House of Commons Hansard #214 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was municipalities.


The House resumed from December 12, 2012 consideration of the motion that Bill C-419, An Act respecting language skills, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

6:05 p.m.

North Vancouver


Andrew Saxton Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board and for Western Economic Diversification

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour for me to stand in this place today to speak to the government's response to Bill C-419, An Act respecting language skills.

The Government of Canada believes that occupants of the 10 positions listed in the bill, persons whose appointment requires parliamentary approval, should be proficient in both official languages. We therefore support the intent of the core provision of Bill C-419. There are, however, a number of technical issues in the bill that need to be addressed before it can be implemented.

Our recognition that going forward, occupants of the 10 positions listed in the bill should be proficient in both official languages is a major step forward in our continuing support for Canada's linguistic duality. Members will recall that our government reaffirmed in the 2010 Speech from the Throne that Canada's two official languages are an integral part of our history and give us a unique advantage in the world.

The official languages are central to our identity and contribute to our historical and cultural wealth. Canada's linguistic duality is part of every sphere of our society and is without a doubt a social, cultural and economic asset for Canadians at home and abroad. The official languages contribute to our prosperity and long-term growth. They increase the competitive advantage of Canadian businesses and enhance their ability to access markets in and outside Canada.

Our official languages are also an asset to Canada's economy and the employability of Canadians. The progress achieved in official languages over the past 40 years has made it possible to keep Canada's promise of equality for many of our citizens today.

Parliament passed the Official Languages Act in 1969, more than 40 years ago. Thinking back to that time, we remember that most of the country's communities had to communicate with federal institutions in the language of the majority. Only limited government services were available in French. Today more than 90% of official language minority communities have access to federal services in the official language of their choice.

In short, we can definitely be proud of the progress that has been made, and we know we have an excellent foundation on which to build.

Our government is building on this strong foundation through our Roadmap for Canada's Linguistic Duality, which we adopted in 2008. We recognize that official language minority communities contribute to our country's cultural and economic vitality and our government is proud to support their development.

The roadmap reflects our strong commitment to promoting Canada's linguistic duality and the development of official language minority communities across Canada. It represents an unprecedented investment of $1.1 billion in the preservation and promotion of Canada's official languages.

The roadmap builds on the solid foundation laid with the Constitution and the Official Languages Act. It also builds on more recent federal efforts to encourage the use of English and French across the country and to improve the conditions that will enable official language minority communities to flourish for the benefit of all Canadians.

It complements federal official languages policies, programs and investments aimed at ensuring, for example, that Canadians can access federal information and services in the official language of their choice.

The roadmap charts a course for a more vibrant official language minority communities across the country. Most important, it is built upon the suggestions and ideas put forward by Canadians right across the country, notably official language minority community members expressed throughout the public consultations held in 2007 and in 2008.

On that note, I would like to take this opportunity to mention that our round of public consultations on Canada's linguistic duality was conducted last year. Last summer, the government met with nearly 400 Canadians in small groups across the country to hear their views on the priorities and challenges associated with Canada's linguistic duality.

More than 20 separate consultations were held involving community stakeholders, representatives and leaders of different communities working in various fields such as health, education, immigration and the arts. Canadians also expressed their views through online consultations. The progress we have made to date confirms that our achievement of the objectives of the Roadmap for Canada's Linguistic Duality is helping to enhance the vitality of official language minority communities and the involvement of Canadians in linguistic duality.

The communities are benefiting from coordinated initiatives in the areas of youth and education, economic development, justice, immigration and health care services already available to Canadians in the official language of their choice. These investments enhance Canadians' ability to live, work and prosper in their preferred official language.

For example, Health Canada's training networks and access to health services initiative is improving access to health services for official language minority communities. It is also improving the availability of bilingual health professionals who can meet the needs of all Canadians, and it is providing specialized tools required to measure and improve the health of official language minority communities.

