Mr. Speaker, I am very happy to take part in this debate, especially coming on the heels of a speech filled with nonsense, as some of my colleagues said earlier. In my opinion, this shows that this government has very little interest in protecting minorities. It is as if giving groups that represent francophone minorities the financial and other resources to pursue court challenges were something Canada should not do.
It is rather sad to hear the parliamentary secretary say that her government is making reasoned decisions. The September 2006 decision to abolish the court challenges program was not a reasoned decision; it was an ill-advised decision. As a result of that decision, francophone minority communities will have fewer resources to defend projects that they consider important to their growth and development. Francophones account for barely 2% of the population of North America, and this government refuses to understand that because of their minority status, francophone minorities must fight constantly for recognition not only in this Parliament, but also in the courts.
When I see this government abolish a program and say that this is a reasoned decision and that it must carefully assess the purpose and objective of the program when taxpayers' money is involved, I ask myself a number of questions. What sort of savings did the government realize? How much money did the government save by abolishing this program? Only $5 million or $6 million. In fact, the government saved a mere $5 million or $6 million by abolishing this program.
Yet since 1970, the Government of Canada has given $66 billion in tax benefits to the oil industry, in addition to tax incentives to develop the oil sands. According to the government, it made a socially reasoned decision to help those who are harming our environment and destroying our country's social fabric. Yet the government considers it unacceptable and ill-advised to grant a mere $6 million so that francophone communities can fight and go to court on an equal footing.
This is a clear indication of how the government wants to deal with minorities, whether they be aboriginals, francophones, or even organizations that promote women or the status of women. This government quite simply decided unilaterally to abolish a program, the court challenges program, that benefited many organizations.
The Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada did not just sit back, because it knew that the money cut by the federal government was essential to the survival of francophone and Acadian communities. On October 25, 2006, it decided to file an official request with the Federal Court to void the decision to eliminate the court challenges program. These legal proceedings before the Federal Court were supported by a number of federations, movements and organizations.
They included the Fédération nationale des conseils scolaires francophones, the Fédération des associations de juristes d'expression française de common law, the Commission nationale des parents francophones and the Quebec Community Groups Network.
Someone in a minority situation in an environment that is 98% anglophone needs to have tools available to defend their rights. It is not about encroaching on others; it is about ensuring that future generations will be able to continue speaking French in Canada, that there will be no language losses over the years and that the children of francophones and Acadians will be able to pass on their linguistic heritage to their children and grandchildren.
Is that not worth $5 or $6 million to the federal government? It seems to be saying it needs this $5 or $6 million to balance the budget, and if it cannot balance the budget, it must cut the court challenges program and take resources away from francophones. Meanwhile, there is a $10.6 billion surplus. Meanwhile, it continues to give financial incentives to the oil industry.
This government's decision was neither budgetary nor financial; it was ideological. The government refuses to help people, to ensure that part of the Canadian population, made up of both official languages in principle, can pass on its culture and knowledge from one generation to the next.
Those generations will no longer be able to defend themselves on a level playing field. They will be able to do so with limited means that deserve a defence. The federal government decided to cut those funds.
The Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada believes that when it discontinued funding for the court challenges program, the federal government did not sufficiently consider the impact this decision would have on the development and growth of French language minority communities or its commitments to linguistic minorities under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Official Languages Act.
The federal government has obligations in that respect. Both nationally and internationally, it boasts about how it governs a country made up of two recognized official languages that supports francophone communities.
We believe that linguistic diversity is one of Canada's greatest strengths, and the government likes to brag about this on the international scene.
I have been a member of this Parliament for 10 years and have been a part of many Canadian delegations abroad. Every time, the minister responsible liked to boast about coming from a country with two official languages. Whether Liberal or Conservative, one government after the other boasts about our two official languages. However, when the time comes to protect these communities, we no longer have the financial means to allow these people to mount a defence before the courts in a way that recognizes the historical contribution of the Acadians and other francophone communities to the building of Canada.
