This week, I changed much of the tech behind this site. If you see anything that looks like a bug, please let me know!

House of Commons Hansard #55 of the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was billion.

Topics

Criminal CodePrivate Members' Business

5:55 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Criminal CodePrivate Members' Business

5:55 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

(Motion agreed to, bill read the third time and passed)

Criminal CodePrivate Members' Business

5:55 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

Is there unanimous consent of the House to see the clock as 6:30 so that we might proceed with the next item?

Criminal CodePrivate Members' Business

5:55 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

The House resumed from February 15 consideration of the motion.

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

5:55 p.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin NDP Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, it is with great pleasure that I stand to speak to the second report of the Standing Committee on Official Languages which deals with the Court Challenges Program.

The first recommendation of the report is the following:

That the government clearly explain to Canadians its reasons for cancelling the Court Challenges Program.

The second recommendation is as follows:

That the Government of Canada re-establish the Court Challenges Program under the terms of the contribution agreement that was in effect before its cancellation was announced on September 25, 2006.

We must ask ourselves a few questions: What is the court challenges program? How can it be explained? Why is it important for minority communities across Canada, whether they be francophone as in some regions or anglophone as in Quebec?

For example, according to section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867, the rights and privileges of confessional schools are protected. Section 23 of the Manitoba Act, 1870, states that French and English can both be used in the Manitoba legislative assembly and in the publication of acts adopted by that assembly. All that relates to language rights.

Sections 16 and 22 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of the Constitution Act, 1982 establish French and English as the two official languages of Canada and New Brunswick. These sections address issues related to parliamentary proceedings, publication of statutes and records, courts and tribunals, and communication with the public.

Section 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of the Constitution Act, 1982 establishes minority language education rights, including the right of linguistic minorities to manage their schools.

Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of the Constitution Act, 1982 protects the freedom of expression—eligible cases defined by the program mandate.

Section 15 protects equality rights, equal benefit of the law without discrimination.

Section 28 protects the equality of men and women.

Section 2 protects fundamental freedoms; section 27, multiculturalism—eligible cases defined by the program mandate.

I wanted to review the legislation, because it is important. We all know that Canada has legislation that governs our two official languages, French and English or English and French.

We have had legislation for years, but nothing concrete was done. Consider the Official Languages Act. In part VII, section 41 of the Official Languages Act states:

41(1) The Government of Canada is committed to enhancing the vitality of the English and French linguistic minority communities in Canada and supporting and assisting their development; and fostering the full recognition and use of both English and French in Canadian society.

Subsection 41(2) states:

41(2) Every federal institution has the duty to ensure that positive measures are taken for the implementation of the commitments under subsection (1). For greater certainty, this implementation shall be carried out while respecting the jurisdiction and powers of the provinces.

Let us look at what happened and why a report has been tabled in the House of Commons. In 2007, parliamentarians from all political parties toured the country on the issue of official languages. The Standing Committee on Official Languages has been in existence for 25 years. Never before had the political parties agreed to have the committee travel across the country to talk to Canadians and Quebeckers about what they thought of the Official Languages Act, how the government complied with the act or whether there were any needs that the parliamentarians could lay before Parliament.

I had the honour to chair the Standing Committee on Official Languages that made the national tour. We left from St. John's, Newfoundland, and travelled to Moncton, where we met with individuals and organization representatives from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. We went on to Sherbrooke, Quebec. We visited Bishop's University, an English-language university in Quebec. We did not want to go just to Montreal, McGill and English-language communities. We wanted to go to Sherbrooke to visit smaller anglophone minority communities in Quebec. We travelled to Toronto, Sudbury, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Regina and Vancouver. We toured the country and met people from every province.

When we did this tour, even though we were talking about official languages, the federal government had already decided to abolish the court challenges program, which provided individuals and organizations with funding to go to court when they felt the act and their language rights had been violated. They could seek a judgment from the Federal Court of Canada or a provincial court.

Members of all the political parties were on this national tour. At every meeting we held, people talked about the court challenges program. Everywhere we went, as soon as we began the meeting and gave the first witness a chance to speak, the court challenges program came up. For minorities in Canada, it was the tool that enabled them to go to court when they felt their rights had been violated. The court challenges program is very important to Canadians. It gives individuals the opportunity to defend their rights in federal court and other courts.

In New Brunswick, for example, the court challenges program made it possible for citizens to go to court. They won and obtained their schools. The same thing happened in Prince Edward Island. In New Brunswick, Ms. Paulin, from the Tracadie-Sheila area, was pulled over by the RCMP in Fredericton and wanted to be spoken to in French; however, the RCMP refused. The case went to court and the expenses were paid by the court challenges program. In this example, the RCMP and the Province of New Brunswick decided to provide service in both languages as a result of an out-of-court settlement. Without this program, francophones in New Brunswick would never have obtained this right, even though we have the Official Languages Act. The RCMP, a federal police force, did not want to provide service in both official languages. Furthermore, this happened in New Brunswick, a province officially recognized as bilingual by the Constitution.

A decision was handed down. In cases such as that of Ms. Paulin, how can you expect an individual to take the Government of Canada, or a provincial government, to the Federal Court and win the case? This will never happen and these cases will never form part of our jurisprudence.

The Conservative federal government has said that there should not be court challenges because the provinces have legal aid. For goodness sake! Legal aid was definitely not intended for language cases. No one can ask legal aid lawyers to defend such cases.

A report was presented to the minister in December. Furthermore, another report was presented in May of last year on court challenges. However, the government response provided by the Minister of Official Languages says absolutely nothing about court challenges. She completely ignored them.