A total of 155 health access projects will have been launched during 2010 to 2013 under the Health Canada roadmap initiative, and I would to highlight a few of them. One of the projects is designed to coordinate recruiting efforts of regional stakeholders in order to fill the needs of bilingual workers in the Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine region. Another concern is the English translation of health information documents in Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean. A three-year project, from 2010 to 2013, is facilitating the delivery of health care services in French in retirement homes and providing support to family caregivers in three French-speaking communities of Newfoundland and Labrador. Another three-year project from 2010 to 2013 is creating and distributing public health education and awareness tools for French-speaking and Acadian pre-school children in Nova Scotia.

The strength of this momentum has not gone unnoticed. Health Canada's initiatives were recognized in the 2009-10 annual report of the Commissioner of Official Languages for its commitment to community consultation. This is just one area where the government is doing excellent work.

The Annual Report on Official Languages, which we recently tabled, underscores the progress we have made in communications with and services to the public in the official language of their choice. It also provides details on the important work involved in creating and maintaining workplaces that foster the use of English and French.

I will conclude by emphasizing once again that our government has shown leadership, as may be seen from our commitments and the measures we have taken to meet those commitments. We are capitalizing on the many achievements of the past four decades. We have definitely come a long way over the past 40 years. We have come a long way since the time when federal services were offered in English only, in many cases even in Quebec.

Our task is to maintain the extensive progress of the past four decades and to build on it because our two official languages contribute to our national identity. They are an integral part of our history and enable us to strengthen our economy. They enhance Canada's competitive advantage both domestically and internationally.

They have contributed to Canada evolving into an open society that is able to attract people from different cultures around the world. In fact, our official languages enable Canadians who come to our country to participate more fully in our society, in every way.

In short, our official languages allow us to build a united, prosperous Canada together.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

6:15 p.m.


Stéphane Dion Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in this House, not only to talk about Bill C-419, but also to restate the support of the Liberal caucus and to congratulate the member for Louis-Saint-Laurent. I share her joy in the fact that her beautiful riding will continue to be called Louis-Saint-Laurent. It was good news that we received yesterday.

The bill provides 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.

Of course, the Liberal caucus supports the bill. For some time now, all officers of Parliament have been bilingual, and rightly so. The successful applicant must not only demonstrate a grasp of the complexities and nuances of national issues, but she or he must also have the ability to study matters in both official languages.

This is the only way to ensure fair and credible investigations and decisions.

Moreover, these officers of Parliament must be able to communicate with parliamentarians, who are in many cases unilingual. You cannot provide satisfactory service to Parliament if you can speak to some of its members only through an interpreter. These officers of Parliament must also be able not only to communicate with all Canadians, but also to listen to them and follow what they are saying.

The role of officers of Parliament is not only to be competent public servants: they must also be competent communicators. They must communicate the conclusions of their research with accuracy and subtlety in both languages. Ideally, they should even be able to detect errors that even the most competent translators miss: errors that sometimes completely distort the message in one language as compared with the other.

There is another consideration to be borne in mind. If the head is not bilingual, there is a good chance that the body will not be either. If the Auditor General does not understand French, let us have no illusions: almost everything will be done in English in the Office of the Auditor General. This sends the wrong message to young Canadians.

On the contrary, we must state and demonstrate to young Canadians that some positions with national responsibilities in this country require a mastery of both official languages. Moreover, those languages are international languages, and provide an excellent window on the world. The truth is that Canada is fortunate to have two official languages that are international languages, and provide access to an entire cultural universe. Let us therefore do everything we can to promote this splendid asset we possess, instead of trying to weaken it.

The reason this bill is before us today is that the government made the mistake of appointing a unilingual auditor general. The media tell us that the Prime Minister has acknowledged it was a mistake. Well, it was so a mistake.

In October 2011, the Liberal Party publicly opposed the appointment of a unilingual auditor general because he did not meet the job description of the auditor general, regarding proficiency in both official languages.

When the Prime Minister wrote a letter to opposition parties on August 31, 2011, making his decision known that he was appointing a unilingual as auditor general, the Liberal Party put the request in for further study in committee. However, this request was not acknowledged by the government.

