moved that Bill C-419, An Act respecting language skills, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am very proud to rise here today to introduce my private member's bill, Bill C-419, to the House and to answer questions from my hon. colleagues.
First of all, I would like to take a moment to sincerely thank my friend and colleague, the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst, for all his support and the huge efforts he has made regarding my bill. I do not know anyone who advocates for bilingualism as passionately and eloquently as he does. I hope his bill requiring Supreme Court judges to be bilingual will enjoy as much success as mine.
If I may, I would like to take the time to provide some more detailed information about the substance of my bill. I know my colleagues are already aware of what Bill C-419 proposes, but I would like to begin by clearly defining the foundation for the changes proposed in this bill.
My bill has already received quite a bit of media attention, which makes me very proud. My bill has inspired people to take the time to contact my office, looking for more information and asking some excellent questions. During my speech, I will draw on some of those very relevant questions in order to ensure that my approach remains clear and can be easily understood.
Bill C-419 is actually very simple. The bill's official summary states that “persons whose appointment requires the approval by resolution of the Senate, the House of Commons or both Houses of Parliament must understand English and French without the aid of an interpreter and be able to express themselves clearly in both official languages”.
Those few people whose appointment must be approved by one house or both houses are commonly called “officers of Parliament“. Therefore, Bill C-419 would require that officers of Parliament be fluent in Canada's two official languages when they are appointed.
For people watching at home, I want to stress again that this bill would not require that all elected federal MPs be bilingual. That would be an amazing proposal, but it is a different kettle of fish and not what we are working on today. This bill only refers to officers of Parliament, those senior officials who, as I just explained, are appointed by the House of Commons or the Senate, or by both the House and Senate.
There will still be unilingual MPs in our Parliament. That is totally normal. However, just as government operations must adapt to the needs of Canadians, Parliament must adapt to the needs of elected MPs. This means that officers of Parliament must adapt to the needs of MPs, no matter what their language background.
A question that naturally springs to mind is: how many officers of Parliament are there in total?
Who are they? First of all, these are people who have expertise like few others, who fulfill an essential role in our democratic system. The Parliament of Canada has to be accountable to Canadians. That goes without saying. This accountability is guaranteed through the work of officers of Parliament. In a way, they are akin to safeguards, alarm systems and safety nets. They guarantee the legitimacy of the parliamentary system. They are there to support the government in its obligation to keep Canadians abreast of what it is doing. When the government fails to disclose everything, officers of Parliament can go through the government's paperwork to ensure that everything is in order, legal and fair. They are the eyes of Canadians in the drawers, wastebaskets and paper shredders of the government. Understandably, officers of Parliament are a valuable resource in our system. They are the most reliable component of the entire parliamentary process.
How many are there? Roughly 10. Why do I say “roughly”? Because this is not a precise and well-defined category. There is a bit of a grey area. The precise definition of who is an officer of Parliament and who is not—and for many other categories for that matter—seems to be more a matter of tradition than anything else.
My bill focuses on 10 positions. What are they? I will list them: the Auditor General of Canada, the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, the Commissioner of Official Languages, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, the Information Commissioner of Canada, the Senate Ethics Officer, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada, the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada and the President of the Public Service Commission of Canada.
That is all of them. Canadians are not always aware of the important role these various people play. Every year, these officers of Parliament table reports that have a major impact on how political life in Canada unfolds. If any inconsistencies are noted, the government will be required to explain those to the opposition and, by extension, to Canadians, to whom we are all accountable.
The system is perfect not because it prevents abuse but because any abuse will always be detected in the end. The safety measures are an integral part of the system and help to ensure that the system functions properly. However, to be able to detect this abuse, officers have to be able to understand what they are told and what they read.
Imagine if the former auditor general, Sheila Fraser, had not been bilingual. It would have been much harder for her to understand the complexity of the sponsorship scandal, since it was centred in Quebec. When officers have to analyze such sensitive and complex documents, it is of the utmost importance that they be able to do so in the language in which those documents were written. A mastery of both official languages was absolutely essential for Ms. Fraser because, despite the excellent work of the translators and interpreters, she might have missed some nuances that were key to understanding the scandal. Let us not forget that, without Ms. Fraser, this charade might still be going on.
Officers of Parliament have a clear mandate: to uphold, promote and monitor integrity. They have the right to know everything, to ask anything and to understand everything that is happening within their jurisdictions.
The Auditor General of Canada must conduct independent audits of government operations. He reviews the accounting, checks the accuracy of financial statements and decides whether the government is using public funds effectively and fairly.
The Chief Electoral Officer is the senior official responsible for the administration of federal elections and referendums. His office is responsible for registering political parties, maintaining voter lists and enforcing the Canada Elections Act.
The position of Senate Ethics Officer is held by one of the senior officials of the Senate who are responsible for ensuring that the Senate institutions run properly. The Senate Ethics Officer is responsible for enforcing the Conflict of Interest Code for Senators.
Next, the President of the Public Service Commission of Canada is the head of the commission. The commission—and I am quoting the by-laws and operating principles of the Public Service Commission—"is an independent agency mandated by Parliament to ensure a public service that is competent, non-partisan, representative of the Canadian population and able to serve the public with integrity and in the official language of their choice.”
Whether we are talking about the Commissioner of Lobbying, who ensures that elected officials fulfill their rights and obligations under the Lobbying Act, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, who is responsible for giving confidential advice to public office holders, or the Commissioner of Official Languages, whose job is to ensure that everyone abides by the Official Languages Act, they all protect Canadians, elected officials and the system.