We are coming to a sad realization today. As I said, we toured Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, British Columbia and Ontario. In Sudbury, we were told in no uncertain terms that there would not be no Collège Boréal in Sudbury, Timmins and Kapuskasing or French-speaking institutions in Ontario today if it were not for the court challenges program. Also, Mrs. Lalonde made it clear to us that what made the difference in allowing Montfort Hospital to win its case recently was the $70,000 received by the foundation under the court challenges program. They were short by that amount to be able to continue litigation.

It is important to recall that the ministers involved at the provincial level, in Ontario, at the time are the same ones who are now sitting at the federal level. The former Minister of Finance of Ontario is now the Minister of Finance here, in the House, in the Conservative government. When he was in the Harris government, he wanted to shut down Montfort, the only teaching hospital in Ontario where training could be provided in French, among other things. He wanted to shut it down. Then, the government took away from us this instrument for justice.

The government contended that this was a program for the Liberals and that lawyers were riding the money train. I know that is not true of those lawyers who worked on cases in New Brunswick. Incidentally, the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada was in court Monday morning in Fredericton, New Brunswick, on an issue involving the court challenges program. The lawyers who worked on behalf of the organization, lawyers like Michel Doucet, did not even charge the organization one red cent. It is not true that lawyers work on that case to make money. These lawyers are volunteering their time to the cause of bilingualism in Canada. It is shameful that they are treated the way they are.

I would go even further. What did the government, the Conservative minister responsible for the cuts tell Parliament at the time? He said that the government would not pay for people to hire lawyers to fight the government, that it would not pay for that.

Who pays for the government's lawyers though? The taxpayers do. When an ordinary citizen goes before the court to seek justice, is the government prepared not to fight through its lawyers and let the court settle the case? No, it sends its lawyers whose fees are paid by the taxpayers.

A case like the one that was heard on Monday and Tuesday in Fredericton, regarding the Court Challenges Program, can cost between $25,000 and $30,000 just for legal fees. The government and its lawyers came to court. They started by asking the court to agree with them. The government wants to be right.

In addition, the government wants the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada to pay the legal fees if the federation loses its case. If the judge finds in favour of the government, the government wants the federation to pay the legal fees.

The big government, with its billions of dollars of surplus, is telling ordinary people that if they lose their case, they will have to pay the legal fees. Not only that but, in its claim, the government is telling judges that they cannot dictate how it should spend money. Imagine that. The government is saying that the judges cannot dictate how it should spend its money. The government is also saying that, although an official languages act exists, it can be broken. If the government breaks that law, citizens are not allowed to go to court, and judges are not allowed find in favour of them.

What about all the cases that have been won? What about all the cases regarding schools, for example? What about the Montfort Hospital case, which was won?

The government is saying that the court does not have the right to tell the government how to spend public funds. It is simple. The government even says this in its application. This is its defence:

Generally speaking, it is not the courts' job to tell the government how to spend public funds. It is the political officials' job, and the voters will judge their actions.

Too bad for the minority. The Conservative government is telling the minority that if it wants to fight the government, it will have to use its own money and it will have to pay costs if it loses its case, because this government does not even want to pay court costs or its own expenses.

What is more, the government is telling the judges that they have no business ruling on the case, because it is not up to them to tell the government how to spend its money.

The government is insulting the minority. The minority, francophones, individuals, anglophones in Montreal: these are not the big oil companies in Alberta. When big companies with tons of money take us to court, then maybe we can tell them that they will have to pay our costs because they took us to court. But we cannot ask regular people to pay $30,000 in costs if they lose their case. Not only does the government not want to pay by way of the court challenges program, but if people have the nerve to stand up and defend their rights, they will have to pay.

And the Conservatives say they support francophone Canada? They say they support bilingualism in Canada and will respect it? I have a hard time believing that. I have a hard time believing that because of what they did yesterday and the day before in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

New Brunswickers were forced to go to court to fight for rights they are already guaranteed under Canada's Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Official Languages Act.

They even went further. Just imagine. A bill was passed here a few years ago and, at the time, the Conservatives supported it. Yesterday, in its arguments on Bill S-3, which makes the Official Languages Act binding, the government said that this legislation had not changed anything. Just imagine. The government told the New Brunswick justice that Bill S-3 had not changed anything, and that the court should not get involved in the decisions made by the government.

The way minorities in Canada are treated is pathetic. That said, I am pleased that this bill was introduced. Let us hope that the government will open its eyes on this issue. It should regret that, in the budget that it just tabled in the House, there is not even a penny for minorities in Canada, or for official languages. The government says that it will look at this issue later on. This means that such is the situation for official languages in Canada, and that the issue will be looked at later on.

They had two years to implement an action plan to help official language minorities in Canada, that is anglophones in Quebec and francophones in the rest of Canada. However, through its decisions, the government is ignoring the official languages of this country and is refusing to respect them.

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

6:20 p.m.

Liberal

Brent St. Denis Liberal Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON

Mr. Speaker, I very much to second the sentiments of my friend from New Brunswick. He speaks passionately about the importance of the court challenges program, particularly to minorities, whether they are anglophone, francophone or other minorities in the country.

I want to speak specifically to our official languages and to our francophone minorities in particular. He has some family in the northern part of my riding. I agree with him that we need to convince the government that it is not something we should do in the future. It is something that already should have been done by the government, which is to reinstate a program that makes the courts successful. People should not have to be rich to access the courts.

The court challenges program levelled the playing field. The number of very important precedents that were set by the courts, because of that program, have made our country the kind of country it is. We must ensure our minorities have access to the courts.

