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House of Commons Hansard #79 of the 38th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was report.

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The House resumed from February 17 consideration of the motion that Bill S-3, an act to amend the Official Languages Act (promotion of English and French), be now read the second time and referred to a committee.

Official Languages ActPrivate Members' Business

11 a.m.

Liberal

Marc Godbout Liberal Ottawa—Orléans, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is certainly an honour and a privilege for me to rise today in support of Bill S-3 to amend the Official Languages Act by making part VII subject to the court remedies provided by this act. Initially, this bill was introduced in the Senate by the hon. Senator Jean-Robert Gauthier.

Allow me to begin by commending Senator Jean-Robert Gauthier on his tenacity and commitment to the Canadian official languages policy. Bill S-3 was the fourth bill introduced by the hon. senator, who had previously introduced Bill S-4, which died on the order paper when Parliament was prorogued in the spring of 2004; Bill S-11, which died on the order paper when Parliament was prorogued in 2003; and Bill S-32, which died on the order paper when Parliament was prorogued in the fall of 2002.

I take this opportunity to acknowledge the invaluable contribution and extraordinary work of Senator Jean-Robert Gauthier, who has always been a great defender of the rights of Franco-Ontarians and francophones outside Quebec.

I want to pay tribute to this citizen of Ottawa, who has had an exceptional career in the House of Commons and in the Senate. In addition to his work as an MP and a senator, and his involvement in the community, he was the Chair of the Assemblée parlementaire de la Francophonie from 1997 to 1999. He is a role model for all Canadians, and we thank him for everything he has done for francophone and Acadian communities across Canada.

The official languages policy is rooted in the past and the present. People have spoken French and English in Canada for centuries and, I am proud to say, they continue to do so in every region of our vast land.

The modern era of the official languages began with the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, as the federal government attempted to adapt to new realities, particularly the Quiet Revolution in Quebec.

In 1969, in light of the recommendations in the report tabled by the commission, Parliament adopted the first Official Languages Act, which recognized French and English as the official languages of all federal institutions. This legislation required such institutions to serve Canadians in the official language of their choice.

The fundamental principles of the current official languages policy are enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982 and the Official Languages Act of 1988. This legislation has three main objectives: to ensure respect for English and French as the official languages of Canada, and ensure equality of status, and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all federal institutions; to support the development of English and French linguistic minority communities and to encourage the acceptance and use of both English and French in Canadian society; and to set out the powers, duties and functions of federal institutions with respect to the official languages of Canada.

Part VII of this act also sets out the government's commitment to enhancing the vitality of francophone and anglophone minority communities and supporting and assisting their development; and fostering the full recognition and use of both English and French in Canadian society.

To do this, the Government of Canada seeks to collaborate with other partners to ensure the advancement of the official languages in Canadian society. This legislation makes the Minister of Canadian Heritage responsible for promoting a coordinated approach to the implementation of the federal government's commitment, in consultation with the other federal institutions, the other orders of government and the agencies representing the different sectors of society.

The Minister of Canadian Heritage is the one responsible for taking such measures as she deems appropriate to support linguistic minority communities by supporting the various groups that work for these communities and by facilitating the contribution of other organizations and federal departments to their development.

The Department of Canadian Heritage enters into agreements on official languages with the provinces and territories in order to enable them to provide minority communities with education in their language and services in English and French in the regions of Canada in which these minorities live, as well as enhancing opportunities for all Canadians to learn English or French as a second language.

The legislation also aims to promote English and French within Canadian society by providing support to the various groups helping to recognize and implement the use of both official languages, and to strengthen understanding and dialogue between Canada's anglophone francophone communities.

Look at the progress made in education. Recent statistics indicate that young people from linguistic minorities represent the same percentage of university graduates as other young Canadians, which was not the case 30 years ago.

Thanks to the support provided to minority language education, the Department of Canadian Heritage works to ensure full participation by both language groups in all spheres of life in Canada. Not only do these programs foster the vital cultural contribution of anglophone and francophone minorities, , they also give them access to economic development.

So the progress that has been made in francophone minority education has played a key role in reducing illiteracy and the number of school drop-outs, while increasing the rate of participation in post-secondary education.

Thirty years ago, not only was the quality and accessibility of French education for francophone minorities a major challenge, it was also a major obstacle to the development and survival of these communities across Canada. There has been a considerable change since then.

In 1982, official language minority communities won the right to be educated in their own language and, a few years later, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed their right to run their own schools. We built schools, school-community centres, and colleges where there were none.

We worked with the provinces and francophone parents from one end of the country to the other. The economic value of quality public education in their own language for 1.9 million Canadians living in an official language minority community, cannot be underestimated.

The Official Languages in Education Program and the collaboration between the provinces, territories and the federal government allows more than 250,000 young people in official language minority communities to study in their own language in some 700 primary and secondary schools across the country.

All Canadians benefit from minority language education programs. Without them, as the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism pointed out, “these Canadians could not contribute fully to Canadian society”.

The Official Languages in Education Program helps fund a network of 19 francophone colleges and universities outside Quebec and supports 94% of anglophones in Quebec studying in English-language schools. These programs also allow 2.4 million young Canadians—more than 313,000 of whom are in immersion classes—to learn a second official language, which increases significantly the number of Canadians familiar with the French language and culture. Clearly, the education partnership works well.

Accordingly, the logical next step for Canadian Heritage as facilitator is to encourage its other partners to do more in order to help official language communities flourish.

The action plans the department puts in place must take into account the requirements of the minority official language communities and be formulated following consultation with them, so that departments and agencies include these considerations in planning their activities. The plans together with a report on the results achieved are submitted annually to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, who then submits a report annually to Parliament on the realization of the government's commitment.

We recognize a lot of work remains to be done. For this reason, the government is currently implementing its action plan for official languages, announced on March 12, 2003, which adds $751 million over five years to the official languages budget and which will benefit all Canadians seeking better access to our rich linguistic duality.

Ambitious and realistic, the action plan truly provides new momentum for Canada's linguistic duality. A new accountability and coordination framework has been developed and will consolidate the Government of Canada's policy, administrative and financial activities. One of the desired effects is to have federal institutions implement the Official Languages Act in a concerted and consistent manner and to report more transparently to the public. This accountability and coordination framework is designed to show the Canadian public the seriousness with which the Government of Canada treats this important matter.

Let us return, however, to S-3. Given the importance of the proposed amendments to the Official Languages Act, we must take the time to examine all of the options open to us before we continue. This is a serious matter. The implications of amending an act are many, and all must be taken into account. Therefore, the aim of Bill S-3 is certainly the logical evolution of the Official Languages Act and the bill should not be taken lightly. It is important not only for official language communities across Canada, but for Canadian society as a whole.

Official Languages ActPrivate Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Vic Toews Conservative Provencher, MB

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to address Bill S-3, a bill to amend the Official Languages Act.

My riding of Provencher, which is in southeastern Manitoba, has the largest francophone population in rural western Canada. It comprises about 15% of the population with communities such as Ste. Anne, La Broquerie, Ste. Pierre, Ste. Malo, Ste. Agathe, Ste. Adolphe, Otterburne, Lorette, Pine Falls, Powerview, St. George and Île-des-Chaînes, to mention some of them. The French language is thriving in Manitoba and, in particular, in my riding.

