Mr. Speaker, the motion before the House reads as follows:
That, in the opinion of the House, recognition that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada means, in particular, that Quebec has the right to ensure that the immigrants to Quebec must learn French first and foremost.
I support the idea behind the motion, that newcomers have to integrate by learning one of our official languages, and French in particular, in Quebec.
In fact, I think that in moving this motion, the NDP has, perhaps inadvertently, adopted an argument I have been making since I became Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism last year. I have talked a lot about how it is essential for newcomers to learn one of our official languages in order to succeed and my concerns about the fact that only one quarter of newcomers access the free language training offered by settlement assistance agencies across Canada.
Working with provinces to increase the participation of immigrants in the Newcomer Settlement Program, a large part of which is devoted to teaching the official languages, English and French, is a federal government priority, identified in the 2008 Speech from the Throne.
In fact, it is not merely a priority. It is an aspect in which we have invested. Since 2006 when we first formed the government, we have nearly tripled federal investments in language training for settlement services. That includes substantial increases in transfers to the government of Quebec for language training for newcomers. Obviously, in Quebec, those services are in French.
I have repeated many times the importance of encouraging newcomers to Canada to learn one of our official languages, or preferably both, as time and resources permit. All the available evidence and data indicates to us that the single most important factor in the success of immigrants to Canada is their official language ability.
Of course it is still possible for immigrants to succeed in our society with limited knowledge of the official languages, but it is much easier to integrate, economically, in the labour market, culturally, and in our society, if one can speak English or French. Obviously, in Quebec, that is done in the language of Quebec, which is French.
There is a lot of data showing that the reason we see a much higher unemployment rate among immigrants in Canada is their limited knowledge of our official languages. This is a matter of concern for me as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. I want to see immigrants succeed in Canada. They come here to succeed economically. We are very aware of the various challenges they must overcome. For example, newcomers working in regulated professions need to have their foreign diplomas recognized. Our government has taken action on this, by creating the Foreign Credentials Referral Office, by investing over $30 million and by providing a budget of over $50 million for the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development to assist organizations that work with immigrants to expedite recognition of foreign diplomas.
That is why the Prime Minister demonstrated important, historic leadership in January when he proposed an agreement to create a framework for recognizing foreign diplomas to the provincial premiers. I think there will be an important announcement on this subject in the near future.
That means we are working impatiently to improve the success, the economic outcomes and the labour market access of immigrants in Canada. But we must always emphasize the importance of language skills.
We form the government, and our last Parliament voted in favour of recognizing the fact that Quebeckers form a nation within a united Canada. We therefore recognize the unique characteristics of Quebec: its history, its traditions and the fact that it is a French-speaking society.
People from all over the world come to Quebec and Canada. They come from over 200 countries of origin. We are open. One of the greatest national characteristics of Canadians, and so of French-Canadians, is their openness toward other people. That is why we are keeping immigration at the highest level in the developed world, in relative terms. This means that 0.8% of our population is composed of permanent residents each year. As well, there are another 250,000 temporary residents, specifically students.
With an immigration level like this—I believe Quebec accepts about 54,000 of these newcomers—we have to emphasize the importance of integration. I am not talking about cultural assimilation, I am talking about positive integration. We do not want to create parallel communities, communities in which young people grow up in cultures that have more in common with the cultures of their parents’ countries of origin than with Canada’s. We want to give young people, children of immigrants, the full range of economic, social and cultural opportunities. The key, the door to all those opportunities, is language, and in Quebec, it is French.
This weekend, I attended 16 events in various cultural communities in the great metropolis of Montreal. I visited Muslim, Jewish and Middle Eastern communities, communities of Asian, African and Caribbean origin. Success has not been complete, but I am still genuinely impressed by the success of the Canadian Quebec model, particularly among young people. I am genuinely impressed by the number of children of immigrants who have learned French, who use French as their first language or second language. Sometimes their first language is their mother tongue, their parents’ language. It is truly impressive.
I therefore support the spirit of this motion. I have some concerns. We must be clear that under the 1991 Canada-Quebec Accord on immigration, training for immigrants is the responsibility of the provincial government, and we will honour that accord.
I work closely with my counterpart in Quebec, the Minister of Immigration and Cultural Communities, Yolande James, who is doing a good job. I can say that when the accord was first signed, in 1991, the federal government gave the government of Quebec $90 million to invest in settlement services and French language training. This year, in 2009, we are giving Quebec $234 million for the same services, and next year our federal government will give Quebec even more, $254 million, a quarter of a billion dollars, to provide French language training for newcomers and to provide other settlement services.