Would the member tell me if it is too late for the government to change its mind? I do not think it is. I suspect he will agree that it is not too late. Is it an urgent matter? Are there situations now that need to be addressed? As he is such a passionate promoter of these issues, I would like to hear more from him.

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

6:20 p.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin NDP Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, I agree with my colleague. The importance of the court challenges program was the little person could go and have his or her rights respected.

I will use the example of Madame Paulin in Tracadie-Sheila. She was driving in Fredericton and the RCMP stopped her. New Brunswick is officially a bilingual province in our Constitution under Bill 88. When we look at this case, Madame Paulin would never have had any justice. The justice she received is not only for her. The idea of the court challenges program is when a person goes to court, it benefits everyone across the country.

Many countries have more than one or two languages. Some countries have six languages. Canada is special because we have the aboriginals who were here first, our first nations. Then we have the anglophones and the francophones who came from Europe and built the country along with our aboriginals.

Canada has taken the position that we are a bilingual country and services will be delivered in both languages. We are working hard with all our communities to help them to learn those two languages and serve Canadians all across the country. We have done good work.

Representatives from Canadian Parents for French, for example, came to our committee meetings and talked with us. They said that they wanted more schools so their children could learn a second language. They asked for that the opportunity. We went across the country and we heard the same message.

Right now in British Columbia the Chinese community is learning both English and French. We have a beautiful country. However, some places are violating the law by not doing what they are supposed to according to the Official Languages Act under part VII, articles 41, 42 and 43. They are not promoting bilingualism. Nor are they respecting it. The recourse is to go to the courts.

The minute the law is broken, the only place where it can be fixed is the court. That is why we have judges and courts. The government decided it was going to put all people on a level playing field. To do that, we had the court challenges program.

The court challenges program has never abused its duties. The people administering the program were brought before the committee and they explained the program. No one could say the program was being abused.

The budget contained about $2 million for the court challenges program. The good work that it had done was very good. It was a big mistake for the government to get rid of it. It was a human mistake. The government does not see it as a mistake. It does not believe in it. It is a big mistake for our country to have a government that is trying to tear us apart instead of bringing us together. The Conservative government has done that by shutting down the court challenges program, which gave an opportunity for people to be respected in country that we love.

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

6:25 p.m.

Bloc

Richard Nadeau Bloc Gatineau, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to know what my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst thinks of the fact that, in May 2006, the present government stated before the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that the court challenges program was an excellent program that helped the disadvantaged in our society, minority groups, to stand up for their rights. The government made that statement in May 2006 at the United Nations and, a few months later, in September of that same year, it slashed the program.

I would like to hear the member's opinion on that.

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

6:25 p.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin NDP Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague for his question.

I think the Conservative government—and I hope the minorities are listening—wants to show the entire world that it is a good government that respects the communities. However, let us look at the facts and not just at the court challenges program. There are the status of women programs that the Conservatives cut funding to. There are also the literacy programs. They have delivered a blow to the least fortunate, those who are in need.

I think this government does not believe in communities. However, they want to prove that they believe in the francophonie. They keep saying they have given this or that, but in reality that is not what is happening in the communities. I think it is disrespectful toward Canada to go to the United Nations and say that we have a good court challenges program that works well and then a month later abolish it. Then when we wanted to study this program, the Conservative Party MPs turned around and put an end to the committee work. The situation got so bad that we had to ask for the chair of the committee to step down because he did not even want to hear the witnesses.

Furthermore, two weeks ago, in the Standing Committee on Official Languages, I asked in a formal motion, which was passed by the majority of the committee members, that the minister responsible for official languages appear before the committee to explain all the programs and the plan of action for official languages. She refused. It is either a lack of competence or the Prime Minister of Canada told her not to appear before the committee, that the Prime Minister's Office sticks to its agenda and if she appeared before the committee, the media would find out and the fact that the Conservatives do not respect the communities would become public and not go over very well. I think that is the real reason she refused.

I would think the minister would like to appear before the committee. When one does good things, one likes to be able to explain and defend them. But she refused to come and defend herself. The Conservative government does not surprise me since it has always been against this. In the Standing Committee on Official Languages, every time we talked about minorities, the Conservatives asked how much the program might cost. They ask how much it costs.

Indeed, there is a relative cost to bilingualism, but it is a matter of respect for our communities that founded this country.

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

6:25 p.m.

Liberal

Brian Murphy Liberal Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, NB

Mr. Speaker, my question will be short because, knowing my colleague, the answer will be long.

I know there was a court case in Ottawa to save the Montfort Hospital. I know that a cabinet minister of the then Conservative provincial government is now Minister of the Environment. Since that court case was funded through the court challenges program, I imagine that the word Montfort is one that the Conservatives do not like to hear.

I would like to know if the member believes that the Montfort case could be the reason for abolishing this program.

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

6:30 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

That question was not as short as the hon. member said it would be, so very briefly, the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst.

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

6:30 p.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin NDP Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, maybe the member was jealous of the time I would have to answer and that is why his question was long. I will try to give a brief answer.

First I want to thank my colleague for his question. He is absolutely right. The Harris team is now part of the Conservative government here, at the federal level. We saw what happened with the Montfort Hospital court case. It did not make the news only here in Ottawa and in Ontario, but across the country. The Montfort case was extremely important to francophone communities in Ottawa and in Ontario. The Minister of the Environment, the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Health were involved in the Montfort case. The court challenges program left a very sour taste in their mouths. So it certainly could be one of the reasons for abolishing this program.

I also think that the Conservative government does not believe in the equality of French and English, our country's two languages.

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

6:30 p.m.

Liberal

Raymond Simard Liberal Saint Boniface, MB

Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe.