I would like to comment briefly on a May 1998 report written by provincial judge Richard Chartier on the operation of the province's French language services policy in Manitoba. The report was commissioned by the Manitoba Progressive Conservative government while I was the attorney general and our government committed to implementing that report. I am pleased to see that the implementation continues.

Judge Chartier's report is aptly titled, “Above All, Common Sense”. It focuses on making bilingual services more readily accessible in designated areas of the province, including my area of the province. Judge Chartier's key recommendation was that community service centres be established to serve as outlets for government services. He said that the province could better meet the objectives of our French language service policy by making sure that our services in French were actively offered in those regions where our francophone population is concentrated.

In his report he wrote that it was important to try to find practical solutions that could be applied immediately, above all, solutions that made use of common sense. While the report does not have a direct application to Bill S-3, I believe we can learn from the principles contained in that report.

The major purpose of Bill S-3 is to make the commitment set out in part VII of the Official Languages Act binding on the government. Section 41 of the Official Languages Act commits the federal government to:

(a) enhancing the vitality of the English and French linguistic minority communities in Canada and supporting and assisting their development; and

(b) fostering the full recognition and use of both English and French in Canadian society.

The government has failed on both of those counts.

In 2004 the Federal Court of Appeal stated that “section 41 is declaratory of a commitment and that it does not create any right or duty that could at this point be enforced by the courts, by any procedure whatsoever”.

In other words, the court ruled that section 41 of the Official Languages Act was a broad statement of principle and not an actual legal obligation. The court went on to say, “the debate over section 41 must be conducted in Parliament, not in the courts”.

Bill S-3 addresses this ruling in two ways. First, it would add subsections requiring all federal institutions to take “positive measures...for the ongoing and effective advancement and implementation” of section 41”.

Second, it would add part VII of the Official Languages Act to a list of specific sections of the act that are justiciable, which is contained in section 77. In other words, the bill would make it clear that if the government does not live up to its obligations under part VII of the Official Languages Act it can be taken to court and forced to fulfill those obligations.

As a general principle, I am supportive of legislation that holds ministers accountable to their commitments. However there remain concerns with the bill as drafted. The first concern with Bill S-3 in fact centres around section 41.

Provincial governments have complained in the past that this section of the Official Languages Act infringes on their jurisdiction. The Bloc Québécois made the same argument the last time this bill came before the House.

My concern is that making section 41 justiciable, that is allowing it to be subject to court action, would clear the way for court challenges that might result in section 41 and the rest of part VII of the Official Languages Act being struck down on the grounds that it was ultra vires or outside the constitutional jurisdiction of the federal government. This concern was raised in committee in 2002 by the minister of justice at the time.

My colleague from Stormont—Dundas—South Glengarry has committed to working with the members on the Standing Committee on Official Languages to amend the bill, perhaps by adding a section that expressly respects the provinces and limits the federal government to its own jurisdiction assigned to it in the Constitution so that it fulfills section 41 of the act within its constitutional mandate.

The second concern involves another section of the Official Languages Act that is affected by the bill, section 43. While Bill S-3 seeks to make the government's commitment under part VII of the Official Languages Act more enforceable, it does not clarify the scope of those commitments. As a result, unless the bill is amended, it could result in a wave of court actions and the loss of parliamentary control over the nature, extent and, indeed, the cost of the government's official languages program.

Section 43 currently states:

The Minister of Canadian Heritage shall take such measures as that Minister considers appropriate to advance the equality of status and use of English and French in Canadian society--

Bill S-3 would change the wording of section 43 to clarify that the heritage minister “shall take appropriate measures” instead of “shall take measures that the Minister considers appropriate”. While it removes the minister's discretion when it comes to the general goal, the bill still leaves sections (a) through (d), the list of specific measures, totally up to the discretion of the minister.

What that means is that the minister does not have to do any of the specific things listed in section 43 but if someone were dissatisfied with the minister's performance when it comes to her or his very general objective, they could take the matter to court regardless of whether the minister takes any or all of the specific measures listed.

Now it seems totally backward to me to make the general obligation legally enforceable and the specific ones up to the discretion of the minister. This act needs to be clarified in that respect and give both the minister a clear direction and give the court a clear framework for deciding whether or not the minister is fulfilling his or her obligations.

I hope we can make suitable amendments to the bill in committee to make it more effective in meeting its goals. I will support the bill in principle and I will encourage my colleagues on this side of the House to do likewise, although they will be free to vote as they see fit since this is an item of private members' business. I think the intention of the bill is something that many members would consider to be reasonable and worthwhile.

I do want to say that if we approach this issue in a common sense way, the way that Judge Chartier did in Manitoba with his report, I think that we can continue to work together as two linguistic groups in this country, French and English, to ensure that the constitutional responsibilities that our governments have are carried out.

Official Languages ActPrivate Members' Business

11:25 a.m.

Bloc

Guy André Bloc Berthier—Maskinongé, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is of course with great pleasure that I rise today to address Bill S-3, an act to amend the Official Languages Act (promotion of English and French).

I would like to begin by referring to the promoter of this bill, former senator Jean-Robert Gauthier. I want to stress the work and dedication of former senator Jean-Robert Gauthier in the defence of francophone minorities and the promotion of their rights.

I also wish to sincerely thank my fellow Bloc Québécois members who addressed this legislation during the first hour of debate at second reading. I am referring, among others, to the hon. member for Repentigny and the hon. member for Verchères—Les Patriotes, who are both staunch defenders of the rights of francophone minorities.

This bill, which amends the Official Languages Act, was the fourth one tabled in the Senate by senator Jean-Robert Gauthier. He first introduced Bill S-32 during the first session of the 37th Parliament, then Bill S-11 during the second session and, finally, Bill S-4 during the third session. These three bills, which died on the order paper, were, for all intents and purposes, identical to Bill S-3.

The bill that is now before us primarily seeks to enhance the enforceability of the federal government's obligations under Part VII of the Official Languages Act. We are referring here to the federal government's commitment to enhance the vitality of the English and French linguistic communities in Canada, to support and assist their development, and to foster the full recognition and use of both English and French in Canadian society. We are talking about section 41, which would be amended to make it enforceable and thus provide guidance for its interpretation by the courts.

Bill S-3 also proposes to amend section 43 to read as follows:

The Minister of Canadian Heritage shall take appropriate measures to advance the equality of status and use of English and French in Canadian society.

Finally, it is proposed that part VII be added to subsection 77(1) of the Official Languages Act. This amendment to section 77 would allow citizens to file complaints before the courts to ensure that the obligations included in Part VII are met.

In summary, the purpose of this bill is to clarify the responsibility of federal institutions to implement Part VII of the act and to adopt regulations for the enforcement process of the requirements provided in section 41 of the act. Furthermore, it requires that the federal government take measures to advance the equality of status and use of English and French in Canadian society. Finally, it provides for a court remedy to challenge a violation of Part VII of the Official Languages Act.