Is that the legacy that the Conservative Party wants to leave for francophone communities? Is that the kind of image?
The next time I join a Canadian delegation and I see a minister from this Conservative government bragging about coming from a country with two official languages, I will denounce him and remind him that the situation for francophones in Canada is precarious, that they are in a minority and are at constant risk of being assimilated. I will remind him that this government was unable to find $6 million to give francophone communities the means to defend themselves, while the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Official Languages Act guarantee those rights for francophones.
The government claimed it abolished the program because it was not effective. When it decided to eliminate the program, the government said that the program was not cost effective.That was the parliamentary secretary's argument earlier. She clearly told us that the government had the duty to ensure that taxpayers' money was being used properly. The government felt this program was not cost effective.
Since when does a program to defend the rights of minorities have to be cost effective? Since when do economics apply when it comes to helping francophone communities? A program is not a business. It is a budget and sometimes it is not cost-effective. However, the benefit to the communities from being able to rely on a full defence, is worth its weight in gold. It may not be money and profits, as the government would have us believe when it talks about the cost effectiveness of the program, but it contributes to the development and survival of francophone communities in Canada. The federal government has instead decided to abandon francophones and French-speaking Canadians and to cut funding to those communities.
On the contrary, this program was useful for the linguistic communities. This program enhanced linguistic development in the provinces. The elimination of the court challenges program delivered a serious blow to Canadians’ ability to defend their language rights. Those are not my words. That was not a statement by the hon. member for Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie. It was a statement made by the Commissioner of Official Languages, who said that the elimination of the court challenges program delivered a serious blow to Canadians’ ability to defend their language rights.
I would add that Mr. Fraser found that the commission's inquiry into the matter showed that the government did not take into account the impact on official language communities before deciding. There was no impact assessment, even though one is usually conducted when assessing Natural Resources Canada programs and other departmental programs. When the Conservatives came to power a few years ago, Treasury Board was ordered to assess all federal government programs from Transport Canada to Natural Resources Canada to Environment Canada. Impact assessments were conducted, but things changed when the time came to assess the impact of eliminating the court challenges program.
The Commissioner of Official Languages was clear: eliminating the program was a major blow to francophone communities. His inquiry clearly showed that the government did not assess or take into account the impact on official language communities.
As I said earlier,on October 25, 2006, the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada brought the case before the Federal Court on October, acting on behalf of francophone communities and citizens in Canada who took things one step further. They decided to complain to the commissioner. They felt that their rights had been violated. They submitted over 999 complaints to the commissioner's office, including 117 complaints concerning the court challenges program specifically. These communities did not just appeal the government's decision before the Federal Court; they also decided to submit a formal complaint to the Commissioner of Official Languages—a complaint that we believe is justified and justifiable.
Funding provided by a number of groups was an effective way to advance the human rights agenda in Canada in two areas, one of which was protecting the rights of francophones. Many of the cases funded by the program resulted in important language rights precedents in Canadian constitutional law. They made a significant contribution to official language minority rights in Canada.
I will mention a few cases: Doucet-Boudreau, Montfort Hospital, and Arsenault-Cameron v. Prince Edward Island, which led to the establishment of quality schools equivalent to most existing ones. This ruling is applied in a good number of provinces and territories: Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories. If not for this program, schools equal in quality to the majority of educational institutions probably would not have been built in many provinces.
The impact on French language minority groups of abolishing the court challenges program is catastrophic. In recent months, certain groups—particularly historically disadvantaged groups—as well as French language minority groups appeared before the standing committee to discuss the disappearance of the court challenges program. They talked about the benefits of this program in recent years.
I urge the government to acknowledge the recommendation to clearly explain to Canadians the reasons for abolishing the court challenges program. Based on the explanations provided by the parliamentary secretary for the region of Quebec a few minutes ago, we now find that the reasons are far from clear, far from acceptable.
Was it abolished in the name of good management and cost-effectiveness? Are these the government's reasons? Would we abolish a program that protects the rights of francophone communities because it is not profitable? On this side of the House we find that unacceptable.