It is a pleasure for me to rise and speak in the debate this evening. I was told it would be this evening and I definitely wanted to participate, even though I am no longer on the Standing Committee on Official Languages. I have had personal experiences that enable me to attest to the effects of the court challenges program on our community in St. Boniface.

I was on the Standing Committee on Official Languages for the last five years and greatly miss it. I thought I would do something different this year and am now on the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology. However, I try to replace that as much as possible because this is a subject that is really close to my heart.

The community in St. Boniface is the largest francophone community west of the Outaouais. It is actually quite impressive and quite unique in western Canada. About 45,000 people in Manitoba are native French speakers, which may not be a lot, but there are 110,000 people who speak French. There are more francophiles, therefore, than native francophones thanks to immersion programs that have been very successful in our region.

For example, we have such institutions as the Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface, which has an international reputation and attracts people from all over. We have economic development corporations that are the envy of other communities all across Canada. There is the Centre culturel franco-manitobain and the Festival du Voyageur in the riding next to mine, which you represent, Mr. Speaker. I hope you had a chance to sample it last week. It is something that is very special to us. These institutions did not arise by accident but because people fought for them.

Not that long ago, maybe 25 or 30 years ago, Manitoba was not so sympathetic to our cause. There is a real difference today. Twenty-five or 30 years ago, however, they burned down the Société franco-manitobaine building in St. Boniface and threatened to kill the director. This was not 100 years ago but a mere 25. For a minority that is just 4% of the population of Manitoba, programs that put us on an even footing with the government when it comes time to defend our cause are very important to us. I can tell the House personally that our community has benefited greatly from these programs.

For four years, I was the only francophone member west of Sudbury. This is not something to brag about; it is really something to be embarrassed about. That is how it was. Today, we have a new francophone colleague with us, the NDP member for Victoria. It would be nice to have more, from any party. This is something on which progress absolutely has to be made in western Canada.

I also participated in the cross-Canada tour with Mr. Godin. I did not visit every city, but I took part in the meetings in about half of them. People did talk about cutbacks in literacy and all sorts of programs. But the most important one for francophones in minority communities was the court challenges program. It was the first topic raised every time, but the government did not want to talk about it. They said they were not talking about it because it was finished.

The problem is certainly not one of money, because the program costs no more than $5 million over two years, or $2.5 million a year. It was not hundreds of millions of dollars. So this is a question of ideology. This is the government violating the rights not only of francophones, but also of persons with a disability, women and multicultural communities. You cannot just eliminate programs because you think, ideologically, that this is not in line with our thinking. When it is a question of fundamental rights, we absolutely have to preserve them and fight for them. I think that is what we are doing here tonight.

The Conservatives cannot know what the repercussions of all this are for us in Manitoba. I would like to talk about a few cases that have arisen.

In 1890, the government decided to eliminate section 23, which protected both official languages in Manitoba. I do not know whether people know it, but at the time of Louis Riel, two official languages had been negotiated and instituted in Manitoba. That was something absolutely extraordinary, and everyone agreed to it. In 1890, however, the government of the day—I believe it was the Greenway government—decided to abolish French. Unilaterally, the government decided to abolish French in Manitoba. For 90 years, we had to deal with that injustice.

Finally, in 1979, Georges Forest, a Manitoban from St. Boniface, got a ticket and decided to fight it in court, to say that you could not have a ticket in English only and that he had a right to a trial in French. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. I am sure that everyone in this House knows about the case. In any event, he is someone who is very respected and very well known to us in Manitoba.

Mr. Forest ultimately won his case. At the time, however, there was no court challenges program, and Mr. Forest ended up spending more than $150,000 of his own money on the case. That was truly a shame. We cannot say that Mr. Forest went bankrupt, but he was never able to recoup what he had spent.

In addition, Mr. Forest had an insurance company. He received threats. People stopped working with him, and as a result he lost a lot of business, but to us he is a hero. We can imagine what would have happened if the Court Challenges Program had existed. Ultimately, after our rights had been violated for 90 years, Mr. Forest rectified the situation, and so both official languages are now respected in Manitoba.

There was also the Bilodeau case in 1986. Once again, Mr. Bilodeau was not funded because the program did not start until 1994. Mr. Bilodeau fought a ticket and we dealt with the consequences of the Government of Manitoba not wanting to allow a challenge in French. So we spoke about the consequences of the Bilodeau case.

We also had the Rémillard case, which just ended this year. Once again, it dealt with the responsibilities of the Government of Manitoba. These are all very important things.

The most important is probably the case of the Franco-Manitoban School Division, or DSFM. After their rights had been trampled on for 90 years, people said they had a right to their own school divisions and education system and were entitled to control their own curriculum in French. The courts decided in our favour.

Finally, after all these years, the DSFM used the court challenges program. I do not know how an institution without a lot of money could have taken on the government with its unlimited funding. Once again, the DSFM won.

There have also been some very famous cases outside Manitoba: the Beaulac case, the Mahé case and the Arsenault-Cameron case. All these cases are extremely important. They were funded by the court challenges program and would not have gone as far as they did without it.

When I found out that the Conservative government had decided to discontinue this program—a large sign behind us said that the surplus was $14 billion and they were going in front of the microphones to announce the elimination of this program costing $2.5 million a year in a step that trampled on the rights of minorities in Canada—I thought it was totally unacceptable. It made my heart sink.

When the Treasury Board president appeared before the committee, we asked him about it. He said it was not money well spent and the lawyers had really taken advantage of it. That is totally false and unacceptable. The lawyers who worked on these cases did so for next to nothing. I agree entirely, therefore, with my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst on this issue.

