a lawyer, but as I mentioned, I was privileged to play a role in the passage of the first French Language Services Act in Ontario. The government, at the time a Liberal minority government, determined that it really needed to ensure that public services were available in French. Public services in English were a given. The Act only deals with public services. It doesn't address programs to support groups that defend French. It doesn't mention any minorities. Public services are available in French in the regions and offices defined by the Act. Period.

It's impossible to amend most of the Official Languages Act because, in general, it defines how to apply sections of the Canadian Constitution, which is sacrosanct.

The most problematic sections of the Act, however, do not derive from the Constitution. They are those that create the concept of an English-speaking minority in Canada and propose measures to enhance the vitality and development of that “minority” and to foster the “full recognition and use of English... in Canadian society”. It's impossible to imagine how this could be done “while respecting the jurisdiction and powers” of the Quebec government, which is promised in subsection 41(2).

I conclude with the following recommendation. Amendments to the Official Languages Act should focus on the sections underlying the idea that English is a minority language in Canada, that an English-speaking minority therefore exists, and that both are in jeopardy. The message may be hard to hear, but in my opinion, the federal government cannot possibly protect French in Quebec by promoting English there.

I thank you for your attention. I would be pleased to answer any questions committee members may have.

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Emmanuel Dubourg

Thank you very much, Ms. Meggs.

We now go to the representatives of the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec.

Mr. Bolduc, you have the floor for seven and a half minutes.

3:50 p.m.

Denis Bolduc General Secretary, Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

My name is Denis Bolduc. I am accompanied today by Gilles Grondin, francization advisor at the FTQ. Thank you for the invitation to speak with the members of this important committee on official languages.

The Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec is the largest union federation in Quebec. We represent more than 600,000 workers in all economic sectors and in all regions of Quebec. For more than 50 years, the FTQ has been actively involved in francization. We have become a key player in this area because of our actions, our public interventions and our positions taken to protect and promote the French language.

The FTQ adopted the first language policy in its history at the end of the 1960s, more precisely on November 21, 1969, at its 11th convention held in Quebec City. That same year, the late Fernand Daoust was elected general secretary of the FTQ. Mr. Daoust also served as the FTQ's president between 1991 and 1993. I mention him today because he fought to defend the right to work in French and to negotiate our collective agreements in French in Quebec.

At the heart of the FTQ's first francization policy was the statement that “French must become the normal and everyday language of work at all levels of economic activity in Quebec.” This statement is still valid 50 years later. The FTQ has taken concrete action to promote and defend the French language. We have set up a francization service and we act as a catalyst for francization committees in companies. Over the years, we have also acquired expertise in the francization of immigrant workers in the workplace.

That said, the FTQ is pleased with the Government of Canada's willingness to modernize the Official Languages Act. For us, all measures seeking to improve the place of French are welcome, and that is why we applaud the February white paper. From this document, we hope that the government will come up with a more modern policy for linguistic duality and bilingualism in Canada.

We see clearly that not all languages are on an equal footing in Canada. English is not threatened anywhere in Canada, not in British Columbia, not in New Brunswick, not even in Quebec. However, indigenous languages and French are increasingly threatened, even in Quebec, particularly in Montreal. For the FTQ, it is therefore imperative that the federal and provincial governments take firm and coordinated actions in order to save and promote French in Canada.

We recognize that the federal government has an obligation to promote the principle of linguistic duality in Canada but, of the two official languages recognized in the Official Languages Act, French is the true minority language in Canada. French is under threat and must be protected. The white paper recognizes the decline of French, and we were pleased that the document recognized it.

In 1968, the future Official Languages Act provided for institutional bilingualism, to allow minority anglophones and francophones to have access to services in their language and to pursue a career in the public service in their language. However, those objectives have never been achieved for francophones outside Quebec.

What is even sadder is that this reality is taking hold in Quebec. This is the case with jobs in the federal public service. Our colleagues from the Public Service Alliance of Canada frequently call us to talk about distressing situations, particularly in terms of promotions. For a Quebec civil servant, it is necessary to be bilingual in order to have access to certain senior positions. The same requirement does not exist in New Brunswick, although it is an officially bilingual province, or even in the national capital, in Ottawa, where not speaking French is rarely a handicap or an impediment to obtaining a promotion.

It is clear to the FTQ that its Quebec members working in the public service should be able to enjoy a French-speaking work environment, period.

