Mr. Speaker, as has been said, Bill C-482, which was introduced by the member for Drummond, would amend three acts: the Official Languages Act, the Canada Labour Code and the Canada Business Corporations Act. If these amendments were to pass, their effect would be to give precedence to the Charter of the French Language within Quebec, and the three acts in question would therefore be subject to that charter.
To begin with, it is important to quote the Official Languages Act and give a very quick sketch of its history—of course, we cannot do justice to the complexity of this question in 10 minutes.
The act grew out of the situation that existed in Canada in the early 1960s, when it was observed that French was being given short shrift. That observation prompted Prime Minister Pearson to create the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, the Laurendeau-Dunton commission, which led directly to the proposal that later became the Official Languages Act, enacted by this Parliament in 1969. Since then, the act has been defined by the courts as quasi-constitutional.
We should also note that amendments were made to the act in 1988, including the amendment that committed the federal government to “enhancing the vitality and supporting the development of English and French linguistic minority communities”. Further amendments in 2005 required federal institutions to “ensure that positive measures are taken for the implementation” of those commitments.
Since this legislation was enacted, over 35 years ago, it has truly become an indispensable beacon, lighting our collective way when it comes to official languages in Canada.
While both French and English are official languages of Canada, the reality is that, in North America, English is not threatened in any way. That is a fact that has to be recognized. The same cannot be said of French, which has to be protected. Successive governments in this place, in Quebec and, recently, even in provinces other than Quebec have realized that they do have a role to play in protecting the French language and culture in Canada.
As a francophone living in Ontario and having sometimes had to endure unacceptable conditions, I completely understand this sensitivity, this desire to protect the French language and culture. I am therefore not insensitive to the desire of francophones in Quebec and their successive governments to protect and promote the French language and culture.
This, however, has to be done in complete respect for our laws and constitutional principles. I will refer to a few legislative provisions, including the preamble of the Official Languages Act, section 16(1) , and perhaps also section 21, of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as to the 1998 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Quebec secession reference.
Let us start with the preamble of the Official Languages Act. It is a lengthy preamble, but I will only quote the most interesting part:
The purpose of this Act is to
(a) 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—
In debate and in speeches, the Bloc Québécois argues that this is not binding. That statement in itself would make for an interesting debate, but I will move on.
In response to a question, the hon. member for Drummond said among other things that consultations had been held and everyone appeared to be in agreement. I think, however, that if we checked with the Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada, we would hear something quite a bit different. The official languages commissioner told the Bloc Québécois he had huge reservations about the bill, as drafted. That ought to be taken into account.
In addition to this brief passage from the preamble to the Official Languages Act, I would like to quote subsection 16(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
English and French are the official languages of Canada and have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and government of Canada.
Subsection 16(3) states:
Nothing in this Charter limits the authority of Parliament or a legislature to advance the equality of status or use of English and French.
It is very important to recognize that we are now referring to the Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and not the preamble of a quasi-constitutional law. The Constitution is authoritative. We must respect it, and the Government of Canada cannot divest itself of its obligations under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We must remember this.
I will now examine the constitutional principles referred to in the Supreme Court ruling concerning the reference on Quebec secession. The court made sure it examined what are referred to as the constitutional principles. Although often implicit, these are the underlying principles of our Constitution. I will quote a passage from page 40 of the ruling.
These principles may give rise to very abstract and general obligations, or they may be more specific and precise in nature. The principles are not merely descriptive, but are also invested with a powerful normative force, and are binding upon both courts and governments.
The following quote is from page 50 of the Supreme Court ruling.
An understanding of the scope and importance of the principles of the rule of law and constitutionalism is aided by acknowledging explicitly why a constitution is entrenched beyond the reach of simple majority rule. There are three overlapping reasons.
First, a constitution may provide an added safeguard for fundamental human rights and individual freedoms which might otherwise be susceptible to government interference. Although democratic government is generally solicitous of those rights, there are occasions when the majority will be tempted to ignore fundamental rights in order to accomplish collective goals more easily or effectively. Constitutional entrenchment ensures that those rights will be given due regard and protection. Second, a constitution may seek to ensure that vulnerable minority groups are endowed with the institutions and rights necessary to maintain and promote their identities against the assimilative pressures of the majority. And third, a constitution may provide for a division of political power that allocates political power amongst different levels of government. That purpose would be defeated if one of those democratically elected levels of government could usurp the powers of the other simply by exercising its legislative power to allocate additional political power to itself unilaterally.
The last quote from this Supreme Court decision is found on page 54. It reads as follows:
The concern of our courts and governments to protect minorities has been prominent in recent years, particularly following the enactment of the Charter. Undoubtedly, one of the key considerations motivating the enactment of the Charter, and the process of constitutional judicial review that it entails, is the protection of minorities. However, it should not be forgotten that the protection of minority rights had a long history before the enactment of the Charter. Indeed, the protection of minority rights was clearly an essential consideration in the design of our constitutional structure even at the time of Confederation.
The purpose of these quotations is to put this debate back into a constitutional context, which cannot be overlooked. I also sought and obtained legal opinions. As the official opposition critic for official languages, I cannot support this bill. I recognize that, in terms of language of work, there may be a legal void. However, I believe it is up to the Government of Canada to fill that void and not mix public corporations, such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, ports, airports and Air Canada, which are subject to the legislation, with banks, transport companies and telecommunications companies. If there is a legal void, and I think there is, it is up to the federal government to fill it.
Nevertheless, accepting the amendments proposed would go against the Constitution, potentially threaten the anglophone minority in Quebec and create the precedent that the hon. member for Drummond tried to deny. We might then see other provincial governments in Canada ask for the same treatment, thereby also endangering the francophone minorities.
As the official opposition critic for official languages, I will vote against this bill.