There is also some talk about possibly reinstating the program. A member from the Conservative Party said that maybe it could be reinstated only for language issues. I do not approve of that, not at all. I consider that it would be unacceptable for us, as francophones who have been oppressed and whose rights have been abused during all those years, to accept that without taking into account the women, the handicapped persons and the multicultural communities. I for one would not vote for that. I want the Court Challenges Program reinstated for all minority groups. That is a point I wanted to emphasize today.

In concluding, I will say that in yesterday's budget, in spite of all consultations in all parts of Canada by Mr. Bernard Lord and in spite of all the fanfare about the renewal of the official languages action plan the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Status of Women and Official Languages has been bragging about, we can see the true nature of the Conservative Party's commitment to official languages.

There is nothing at all in the budget. It remains to be determined. We can see the true colours of the Conservatives when the issue of official languages comes up.

I am pleased to have spoken to that subject tonight.

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

6:40 p.m.

Glengarry—Prescott—Russell Ontario

Conservative

Pierre Lemieux ConservativeParliamentary Secretary for Official Languages

Mr. Speaker, the Liberals are trying to speak vigorously for official language minority communities but, really, they lack credibility.

I would like to mention that, in our 2007 budget, we had announced an additional amount of $30 million over two years for the official language minority communities. How did the Liberal Party vote? It voted against this positive measure. The Liberal Party also decreased by almost $100 million the funding for official languages between 1994 and 1999. This is incredible.

Just recently, Justin Trudeau, the Liberal star candidate, was saying that Canadians who do not learn a second language are lazy. What an insult. That is an insult for the 22 million unilingual anglophones and francophones in the country.

I have a question for my friend opposite. Is Justin Trudeau the spokesperson for the Liberal Party? This is really an important question because he is a star candidate and he displays a very negative attitude towards the official language minority communities.

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

6:40 p.m.

Liberal

Raymond Simard Liberal Saint Boniface, MB

Mr. Speaker, I cannot wait to see the member explain this to his constituents, who are primarily francophone. That would be interesting. I would even like to be there, because I can assure you that all the promises his party made will be thrown back in their faces. It will not be long.

The member mentioned $30 million. We are talking about a commitment of $751 million over five years, and the funds increased. So in the financial structure, we are talking about nearly $1 billion in the last year; not $30 million. The Conservatives are laughing at francophones.

My colleague will hear about the calls I made today to minority francophone communities. I can assure him that they are very disappointed about all the promises made, all the consultations done by Mr. Lord and the big show they put on. I can assure him that there will be major consequences.

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

6:40 p.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin NDP Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my hon. colleague from Saint Boniface for the points he made. The Conservative member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell gives us an idea of the Conservative government's attitude. He thinks that since the Conservative government invested $30 million in official languages in 2007, it has the right to violate the legislation. Citizens should not take their fight in court, and if they decide to do so, it is up to them to pay the expenses. That is exactly what he is saying.

In the case that was heard Monday and Tuesday in Fredericton, the government's lawyers were clear. They are asking that, if they win the case—it is in their request, which I have with me—the complainant should have to pay all the expenses. Not only did the government scrap the court challenges program, but the government's lawyers are asking that all their expenses be paid. Lawyers for the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada have said that this could cost between $25,000 and $30,000.

The government tells us that it supports official languages. As I said earlier, it went as far as to say that it is not the mandate of the courts to tell the government how to spend public funds. Thus, what it is really saying is that it has the right to violate the legislation. The government does not want citizens to defend themselves, but if they do so, it does not want a judge to decide against it, because it is not up to the court to tell the government how to spend its money.

I would like to have—

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

6:45 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

The hon. member for Saint-Boniface.

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

6:45 p.m.

Liberal

Raymond Simard Liberal Saint Boniface, MB

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his comments.

He is absolutely right. First of all, I was told that the lawyers defending this case in Fredericton are working for free. It truly is the ultimate insult for the government to also ask for its costs to be paid. That is completely unacceptable.

Naturally, this is quite in keeping with the government's recent conduct. In the matter of rights, cost should not matter. There was mention of $5 million over two years. For the government, it is a question of ideology. It bothers them a great deal because they believe it is a waste of money and that no one should challenge its actions.

This is evident in the Conservatives' every move. If someone disagrees, the Conservatives ignore them, fire them and get rid of them.

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

6:45 p.m.

Liberal

Brian Murphy Liberal Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, NB

Mr. Speaker, I am taking part in the debate today as a citizen of New Brunswick, the only officially bilingual province in Canada, and also as a citizen of Moncton, the first officially bilingual city in Canada—although I have a great deal of respect for the citizens of Bathurst.

I am in favour of adopting this second report by the Standing Committee on Official Languages. Not only was I a member of that committee when we traveled through western Canada, but it was also the first time that the Standing Committee on Official Languages had traveled so that it could get a clear understanding of the needs of francophone communities outside New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario.

This caused me some concern, because I heard these groups say that they need a lot of important things when it comes to education and health care, but the number one thing on the list is to preserve the program we are talking about here. I was not so much concerned as surprised to see that the response was always the same, in Regina, in Edmonton, in Vancouver and in Winnipeg: the primary need is to preserve this program. I was also concerned to hear the Parliamentary Secretary, the member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ask a question without mentioning the court challenges program at all.

Obviously this government does not like that program. I do not know the reason behind that denial, but I can guess where it comes from: they oppose it because the Minister of the Environment, the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Health were involved in the Montfort case.