I hear some of our Conservative colleagues express a concern that the requirement for bilingualism may trump that of competence. However, the point is that bilingualism is indeed one of the essential competences for the job.

I would ask the following question of my colleagues who are hesitating. Can they imagine one of these officers being unable to understand English? Which one? Would it be the Auditor General of Canada, the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, the Commissioner of Official Languages, and that would be nice for anglo Quebeckers, by the way, 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, or the President of the Public Service Commission of Canada?

Which one would they be okay with if she or he would not understand English? Would they be satisfied if this unilingual adult of, let us say, 40, 50, or 60 years old, were to say not to worry, that he or she would learn it over the next months or over a couple of years? Or would they take that as an insult and complete nonsense?

Imagine all the hours spent every day to learn English when, as a top parliamentary officer, he or she has on his or her shoulders the pressing and heavy responsibility to run an office, to prepare the next elections, to assess the last estimates, to understand the needs of the anglophone minority in Quebec, to protect privacy rights in Canada, rights to information in Canada and to protect ethics and good governance in general. These are tremendous responsibilities. We want these competent people on the job right away, full time.

The government has stated that it supports the primary goal of this bill. There is reason to fear that this support in principle may not be translated into genuine support. The government remains evasive. We have just heard our colleague talking about everything except the bill. The government talks about some technical problems to be resolved, yet the bill is very simple. We have to keep an open mind, I agree. If there are good amendments to be made, they must be considered. At the same time, however, we must be sure that the government is in earnest in this matter. It is in the government’s interest to support this bill, otherwise it may find itself in court.

The appointment of a unilingual officer of Parliament has earned it a stream of complaints and a strong rebuke from the Commissioner of Official Languages. Hon. Jean-Jacques Blais has initiated a court proceeding, arguing that the Official Languages Act, which is a quasi-constitutional statute, must be respected.

Rather than force this matter into the courts, why not do the right thing here in Parliament, among the representatives of the people, and honour the bilingual character of our Parliament and our country by supporting Bill C-419?

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

6:25 p.m.


Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, this evening I have the great pleasure of taking part in the debate on Bill C-419, introduced by my colleague from Louis-Saint-Laurent, whom I would like to thank for her work. It is an honour to speak today.

Bill C-419 deals with officers of Parliament: the Auditor General of Canada, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Commissioner of Official Languages, the Privacy Commissioner, the Information Commissioner, the Senate Ethics Officer, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, the Commissioner of Lobbying, the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner and the President of the Public Service Commission. These are officers of Parliament who report to Parliament, to parliamentarians of all political parties.

When we think about the case that triggered all of this, the people who know me know that I had introduced a bill about justices of the Supreme Court of Canada. I strongly believe that in a country that has been recognized as bilingual for 40 years, the judges of the highest court should be bilingual. They are judges who will be judging Canadians. So it starts at the top. It cannot start at the bottom. The topic tonight is not Supreme Court judges, it is officers of Parliament.

The invitation for applications to replace the auditor general was published in the October 2 issue of the Canada Gazette. The notice said that proficiency in both official languages was essential. How is it, when proficiency in both languages is essential, that we suddenly find ourselves with a person who is not bilingual?

I want to be sure that Canadians understand that I am not saying that an anglophone or a francophone should have the position. What I am saying is that the person must be bilingual. Pardon my language, but frankly, I don’t give a damn who gets the position. I just want the person who does to be bilingual. As Antonine Maillet once said, we do not want all the anglophones to become francophones or all the francophones to become anglophones. What we want is for service to be provided in both official languages. This is a question of respect.

Earlier, I listened as my Conservative colleague listed all the good things his party has done when it comes to the Roadmap for Canada’s Linguistic Duality. For example, the Conservatives did a national tour last year. What he did not say, however, is that a complaint had to be filed with the Commissioner of Official Languages, and that the Commissioner upheld our complaint. The Conservatives would have been in violation of the law if they did not do their tour. They wanted the Standing Committee on Official Languages to do their work for them.

In part VII of the Official Languages Act, section 41 is very clear: the government must consult the communities before making changes.