As we have said already, the Bloc Québécois cannot support this bill in its current form. We believe Bill S-3 is incomplete and contains elements that do not reflect the linguistic reality of Quebec and Canada in confirming the implementation of identical measures in Quebec and in Canada. This situation would deny the distinct character of Quebec.

Indeed, under section 43 of the Official Languages Act, as amended by Bill S-3, the government shall advance “the equality of status and use of English and French in Canadian society”. However, in Quebec, French is the very foundation of Quebec's identity in North America. Quebec is the only place on the continent where French can become the common language and the language of convergence and exchange of its citizens. On a continent where the overwhelming majority of people speak English, promoting the equality of use of English and French in Quebec would weaken the status of French in Quebec and in North America.

Another thing that must be kept in mind in this debate is that the Official Languages Act does not recognize the asymmetry of needs. Both minority linguistic communities in this country do not benefit from the same services. It is clear that the needs of the minority French communities are much greater than those of English speaking people in Quebec. The situation of French speaking people outside Quebec remains very alarming and uncertain in some regions.

Our political party has several times mentioned the notion that the Official Languages Act should recognize the asymmetry of needs. Unfortunately, Bill S-3 still does not reflect the importance of recognizing that asymmetry.

By the way, I should point out that the Bloc Québécois is not alone in proposing this approach. Indeed, the current environment minister and the Commissioner of Official Languages have said in the past that an asymmetrical approach should be taken to the official languages file.

Another major shortcoming of this bill is that section 43, as amended, could prompt the federal government to meddle in areas that are exclusively under the jurisdiction of Quebec. We all know how much the federal government, especially when it is led by the Liberal Party, has increased, year after year, its intrusions in jurisdictions exclusive to Quebec. Members will understand that the Bloc Québécois cannot support that aspect of Bill S-3.

The amendment to section 77 of the Official Languages Act, which gives citizens the power to turn to the courts to enforce the obligations listed in Part VII, also has many shortcomings. How can one explain the absence of precise criteria regarding results achieved by the federal government in the promotion of English and French? We believe that the absence of clarity could not only foster excessive recourse to the courts, but also encourage the central government to take measures in violation of the Charter of the French Language.

I would like to conclude my remarks by making two important points. Throughout this debate, it is obvious that the federal government, in and of itself, could feel obligated by Part VII of the Official Languages Act to ensure the development of minority French-speaking communities.

The problem, according to us, is not legislative, but political, one of attitude and conviction. Undoubtedly, there is a lack of leadership in the federal government with respect to official languages and this has been the case since the very beginning of the Official Languages Act. It is that lack of political will on the part of the federal government which has penalized francophone minority communities.

When a government cannot manage to enforce a piece of legislation that has been in effect for 35 years, and this legislation is disregarded with impunity in its own jurisdictions, departments, and public service, it is because this government does not have the political courage to enforce it.

Today, it is being suggested that making Part VII of the act enforceable could settle all the problems. Come on. As I just said, for 35 years, the federal government has not had the will to enforce the sections of the act that are already enforceable. Why would its attitude change overnight?

Our party is aware of the special difficulties French-speaking minorities have. Unfortunately, the federal government chose not to recognize their special situation. I want to emphasize that our position on Bill S-3 does not take anything away from our commitments to French-speaking and Acadian minorities in Canada. In fact, the opposite is true. Since 1994, when it made a formal commitment not to let down French-speaking Canadians and Acadians, the Bloc Québécois has been the political party in the federal Parliament which has most often raised issues that are important for French-speaking minorities.

On numerous occasions, we have pressured the federal government to raise the level of funding for French-speaking organizations. For example, we asked the Minister of Canadian Heritage to increase the funding for the Canada-communities agreements to $42 million annually to meet the request of the FCFA. Unfortunately, the government has still not responded favourably.

We also raised other issues such as the number of French-speaking Canadians at senior levels in the public service, the use of French at work, the requirement for Air Canada to provide service in French outside Quebec, and so on.

The Bloc Québécois has worked on all fronts and it will continue to do so.

Official Languages ActPrivate Members' Business

11:35 a.m.

NDP

Joe Comartin NDP Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

Mr. Speaker, like the other members who spoke earlier, I would like to thank Senator Jean-Robert Gauthier for Bill S-3.

Like a number of French-speaking people living outside Quebec, I am from a part of our country that, during its history, has welcomed European immigrants coming directly from France. In Windsor and the riding of Essex, originally, a major segment of the population was entirely French speaking. These people could go to French schools and speak their language anywhere: at church, in stores and so on. This was not a problem.

However, after the second world war, particularly because of the influences of the United States, the French language began to disappear in my riding. This continued until the 1960s, when we started to fight against the disappearance of French.

Whether from St. Joachim, Belle-River, Pointe-aux-Roches or La Salle, all members of the community began saying that they and the federal government had the responsibility to ensure that their children will be able to continue to speak French and to preserve the French culture.

As a result of that battle, a lengthy fight has gone on. To some degree, Bill S-3 addresses the problem with this government and, quite frankly, previous Conservative governments. Although they paid lip service to official languages policy and passed legislation, they were not prepared in spirit to enforce that legislation. It seems to me that this attempt by Senator Gauthier is to enhance the ability for us to do that, those of us who for the last 40 to 50 years have had to fight to protect the language and culture of the francophone community in English Canada in particular.

It is difficult to say whether we should support this legislation even in principle as opposed to telling the federal government to get serious and do what it is supposed to do. We recognize the legislative responsibility it has and it should do the same thing: “protect” and “enhance”, as the existing language says, the rights of the francophone and anglophone communities to be able to use their language as they deem appropriate and as they desire to do.

In preparation for today, I was thinking about one of the stories from our critic in this area, who is from New Brunswick. He made a point at one of the hearings in the official languages committee about an individual who was speaking French in the workplace and was disciplined as a result of that by the federal government. This was an employee within the federal public service. In the last couple of years I think of the fight that the francophone community in Windsor and Essex had to lead to keep French services at the post office. Terminating those services was seriously being considered.

I will be the first to say that in a democracy people have to fight for their rights; it is that argument of eternal vigilance. I fully support that, but clearly there is a major responsibility here on the part of the federal government. The Official Languages Act should be sufficient at this point, given all the experiences we have had, but what happens so many times is that individuals, communities and groups of communities have to come together and fight in the courts, sometimes all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, just to have their rights recognized and enforced. Quite frankly, it is a role that has not been played to anywhere near a sufficient degree by our federal government.

This bill is going to make it easier to do that, but even though I recognize the need for this given the role the federal government has not played in enforcing the Official Languages Act, it still begs the question as to whether at this stage, in this millennium, after all the battles we have had, it is necessary to do this. I would like to think that at the end of the day the federal government will finally come to the table and enforce the legislation, because we keep running across situations where it is not doing that.

We expect that this bill will go to committee and will be addressed at that point, perhaps with some amendments, recognizing what I believe are very valid concerns on the part of the province of Quebec in terms of the potential intrusion into provincial responsibility in that particular province. I am hopeful that the bill might be amended to a degree that would satisfy those concerns. If it is not, my party will have to give serious consideration as to whether we will be able to support it.