There is an award called the Prix Montfort. It is the symbol of the struggle to preserve francophone language rights in Canada. Every year, there is a big ceremony where the Prix Montfort is awarded. I know because the City of Moncton has won the prize. I had no knowledge of the Montfort case, but I know a lot more about it now because francophones in the Ottawa area fought against the closing of that hospital under the Harris regime, which included those three ministers. The struggle ultimately led to a huge success, thanks to the court challenges program.

It seems obvious to me that this is the reason why the government decided to eliminate the program. It is not a question of cost. At the Standing Committee on Official Languages meetings, we heard that out of the entire program, the part that goes to preserving language rights accounts for only $400,000. This week, Fredericton’s lawyers argued for two days before a Federal Court judge against the government that wants to eliminate this federal program, which costs $400,000.

I need to speak a bit about that court case that just finished. All the pleadings in the public view amounted to saying that this program was called useful by agents of the government before the United Nations. It was one of the best programs for safeguarding our linguistic rights and other minority rights. It only costs about $400,000, so it cannot be an issue of waste or the high cost involved in the program.

The duty in administrative law, which is very well-known from the Baker case forward, says that stakeholders, people who have a stake in the elimination of a government program, would normally have a reasonable expectation of consultation if a program were to be eliminated. Can anyone Imagine shutting down medicare and not consulting doctors and nurses? It would not happen. There would be consultations.

The only consultation that took place in this case was when the member for Acadie—Bathurst, the member for Saint Boniface and the other members of the committee travelled, for the first time in the history of the committee, throughout parts of Canada where there were minority language groups. These groups told us that their number one concern was the re-establishment of the court challenges program. There was no consultation whatsoever by the government and yet that is the number one duty in administrative law.

It is very clear that the champion of the court challenges program ought to have been the heritage minister. Looking at successive budget documents and successive press releases from the minister of heritage at the time, it is very clear that there was no champion there. That minister was not protecting the linguistic rights of minorities in this country.

Vibrant communities, such as Saint Boniface, Edmonton, Vancouver and Regina, are holding on to their language rights, whereas they could have asked Parliament for more money and more support for their schools and their health centres, which they did because there is the second round of the Dion plan that needs to be properly funded, not the pittance that was given in the first budget of the Conservative government. However, the number one concern for those communities was the protection of a legal vehicle called the court challenges program.

I wonder why? Because people in these communities know that it is vital and important to safeguard these rights. Money flows from these rights.

I listened to the member from Saint Boniface. I learned that, in 1870, in the province of Manitoba, the government eliminated the right to service in both languages. That bothers me a great deal perhaps because without past and future heroes, and without the court challenges program, we will step back in time. If we have a language right—no matter which one—we must fight each day, each morning, to protect that right.

I come from Acadia. I am not Acadian. I am Irish, Canadian in fact, but I know very well that, throughout history, Acadians fought governments and institutions for language rights in order to obtain health, education and other services in both official languages.

For that reason, our Constitution states that New Brunswick is a bilingual province. That is why I speak French in this Parliament, even though I bear an Irish name. It is because of the bilingual institutions of my province.

In closing, I would like to thank Messrs. Michaud and Doucet, the lawyers who have volunteered their services and are defending this case in court this week. I am certain that they will win the case. The government has many changes to make because if we have rights the court will recognize them. The constitutional rights, the language rights of official language minority communities are greater and stronger than the politics of this government.

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

6:55 p.m.

Bloc

Richard Nadeau Bloc Gatineau, QC

Mr. Speaker, I commend my colleague, who is a strong advocate for minority rights on the Standing Committee on Official Languages.

I would like to know what he thinks about the following. We heard the member for Saint Boniface say that it took 90 years to bring French schools to Manitoba. It took 56 years, after they were abolished by Regulation 17, to have French schools at all levels in Ontario. It took 64 years in Saskatchewan. And all of this happened before the court challenges program.

By abolishing the court challenges program, could we not end up back in the dark days when francophone minorities were losing their rights in instances where they were very much in the minority, because the majority, much like the Conservatives today, could not care less?

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

6:55 p.m.

Liberal

Brian Murphy Liberal Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, NB

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the hon. member for Gatineau.

The question is clear. Yes, I think there may a risk of problems in the future. Let us not forget that delivering services in both languages is not so easy because it costs the governments money. In a context of budgetary pressures, governments in this country—and one government has already made up its mind—might decide to eliminate programs.

That is why it is very important to preserve these programs because we may need them to protect existing legislation. You never know when a provincial Conservative government might cut bilingual services. That will never happen in New Brunswick because we have constitutional guarantees, but it might happen in Ontario. The City of Ottawa is not a bilingual city and Ontario is not bilingual either.

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

6:55 p.m.

Glengarry—Prescott—Russell Ontario

Conservative

Pierre Lemieux ConservativeParliamentary Secretary for Official Languages

Mr. Speaker, as I listened to my colleague, I could not help but think of the hypocrisy of the Liberal Party. I will put this into contrast. As I mentioned before, when the Liberals were in power from 1994 to 1999, they cut $100 million out from under the feet of official language communities across Canada.

In contrast, the budget for the action plan, up until the end of this year, was $750 million. Our government will have spent over $800 million.

This is a $50 million increase instead of a $100 million cut.

The other contrast is that in budget 2007 we put forward additional funding for official language communities in the neighbourhood of $30 million. That is a positive step. My colleague talked about $400,000. I am not sure where he got his numbers but I am talking about $30 million.

It is nice to have debates and to argue our points back and forth but we all speak loudest as MPs when we stand and vote. How did that member and the Liberal Party vote when it came to increasing the budget for official language communities by $30 million? They voted no to that.

I would like to know how my colleague can explain this hypocrisy to me and particularly to Canadians who live in official language communities. It just does not make any sense.