For years we have been calling for private companies under federal jurisdiction to be subject to the provisions of Quebec's Charter of the French Language. You will therefore not be surprised to hear that the FTQ fully supports the government's intention to “prohibit discrimination against an employee solely because he or she speaks only French or does not have sufficient knowledge of a language other than French in federally regulated private businesses established in Quebec and in other regions with a strong Francophone presence in the country.”

In Quebec, we are seeing a clear increase in bilingualism requirements in job postings. Francophones are often discriminated against in job interviews if they are not fluent in English. In addition, employers are finding all sorts of ways to get around the application of section 46 of the Charter of the French Language.

At the FTQ, we believe that the Office québécois de la langue française should be the body responsible for enforcing language of work rights in Quebec. The expertise of the Office goes back almost 45 years. Applying to two different systems would create ambiguities that are neither desirable nor necessary if we truly wish to improve the use of French in Quebec.

With respect to the appointment of Supreme Court judges, we believe that it is imperative that they be bilingual. In our opinion, the same requirement should apply to senior management positions in major Canadian government agencies and to positions in the senior Canadian public service.

I would like to conclude with a word on francophone culture and the availability of cultural, media and digital products in both official languages. The white paper mentions the importance of promoting French and culture in French. For us, it is simple: language and culture go hand in hand. The vitality of the French language must also be accompanied by a rich and diverse cultural life in French.

The Government of Canada has an important, not to say essential role to play in promoting French. Its role must complement the role of Quebec and of organized groups in civil society.

Thank you for your attention.

3:55 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Emmanuel Dubourg

Thank you very much, Mr. Bolduc.

Now that the witnesses have set the table, we'll go to questions.

Mr. Godin has the floor for six minutes.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

Joël Godin Conservative Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier, QC

Mr. Chair, I think the first round goes to my colleague Mr. Blaney. I think you have the wrong list. This has happened a few times in recent meetings. I don't know the reason for this miscommunication, but it always happens to me. I'm not sure whether you have something against me. I want to tell you that I follow the list very closely, but perhaps we don't have the same list.

With that, Mr. Chair, I think I will turn it over to my colleague Steven Blaney. We'll see each other later.

3:55 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Emmanuel Dubourg

We will fix that.

Don't worry, the timer isn't going.

Vice-Chair Blaney, the floor is yours.

April 29th, 2021 / 4 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Conservative Bellechasse—Les Etchemins—Lévis, QC

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

My thanks to Mr. Godin for his excellent work. It's a pleasure to be his colleague.

I want to thank the witnesses for shedding some extremely interesting light on a study that the committee sees as a major one. You may know that this is the first time that the Standing Committee on Official Languages has looked into the situation of French all across the country, and specifically in Quebec. In that regard, I must thank our participants today, Mr. Bolduc, Mr. Leckey and Ms. Meggs, who are from Quebec.

Mr. Bolduc, I agree with you, culture and language cannot be separated. We know that here because of our cultural and artistic community. We are also very proud of young Jacob who recently qualified for Star Académie. He is very talented.

Let me get right to the point.

Ms. Meggs, thank you for your incisive testimony. Actually, I would really like to start by asking you to repeat the last sentence of your remarks. You said that the language needing support in Quebec is French and that the dual approach in Quebec is devastating. That is what you said just before you ended.

4 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Emmanuel Dubourg

Ms. Meggs, turn on your microphone, please.

You have the floor.

4 p.m.

Former Director of Research, Office québécois de la langue française, As an Individual

Anne Meggs

I am sorry, Mr. Chair. I have an old 2011 computer that I am trying to keep alive, but I don't know how long it will last. I am very proud of it but it is a little slow. I am trying to find the passage you referred to again.

Essentially, what I said is that I do not see how we can protect French and promote English in Quebec at the same time.

4 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Conservative Bellechasse—Les Etchemins—Lévis, QC

You also talked about a false symmetry between French speakers outside Quebec and English speakers inside Quebec. Can you tell us more about what you mean by that?

4 p.m.

Former Director of Research, Office québécois de la langue française, As an Individual

Anne Meggs

I think that Mr. Bolduc mentioned it; I also feel that you previously have attended a number of presentations on Part 1, which I did not bring up. It is becoming quite clear that only one language is in decline in Canada and that it is declining in the face of English, whether we like it or not.

