Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise today to participate in this extremely vital and important discussion on the document tabled by the Minister of Official Languages.
I want to take a moment to say that, as a Quebecker, I had the good fortune to be born into a francophone family. My father was a poet and a writer, so I grew up in a home where I was literally surrounded by books. All of the walls were bookshelves filled with books. My brother and I had a very happy childhood filled with Quebec music, including that of Félix Leclerc, Gilles Vigneault, Pauline Julien and Claude Gauthie. We also had the opportunity to meet poet Gérald Godin a few times. All of this helped us to develop a love of the French language. We also grew up listening to music by French musicians, such as Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Barbara and Léo Ferré. The French language is part of my DNA, and it is also part of the DNA of my political party, the NDP, which, on many occasions in the past, has taken action and proposed sensible and effective measures to help the French language thrive in Quebec and throughout Canada.
I am pleased to participate in this debate because I want to express my concern, which is shared by many of my colleagues, about the ongoing threats to the survival, maintenance and development of the French language in Quebec and across Canada. I think virtually all of us would agree that French is in jeopardy at the moment, that we must take urgent action, that there has been a marked decline in Quebec and the other provinces, that the French language requires greater support and that federal institutions and the Government of Canada should be more respectful of it.
Once we realize that, we have to choose our words carefully. Saying that French and English are on equal footing in theory is perfectly acceptable. For example, we agree that Quebec's anglophone minority has historical rights and institutions that must be preserved and protected, but people also have to understand that only one of our official languages is vulnerable and under threat, and that language is French.
We need to protect the French language, and doing so will require measures and additional assistance. French is a beautiful language loved by all, but it is in the minority in North America. There are some nine million francophones in a sea of around 370 million anglophones. We neighbour the United States, the largest producer of cultural content, such as music and film, in the world. The United States may come behind India, but we have fewer influences from India here. We need to acknowledge this and do something about it. Some francophone communities have been on the decline in recent decades. We need to stop the decline once and for all and support francophone communities. Some of these communities are vibrant and captivating and they are achieving great things, while others are very much struggling.
In some parts of Quebec, even, the situation is bleak, and downtown Montreal has struggled in recent years on the customer service front. We all need to be able to acknowledge this situation and then take action. I want to talk about the phrase “take action”, because that notion came up a number of times in the minister's statement, but I am not too sure what she meant by it. The government seems to use the notion of taking action when it is holding consultations but not actually doing anything about the situation.
The federal government has presented a document, a plan to reform and modernize the Official Languages Act. This act has not been amended much since 1988 and its current structure makes it difficult to fully respect the principle of linguistic duality and makes it difficult for communities to access services in the official language of their choice.
That is why francophone minority communities and the official languages commissioner asked the Liberal government over and over again to introduce a bill to modernize the Official Languages Act.
Despite the urgency of the situation and the marked decline of French in Quebec and across Canada, the Liberal government continues to delay the implementation of tangible measures. The Liberal government actually began its consultations on the modernization of the act in 2018. It held numerous consultations in 2019. The minister also acknowledged that between March and May 2019, the federal government held other cross-Canada consultations on the modernization of the act, which concluded with a national symposium in Ottawa attended by more than 300 people.
I must also add that the Liberal 2019 election platform promised the introduction of a bill to modernize the Official Languages Act and the enhancement of the powers of the Commissioner of Official Languages, as well as the appointment of bilingual judges to the Supreme Court.
With respect to bilingual judges on the Supreme Court, I have the impression that the government, which rejected this principle until recently, has seen the light, like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, and suddenly decided that it was a good idea and would include it.
Seriously, though, the minister says it is time to take action. After all the consultations that were held, after all the reports that were released, after the work of the Standing Committee on Official Languages, after the work of Senate committees that studied this issue and tabled reports, what is the government actually giving us now? It is giving us a working document that will lead to the creation of a committee that will conduct more consultations, which will lead to a report being tabled with recommendations that may provide some inspiration for a bill that may be introduced someday. That does not seem very serious to me.
If the government really felt a sense of urgency around taking action for the French language in Quebec and across the country, it would not create a new committee; it would draft a bill.