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

7 p.m.

Liberal

Brian Murphy Liberal Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, NB

Mr. Speaker, I understand the member's problem. He is in a government that is not francophone rights friendly and he is in a riding where he is in a fight, where he has to seem to be francophone rights friendly.

I understand the problem. I understand why he asks questions about funding of the Dion plan and does not ever address the topic tonight, the preservation of the court challenges program. He has not addressed it once in his questions but, presumably, he will eventually give an answer.

However, is he in favour of preserving the program or not? Does he think that linguistic rights are important or not? Does he think that the Dion plan was named after someone who is not the Leader of the Opposition now? Does he think that the Official Languages Act, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and bill 88 were all Conservative programs?

He is wrong. His party does not have the heritage or the culture of embracing official bilingualism and he is in the fight of his life. I understand why he has to stand there and pretend that he is in favour of official languages and the Dion plan. I know at committee he is always trying to find a loophole to fight against those rights. I understand his problem.

Official languagesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

7 p.m.

Bloc

Richard Nadeau Bloc Gatineau, QC

Mr. Speaker, this evening we are talking about the court challenges program. In September 2006, the Conservative government announced that the court challenges program would be abolished, in order to save a measly $5.6 million. A large number of organizations condemned these cuts, and rightly so.

That program was created to allow individuals and citizens' groups to be on a level playing field when going to court against a government because they feel it is interfering with one or several of their constitutional rights.

Let us not forget that when citizens must take the government to court to seek justice, the latter has a slew of lawyers at its service, while ordinary citizens must use their own savings to defend themselves. Since court costs are huge, these people could rely on the court challenges program to balance things out, so that both sides would be represented fairly.

Fairness—yes, fairness—requires that each and everyone be entitled to full and fair representation before the courts. This principle is incredibly easy to understand, except for those killers of justice that Conservative governments, both federal and provincial, are in Canada.

The current government, which is made up of quite the mix of Reform, Alliance, neo-Liberal, Conservative and failed Liberal members, is suggesting that—listen to this—it will never violate the Constitution and, therefore, that citizens do not need a court challenges program. However, abolishing this program is, in and of itself, a violation of the law. So, this is a fine example of hypocrisy.

The government violated the legislation not on one or two points, but on five grounds.

First of all, the decision to eliminate the court challenges program goes against the contribution agreement reached between the Department of Canadian Heritage and the court challenges program, with respect to the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada.

Second, the decision goes against the constitutional principle of respect for and protection of minorities.

Third, the government has an obligation to act in favour of minorities, under section 16 of the Canadian Charter that was passed right here.

Fourth, the decision also contravenes the federal government's obligation to official language minority communities.

Fifth, the decision contravenes part VII of the Official Languages Act, particularly sections 41, 42 and 43.

Furthermore, the Commissioner of Official Languages reviewed 118 complaints received in 2006 and 2007 regarding the elimination of the court challenges program. In his final report, submitted on October 9, 2007, to the complainants and government stakeholders involved, he urges the current government to reconsider its decision to slash the court challenges program and other programs that serve linguistic minorities, failing which it could face other court cases.

There is a serious paradox here. When the current federal government appeared before the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in May 2006, it extolled the value of the program and acknowledged how important it was to maintain it because of the legal issues that still had to be addressed. The very government that praised the program in May 2006 turned around and eliminated it in the fall of 2006. Some wires crossed and there was a short circuit. How unfortunate. Listen closely to what it said about the program. This is from the Conservative government before us here today:

The court challenges program, funded by the Government of Canada, provides funding for test cases of national significance in order to clarify the rights of official language minority communities and the equality rights of historically disadvantaged groups. An evaluation of the [court challenges program] in 2003 found that it has been successful in supporting important court cases that have a direct impact on the implementation of rights and freedoms covered by the program. [The individuals and groups benefiting from the [court challenges program] are located in all regions of the country and generally come from official language communities or disadvantaged groups, such as Aboriginal people, women, racial minorities, gays and lesbians, etc.] The Program has also contributed to strengthening both language and equality-seeking groups' networks. The Program has been extended to March 31, 2009.

Yet that same government went on to abolish the program in the fall of 2006. I heard the member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell say the word “hypocrisy”. I get the sense that he does not really know what that word means, because the government itself is the hypocrite here.

Representatives of various organizations expressed their consternation to the Standing Committee on Official Languages after the government announced that it was going to abolish the program. The Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, the Assemblée de la francophonie de l'Ontario, the Fédération des associations de juristes d'expression française de common law, the French Language Health Services Network of Eastern Ontario, Saskatchewan's francophone school division No. 310, the Assemblée communautaire fransaskoise, St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan, the Association canadienne-française de l'Alberta, the Alliance Jeunesse-Famille de l'Alberta Society, the Réseau santé albertain, and the Société des Acadiens et des Acadiennes du Nouveau-Brunswick have all spoken out against this disgrace.

The société Maison de la Francophonie de Vancouver, the Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique, the Centre francophone de Toronto, the Association des municipalités francophones du Nouveau-Brunswick and the Association des parents francophones du Nouveau-Brunswick were also dismayed by the decision. I hope that the Conservatives will feel a sense of shame at hearing the long list of groups that are working hard to protect minorities, unlike the government, which is doing its best to undermine them.