With regard to the bill itself, the provisions that add responsibility to the minister in terms of the Official Languages Act, the amendments to section 41, seem to me to make good common sense. Perhaps this is a response to the member for Provencher who said that should be our guiding light.

I am not sure, given the history of his party, that this has always been the case on its part, but it should be in this case. Subclauses 1(2) and 1(3), which Bill S-3 is proposing to add to section 41 of the Official Languages Act, would appear to us in the NDP to be appropriate amendments as a way of delivering a message to the government and in particular to the minister about their responsibility, and perhaps in a specific way. I am now speaking specifically of subclause 1(2), which is being proposed as a specific way to enhance the language and cultural rights of the francophone and anglophone communities in this country.

The third amendment to Bill S-3, which is to add part VII of the Official Languages Act to the list for which individuals or groups can in fact start court action, that is, take the initiative themselves, I have to say we have concerns about that. We believe the last thing this country needs is more litigation over the Official Languages Act. What we need is enforcement within the existing structure.

We have often talked about and were so critical of the Soviet Union having a great constitution protecting human rights because we knew that absolutely no enforcement was ever made of those constitutional provisions and the enshrinement of those rights. It is a similar type of situation here. I will not suggest it has gone that far. It is a halfway measure.

It always seems to be a halfway measure on the part of this government and in fact of previous governments. The government will push it this far and then it stops. Quite frankly, if one goes to francophone communities across the country one sees that halfway measures are no longer acceptable and they have not been for a long time. Whether the francophone communities are in my home county of Essex or right across the country, they are no longer prepared to accept that.

It should not be the responsibility of these communities to have to fight these cases to the degree that has been dumped on them, especially when it repeatedly seems that even if it is won at the first round, the federal government will appeal it to the highest court in the province and then to the Supreme Court of Canada. That conduct on the part of this government and previous governments has to stop.

If it is necessary for this bill to go through to stop it then perhaps we have to support the bill, but I would ask this government to seriously consider taking a more proactive position and to stop these appeals and enforce the Official Languages Act as it is enshrined now.

Official Languages ActPrivate Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

Françoise Boivin Liberal Gatineau, QC

Mr. Speaker, first, like most of my colleagues, I am pleased to speak on Bill S-3 to amend the Official Languages Act and promote English and French, a bill which is being sponsored in this House by my colleague. Members will recall that I was happy to support this bill.

I also want to thank Senator Jean-Robert Gauthier, but differently than my colleagues have done. I grew up in this region and, to me, Jean-Robert Gauthier is an institution. My family is somewhat representative of the Francophonie in Canada, because my parents are Franco-Ontarians. They come from the St. Charles parish and grew up in the same area as Jean-Robert Gauthier. My father had the opportunity to see this great man, as an MP, do a truly extraordinary job as a politician not only for the francophone cause, but in everything that job entails.

Not only was it a childhood dream of mine to be standing here in 2005 as the MP for Gatineau, but I recall my father always telling me just how important it was for me to retain my integrity as Jean-Robert Gauthier did. He is a model politician who has always fought for what he believed in. I want to pay public tribute to him. We are proud to have had such a strong representative in the great history of the Liberal Party of Canada.

I was saying that we represent the Canadian Francophonie because my parents are Franco-Ontarians, and their three children, my brother, my sister and I, were born in Quebec and grew up there. People can imagine the dinner conversations we had when we—the three of us who had grown up here in the Quebec Outaouais—talked about the Canadian Francophonie. My parents experienced the major battles and fought alongside other families for the rights of francophones outside Quebec. People such as Jacqueline Pelletier and Roland Thérien are remembered for their roles in the epic battles of Franco-Ontarians. I salute all those who fight each day for this cause.

In these discussions with my parents, I often represented what the Francophonie in Quebec is about in such discussions. We are rather privileged in Quebec to live in an environment where the French language is legally protected, without denying that it is threatened because it is not the language of the majority on this planet we live on. When we value a language, we must ensure that it is maintained. When comparing the situation of French in Quebec to its situation in the rest of Canada at the time when I was growing up at home, I had a little difficulty understanding those we called Franco-Ontarians.

I understood a little better after I was elected and appointed to the Committee on Official Languages and had the opportunity, along with several of my colleagues in this place of all political stripes, to hear many representatives of this great family, the Canadian Francophonie. I was better able to understand the struggles I had heard about growing up, which I had difficulty understanding because I was not experiencing similar struggles in Quebec. I followed the debate on Bill S-3 and realized how important all this was when the official languages commissioner appeared before the committee and explained her role, the legislation and the fact that this act should be even more effective. It seems to me that was the essence of the amendment sought by the hon. Senator Jean-Robert Gauthier.

I would like to digress for a moment to clarify why I support Bill S-3. It is all well and fine to rise in support of a bill, to point out that we asked umpteen questions, that our party did this, that or the other, but what matters in the end is to make a decision that can really help.

When I see the official languages commissioner fully and unconditionally support Bill S-3, yet people oppose it for one reason or another, at such times I ask myself whether these people really represent the interests of the Francophonie. Hon. members will have gathered that I am alluding to the position of the Bloc Québécois. I have trouble understanding them in this respect.

This is, moreover, a far cry from what I was told in committee when I asked why the Bloc Québécois was refusing to support Bill S-3. I was surprised by their answer. I must admit that they did ask good questions in committee. Now is the time to make an important decision for the rights of linguistic minorities. I had trouble understanding why the Bloc was against the bill. At that time, the excuse they gave was that there was no funding tied to the bill. I have found the explanation my colleague gave just now to be perhaps a bit more representative of the Bloc and its constant sacrosanct fear of the big bad feds invading Quebec's jurisdiction.

It must be clearly understood that what we are talking about here is the federal institutions, so that is a pretty feeble excuse. It is a matter of enhancing the accountability of federal institutions as far as implementing that commitment is concerned.

As you know, the Canadian government is very much attached to the cause of linguistic duality. The French and English languages, and the populations speaking those languages, have shaped Canada and helped to define its identity. Canada's linguistic duality is therefore ingrained in the very nature of our country. We cannot look at the Canada of today without acknowledging the importance of English and French in Canadian society.

I agree with some of my Quebec colleagues here that, if the treatment of our anglophone minority and its survival, its institutions and so forth is compared, there is no doubt, and I am very comfortable stating this, that we look after our minority very well. That does not mean that, as far as the federal government and federal institutions are concerned, we do not need to ensure that our anglophone fellow citizens receive services in their language of choice. That is what we are talking about, and that is why an effort must be made not to shift the debate to things that make no sense, as certain representatives of the Bloc have done.

We are talking about federal institutions. I think that an anglophone living off the beaten track somewhere in Quebec is also entitled to service in his or her language of choice when dealing with federal institutions.

As you know, the Official Languages Act of 1969 is the outcome of a long reflection on the situation in this country. The Laurendeau-Dunton Commission, which was struck in 1963, worked for seven years to produce a true portrait of Canadian society. Its conclusion was that Canada was undergoing a major crisis, the resolution of which required offering both major language communities new ways of co-existing. One of those ways was to make federal institutions bilingual.

My experience at the Standing Committee on Official Languages opened my eyes to many concepts having to do with linguistic minorities. The committee is currently doing a lot of work on the issue of using the official language of one's choice at work in the public service.