After the official opposition, the NDP, lodged a complaint with the Commissioner of Official Languages, the government suddenly decided to embark on a national tour.

Last October, in a statement to the House, the Conservatives maintained that they had complied with the legislation. However, on October 2, 2010, the name of the new auditor general was announced. They claim to respect both official languages, but they hired someone who was unilingual. Each time the government does something like this, instead of bringing people together, it drives a wedge between them. Rather than unite our country, it divides it.

An important public discussion is now under way. People are telling us that it is not up to us to tell them who can fill certain positions. They are wondering if it means an anglophone cannot get the job, or whether a francophone is ineligible. Come on. There should be no room for this kind of debate in a country like ours. If we acknowledge that there are two official languages, then we need to recognize and respect them both.

Prior to the 2011 election, we embarked on a tour that cost taxpayers $100,000. While this government likes to say that it is careful about how it spends taxpayers’ money, it spent over $100,000 travelling to Canada’s north, to Yellowknife and Whitehorse. We went back to these communities. After the election, we argued that the researchers, clerks and other people who attended the hearings along with us could write up what the francophones who appeared before us in Yellowknife and Whitehorse said. However, the government said that this was not possible because there had been an election.

Yet, when this same government was returned to office with a majority, it was unwilling to refer the bills to committee because we had been debating them since 2006. It was unwilling to have its bills examined in committee. Yet it refused to release our study and table it in the House, even though $100,000 was spent consulting francophones.

We conducted a study of new immigrants to Canada to help communities and regions. In Acadia, for example, we said that if the government ever sought to attract immigrants to New Brunswick, we would like them to be francophones who would contribute to the growth of our communities and ensure the survival of our culture and language. We did a wonderful study. Some Conservative MPs had even recommended that such a study be done. After the election, the government rejected it. We tabled some motions, but the Conservatives voted them down in committee.

Today, they want to take the credit for respecting both official languages. Is it not enough to appoint unilingual judges to the Supreme Court and a unilingual auditor general? This is precisely what the government has done. Today the Prime Minister is admitting his error. At least someone is willing to own up to his mistakes. I do not often give him credit, but I will in this case. He is saying that officers of Parliament must now be bilingual.

It is not enough to have appointed someone unilingual. In 2010, during a minority government, most parliamentarians voted against the appointment of the auditor general. I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Ferguson. This had nothing to do with the person himself, but involved the principle of having someone bilingual. It is not the auditor who does the calculations and checks the figures. That is done by a team of professionals. The auditor is the spokesperson who speaks in public.

Imagine if the government appointed a francophone who could not speak a word of English. When he issued his report to the nation, the entire speech would be in French and the English-language media would be unable to convey it. Imagine such a situation. I am just asking you to think about it.

If the government respected both official languages, it would stop making mistakes like this—mistakes it has acknowledged—and we would have a finer country. If it could recognize our two peoples, or three if you include the aboriginal peoples, we would be one of the finest countries in the world. In some countries, they speak five or six languages, and here in Canada, we are still squabbling over two. How sad.

Everyone here in Parliament wants to work hard for this nation and build the economy throughout the country. All I am asking, from the bottom of my heart, is for the government to recognize our two peoples—not blindly, and without making waves as it has done—and to respect both languages. I would not want a francophone to be appointed to such a position if he did not speak English. I would be against the appointment, and I would say so publicly. Anglophones are entitled to the same services as francophones.

In this respect, I am proud that the government supports this bill, and I am proud of my colleague for introducing it.

I now want the bill to go to third reading, so that we can be done with it once and for all. I also want respect for both official languages to be established in Canada, once and for all.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

6:35 p.m.


Royal Galipeau Ottawa—Orléans, ON

Mr. Speaker, thank you for this opportunity to provide the government's response to Bill C-419, An Act respecting language skills.

As you know, this bill was introduced by the member for Louis-Saint-Laurent nine months ago. I would like to commend and congratulate him. I support the intent and the core objective of this bill, and the government that I support in this place will support it also.

However, there are some technical issues that need to be addressed to strengthen it as the legislative foundation for linguistic duality among the 10 positions listed in the bill.

