Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak to Bill C-419 today. I want to congratulate my colleague from Louis-Saint-Laurent, whose riding is next to mine, on her wonderful, excellent work.
My colleague introduced Bill C-419 after a unilingual anglophone was appointed Auditor General in November 2011. At first the Conservative government defended the appointment of the Auditor General and opposed the bill.
Fortunately, the government has since changed its mind and seems to now support the NDP's bill. If it passes, Bill C-419 will ensure that future appointees to the 10 officer of Parliament positions set out in the bill will be required to understand French and English without the assistance of an interpreter and will have to be able to express themselves clearly in both official languages.
In short, Bill C-419 sets out the 10 positions for which bilingualism is considered an essential qualification. Because of the nature of the work, these positions require the individual to communicate with all parliamentarians and Canadians in the official language of their choice. It is a matter of respect.
I am happy to see that the bill has made it through the important step of being studied by the Standing Committee on Official Languages. The essence of the bill remained intact, which is excellent news.
However, I have to wonder why the Conservatives did not explain some of the amendments they proposed to the structure of the bill. The Conservatives removed the preamble, which emphasized the importance of the equal status of French and English in parliamentary institutions and in the Constitution.
When he was called upon to speak to the bill, the Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser, spoke in favour of including such a preamble in the bill. He said:
I have heard no arguments for deleting this preamble. It is practical, and I consider it useful. It expresses the spirit of the bill, its goals and objectives, so that ordinary people can understand why the bill has been introduced. It also describes the bill's overall aims.
It is unfortunate, but it has become apparent that, when the Conservatives amend legislation, far too often they remove the context and historical references. It is truly disgraceful. That kind of attitude must be denounced and corrected. I suggest that the Conservatives change their approach.
I sometimes get the impression that the Conservative government is confused about its definition of bilingualism. You have to admit that it is hard to reconcile how, on the one hand, the Conservatives claim to be advocates for official languages and yet, on the other hand, they impose budgetary restrictions at the expense of bilingualism. The fact is that if you peel away the rhetoric, French is far too often given second-class status. There are so many examples attesting to this that it is impossible not to doubt the sincerity of the Conservative government.
Here are the plain facts. The government appointed a unilingual anglophone to the position of Auditor General. The Conservative government also appoints unilingual anglophone judges to the Supreme Court of Canada. It is the Conservative government that coerces francophone public servants to work more often in English. It was under a Conservative government that the pilots who travel on the Saint Lawrence River between Quebec City and Montreal had to file a complaint last winter with the Commissioner of Official Languages because they were unable to communicate in French with the crews of two Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers. Finally, it is also this Conservative government that does not see the problem with closing the only bilingual rescue centre in Canada, perhaps even in North America.
There is no doubt that the state of bilingualism in Canada is cause for great concern. Last year, the Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser, expressed his fear that the $5.2 billion in spending cuts called for by Ottawa between now and 2015 would result in a number of unwelcome surprises, such as a reduction in the services provided in both official languages. Unfortunately, the commissioner’s predictions seem to be coming true. The members on the other side of the House do not know where the money is going. Furthermore, in the blink of an eye, $3 billion that was supposed to go towards fighting terrorism has gone missing. Had the government invested in bilingualism, perhaps we would not be where we are today.
According to an article in the daily newspaper Le Devoir, budget cuts are forcing departments to reduce the number of documents they have translated. This is evidenced by the fact that the production rate at the Translation Bureau dropped by 9% in 2011–12, with a further drop of 17% forecast for 2012–13. Moreover, departments are asking francophone staff to write their reports in English in order to save time and money.
In my opinion, the situation is, quite simply, unacceptable. Ottawa is even streamlining the office of Commissioner Fraser. In future, it will have to use money from its own budget to update its computer systems in order to process complaints more efficiently.
If the government really cares about bilingualism, as we do on this side of the House, logically, it should be providing the commissioner with more resources so that he can do his job properly.
Recently, I read in a newspaper that bilingualism has stagnated over the past decade. This is really appalling. We want more and more people across Canada, geographically the second-largest country in the world, to be proud of their Canadian history, which endowed us with two official languages.
These two languages allow us to bring together people from all continents. We should be more proud of that. That is why it is important to invest in this area and to tap into Canadian pride regarding our two wonderful official languages, French and English.
In 2002, the Prime Minister said that Canada is not a bilingual country. Ironically, today he is saying that it is his duty to protect the French language throughout this country. How times have changed. Again this week, however, according to an article in Le Droit, the Commissioner of Official Languages said that he needed to weigh his options for forcing the government to abide by the Official Languages Act when appointing judges, ambassadors, deputy ministers and heads of crown corporations.
Last year, Graham Fraser asked that the Privy Council Office, the Prime Minister's department, take into consideration the Official Languages Act when determining the language requirements for thousands of positions filled by Governor in Council appointments.
In the commissioner's opinion, if a position requires a bilingual candidate, the government should ensure that the selection committee respects that criterion. One year later, the government has remained silent on that recommendation.
Here is part of a letter that Mr. Fraser wrote to the member for Acadie—Bathurst, who does outstanding work on the Standing Committee on Official Languages:
[The Privy Council Office] has yet to follow through on our recommendations...We are currently weighing our options for ensuring that the [Privy Council Office] fulfills its key mandate of helping the government meet its commitments pursuant to part VII of the Official Languages Act.
Part VII of the act stipulates that the federal government must work to enhance the vitality of linguistic minority communities and promote the use of French and English in Canadian society. It is important to note that it is in no way necessary for everyone appointed by the Privy Council Office to be bilingual, but those who work with the public must, generally speaking, be proficient in both languages.
There needs to be objective criteria governing language levels for each position, and that is why Bill C-419 is so important.
To conclude, I invite all of my colleagues, from all parties on this side of the House as well as the Conservatives across the aisle, to support this bill. Too many mistakes have been made in the past.
People who show real leadership are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move forward. That is what this bill is proposing. It is a significant bill because it concerns official languages, one of the pillars of Canada's history. We have an opportunity here to show unity and vote unanimously on a bill that concerns us all. This would be a step in the right direction.
It is time to show Canadians that although parliamentarians may sometimes disagree on many issues, we can stand together when it comes to respecting Canada's official languages. We can say they are a source of pride and that we must invest more so that one day we can all speak both languages in order to communicate better with each other and live in a better society.