I want to take this opportunity in supporting Bill S-3, to say how important the concept of using the official language of one's choice at work in the public service is to me.

As I was saying earlier, I grew up in the greater National Capital region, in the Quebec Outaouais. I am amazed that we are still talking about this. It was extremely important for Senator Gauthier to fight like the dickens to advance the cause of linguistic minorities in this country. Thirty years later, we are still having the same discussion.

It is time to make a decision, to move forward on this issue and to stop using the lousy excuses we have heard for being against Bill S-3. At the Standing Committee on Official Languages I asked the Official Languages Commissioner whether she still supported the bill. Her clear and unwavering response was yes.

I too support Bill S-3. Of course, when we make changes to legislation as important as this, they have to be considered and we will do that in committee. However, just because we ask questions in committee does not mean we are working for linguistic minorities.

When it is time to make decisions that count—I am saying this to all Canadians watching us, especially Quebeckers—the Bloc is absent.

Official Languages ActPrivate Members' Business

11:55 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

The mover of the motion now has the floor for five minutes to reply and end the debate.

Official Languages ActPrivate Members' Business

11:55 a.m.

Liberal

Don Boudria Liberal Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to once again take part in this debate today, to conclude the second reading stage of this bill.

I was somewhat disappointed to learn, from the speeches made by some Bloc Québécois members, that they do not intend to support this legislation at second reading. I find it hard to understand that. The next time people hear their questions on the treatment of linguistic minorities, they will have serious reservations. They will wonder, among other things, if Bloc Québécois members are serious when they ask such questions. In this regard, I agree with the comments made by the hon. member for Gatineau, who said that when it comes to taking action, the Bloc is not there.

There is still time to reflect on this. I would ask the House to unanimously pass this bill at second reading because, at this stage, we are voting to determine whether we support the principle of the legislation. If an amendment is necessary, I am prepared to entertain it. I said it before and I am saying it again today. The committee will be its own master. In the unlikely event where even this process does not satisfy some members, there will be a third reading stage allowing them to vote against the whole bill.

If we vote against the bill today, we are essentially saying that it is so bad that it cannot be amended. But that is not true. This is a good bill. On the one hand, it got the unanimous support of the Senate and, on the other hand, it got the full support of the Commissioner of Official Languages, as the hon. member just pointed out. I realize that the commissioner is not a member of Parliament. However, the vote at second reading, if it takes place today, will show that some members do not want to go ahead with this initiative. This is what it will mean.

I know a thing or two about parliamentary procedure. At second reading, we vote on the principle of a bill; we vote to support the principle of the bill and refer the legislation to a committee. This is what we will be asked to vote on in a few minutes, nothing else. A member cannot say that he will vote against this bill and that if it is improved on, he will then support it at third reading. This is totally contrary to the parliamentary procedure. Hon. members know that, or else they still have a few minutes to inquire about the appropriate process.

In the remaining few seconds, I would like to thank the great Canadian, Senator Jean-Robert Gauthier, especially. It is he who introduced the bill many times in the other house. Each version failed or died on the order paper at the end of a session or a Parliament. None was rejected. This bill was passed unanimously by the other house before it arrived here. That does not mean that it is beyond amendment, on the contrary. We have the right to amend it and we retain that right. Amendments considered necessary by the government or members opposite will be proposed at the appropriate time. As the bill's sponsor, I am open to that.

The time has come to broaden the scope of part VII of the Official Languages Act and to give it the enforceability already dictated by some of the courts, in New Brunswick, for example. This has been mentioned. Curious though it may seem, the very MPs who say they might vote against the bill—and I hope they will change their mind—were critical of the government's appeal of the decision in New Brunswick.

Today, these members are appealing, to draw a parallel, the bill before us. Things are topsy-turvy. This is not the way to defend minorities. There is enough time, though, to do the right thing.

If the hon. members think that the bill is beyond repair, poorly drafted or something like that, I reserve their right at third reading to vote against it. However, now is the time for us to act as one to help this country's minorities. I call on all members to join together. We can do it, and I hope we will.

Official Languages ActPrivate Members' Business

Noon

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

The question is on the motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Official Languages ActPrivate Members' Business

Noon

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Official Languages ActPrivate Members' Business

Noon

Some hon. members

No.

Official Languages ActPrivate Members' Business

Noon

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

All those in favour will please say yea.

Official Languages ActPrivate Members' Business

Noon

Some hon. members

Yea.

Official Languages ActPrivate Members' Business

Noon

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

All those opposed will please say nay.

Official Languages ActPrivate Members' Business

Noon

Some hon. members

Nay.

Official Languages ActPrivate Members' Business

Noon

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

In my opinion the yeas have it.

And more than five members having risen:

Official Languages ActPrivate Members' Business

Noon

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

Pursuant to Standing Order 93, the division stands deferred until Wednesday, April 13, 2005, immediately before the time provided for private members' business.

Standing Orders and ProcedureOrders of the day

Noon

Hamilton East—Stoney Creek Ontario

Liberal

Tony Valeri LiberalLeader of the Government in the House of Commons

moved:

That this House take note of the Standing Orders and procedure of the House and its Committees.

Standing Orders and ProcedureOrders of the day

Noon

Liberal

Don Boudria Liberal Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Mr. Speaker, it seems to me that not too long ago — that is two minutes ago — I had the opportunity to speak in this House. I am pleased to take part in this debate on the Standing Orders and procedure of the House of Commons.

As my colleagues know, I have the honour to chair the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. This is a committee that I find totally fascinating. It is responsible for dealing with issues relating to electoral reform, the report of the Chief Electoral Officer, the Standing Orders of the House, and so on. Consequently, I am really pleased to take part in this debate and to lead it off today.

Before going further, it would be important to summarize the changes that have been made in recent years and to emphasize the elements that should be the subject of a more thorough examination.

In the 37th Parliament, the House made many changes to the Standing Orders following recommendations from the special committee on modernization, of which there were two editions. This committee was modelled on the one that existed in the United Kingdom at the time. The opposition House leader and I, who was government House leader, saw what had been done in the United Kingdom and proposed a similar model for Canada. The opposition House leader at that time was none other than the current Deputy Speaker of the House. We discovered together what that modernization committee was all about. We established a similar structure in Canada, with one significant difference: the minister and government House leader in Great Britain chaired the committee in that country, whereas we adopted a formula whereby our committee's deliberations were led by the Deputy Speaker of the House. Every decision had to be unanimous, meaning that if a particular proposal was not adopted unanimously, it was simply deemed to have been withdrawn. We discussed and included in our report only those issues on which there was unanimous agreement.

Here are some of our achievements.

First, the Leader of the Opposition may now designate two main estimates for consideration in committee of the whole. This change was made a few years ago, and one might think that it has always been so, but it has not.

Second, the regulations governing the admissibility of petitions were relaxed to allow members to present a larger number of petitions on behalf of their constituents. Many members were outraged to see our constituents very carefully prepare petitions and, then, if they contained a single incorrect word, they could not be laid before the House. There was something wrong with that. While maintaining proper decorum, we have relaxed the rules to enable us to present a larger number of petitions.