The Liberal government could have introduced a bill three, four or five years ago. Right now, a minority government has been in power for 18 months, and the situation is deemed to be so urgent that the Liberals are planning to strike a committee that will hold consultations and produce a report.
I do not think that members of the NDP define the phrase “take action” that way, despite the fact that the minister used it many times in her speech. The NDP has taken action and we will continue to take action to protect and promote the French language.
I want to mention something that happened eight years ago. When we formed the official opposition, our former colleague, Alexandrine Latendresse, introduced a bill that was passed by the House. The purpose of that bill was to ensure that all officers of Parliament are able to understand and speak French, to ensure that all commissioners, such as the commissioner of the environment, the commissioners for various departments, and the Auditor General be bilingual. That changed things, and that is a practical measure brought in by the NDP that has been successful and produced results.
Recently, I had a motion passed by the House recognizing the fragility of French and the need to promote and defend it. The motion was unanimously adopted.
Today, I get the impression that we have before us a discussion paper that is just a bunch of pious wishes. Believe me, I am not against virtue. The statements and approaches seem worthwhile, but it has no teeth. There are no real measures and no real sense of urgency.
We are glad to see the right to work in French and to communicate in French with the employer in federally regulated businesses finally implemented. The NDP has long been demanding that the principles of the Charter of the French Language be applied to federally regulated businesses. Currently, two sets of language rights apply to workers in Quebec. Those who work for the Caisse populaire have certain language rights to use French at work, but Bank of Montreal or Royal Bank employees do not enjoy the same rights. There is a bit of a contradiction here.
There finally seems to be some willingness to move forward. It certainly took a while. The NDP has been clamouring for this for 10 years. Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals had done anything until today. We will see if this amounts to anything.
There is also the possibility of extending this right to francophone workers outside Quebec. That is an interesting idea, but it looks like it would apply only where there is a heavy concentration of francophones or where the francophone presence warrants it. It is not really clear.
This morning in an interview, the minister did not seem to be able to provide specific criteria saying that this committee would study and make recommendations on what this really means. However, there is already a rule in the Public Service Employment Act about the right to work in French. It requires a 5% presence of francophones as a threshold for exercising the right to communicate and work in French. I wonder why the Liberal government has not taken a rule that already exists in the federal public service and applied it to workers in the private sector who could exercise similar rights to work and communicate with their employer in French.
Instead of reinventing the wheel and going back to square one, there is a rule that everyone agrees on and is accepted by everyone, but is not being applied. This will give rise to another debate, namely what constitutes a community where the proportion of francophones is enough to claim this right.
Going back to the question Patrick Masbourian asked this morning, are we creating a two-tier system? I think the answer is yes. What we are looking at here is a two-tier system where, for instance, someone working for Rogers in Moncton would be able to claim French language rights with their employer, but someone working for the same company in Calgary could not do the same because language rights for francophones outside Quebec vary from region to region. For the NDP, that is a major issue.
The government is also giving more powers to the Commissioner of Official Languages. That is also something that the francophone and Acadian communities had been calling for for a long time, and we are happy to see that. However, it seems like the commissioner would have new powers to issue orders, but not to impose financial penalties. It does not look like the official languages commissioner would be able to impose financial penalties on institutions, organizations and businesses that fail to comply with the act. Why is that? In my view, it is a major aspect of strengthening the commissioner's powers. We are going to keep pushing for that.
Most francophone and Acadian communities have asked for an administrative tribunal to handle appeals of certain situations. This is also missing from the document before us today. However, it would be an important and worthwhile element to have in the next few years. There are many other things that can be done and that the federal government should do to promote and defend the French language. I am referring specifically to the Official Languages in Education program. There has been a significant increase in the number of students at the 700 French-language schools found outside Quebec. There has been a 16% increase in the past five years. However, the budget for the Official Languages in Education Program has been frozen for about 10 years. They are not receiving more money. There are more students, but the budget is the same.
The minister seems to be challenging my claims, but we can review the figures and discuss them. This is the kind of thing that is problematic because this program funds many cultural and sports activities in schools. If they do not have the money they need to have interesting programs for students, this may result in elementary students choosing to go to English-language secondary schools if the services and programs offered—