Our system is precious and reliable. It exists for all of us, and officers of Parliament play an essential role in maintaining the excellence and sustainability of the system. It is easy to see. These senior officials must all deal with Canadians from both of Canada's linguistic groups and must consult documents written in both languages. Their understanding of French and English is essential.
Bilingual candidates have generally been appointed to these positions in the past. Everyone acknowledges the fact that the ability to interact in both languages is a prerequisite if we want the job to be done well in a timely manner. In other words, tradition has been a kind of precedent.
Being bilingual in French and English is a competency. Since Canada adopted institutional bilingualism, anyone in this country who wants to become bilingual can do so. It is a matter of putting in the time; all of the tool to get there already exist. I will be very specific. I am talking to those who may not entirely understand. Institutional bilingualism simply means that the government adapts to its citizens; not the other way around. One thing remains clear: linguistic duality will always exist.
No one is trying to create a culturally bilingual state. Not at all. The anglophone side will continue to live, dream and love in English, and the francophone side will continue to do the same in French. Bilingualism is seen as a plus, but it is not an obligation in this country. When Canadians who live in linguistic minority communities talk about bilingualism, they often mix up certain concepts. Some say mean things, others say incorrect things and others dream about multicultural utopian futures. There is no shortage of opinions.
I would like to make some things clear. People often use foreign examples—European ones, specifically—to support their opinions, but those examples do not necessarily reflect our situation. People name officially bilingual countries in Europe, assuming that it is the same thing and that we should either act the exact same way or the complete opposite way.
One of the countries most often mentioned is Belgium. However, it is actually not an appropriate example. While there are parallels between our situations, the Belgian model does not really apply to the Canadian situation. First, the country’s very small size is a factor. There is no need to deploy resources far from Brussels, since the federal capital is readily accessible to everyone. As we know, that is not the case for us.
Second, the linguistic dividing line in Belgium is very firm, and ultimately it has made Belgium a completely decentralized, even divided, country. Flanders and Wallonia live side by side, but they manage their own cultural affairs without really needing to consult each other. Canada tries to do things quite differently. We want to live together.
If fact, if there is a European country whose language situation better reflects Canada’s, it is Finland. Finland is officially bilingual. Finnish and Swedish are both protected in the Finnish constitution. The Finnish government adapts to the Swedish minority language group by providing it with all government services in Swedish. In Finland, children systematically learn both official languages in school. Our situation is similar. Although the Swedish-speaking minority mainly lives within a well-defined geographic area, its members do still live all over Finland.
The Finnish government makes sure that all services it is responsible for providing to the public are available in both languages.
That is institutional bilingualism. The government arranges things to include everyone. No one is obliged to be something they are not. No one tries to impose their language on anyone else. That is the most appropriate system for Canada, for our demographics and our geography.
It will come as no surprise to anyone if I say that of the two languages, French is the one in the minority in Canada. This naturally creates a situation with which we are already familiar. More French speakers than English speakers are bilingual. This is not a criticism directed at the majority; it is simply an observation.
On that point, however, I would like to mention Quebec's English-speaking minority. The last four decades have had an enormous impact on how that segment of our society has come to see itself. Political events and the development of new sentiments in Quebec have compelled these million individuals to reinvent themselves and adapt.
I would like to take this opportunity to tell the anglophones of Quebec that we are proud to live with them and that our future will be a shared one, just as our past has been.
We might think, then, that this bill would benefit francophones more because they are more aware of the need to learn the second language than are anglophones, who are the victims of an odd sort of prejudice precisely because they are part of a majority all their lives. However, I believe that this is a completely false argument.
You do not suddenly become an officer of Parliament by surprise in the middle of a career as a clerk in Saskatoon or as an undertaker in Sorel, without seeing it coming. Someone who is already moving in circles from which he or she may emerge as a candidate for that kind of position is well aware of Canadian law and knows that bilingualism is a requirement.
We are causing harm to no one by requiring bilingualism as a precondition by law. On the contrary, we are doing a lot of good, and here is why.
I have just returned from Moncton, the capital of Acadia, where I had the opportunity and pleasure to meet with several Acadian cultural organizations. Passing through Acadia always does an enormous amount of good for your national feeling. The people you meet there are often extraordinary. Acadia is a land of rare, even unique dynamism and vitality.
So I went to meet with those organizations to present this bill to them. The Acadians long ago made a clear choice for their future. New Brunswick being what it is, they decided that bilingualism was an asset, and they thus made it part of their vision for society.
New Brunswick is the only Canadian province expressly referred to in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Its bilingualism is protected, and that is clearly set out in the act.
Reaction to this initiative was very positive. All the organizations offered their support for my bill. To them, it was clearly consistent with the general thrust of the goals we have set for ourselves as a country. I was very pleased to see that this bill met some genuine political expectations in Acadia.
Acadians live as a linguistic minority. They are therefore extremely sensitive to that fact and know how to advocate for their rights. From the outset, of course, they are a people of uncommon strength of character. As a Quebecker, I can say that, whereas we in Quebec complain like souls suffering in the limbo of our thwarted desires, Acadians often forge ahead, make demands and win.
It is an unusual privilege to be able to travel across our country and see how attached people are to their language rights.
Perhaps we should stop viewing ourselves as the Trojans of North America.
We need only talk to each other and listen to each other because Canada is a fundamentally open, progressive, fair and good country. We are the envy of the entire world as result of these values that define us and that Canadians fully embrace.
I am personally convinced that we have every interest in joining forces and working together. That is ultimately the only way for Canada's two linguistic communities to reconcile. What some have for too long called two solitudes can ultimately prove to be two solicitudes.