moved that Bill C-223, An Act to amend the Citizenship Act (adequate knowledge of French in Quebec), be read the second time and referred to the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration.
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to the first bill that I have introduced in the House. I introduced a very simple bill with a clear objective, and that is to enable newcomers who want to become citizens and reside in Quebec to integrate into their host society.
In order to integrate, newcomers must be able to communicate with members of their host society. In Quebec, the common language is French. The purpose of the Charter of the French Language is to make French the official and common language of Quebec. As a result, newcomers must learn French in order to integrate into Quebec society.
Anyone who wants to become a Canadian citizen at the end of their immigration process must demonstrate a sufficient knowledge of one of Canada's two official languages. Right now, a permanent resident who wants to become a citizen and reside in Quebec could do so without knowing a single word of French. Of course, this situation is not in keeping with the Charter of the French Language, the main objective of which is to make French the common language of all Quebeckers.
That is why, during the last election campaign, the Bloc Québécois's platform included a promise to introduce a bill requiring that permanent residents residing in Quebec have knowledge of French in order to obtain citizenship. Promise kept: That is what we are debating today.
During the 42nd Parliament, the member for La Pointe-de-l'Île introduced Bill C-421, which would have made that change. Unfortunately, the bill was deemed non-votable following an extraordinary procedure that included all MPs voting secretly in spite of the opinion of the clerk who drafted the bill.
This time, the Bloc Québécois has a legal opinion. The other parties can no longer hide behind the so-called unconstitutionality of this proposal.
In March, the Bloc Québécois commissioned this legal opinion to ensure the constitutionality of the bill we are debating today. The study was carried out by Professor Patrick Taillon of the law faculty at Laval University and lawyer and Ph.D. in law candidate Amélie Binette.
After reading this opinion, it is quite reasonable to believe that Bill C-223 is entirely constitutional. Thus, the first question we must ask ourselves is this: What are the general principles that should guide our interpretation of language rights?
The response issued by Ms. Binette and Mr. Taillon, based, among other things, on the Beaulac decision, is clear: Language rights must be interpreted broadly and liberally, based on their objectives of maintaining and enhancing the vitality of official language communities in Canada.
Given its status as both a majority and a minority of the historic francophone community, which is recognized by the Supreme Court in the Solski decision, the intervention of political actors is necessary to ensure substantive equality between English and French in Quebec. What is this logic of substantive equality?
Substantive equality is not the same as formal equality when interpreting section 16 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which constitutionalizes the equality between the two official languages.
To sum up, it is a matter of looking at the linguistic situation in each province so that measures can be taken that take into account the specific needs of the minority community. Thus, there is nothing that precludes Parliament or provincial legislatures from taking action to promote the use of English or French in specific contexts, since the linguistic demography and pluralist reality of Canada requires an asymmetrical approach.
In Andrews, Justice McIntyre noted that a law will not necessarily be bad because it makes distinctions when having to implement measures for two people in similar circumstances. Therefore, Bill C-223 is not unconstitutional because it creates a distinction between residents of Quebec and those of other provinces. True equality requires consideration of the demographic, geographic and social context of a community when interpreting language rights.
If immigration is a shared responsibility of the provinces and the federal government under section 95 of the Constitution Act, 1867, the granting of citizenship is the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government under subsection 91(25).
As our legal opinion on immigration shows, the courts have encouraged a type of co-operative federalism over the past few years. Passage of Bill C-233 would promote real equality between English and French through an asymmetrical approach and collaboration between both levels of government.
The citizenship test does not constitute a service since it seeks only to assess the linguistic skills of permanent residents and their knowledge of French. The bill does not infringe on the public's right to receive services in both languages, as stipulated in section 20 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms since nothing in its content prevents a permanent resident of Quebec from applying for citizenship in English, providing information in English, communicating with the government in English and swearing their oath of citizenship in English if they so desire even if they have to prove an adequate knowledge of French to obtain citizenship. That would be an curious path to take, but nothing in Bill C-223 would prevent that.
As pointed out in our legal opinion, even if the courts deemed that the citizenship test was a type of service, section 1 of the Constitution Act, 1982, clearly states that the rights it guarantees are “subject...to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
Jurisprudence clearly shows that specific arrangements to guarantee substantive equality between the two official languages constitute a reasonable limit in a free and democratic society.
In our legal opinion, Professor Taillon explained that the Supreme Court developed a two-part test to interpret section 1 of the Constitution Act, 1982. The first part is to prove that the measure serves a pressing and substantial objective. The second part is to prove that the means are reasonable and demonstrably justified. The French language in Quebec is in such an alarming position, so the intent and content of Bill C-223 clearly serve a pressing and substantial objective.