We are therefore providing tangible support to achieve the goal we see in the motion by the hon. member for Outremont.
I would like to emphasize that we must talk not just about the importance of French language training for newcomers in Quebec, but rather about the duty to assist newcomers everywhere in Canada, in every corner of the country, to learn one of our official languages.
In the same spirit as the motion is in French, Canada has the right to ensure immigrants must learn English or French first and foremost, and obviously in Quebec that is overwhelming French.
I am concerned when I see that only a quarter of new immigrants actually enrol in the free language classes that we provide and for which our government has tripled funding. This is the reason we are looking for more innovative ways to provide those programs, to empower the newcomers with, for instance, vouchers.
Two weeks ago I announced a pilot project in the provinces of Nova Scotia, Ontario and Alberta. We will send out vouchers to 2,000 newcomers worth up to 500 hours of language training at a properly registered and licensed language training school and where they can go and redeem those.
We are trying to raise the consciousness among newcomers of the language services we offer, to make the settlement organizations more responsive to the particular needs of newcomers and to create a kind of positive competition and to hopefully increase the uptake of these language classes that we offer.
I know that in Quebec, the participation rate of new immigrants in French training is a sign of success, but we must work together to do more. I agree with the member for Outremont that the federal government has a responsibility to work with Quebec to ensure that the money it invests in integration services is actually spent on these services and not put into other government services. I repeat that we put a quarter of a billion dollars specifically towards services for immigrants.
I hope the motion can help to inform a broader debate in the House and in Canada about the importance of language as a key to success for newcomers. On behalf of one of the immigrant employment organizations, Compas research group recently did an interesting survey of employers asking them why they do or do not hire immigrants in their companies. The number one reason was the employers' concern about language ability.
That is why we are ambitious for newcomers to succeed in our country. and why we are offering additional services, but it is also why there is an obligation on newcomers to make a real effort to learn one of our official languages. In our immigration program, the only part of our many streams of immigration to Canada that requires some degree of linguistic ability in French or English is the federal skilled worker program.
Obviously in Quebec, to get a Quebec selection certificate, an individual must have some French-language skills. However, for the federal skilled worker program, an individual must have a certain level of French or English.
However, for other streams of immigration, such as the family reunification stream, or the protected persons scream including the refugees we settle from abroad and people who obtain protection as asylum seekers in Canada, there is no language requirement. I want to emphasize that there is a requirement in the Citizenship Act that new citizens have the ability to speak one of our two languages unless they are under the age of 18 or over the age of 55.
I think that is very important. What I mentioned is a legal requirement. What concerns me is that I have met some new Canadian citizens between the ages of 18 and 55 who appeared to speak neither French nor English. I think that is a problem. I think that there should be a consistent standard.
We need to have a consistent standard. It is not fair to tell people that they are welcome into our political community with all the rights and responsibilities of a citizen but that we will lower the bar and not require them to have some basic ability to get by in one of our two languages because that would severely limit the ability of people to advance in Canada.
I do not think this is a harsh message. I think it is a message of hope and ambition for newcomers. Parents understand that if teachers pass a student through primary school and high school even though the student cannot read or write, they are not doing the student any service. I have sent the same message to the citizenship commission that I fully expect our judges and officials to ensure that the language requirement in the Citizenship Act is consistently applied to those who must have an ability to communicate in English or French in order to become citizens.
This is why I hope we will create a new citizenship guide, a new book for citizens that gives more information on Canada's history, symbols, democratic practices and values.
We must ensure that new Canadians have a thorough understanding of our traditions, our way of life, our institutions and our democratic practices. When I look at the current citizenship guide, there is hardly any information about the history of Confederation, the history of Canadians in the wars of the past century, the development of our democratic parliamentary system based on British traditions, or the importance of the founding of French civilization in North America. There is almost no information on any of these things in the citizenship guide. That is why we are in the process of revising all of the tools and all of the information in the guide for new citizens to ensure that they truly understand where we come from as Canadians.
Whenever I speak at citizenship ceremonies, I always say to new Canadians that in becoming Canadians, our history becomes their history. They too take ownership and become part of this amazing story that started thousands of years ago with our first nations and hundreds of years ago with the arrival of the European civilization. They take ownership with us of our struggles and achievements. They face many significant challenges but we, as a government, stand with them in overcoming those challenges. We believe that one way we can do that is to help them learn one or both of our country's languages.
I would therefore like to thank and congratulate the hon. member for Outremont on his motion. I look forward to working with him to develop concrete ways to help new Canadian immigrants improve their knowledge of our official languages, and, especially in Quebec, their knowledge of French.