Third, the government is now required to respond to petitions within 45 days. This requirement did not exist previously. There had been a kind of black hole. When a petition was presented, the assumption was that the other members in the House were aware. If a member was not in the House for the presentation of petitions, he or she could read them in Hansard the next day. We know that the hon. members are very enthusiastic to read the previous day's record. But in the improbable event that someone had not read them, the petitions were gone; there was a black hole. Now, however, the government has to provide a response.

Other changes made during the 37th Parliament included, for instance, the creation of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and the Estimates, as well as the Standing Committee on Official Languages. Previously, the official languages committee was a joint committee. Now, it is a stand-alone committee, in that only members of the House sit on it.

There is also the procedure whereby committees elect their chairperson through secret ballot. Personally, I was opposed, and I still am. I find it somewhat unusual that, as parliamentarians, while we debate openly, we would vote secretly. Some likened a secret ballot to the process used by our voters. But our voters are not elected representatives; we are. In my opinion, we have a responsibility to make our votes a matter of public record.

The House adopted a code of conduct for parliamentarians, which will be administered by the new, independent Ethics Commissioner. Mr. Shapiro has become an officer of this House and will be in charge of administering the code of conduct.

The current Prime Minister has made democratic reform a priority. The government has tabled an action plan for democratic reform in the House of Commons as one of the first orders of business. We have made progress in implementing a number of reforms.

For instance, 70% of the votes are free votes for government MPs. At the risk of being a little on the partisan side here, I am sure the threshold for independent votes is not nearly that high on the opposition benches because they have a much more rigid party discipline and they do not quite reflect the interests of their constituents the way we do on this side of the House, but that is the way it is.

Committees are reviewing nominations to key appointments before they are finalized. Bills are routinely sent to committee before second reading. The reason the referral of bills before second reading is important is that if a bill is referred to committee subsequent to second reading, the amendments are limited to what is referred to as the scope of the bill. In other words, the amendments cannot go beyond the scope of the bill. Any amendment has to narrow the bill and cannot broaden its mandate. However, if a bill is referred to committee before second reading, both concepts work.

An additional $5 million has been provided for committee research. Maybe this is a good moment to talk about that because a number of us are presently looking at electoral reform. That is part of the mandate of the committee that I chair. I see another member of that committee. He and I and others have had occasion recently of touring a number of other countries to compare their electoral systems.

The staff we have is absolutely outstanding. Our committee clerk and our researchers are doing an excellent job, particularly on this committee. This committee is one that I know better than others because it is the one on which I work at the present time. I cannot say enough about the quality of assistance that we are getting from the table and the committee clerk and of course the library for the committee research staff. They are excellent. In the last Parliament when I chaired the official languages committee, it was the same. We had fine quality people.

What is necessary to be done now? We could do a number of things to modify some of the rules. I did an overview of some of the things done so far as a background for other committee members in order to speak to these issues.

I have one particular bone to pick and it is with respect to the concurrence motions in committee reports. They are now being utilized as a method of filibustering by the opposition. That is not normal. Also, concurring in a committee report is not supposed to replace the government order for a given day. That is nonsense.

For instance, there are even some motions which could be debated today. Today we are debating how to make the place more democratic and that may be stopped by someone who wants to allegedly debate a committee report instead of the order of the House. I hope that at the very least that will not be done today. I look forward to the contribution of all hon. members.

Standing Orders and ProcedureOrders of the day

12:10 p.m.

Conservative

Ken Epp Conservative Edmonton—Sherwood Park, AB

Mr. Speaker, as I have said before, I am quite impressed with the knowledge the member has of procedures around here. He has done a good job over the years in representing that part of the work.

I would like to comment on his very last statement. He said that he would like the opposition party not to have the ability to debate concurrence reports, yet the Standing Orders are there for that purpose. It seems that committee reports rot on shelves and most of the time they are never acted upon. The government never responds to say that it is agreeing on it.

Surely that is an application in the House the member would like to preserve for the time when he will be in opposition, which will be shortly.

Standing Orders and ProcedureOrders of the day

12:10 p.m.

Liberal

Don Boudria Liberal Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Mr. Speaker, apart from the last statement with regard to the so-called time when I will be in opposition, I was in the opposition for many years around here. I sat from 1981 to 1984 at the provincial level at Queens Park and from 1984 until 1993 in opposition here. I have sat in opposition at one level or another longer than the hon. member has, but of course he has considerable service around here as well.

I did not say that we should not be able to concur in committee reports. What I said is that the present situation means that debatable motions to concur in committee reports have found their way to replacing the orders of the day. That is ridiculous.

There are government days. We know what they are. About one day a week is an opposition day and the opposition can choose whatever topic it would like to debate on that day. The unfairness in the present system is the government cannot tell the opposition what to debate on the opposition days, but the opposition tells the government what to debate on the government's day because if the opposition does not like the subject, the opposition cuts if off by moving a motion to concur in a committee report.

Voting on concurrence in a committee report is okay, but to say that the motion can be moved almost at any time and never on an opposition day and only on a government day is an abuse of the system.

If I deliberately moved concurrence in my report on the hon. member's opposition day and did it for about six consecutive weeks, I think I would hear about. That is the same thing that is happening now in reverse.

I do not know whether the hon. member will ever sit on the government side; that is for the electors to decide, and several years down the road who knows what they may decide. However, if they ever decide that is the case, I am sure he will come to the realization very quickly that this particular rule has been bent out of shape. That is the point I am making, not that concurrence in committee reports needs to be abolished. It needs to be fixed because it now has a definition totally different from the one that was envisaged when that rule was put in place.

Standing Orders and ProcedureOrders of the day

12:15 p.m.

Conservative

Jay Hill Conservative Prince George—Peace River, BC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin my remarks in the debate today regarding Standing Orders by congratulating the Leader of the Opposition, who at the beginning of this Parliament negotiated a number of rule changes with which the House is now experimenting.

The first rule change altered the appointment and selection process of the Deputy Speaker and the other two chair occupants, and obviously that was of interest to you, Mr. Speaker, because you are one of them. Instead of the Prime Minister appointing the Deputy Speaker and the other two chair occupants, the Speaker now selects candidates and presents them to the House for ratification.

To improve debate, it was proposed that all speeches be followed by a period of questions and comments. Often members did not have an opportunity to question the most important speakers leading off debate on legislation. We also made all opposition motions votable.

Since the 1950s, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts was chaired by an opposition member. We now have opposition chairs for the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates and the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. We opened up vice-chair positions to other parties other than the official opposition and government.

We changed the way concurrence motions would be considered. We had this peculiar situation that caused a motion to concur in a committee report to become a government order. Committees could hardly be considered independent if the government controlled whether there would be a vote on a concurrence motion. We just heard a bit of debate about this change.

One of the frustrations when the House is not in session and when an issue arises where a government response is required, is that there is no parliamentary forum available to debate the issues and government accountability is left exclusively to press conferences and media scrums.

Standing Order 106 was amended to provide that within five days of the receipt by the clerk of a standing committee of a request signed by any four members of that said committee, the chair of the said committee shall convene such a meeting. That way, during a recess a committee could be convened and the minister could be invited to brief members and be held accountable.