Our approach is a practical one that demonstrates both our agreement with the spirit of the legislation and our desire to make it an effective legal foundation for something we all believe in.

Linguistic duality is one of the pillars of Canadian history, culture and democracy, and this government is determined to strengthen it in our public institutions. We believe that the individuals occupying the 10 positions listed in the bill should be proficient in both of Canada’s official languages.

However, there are a number of technical issues with this bill that need to be examined more closely in committee before it can be implemented. If passed as currently drafted, the bill would require that persons whose appointments require the approval of the Commons or the other place or both chambers must, at the time of their appointment, understand English and French without the aid of an interpreter and be able to express themselves clearly in both languages.

In addition, the bill provides the Governor in Council with the ability to add officers to this list.

It also provides that in the case of an incumbent's absence or incapacity, the person appointed in the interim would also have to meet these requirements.

We would rather give the language-skills requirement a stronger legal foundation.

Let me provide our objections to the bill as it stands.

First, the preamble indicates that the bill is grounded on the principle that the 10 officers of Parliament identified herein need to communicate directly with parliamentarians in both official languages. We believe this does not take into account the constitutional right of all Canadians, including the officers listed in this bill, to speak in the official language of their choice in Parliament.

Our second objection is that the bill, to be meaningful, should also specify the type of language skills required, which it does not do now with sufficient clarity. This requirement, as it is currently proposed in the bill, does not distinguish between written and oral expression. Without specifying the type of language skills required, it would be difficult to evaluate whether or not a candidate meets this requirement.

Third, we believe that due to the constraints the bill imposes on the selection process of senior officials, the ability to add to the list of officers should lie with Parliament rather than the Governor in Council.

Our fourth concern is that the language-skills requirements would also apply to interim appointees.

This could hamper the government's ability to make timely and effective interim appointments to ensure the continuity of an institution's operations. In addition, this requirement could create a de facto language skills requirement for those people occupying other senior positions within the 10 organizations listed in the bill.

When this bill goes to the Standing Committee on Official Languages, the committee will need to examine how to mitigate the risks associated with these issues. We believe that the bill needs a stronger basis for the introduction of these requirements for the 10 positions listed in the bill.

We are committed to promoting linguistic duality in Canada and strengthening the use of our two official languages. We understand that linguistic duality is at the heart of our identity as a nation, and it contributes to our historical and cultural wealth. It empowers official language minority communities across the country and contributes to Canada’s economic vitality.

It strengthens the resilience of our federation through the provision of services in both official languages.

Indeed, linguistic duality permeates all fields of our society, and is a social, cultural and economic asset for Canadians not only at home, but also abroad. Bilingualism, for example, opens Canada to la Francophonie.

Through this international organization, Canada promotes fundamental Canadian values, such as freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

At the same time, we benefit from the political, cultural, scientific and other contributions made by other members.

In fact, this government’s long-standing commitment to bilingualism was shown in 2008 by the Roadmap for Canada’s Linguistic Duality 2008-2013: Acting for the Future.

The roadmap laid out the path to build on Canada's linguistic duality for the future with an unprecedented government-wide investment of $1.1 billion over five years.

This investment represents a 40% increase over the previous roadmap and is proof of our government’s commitment to Canada’s official languages.

Clearly, as we reaffirmed in the 2010 Speech from the Throne, Canada's two official languages are an integral part of our history and give us a unique advantage in the world. The government has not wavered from that.

By recognizing that the individuals occupying the 10 positions listed in the bill should be proficient in both official languages, we are acting on our beliefs and strengthening Canada’s linguistic duality for the future.

Our position is consistent with the spirit of the bill, and we want to ensure that the introduction of these language requirements has a solid basis in law.

As for the appointment of the 10 positions listed in the bill, there are many relevant considerations in addition to language skills to be taken into account. These include formal education, practical experience, abilities, personal suitability, knowledge and expertise. We will continue to consider all the criteria that allow us to appoint the most suitable candidate.