As to whether this is a reasonable and justifiable measure, it is important to remember that the Citizenship Act already provides for language testing. In Forget v. Quebec, the Supreme Court ruled that the requirement that non-francophones pass a French test was not an arbitrary ground when it came to joining the nursing profession. The same reasoning could be applied to citizenship.
Bill C-223 contains a single provision that makes three important amendments to paragraphs 5(1)(d) and 5(1)(e) of the Citizenship Act.
First, Bill C-223 increases, from 55 to 65, the maximum age up until which a permanent resident who applies for Canadian citizenship is required to demonstrate a knowledge of one the official languages and to pass a test demonstrating that they have an adequate knowledge of Canada and of the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship.
Second, the bill ensures that, if a permanent resident resides in Quebec, they will not be able to choose between demonstrating their knowledge of an official language in English or in French as is currently the case. Instead, they will have to demonstrate an adequate knowledge of French. Permanent residents residing in other provinces will be able to continue to choose between the two languages.
Third, consistent with the language requirement, under Bill C-223 the citizenship test must be administered in French in Quebec, not in one or the other official language. The bill does not impinge on that choice in other provinces.
The central element of this bill is citizenship. The question we must ask ourselves, and which we will attempt to answer, is as follows: Do individuals require an adequate knowledge of French to exercise their citizenship in Quebec? The Bloc Québécois believes they do.
This bill recognizes the primacy of French in Quebec, it is consistent with recognition of the Quebec nation, it contributes to sustaining French in Quebec, it restores the status of French in Quebec, it acknowledges the importance of understanding the language to exercise all the rights and responsibilities associated with citizenship in Quebec, and it is an additional means to slow the decline of French in Quebec.
As we are seeing in the news, Quebeckers are more and more concerned about the decline of the French language.
According to a recent Leger poll, 63% of respondents said they were very concerned or somewhat concerned about the status of French in Quebec. Among francophones, that figure rises to 71%, an increase of 17% compared to a similar Leger poll conducted in 2018.
Nearly six in 10 Quebeckers think that the situation has gotten worse over the past decade. Six in 10 Quebeckers also think that the status of French will continue to decline over the next decade.
In a report from April 2019 on the evolution of the linguistic situation in Quebec, the Office québécois de la langue française found that the use of French greetings in stores on the Island of Montreal had dropped from 84% to 75% compared to 2010.
It is important that we do everything we possibly can at the federal level to reverse this trend. Major changes will be proposed shortly by the Government of Quebec, and the federal government must also do its part. It is only by passing Bill C-223 and making changes like these that we can stop this trend.
We cannot rely on the Liberal government to take leadership on this file, and that is why the Bloc Québécois is taking charge. I hope that the Liberals will vote in favour of my bill.
The Prime Minister once said, “The Liberal Party of Canada will always be there to protect the French language.” This would be a good opportunity to prove it.
All the same, there are a few factors that make me doubt the Liberals' goodwill on this issue, such as the comments made by the Liberal member at the Standing Committee on Official Languages. She did, however, walk back those comments today.
While questioning the Commissioner of Official Languages, she expressed doubts about the decline of French in Quebec. She needed proof. Well, all the evidence is there. She has only to look at the statistics and read reports like the one published in 2017 by the Auditor General of Quebec, who found that the campaign to teach French to immigrants in Quebec had failed, or simply take a walk in her riding or anywhere else in Quebec.
A Journal de Montréal reporter did just that. She walked into some shops in downtown Montreal. Of the 31 establishments she visited, 16 offered a unilingual English greeting, and in almost a third of the businesses she visited, staff were simply unable to respond in Quebec's official language.
If members of the House of Commons vote against the very principle of Bill C-223, they will be proving two things. First, they will be proving that Canada's bilingual nature is not important to them, by rejecting a minimum requirement for ensuring the vitality of French in North America. Second, they will be proving that Canada's constitutional framework cannot ensure the full vitality of the Quebec nation.
The elected members of the House of Commons will have to decide whether they agree with the spirit of the Laurendeau-Dunton commission or that of the more grievous Durham commission. Quebec deserves to see where it stands.
In conclusion, the entire history of Quebec and, by extension, the history of French-speaking Canada can be summed up as a fierce battle for self-preservation and the survival of French. After more than 400 years, we continue to fight for the right to exist, and the debate we have brought to the House of Commons today, with Bill C-223, is but one more episode in this never-ending story.
In 2006, the House of Commons recognized the Quebec nation. What does that mean?
So far, from both a legal and a political perspective, Canada's recognition of the Quebec nation has yet to translate into any tangible action. It was simply a political and symbolic gesture, and it does not address Quebec's historical constitutional demands.
Furthermore, as long as members of Parliament refuse to pass laws and implement government measures that allow Quebec to pursue its own cultural and linguistic development, as Bill C-223 would do, the recognition of the Quebec nation will be meaningless. Passing Bill C-223 would be consistent with the motion passed by the House of Commons.