The opposition, and in particular the member for Yorkton--Melville, were instrumental in reforming private members' business. We now have all private members' items votable, and that all members be given a chance to have at least one item considered by Parliament between elections has been essentially realized.

The one flaw is the ability of the majority on the procedure and House affairs committee to deem an item non-votable. These members were supposed to be guided by certain criteria that were designed to help them make a non-partisan decision. However, when Bill C-268, an act to confirm the definition of marriage and to preserve ceremonial rights, was deemed non-votable, it demonstrated that we could not expect this committee to make an impartial decision when faced with a difficult issue.

The committee majority decided, on the grounds that the bill was unconstitutional, that it ought not to be deemed votable. The real reason, I contend, was that the government wanted to avoid the embarrassment of voting on something controversial. Bill C-268 has been the only bill thus far in this Parliament to have been designated non-votable. I would recommend taking away the decision of the procedural appropriateness of private members' items from this committee and give it to the Speaker or to the House itself.

Secret ballot elections at committee were brought about by a motion from the former opposition House leader, the member for West Vancouver--Sunshine Coast--Sea to Sky Country.

I have outlined the record of the Conservative Party on parliamentary reform in this Parliament in particular. I would like to now turn to the Prime Minister's record on parliamentary reform.

The 1993 red book, written by the Prime Minister, contains commitments to parliamentary reform and more openness to members of Parliament. After nearly a dozen years of Liberal government, we know what those promises are worth. I would suggest to the members of the procedure and House affairs committee, who will no doubt be taking note of the debate today, to consider the Prime Minister's record on parliamentary reform. I would recommend that they draft amendments to the rules that take the opposite position. In other words, if the Prime Minister is against something, then it must be a good idea.

For example, as finance minister, the Prime Minister set up many of the foundations that are outside the purview of Parliament's oversight and control. Therefore, I contend we should establish measures that bring them into the purview of Parliament's oversight and control.

On June 13, 2000, the Prime Minister voted against Bill C-214, an act to provide for the participation of the House of Commons when treaties were concluded. Therefore, the participation of the House of Commons when treaties are concluded must be a good idea.

On making crown corporations subject to the Access to Information Act, the Prime Minister voted against Bill C-216, an act to amend the Access to Information Act for crown corporations. Therefore, Bill C-216 must be necessary and should be implemented.

I think the House gets the idea.

I would argue that the concentration of power in the Office of the Prime Minister, which is at the root of much of our democratic deficit, has grown not lessened under this Prime Minister's watch.

The multitudes of government powers that ultimately rest with the Prime Minister are staggering. The exclusive monopoly over the central powers of government have even led the current Prime Minister himself, in his address to law students at Osgoode Hall in the fall of 2002, to state that the essence of power in Ottawa was “who you know in the PMO”.

This leads me to the recent appointment of the Prime Minister's friend Glen Murray to chair the round table on the environment and economy. Despite a rejection from the environment committee and the House, Glen Murray continues in office. The opinion of the House is of no consequence. It is “who you know in the PMO”.

His recent choices to fill the vacancies in the Senate were a slap in the face to the people of Alberta who elected their senators. The opinion of the people of Alberta is obviously not important to the Liberal Party. Again, it was “who you know in the PMO”.

“Who you know in the PMO” has to go.

At our convention in March of this year we adopted a number of policy items regarding parliamentary reform.

In the area of fiscal management, a Conservative government would strengthen the internal audit and comptrollership functions of government, ensuring that programs delivery would match the intent of the program, spending would be measured against objectives and cost overruns would be brought immediately to the attention of Parliament. Would that not have been a good idea with the sponsorship program?

We would create the independent office of the Comptroller General who would report to Parliament with a mandate to ensure that the highest possible standards and practices of expenditure management would be enforced in all federal departments, crown corporations, agencies and foundations.

A Conservative government would restore the audit role of the Treasury Board. We would allow the Auditor General to table reports with the Clerk of the House of Commons when Parliament was not sitting and have them made public through the Speaker.

A Conservative government would ensure transparency and accuracy of and confidence in the government's finances by providing the Auditor General with full access to all documents from all federal organizations.

A Conservative government would ensure that senior officers such as the Auditor General, Chief Electoral Officer, Comptroller General, Ethics Commissioner, Information Commissioner and Privacy Commissioner would be appointed by Parliament and report to it.

We would restore democratic accountability in the House of Commons by allowing free votes. All votes would be free except for the budget and main estimates.

We would ensure that nominees to the Supreme Court of Canada would be ratified by a free vote in Parliament, after receiving the approval of the justice committee.

A Conservative government would support the election of senators. The Conservative Party believes in an equal Senate to address the uneven distribution of Canada's population and provide a balance to safeguard regional interests.

Where the people of a province or territory by democratic election chose persons qualified to be appointed to the Senate, a Conservative government would fill any vacancy in the Senate for that province or territory from among those elected persons.

We would consider changes to the electoral system.

We would establish a judicial review committee of Parliament to prepare an appropriate response to those court decisions, which Parliament believed should be addressed through legislation.

A Conservative government would seek the agreement of the provinces to amend the Constitution to include property rights as well as guarantee that no person should be deprived of their just right without the due process of law and full just and timely compensation.

We are committed to the federal principle and to the notion of strong provinces within a strong Canada.

A Conservative government would ensure that the use of the federal spending power in provincial jurisdictions would be limited, authorizing the provinces to use the opting out formula with full compensation if they wanted to opt out of a new or modified federal program in areas of shared or exclusive jurisdiction.

I am proud of the accomplishments of the Conservative Party of Canada in the area of parliamentary reform. We believe that the people of Canada and their Parliament matter when it comes to policy decisions. It is time we turned the page and recover from the embarrassment of this corrupt Liberal government.

However, to end on a positive note, with all the Liberal sham, Liberal corruption and Liberal broken promises, it is still a beautiful Parliament and an honour to represent the people Prince George--Peace River in it.

Standing Orders and ProcedureOrders of the day

12:25 p.m.

Liberal

Don Boudria Liberal Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Mr. Speaker, I always enjoy listening to speeches of my colleague across the way. He and I have had opportunities to work together now for many years.

Needless to say, some of his speech went a little beyond the reform of the standing orders. Given that he did, I feel obligated to ask a question about it.

If I heard his remarks correctly, he said that he believed in an equal Senate. Could he elaborate on that? Does that mean an equal number of senators per region, which is roughly the formula now, or an equal number of senators per provinces, which means my province of Ontario with 39% of the population would have the same number of senators as P.E.I., with one half of 1%?

Standing Orders and ProcedureOrders of the day

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Jay Hill Conservative Prince George—Peace River, BC

Mr. Speaker, it is interesting that out of my entire remarks, which I would suggest the majority of them were a direct attack on the member's Prime Minister and his failure to address in any dramatic fashion the issue of what he terms the democratic deficit, the one area my colleague from across the way zeroed in on was the issue of Senate reform.

Nevertheless, since he did, I would be happy to discuss that. What I am referring to is the issue of equal Senate representation in the country to offset representation by population in the lower chamber, something I know the member himself is concerned about, so we have this balance in our Parliament.