We look forward to working with the members of this house to pass this landmark legislation, which will be good for Canada and all Canadians.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

6:45 p.m.


Robert Aubin Trois-Rivières, QC

Mr. Speaker, some days it does a body good to rise in the House, and today is one of those days. It is rare to feel this sense of optimism and excitement that leads us to believe that we are close to a broad consensus that would finally allow us to move forward on an issue that should have been resolved ages ago. Better late than never.

I am therefore pleased to speak about a common-sense bill.

In fact, one has to wonder why we are still discussing such a bill in a country that recognizes two official languages.

However, given the growing likelihood that many members of the government and the other opposition parties will get behind this proposal, I would like to talk more about the areas that unite us rather than those that divide us so that this bill can be passed.

In passing, I would like to commend the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst who, long before I arrived in this chamber, had already been fighting for years for the House to treat this country's anglophones and francophones equally.

I would also like to sincerely thank my colleague from Louis-Saint-Laurent who, through her bill, is strengthening the rights of francophones in every province and territory. Passing this bill will further strengthen francophone communities.

So, what does this bill say? Since the key message of the bill is contained in just a few short lines, I would like to read it for the benefit of all those who are watching these proceedings via CPAC or elsewhere.

The bill's short title is the Language Skills Act. In my opinion, it could not be any clearer.

The bill simply states:

2. Any person appointed to any of the following offices must, at the time of his or her appointment, be able to understand English and French without the aid of an interpreter and to express himself or herself clearly in both official languages...

I will spare hon. members the rest since the list of the agents of Parliament that should have these skills has already been read out by many of the other speakers.

Once it has been established that Canada has two official languages, everything else should just fall into place naturally.

First, the same level of service should be provided to both language communities since the Constitution protects that right.

Second, people whose appointment is approved by resolution of the Senate, House of Commons or both houses must be able to communicate with parliamentarians in both official languages.

Third, French and English must have equality of status as to their use in all institutions of Parliament.

Equality of use highlights the idea behind the original wording that candidates must have the language abilities before they are appointed to be an officer of Parliament. It seems obvious to me that a unilingual anglophone or francophone, even with the best intentions in the world, will not be able to provide equal service in both languages before learning the second language, something that can often take years.

There is a glaring inconsistency between the services offered to one language community over the other. As I mentioned earlier, in the past, more often than not, it has been francophone communities that end up losing out when the principle of official language equality is twisted.

I have been talking about principles since the beginning of my speech because prejudices in everyday life can become quite significant.

So what kind of service would a Canadian receive if he or she contacted the information commissioner, the privacy commissioner, the chief electoral officer or the auditor general if that government official spoke only the language that the Canadian did not speak?

It is easy to picture the fruitless discussion that would take place, despite the goodwill of the participants. That simple example illustrates the need to support Bill C-419, which was introduced by my colleague.

The entire francophone community is watching the members from every party to ensure that we address this issue once and for all and do not try to hide behind excuses or half-measures.

In his preliminary report on the investigation that resulted from the complaint filed by the member for Acadie—Bathurst, the Commissioner of Official Languages—who is bilingual, thankfully—concluded that the Privy Council Office failed to meet its obligations under the Official Languages Act when it appointed Mr. Ferguson as Auditor General.

As I said earlier, this bill is vital to all of Canada's francophone communities. However, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Bill C-419 on bilingual officers of the House, Bill C-315, which was designed to recognize the language rights of Quebec workers employed by businesses under federal jurisdiction, and the bill to recognize Quebec's political weight within the federation are all opportunities to recognize the Quebec nation. There was political will to recognize the Quebec nation within Canada, but there has not been any political will to grant the rights that should be part of that recognition.

Unanimity is a rare event in this House, I agree, but I am asking the few members not yet convinced of the rightness of this bill to try to walk, from now until the day of the vote, if only for a week, or at least a day, in the shoes of a Canadian living in an official language minority situation. If they do not have the good fortune to be bilingual, let them ask to be answered in the official language they do not know. They will quickly discover what lies behind the drafting of this bill.

