Mr. Speaker, it is with great pleasure that I speak to Bill C‑13 today as an Acadian, as someone who worked in education for some 30 years and as someone who has spent a great deal of time in his life promoting the French language in Nova Scotia and across Canada.
I would like to thank the new minister and the former minister for their hard work over the past several years. As a former president of the Canadian Branch of the Assemblée parlementaire de la Francophonie and the current and founding president of the Liberal caucus of official language minority communities, I can say that these have been interesting years for pursuing my work.
I will start with a few very important points. My colleague Raymond Daigle, a former deputy minister, told me that in the early 1960s, he read an article saying that, if the trend continued, the French language would die out in Nova Scotia. I am not sure if that would have happened in my community or in yours, Mr. Speaker, but that is what the article predicted.
To be honest, my father also told me that, in the early 1960s, the parish priest and the community were discussing the possibility of eliminating the only French course in our schools, which would have meant the complete elimination of French. It was totally unacceptable. My father and the community stood up to defend their right, but they had no tools to help them. Then, in 1969, like a gift from the heavens, the Official Languages Act arrived.
Since there was no French school, I did all my schooling, from kindergarten to grade 12, in English. Then I went to the Université de Moncton, in French.
That law came along and made it clear that the Parliament of Canada was going to operate in French, and that federal institutions representing the Government of Canada and Canadians could choose to use either French or English. This amounted to exceptional protections for the people of Canada and my part of the country.
What happened after 1969? In 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted, giving Canadians certain privileges and rights.
Section 23, on education, is an essential part of this charter. Paragraph 23(1)(a) has to do with language of instruction for people who learned French first and still speak it. Paragraph 23(1)(b) has to do with language of instruction for people who studied at a French school. Subsection 23(2) has to do with the right of a person who has one child in school in a given language to have all their children be instructed in the same language.
I will talk about this later, but no one ever counted the parents and children who studied in French. Our government is the one that did this for the first time this year, and it is very important.
In 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms added this right to education. The provinces signed, but then they suddenly started asking questions: What powers would they have? Would it be necessary to build a small French classroom, and how many students would it have to accommodate?
This issue was brought before the courts several times. In 1990, the Mahé ruling changed the world of French education in Canada. A parent from Alberta was demanding the right not only to a French education, but also to schools managed “by us, for us”, which was a major difference. The Supreme Court ruled in his favour.
All of a sudden, francophone school boards were cropping up across Canada. In Nova Scotia, the francophone school board was created in 1996. I believe that there are now 28 francophone school boards across Canada, 174,000 students studying in French as a first language—not in immersion—and 700 schools for students with French as a first language. That is exactly what has happened.
There were other rulings after that, of course. There was Doucet-Boudreau on new schools in Nova Scotia, and Arsenault-Cameron on travel distances in Prince Edward Island.
In 2005, I became the superintendent of the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial. We needed to accomplish two major tasks. We needed to ensure quality education and get schools and community centres built. We had to work with the provincial government and the Department of Canadian Heritage. We have made a lot or progress.
However, I should point out that some parents were hesitant. Their children did not speak French. They had lost it. They were Acadians: the LeBlancs, the Samsons, the Fougères, the Landrys, the Arseneaults, the Béliveaus. We see names like that in Quebec and all over the place. These parents wondered if their children would lose a year or two of schooling because it would take a year or two to learn French.
That is when the school board, under my leadership, developed a four-year program for all these incoming students. It was not formal school. It was informal. The idea was for them to play in French, have fun in French and learn French. It was great. Parents started sending us their children. It gave the school and the teachers an opportunity to build relationships with families in the community. Before we knew it, our student population jumped from 4,000 to 6,000, which is where we are now, and it is really amazing.
Then, in 2015, I became the MP for Sackville—Preston—Chezzetcook. Chezzetcook is the second-oldest Francophone community in Nova Scotia. That was my opportunity to do something. For 32 years, I was active on the ground. I was a salesman, I talked, I pushed, I convinced the government, Canadian Heritage and others to support us. In 2015, I became a decision-maker. When I was active on the ground, I blamed the decision-makers. They were not moving fast enough. I told them to hurry up and pass bills to help us. Now that I am a decision-maker, I have to work fast. That is exactly what we have done.
What have we done since 2015?