He specifically asked whether that would be equality by province or equality by region. It is a good question. It is one with which I think all Canadians struggle, recognizing that any change to the present status quo, when it comes to the number of senators selected from individual provinces, would require a constitutional change, something I am sure the member is well aware of because I have heard him speak of that as well.

I do not know whether ultimately the goal would be equality by provinces or equality by regions. However, I would argue with the hon. member when he ways that we have equality by region right now. The present situation that sees us with four members of Parliament and four senators representing Prince Edward Island is an anomaly that needs to be addressed. That would require a constitutional change, something I think all parties are reluctant to go down that path right now.

What I was alluding to, as a long term goal or objective, is that we need to address reform of the upper chamber. I think that has become evidently clear to all members of Parliament from all parties. I want to state unequivocally that our party supports not only selecting senators from an elected list provided by the province, something on which Alberta took the initiative and did.

The Prime Minister and some of his cabinet ministers argue, and this is the term they use, that they do not support having Senate reform piecemeal. We hear that often. The member, I and the members of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, which the hon. member chairs, are involved in looking at electoral reform right now. For the Prime Minister to have slapped the face of every Albertan who participated in that election, when they selected their choice for elected senators, by disavowing that and selecting his own senators to represent Alberta is absolutely shameful.

To try to use the argument that the government will not do it piecemeal, is a complete denial of what has taken place in other countries. The United States of America got to the position of having an equal Senate, piecemeal. It started out state by state, changing the rules to select their senators. That has been the case in many places around the world.

For the Prime Minister to suggest that we cannot accomplish this piecemeal is ridiculous. If he would have had the commitment to address the democratic deficit, which he tries to tell people he has, and appointed the selection of the people of Alberta to the upper chamber, then increasingly other provinces would have been encouraged to follow suit and we would have got to the position where we would have had an elected upper chamber.

Standing Orders and ProcedureOrders of the day

12:30 p.m.

Bloc

Michel Gauthier Bloc Roberval, QC

Mr. Speaker, changes to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons certainly do not make for a very exciting debate for those watching. However, it is quite an important moment in the context of the work we do here. It is important to adjust the Standing Orders from time to time and to make relevant recommendations.

Today I want to address the extremely important issue of royal recommendations. One of the problems we are currently experiencing in this Parliament has to do with private members' bills that require a royal recommendation. For those watching us, a royal recommendation amounts to an authorization by the government for bills involving a significant amount of money. In such a case, it is necessary for the government to make a decision.

For example, when an hon. member proposes an amendment to a bill that would result in a huge investment of hundreds of millions of dollars, this calls for governmental consideration and a royal recommendation.

However, the clerks of the House, especially in this Parliament, are called on constantly to interpret the meaning of or need for a royal recommendation for bills being introduced. I must say—to all the clerks of the House—the need for a royal recommendation is being interpreted much more strictly now than in the past. Now a royal recommendation is required for bills, motions or amendments identical to ones from the previous Parliament that did not require a royal recommendation according to the clerks.

I have the feeling that the clerks of the House are being very careful right now and are acting on behalf of the government and becoming, in a way, the government's supervisor. Allow me to give a few examples.

During the second session of the 36th Parliament, several amendments to Bill C-2 were debated and put to a vote at report stage. Among the amendments to this bill regarding the appointment of returning officers, Motion No. 25 proposed that returning officers be appointed through a competition and no longer be appointed by the government, but by the chief electoral officer, and so on. I will spare you the details.

My colleague for Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord introduced Bill C-312, which sought to repeal the power of the governor in council to appoint returning officers and instead confer it on the chief electoral officer. In order for such an amendment to be made, the office of the clerk of the House of Commons required a royal recommendation. Such a recommendation is required when a parliamentary bill or motion commits substantial public funds. Repealing the power of the executive branch to appoint returning officers and conferring on the chief electoral officer the power to appoint such officers following a competition is suddenly considered by the office of the clerk of the House of Commons an undue expense requiring a royal recommendation. In my opinion, a mistake has been made.

Frankly, the clerks do an exceptional job. They unfailingly inspire our trust. They have never misled us. I am the longest-serving House leader here. I have held this position for 11 years and I have never once had reason to complain about a single clerk.

However, this new context of caution has led, in my opinion, the office of the clerk of the House of Commons to restrict the eligibility criteria for motions in the House to the point of excess. Now that motions can be passed on the basis of number, the opposition is no longer being allowed motions that were permitted a few months or years ago and for which no royal recommendation was required. In my opinion, such interference in parliamentary affairs and the work of MPs in this House is unacceptable.

Bill C-9 on regional development is another example of this. I must say that this is the straw that broke the camel's back. Our Bloc Québécois colleague called for, among other things, amendments to this bill, so as to better respect the Quebec government's priorities with regard to regional development. Consequently, he proposed the following amendment:

b) enter into agreements with the Government of Quebec for the transfer to Quebec of federal funds allocated to regional development programs;

The member was not requesting that funds be added to regional development—although that would be desirable—but that provisions be made so that agreements between Ottawa and Quebec could make it possible to transfer available funds directly to priorities of Quebec, if there was such an agreement. There is nothing startling nor incorrect there. It does not add one penny. It merely says that funds will be spent differently.

The section of the bill reads as follows:

—enter into contracts, memoranda of understanding or other arrangements in the name of Her Majesty in right of Canada or in the name of the Agency, including cooperation agreements and agreements related to distinct sectors of Quebec’s economy;

The possibility of agreements is already provided for in the government bill. The members of the Bloc Québécois propose that such an agreement be concluded to provide for an automatic transfer of funds, without judgment or veto right by the federal government.

The clerks of the House of Commons tell us that a royal recommendation is needed. I no longer understand anything about what a royal recommendation is. We are not requesting that funds be added, we are requesting that they be used differently, that a different transfer mechanism be added.

That is what broke the camel's back. I must admit that I cannot accept such a thing. I understand the work of the clerks and their prudence. However, I would not want them to substitute themselves for the government, and I would not want the clerks of the House of Commons to feel that their profession is now to save the minority government in all circumstances.

I think that the clerks of the House must look at the definition of royal recommendation with an open mind. In the absence of change to the Standing Orders, I think that what was acceptable one year ago should still be acceptable today. The fact that the table officers give a new interpretation to the Standing Orders that tends to be favourable to the government seems to me to be a slow shift toward a partisan activity, namely, protecting the government.

I am glad to raise that issue today. I know that the clerks, who are very competent officers, will look at the issue. I consider that the royal recommendation is now given too narrow an interpretation. That interferes with parliamentary work and the hon. members and parliamentarians are suddenly prevented from doing the exact same work that they could do last year or two or three years ago.

That is why I would like a better definition of the royal recommendation. Marleau-Montpetit, which is a precious resource on authorization, does not help. The part on royal recommendation will have to be rewritten. The clerks themselves do not understand it. Maybe they should go back to Beauchesne, which is perhaps a bit clearer.

So, that part will have to be looked at and I invite the clerks to work on that. I particularly invite them to interpret the royal recommendation the way they did before we had a minority government. That is all we want.