The goal is not to make all Canadians bilingual, although such a dream can be a fine thing, and such an accomplishment is undeniably an advantage in the international world we now live in. The goal of this bill, rather, is to leave no one behind because of a communication problem arising from ignorance of an official language on the part of an officer of Parliament. It is a question of job skills and requirements.

I must therefore insist: let us never again be told that out of 34 million Canadians across this country, we cannot find a Canadian man or woman who is both bilingual and qualified for the job we are trying to fill. Bilingualism, after all, is an integral part of the skills or qualifications such a person should have.

Our language is much more than a work instrument; it is also a part of our identity. If Canada has chosen to recognize two official languages, for reasons that are historically highly defensible, it should now ensure consistency in its decisions and acquire the means to realize its goals.

The NDP has always been a fervent defender of the official languages in the public realm, and this bill is a conclusive example. We will fight relentlessly for every Canadian man and woman to be able to receive services and interact with officers of Parliament in the official language of their choice. We will soon have an opportunity to send a clear message to all Canadians by voting in favour of Bill C-419.

I implore parliamentarians in all parties in this House, let us not miss this historic opportunity. I will close by thanking all of my colleagues in this House who, in their heart and soul, have already decided to support the bill. I would suggest most humbly to those who still have doubts to drop by the Standing Committee on Official Languages. There they will definitely find food for thought and colleagues who ask nothing better than to discuss with them the wisdom of this measure.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

6:55 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Bruce Stanton

Before I recognize the hon. member for Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, I will let him know that we do not have quite the full 10 minutes because we need to keep five minutes remaining at the end for the member who moved the bill.

The hon. member for Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

6:55 p.m.


Romeo Saganash Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, QC

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

[Member spoke in Cree]

By speaking Cree, I wanted to remind the House that my mother tongue is neither French nor English, but rather Cree. I would have liked to be able to rise in the House today to debate the possibility of making Cree, my mother tongue, an official language of Canada, but I hope this will be the subject of another debate in the future.

I am delighted to rise in the House. I would like to begin by commending my hon. colleague from Louis-Saint-Laurent for all her hard work on this file, and I wish to warmly congratulate her on having introduced this bill.

Considering the short amount of time I have, I will not bother repeating the objective of this bill, but I think it is important to note that we have two official languages that are recognized here. I spoke in Cree earlier because I believe that I have a constitutional right to speak in Cree in this House. As I said, I will leave that for another day.

It is unfortunate that we have to debate this bill, because French and English have equal status in this country. We should not have to debate this. Some people oppose that very notion, believing that one should not have to speak or understand both official languages in order to do one's job. They believe that a bill like this one could disqualify many very competent candidates. I do not agree with those arguments, but I recognize that they deserve to be debated. However, I believe that this would be misguided, because the question here is not who is providing the service, but rather who is receiving it.

The people who receive the services should be given priority. This means that those positions must be filled by candidates who can serve the public in both official languages.

At this point I think it would be useful to remind people that we are not talking about the entire public service being bilingual. We are not talking about requiring every postal worker in Red Deer to be fluent in French or English, nor are we talking about requiring every front-line EI worker in Lac-Saint-Jean to be completely bilingual. We are only talking about 10 of the highest positions in the Canadian public service. To put that in perspective, there is an estimated 300,000 people who work in the Canadian public service, and we are talking about legislating that 10 of them be required to be fully bilingual.

My speech today is in both official languages. I wanted to point that out because neither of these languages is my mother tongue.

I was a representative on the Grand Council of the Crees for many years, and because I speak French, English and Cree fluently, I was better able to represent the interests of my people in Canada, Quebec and around the world. My skills took me to the United Nations, where I represented my people and participated in negotiations on international agreements, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

I think that bilingualism is something that is accepted across Canada. Parents are increasingly recognizing that it is necessary for their kids to be able to speak both official languages. This is even the case in aboriginal communities. Take my community, for example, the James Bay Cree in northern Quebec, where most young people today are able to speak in English, French and Cree, their mother tongue.