4 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Conservative Bellechasse—Les Etchemins—Lévis, QC

Ms. Meggs, I picked up on an interesting point. You said that federal efforts outside Quebec had supported francophone communities, whereas inside Quebec, they did the opposite, in that they have had an adverse effect on French as the common language.

Did I understand your comments correctly?

4 p.m.

Former Director of Research, Office québécois de la langue française, As an Individual

Anne Meggs

Yes, I would say so. I worked for francophones for a number of years, particularly in Ontario. That's why I gave that example. We did not try to make Ontario an officially bilingual province. Instead, we focused on the need to make sure that francophones have access to services where they live. That answers that question.

The Official Languages Act does the same thing at federal level, generally speaking. It deals with services provided in federal institutions.

The problem for me is when people make comparisons and go as far as to state that the official language minority in Quebec should be on an equal level with the French-speaking minority outside Quebec. I have worked with both communities, and, in my experience, English is doing very well in Quebec. Living in English in Quebec is not a challenge.

4 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Conservative Bellechasse—Les Etchemins—Lévis, QC

You said that the federal government's signage policy prevents Quebec from projecting a French-speaking image. In Lévis, for example, we have Fort No. 1, where the signage is in both official languages.

Could you tell us a little more about that? I am interested in your perspective.

4 p.m.

Former Director of Research, Office québécois de la langue française, As an Individual

Anne Meggs

A friend of mine recently sent me a message. He had just crossed the Champlain bridge, something he hadn't done in a long time since he lives in the Laurentians. He was surprised to see that all the signs were bilingual. I told him it was federal government signage and it had to comply with the Official Languages Act. He was surprised and angry.

It's the same in the metro; all the advertising for COVID-19 and everything else is posted in both languages. That's what the Official Languages Act forces on us in Quebec; it imposes English.

4:05 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Conservative Bellechasse—Les Etchemins—Lévis, QC

Yes, it does.

Do I dare say that's what the Official Languages Act is doing? Do you think the situation will change now the Canadian government has acknowledged the decline of French, its minority status and the need to protect it?

4:05 p.m.

Former Director of Research, Office québécois de la langue française, As an Individual

Anne Meggs

I'd really like the Quebec government's choice to be respected in Quebec, but it's incompatible with an act that requires everything be in both official languages across Canada.

As I said, the signage isn't unilingual. In any case, this issue isn't one of the charter elements that Dean Leckey mentioned.

4:05 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Conservative Bellechasse—Les Etchemins—Lévis, QC

I understand.

You also mentioned immigration. You made me realize it was a Conservative government that delegated the powers that enabled Quebec to implement the francophone component.

Thank you very much.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

4:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Emmanuel Dubourg

Thank you very much, Mr. Blaney. Your time is up.

Ms. Lattanzio, go ahead for six minutes.

4:05 p.m.

Liberal

Patricia Lattanzio Liberal Saint-Léonard—Saint-Michel, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I too would like to thank the witnesses for being with us. I want them to know that their involvement will help us continue our work on this very important study.

My questions are for Dean Leckey.

Dean Leckey, first off, I think your introductory piece was exquisite in that you asked several very pertinent questions. I would invite you to not only file your introductory remarks but also pen to us, if you can, your opinions and your responses to the questions you brought up in your introductory speech. Again, I found it to be very pertinent.

We've heard some contradictory remarks from members of the opposition with regard to linguistic regimes and jurisdictions. While the opposition has asked the federal government to take a bigger role in the rest of Canada, when it comes to Quebec the opposition openly gives precedence to the National Assembly of Quebec to legislate on all linguistic matters. Can you speak to this overlap of linguistic regimes and speak to each level of government's jurisdiction with regard to official languages?

4:05 p.m.

Prof. Robert Leckey

Thank you very much for your comments and for the question. I will be pleased to share the document that I read. Honestly, some of the questions I asked are genuine questions for which I don't have an answer to fill in and then send your way. Part of the delicacy of modifying a quasi-constitutional law is that it's hard to know for sure what its effects will be, how it will be interpreted informally by public servants carrying out their mandate, and how it will be interpreted by courts.

I will think carefully about how much more I could answer. They were genuine questions that I was sharing with you about the potential interpretive consequences.

4:05 p.m.

Liberal

Patricia Lattanzio Liberal Saint-Léonard—Saint-Michel, QC

They were excellent questions.