Mr. Speaker, as per the notice of motion that you have just read, which was presented to the House on April 19, I move, seconded by my colleague from Hull—Aylmer, that the first report of the Standing Committee on Official Languages be concurred in.
This short report contains a motion moved by our colleague, the member for Rivière-du-Nord. It is asking the government, specifically the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities to introduce a bill regarding the application of the Official Languages Act to Air Canada, its subsidiaries and partners so that the committee may study the bill this spring. That is the essence of this report. The committee felt that this matter was urgent enough to encourage the government to introduce such a bill this spring so that it can be studied in committee.
This is very timely. My colleagues all know that yesterday the official languages commissioner, an officer of Parliament, tabled his fourth report, which at times is quite critical of the government. The report refers to the laissez-faire approach by the Treasury Board Secretariat, which has a key role in the government’s official languages policy. The Treasury Board Secretariat is supposed to play a leadership role for the government when it comes to language policy but seems to have completely abandoned the job. Among other things, the report also mentioned the difficulties experienced by certain official language minority community organizations.
But I want to return to last year’s report, which referred in particular to Air Canada and recommended that the government take immediate action to introduce an appropriate bill.
A bit of the historical background might help people understand why the situation is so urgent.
Air Canada used to be a crown corporation, but in 1988 it was privatized. At the time, its linguistic obligations were maintained by Parliament, which even specified a little later, in 2000, that these obligations applied as well to Air Canada subsidiaries and any airlines it acquired.
In 2003, Air Canada was forced to seek protection under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act and underwent a restructuring process. We all know how that turned out. The restructuring resulted in a regulatory vacuum regarding Air Canada’s linguistic obligations because ACE Aviation Holdings Inc. took over 75% ownership of the company. In addition, some of its former subsidiaries, specifically Air Canada Jazz and Aeroplan, became limited partnerships, responsible henceforth to ACE and not Air Canada. As a result, Air Canada Jazz, for example, could say it was not subject to the Official Languages Act.
Three times Canadian governments tried to make legislative changes spelling out the linguistic obligations of Air Canada and other subsidiaries of ACE, but every time the bills died on the order paper.
The first bill was introduced in 2005 by then minister Jean Lapierre. It died on the order paper. In 2006, another bill was introduced under the new government by the minister who is now the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Then another bill was tabled in 2007, so far as I remember. Three attempts were made, therefore, to clarify the situation. None were successful, though, all of them dying on the order paper.
In 2007, the situation became even more complicated because ACE, the umbrella company, liquidated Air Canada Jazz and Aeroplan shares. As I mentioned, the two former subsidiaries are now held independently by two separate income trusts. Air Canada Jazz and Aeroplan are therefore no longer either Air Canada subsidiaries or even companies whose shares are held by the majority shareholder in Air Canada. The situation has therefore become even more complicated and the regulatory vacuum has worsened. That is why it is so urgent to take quick action.
As I mentioned, the Commissioner of Official Languages commented on this last year in his report—I think an entire chapter was devoted to it—and specifically recommended that the government bring forward new legislation to clarify this situation and ensure that Air Canada, its subsidiaries and partners—that is, any companies and individuals with whom it may contract to provide services—must meet all linguistic obligations that would normally apply.
People have often wondered if Air Canada should continue to be subject to these obligations.
On April 13 when representatives of Air Canada came before committee they hinted at that matter. One of the representatives had been with Air Canada since 1989 and therefore had a very complete history of the corporation. She was asked if back then Air Canada had in any way, shape or form expressed any reservations that the linguistic obligations of serving the Canadian travelling public in both English and French would apply to it at the moment it became a privatized corporation. She clearly responded that was not the case.
At the time of privatization it was quite clear that Air Canada would continue to have the responsibility of offering service in both English and French to the Canadian travelling public and travellers coming to Canada from abroad. Air Canada accepted that because it goes willy-nilly with a corporation that would carry the name Air Canada.
My colleague from Rivière-du-Nord presented this motion which was supported by all parties. I would hope that all parties would support the adoption of this report, because it is important that Parliament send a clear signal of its will to see the government introduce legislation. It is also important to send a clear signal to Air Canada that we are serious about its obligations that flow from as far back as 1988, the time of privatization, and before.
I would like to quickly address another subject. The Commissioner of Official Languages promised to help the committee improve the bill if necessary. I also asked the minister responsible if he could argue in favour of sending it to committee before second reading. This would give the committee some latitude and capacity for action that it would not otherwise have.
The Commissioner of Official Languages and the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, when he appeared before the committee, recognized that overall, the committee works very well and is responsible. I therefore urge the government to seriously think about sending us this bill before second reading, so that we may examine it critically and constructively.