The Société Saint-Thomas d'Aquin de l'Île-du-Prince-Édouard, Réseau santé de la Nouvelle-Écosse, Conseil économique du Nouveau-Brunswick, Autorité régionale francophone du Centre-Nord No. 2, Fédération franco-ténoise and SOS Montfort have also expressed their disapproval. The current Minister of Health, Minister of Finance and Minister of the Environment did everything they could to shut down the Montfort hospital, the only francophone hospital in the province. They tried to shut it down, although it is a very well-managed hospital and sets an example for other Ontario hospitals when it comes to finances. But because it was a franco-Ontarian hospital, these individuals, under the Harris government, did everything they could to close the hospital. It is completely disgraceful.

All these groups appeared before the committee to show that the court challenges program is an ally in the fight against anyone trying destroy the francophone minority fibre in this country.

Representatives from the Quebec English School Boards Association, the Association des parents fransaskois, the Commission nationale des parents francophones, the Quebec Community Groups Network and the Faculty of Law at the University of Moncton, just to name a few, all came to say that it was a very bad choice and was ideologically unacceptable.

In December 2007—not very long ago in the history of the world—in response to the objections to the abolition of the court challenges program, the Standing Committee on Official Languages recommended:

That the Government of Canada reinstate the Court Challenges Program or create another program in order to meet objectives in the same way.

This sort of recommendation reflects a desire to repair the unspeakable damage that has been done. Equity between people must be restored at all levels of government so that everyone can have access to all the legal avenues they need to defend their constitutional rights.

When it decided to eliminate the court challenges program, the current Conservative government said that the program was not cost-effective. This argument was shot down by the chair of the program in his brief to the committee. He said:

No one ever informed the people in charge of the program that it was being reviewed. No one contacted the staff or the members of the board of directors or asked for information about the program. What sort of a review was it? What were the findings? When it announced that it was cutting the program, the government did not refer to any findings to justify its decision.

This is definitely the wrong way to go about doing things.

It is clear that the court challenges program was abolished for purely ideological reasons. The Conservatives do not care a bit about minority rights. Lord Durham is their model, and they are discomfited by the French fact. The Conservatives are discomfited by minority groups such as disabled persons and gays and by organizations that defend new Quebeckers and new Canadians, women's groups and organizations that defend minorities. The court challenges program helped all these groups. True to their pitiful track record when it comes to respecting minorities, the Conservatives simply abolished the program. This is completely unacceptable. I do not dare think about what a Conservative majority would do.

Funding provided for a number of groups was an effective way to advance the human rights agenda in Canada and Quebec, in some cases, in the two areas the program targeted. 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.

For example, take the case of Doucet-Boudreau v. Nova Scotia, which was mentioned today. This was a case defended in Nova Scotia regarding the education rights of the Acadian minority under section 23.

I also referred to the Montfort Hospital case, which was about further developing and recognizing the unwritten constitutional principle of protecting minorities. First developed in the reference relating to the secession of Quebec, the court recognized that governments must first take into account the possible impact of their decisions on official language minorities.

In Arsenault-Cameron v. Prince Edward Island, the Supreme Court confirmed the important principle of true equality and its application in cases stemming from section 23.

There was also R. v. Beaulac, a case dealing with the right to be heard by a decision-maker in the official language of choice of the individual who understands that language.

With regard to the measure to create educational institutions comparable to those of the majority, this measure is now applied in a fair number of provinces and territories, such as Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and the Northwest Territories.

It is very important to convey this to those opposite, who do not have the slightest idea of the damage they are inflicting. Do they truly care about an equal balance between the citizens and the government they face in pursuing the rights they consider to be theirs? Abolishing this program, which costs very little in terms of the annual federal budget of $238 billion, is an ideological choice that crushes the weakest by depriving them of all the necessary tools that are at the disposal of the government, with its host of lawyers, when it goes to court to attempt to suppress minority rights.

Minorities have a right to defend themselves.

From 1994 to 2005, the court challenges program opened some 1,671 files in response to funding applications. The report states:

The panels [under the Court Challenges Program] approved funding in 1,099 cases (66%). There were 821 files approved relating to equality rights and 278 relating to language rights. A significant number of funding applications approved relating to equality rights fall into six areas: discrimination against Aboriginal peoples (174), general physical disabilities (104), sex (94), race (88) and sexual orientation (75). With respect to language rights, half of the funding requests approved pertaining to language rights involve education rights (143) and, to a lesser extent, language of work, communication and service rights (55).

Minorities are being told to forget about the court challenges program—obviously the Conservatives are the ones saying this—and to turn to small claims court. Something is wrong here.

Society, like the Constitution, is a living thing. It is constantly changing. In our legal tradition, what happened in the past helps shape the future, but what is to be does not necessarily flow from an example in case law. That is why we must ensure the return, for good, of the court challenges program. Unlike the Conservatives, society changes, improves, faces new challenges. Rather than cling to hallowed ideological battles in an attempt to oppress people, the government should demonstrate openness and ensure that minorities of all stripes are guaranteed recognition before any party, including the state at federal, provincial and municipal levels.

People with disabilities won the battle for accessibility against public institutions thanks in part to funding from the court challenges program. Public institutions argued that the cost of installing ramps to enable such a small number of people to enter public and private buildings with ease was too high. Thanks to the court challenges program, people with disabilities won their fight. Now they have the ramps they need. Public institutions and many private ones now follow this rule and make sure that their buildings are accessible to people with disabilities.

French-language schools serving francophone minorities outside Quebec were closed in 1871 in New Brunswick; in 1890 in Manitoba; in 1912 in Ontario; and in 1931 in Saskatchewan. Those are just the cases I know of. Francophones did not get their schools back until 50, 60, even 80 years later. Assimilation wreaked havoc. Obtuse governments bent on making us disappear from the ethno-linguistic landscape came very close to succeeding.

The court challenges program must be brought back to ensure that things like this never happen again.