Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in this House today to outline the steps the Government of Canada intends to take to strengthen the federation and our democratic institutions.
One hundred and forty years ago, the people of Canada created a country by joining together into a federation. Our ancestors joined forces and united their destinies to build a nation which now enjoys a privileged place on the world scene. Today, Canada is home to more than 31 million citizens.
Our government wants to play its part and provide the leadership needed to strengthen this bond. It wants to work together with the provinces and territories to strengthen our democratic institutions and promote our collective heritage, of which our two official languages are a part.
I would like to take this opportunity to refresh our memory of our history and our heritage. Then, I will address a number of our government's achievements with respect to linguistic duality and the Francophonie. Finally, I will share with the hon. members our vision for the future.
I will be sharing my time with my colleague, the hon. Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.
Canada is a country that values pluralism and where English and French share official language status.
Language rights are set out in our constitutional documents and in the Official Languages Act. These rights were enhanced in 1988 and in 2005.
I would also like to remind the members that part VII of the Act was introduced by a Conservative government. This part of the Act sets out the responsibilities of Quebec institutions with respect to official language minority communities. We also supported the 2005 amendments, unlike the members of the Bloc Québécois, who claim to be protecting the interests of francophones in Canada, but who are conspicuously absent when it is time to act for francophones outside of Quebec.
Both French and English are intrinsic to our identity not because of our legislation but because of the hard work and perseverance of those who came before us.
At the Banquet de la francophonie last March, the Prime Minister said, quite rightly, that “The first people to call themselves “Canadians” were French settlers who built their first community initially on the banks of the St. Lawrence on our Atlantic coast, and then across the country”. He added that well before official language laws were passed, communities built institutions—churches, schools, universities, hospitals, businesses and media—to ensure their own vitality.
People mobilized to ensure that their official language communities would not only survive, but thrive in minority settings.
Our government recognizes the importance of promoting both official languages and Canada's linguistic duality. Our achievements and our commitment to this ideal, as expressed in the Speech from the Throne, are proof of that.
I would like to mention some of our government's achievements over the past year.
Since our government came to power, open federalism has been our watchword, and our achievements reflect that approach.
That is why I am happy to have quickly signed bilateral education agreements with each province and territory, totalling $1 billion over four years. I also reached major agreements on minority-language services, totalling nearly $64 million over four years.
Thanks to these agreements, minority communities are able to put in place programs tailored to their own particular reality.
In addition, the Department of Canadian Heritage devotes $80 million a year to second language education programs. Thanks to this funding, more than 2.5 million young Canadians can learn their second official language. Everyone agrees that bilingualism is an advantage for individual Canadians and an asset for our country. However, it is also true that to bring francophones and anglophones closer together, both language communities must get to know and appreciate each other.
Our young people are the key to bringing the language communities together. Thanks in part to assistance from the Department of Canadian Heritage, more than half of the students across the country today are learning French or English as a second language. This support from the Government of Canada has helped make today's youth the most bilingual in Canadian history.
In budget 2007, we also announced an additional $30 million over two years to promote greater use of the minority language in the everyday lives of Canadians, especially young people, who live in minority communities. Yet the Liberals and the NDP opposed that budget. They voted against a budget that increased funding for official languages.
We also want to create opportunities for young Canadians to enjoy linguistic and cultural experiences in their second language, outside the classroom. It is our hope that all young Canadians will have the opportunity to appreciate the French language and culture and understand how they enrich our country.
Our government is taking concerted action. Early this month, in fact, my colleague, the Minister of Health, announced $4.5 million in funding to promote access to health care services in minority francophone and anglophone communities.
In addition, we have begun implementing a strategic plan on francophone immigration to provinces other than Quebec, in partnership with Canada's francophone and Acadian communities.
These are just a few of the positive measures we have taken.
As I said earlier, and as the Speech from the Throne shows, our approach takes into account the role of other levels of government. One of our government's main objectives is to strengthen our federation and work more and better with each level of government respecting the jurisdiction of each.
I can assure you that when all the provinces are around the table, things start happening. In addition to agreements on education and services in the minority language, we made several significant investments together with the provinces and territories to establish, expand or renovate the infrastructure in francophone communities in various regions of Canada.
We announced the launch of pilot projects for enriched services in French for preschool children. We all know how important it is for children, from a very young age, to be immersed in their language and their culture. This research will help us better understand the main factors that influence young people's behaviour and language retention.
In Halifax, a month ago I also met with all Canadian ministers responsible for francophone affairs This federal-provincial-territorial conference is an excellent forum for ensuring that the very diverse objectives of and challenges faced by francophones throughout the country are taken into consideration when developing our programs and policies.
We are proud and pleased to be working with the Quebec government to ensure that 2008, which marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City, is a great year for all Quebeckers and Canadians.
There are many facets to Canada's linguistic duality and francophonie. The official language minority communities make up one facet. Quebec as a whole is another.
Quebec is the cradle of French civilization in North America, the stage where the first chapters of Canada's history played out and a leader in promoting French today. Quebec is a key partner of the Government of Canada. We are working together to promote French across the country and in Quebec.
The grand celebrations of Quebec City's 400th anniversary is a job we will share with our colleagues from Quebec. And it will be our great pleasure. Our government is giving more than $110 million and providing its full support toward infrastructure and artistic and cultural programming in preparation of this celebration. This is a file that is particularly dear to me.
The Government of Canada is proud to be a partner in these celebrations that mark a significant chapter of our history. I hope we can make Quebec City's 400th anniversary a celebration for all Canadians to remember.
What is more, the next Summit of la Francophonie will be held in Quebec City in 2008. It is no coincidence that heads of state and francophone governments are turning to Canada to hold their discussions. Canada is a beacon of support for the distribution and promotion of the French language. That is why we will invest some $2.5 million to ensure that francophones from every region in Canada will be represented in the activities surrounding the summit. These achievements provide a solid foundation on which we will continue to build.
Allow me to come back to the Speech from the Throne to close my presentation. As we said in that speech, our government supports Canada's linguistic duality. It will renew its commitment to official languages in Canada by developing a strategy for the next phase of the action plan for official languages.
The evaluation is well underway. We are in the process of reviewing all projects in the federal strategy on official languages. This will enable us to give fresh momentum to the government's official language initiatives.
What is needed in some cases is to consolidate but also, undoubtedly, to adjust, modernize, build on key partnerships and awaken the interests of Canadians.
The government's new approach will take into account reports from parliamentary committees, reports from the Official Languages Commissioner and results from community assemblies, such as the summit of francophone and Acadian communities.
I also want to continue the dialogue I have been having since I became minister—