We are not the only ones who feel this way. The Edmonton Journal, the Calgary Herald and the Ottawa Citizen agree that the Auditor General of Canada should be bilingual. The Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada and the Société nationale de l'Acadie also support this bill. Even the hon. member for Beauce agrees with us. For these reasons, I will support this bill.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

7 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Bruce Stanton

The hon. member for Louis-Saint-Laurent has a five-minute right of reply.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

7 p.m.


Alexandrine Latendresse Louis-Saint-Laurent, QC

Mr. Speaker, first of all, I would like to thank all those who believe in this bill and have expressed their support.

I am very proud that I can count on the support of so many of my colleagues from all parties. To my colleagues in the governing party in particular, I would like to reiterate the fact that we remain very open to discussion and co-operation regarding any amendments they would like to propose in committee. We think it is very important that this bill pass and we are open to co-operating with them regarding any technicalities they might like to improve.

Language is a fundamental part of identity. Our language is the structure upon which our thoughts are built. Language is an essence of the self. It is intimate, because it lies hidden in all corners of the conscious mind. In a way, we are the language we speak. It has programmed us. We spend our lives trying to defeat its mastery over us.

I love language. It is the field I studied, and one day I will go back to it.

Language has political consequences. Our understanding of nationhood is mostly based on linguistic differences. Where the language changes, often, with time, a border has appeared. Then there are the wonders of the world, bilingual countries, such as Finland, Belgium, Switzerland, Tunisia, Lebanon, Morocco and Canada. All these countries came to adopt official bilingualism because of different historical and political realities. Arab countries on the shores of the Mediterranean have French from France's former colonial empire. The kingdom of Belgium is a country with borders defined by ancient wars of succession. Switzerland is a patchwork of little and gorgeous cantons that each enjoy a great amount of political independence. Canada is a huge chunk of land left over from British imperial might that has succeeded in becoming one political entity.

History quite literally shapes countries, and it shapes our lives, however detached from it we may feel. Let us talk about history a bit.

In Canada, over the last 40 years, we have come to terms with many aspects of language issues. A great amount of energy has been invested by extraordinary people to make sure that both English and French are respected in Parliament. We have come a very long way from when we were practically a uniquely English-speaking environment. A strong prejudice was once felt by French-speaking minorities scattered across the provinces that saw English as a language ruthlessly imposed by a majority.

Political sensibilities in the 19th century were very different from what they are now. Canada was an imperial colonial experiment from the get-go, so naturally, it carried in its very structure the will to impose. We do not need to try to imagine what that was like. Aboriginal people are still being imposed upon and treated as if they are colonized. This is one thing we still have to fix.

The Parliament of Canada is a bilingual institution. I am often amazed at the quality of the work done by the translators who make sure that every single line of legislation, every last sentence jotted down, is made available in both languages. The task is huge, and it is carried out effortlessly, like it was no more demanding than a stroll through a park. However, translation takes a lot of time. Parliamentary translators work around the clock to make sure that everything is translated.

I am lucky. Even though I still have an accent, I am bilingual. When I sit here in the House, I do not have to listen to the translation. I listen to each person directly. I read papers as they come to me in whichever official language.

Officers of Parliament need to access all kinds of information quickly, and that means without delay. Their job is very important, as they make sure that Parliament does its job properly. They are the eyes of Canadians in the core of the institution. They make sure that everybody is accountable. They are the safeguards in the system. As such, they need to understand exactly what is happening. We cannot possibly tolerate an officer who needs to deal with French-speaking Canadians through a translator.

I would like to remind the members and the public at home that my bill is only consecrating in the law something that is already an established habit. Officers of Parliament need to be bilingual. Institutional bilingualism is something Canada cannot go back on. The only way is forward, and this bill is a decided step in the right direction.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

7:05 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Bruce Stanton

Order. The time provided for debate has expired.

The question is on the motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

7:05 p.m.

Some hon. members



Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

7:05 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Bruce Stanton

All those in favour of the motion will please say yea.

Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

7:05 p.m.

Some hon. members


Language Skills Act
Private Members' Business

7:05 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Bruce Stanton

All those opposed will please say nay.