We did not sleep as the opposition member claimed. We got straight down to work. What projects have we completed?
I remember the Translation Bureau. During their 10 years in power, the Conservatives cut, and cut and cut staff, sending texts to consulting companies for translation, saying that they did a good enough job, that it was okay, that it did not need to be perfect. We were the best in the world at translation. People came from all over to see how we did it. All of that had to be rebuilt.
Then the Conservatives started cutting the funding for court challenges. There was no money to do anything. We could not challenge anything to enforce our rights. What did we do? We brought it back, to ensure that people would have access to that program once again. Earlier I mentioned the number of students. That is very important. Appointing bilingual judges to the Supreme Court is another of our achievements of the past six years.
In reality, Bill C‑13 is the culmination of many things we have done in addition to things we have heard and arguments that were brought forward. I thank the minister for taking all of this and putting it in a bill that will certainly make Canadians proud of this very important legislation.
Now let us talk about what is in the bill. There are some major changes. For example, stakeholders told us that we should ensure that the central agency is a department and that there is coordination. Who is better placed to do that than the Treasury Board Secretariat, which takes care of this for all the departments? The TBS monitors, evaluates, observes and does the necessary follow-up. It will be responsible for accountability. That is a major improvement we are making. What is more, the discretionary power it had is now mandatory. That is a major change that is going to help people a lot.
Next, we looked at the commissioner's powers. How can we ensure that he has more tools in his tool box? We gave him the authority to impose penalties. We gave him the authority to enter into compliance agreements with different parties and to make orders. If we were to look at Air Canada today, we could use these measures, impose penalties and ensure that Canadians travelling with Air Canada are able to communicate in the language of their choice. That obligation is also there.
Let us talk about positive measures. We saw in Gascon that positive measures were not adequately defined. They were not clear enough or descriptive enough. The judge stated that tools were needed to make them much clearer. That is what Bill C-13 does. It truly establishes very positive measure that will help advance this file.
Concerning bilingual judges, my colleagues know that we have appointed three. It has been done. The Conservatives are still against this. It is now enshrined in this impressive new law.
In terms of francophone immigration, it is important to note that immigration is very important in Canada. There is a labour shortage, but the situation is even worse in francophone communities where we had a target of 4.4%. That target was not met, but it must be. We are losing our demographic weight. That is serious and that is why Bill C‑13 proposes to implement a national strategy that will make it possible to establish clear objectives, targets and indicators and to follow up.
With regard to language of work and language of service in federally regulated businesses, our government is the first to recognize that there is a decline in French in Quebec. We must support French, not just outside Quebec, but within Quebec and internationally. That is exactly what we are proposing. Federally regulated businesses must co-operate to ensure the ongoing promotion of French.
As everyone knows, it is the government's responsibility to provide bilingual services. We must be leaders in that respect. During the pandemic, we saw that there were service shortcomings. We are therefore fixing things through Bill C‑13, to ensure the use of both official languages in emergency situations and everyday operations. We have also changed the regulations pertaining to services in French. There will now be 700 additional bilingual offices across Canada. These are major changes.
I have given a broad overview of the situation, but there are still some questions, which is reasonable. There are discussions to be had. That is why we have committees, especially the Standing Committee on Official Languages. Each committee is independent, so there will be discussions and debates to be had there.
Stakeholders make some good points. It is important to mention it. For instance, the fact that the Treasury Board can delegate its coordination responsibilities worries me. It does not worry me in the current situation; it worries me if the Conservatives ever come into power once again. We could lose all the progress we have made regarding bilingual judges and court challenges. That is a major point, and I think the committee has to discuss it further.
There is also the matter of language clauses. My colleague and current Minister of Health was the first to include a language clause for school day care, so it is certainly possible. It is true that we have policies in place that provide tools and improve processes. We could look at ways to ensure results. I have worked on the ground. The money comes, but we have not been consulted and we do not get our share. Something has to be done to achieve this goal, and what I propose is to make language clauses mandatory and to put a system in place to contact organizations and school boards if provincial governments drag their feet. We have seen that before, provinces that do nothing and fail to contribute their share of infrastructure funding, which puts everything on hold. We have to find ways to remedy that.
The third element that I think is very important is positive measures. As I explained earlier, Justice Clément Gascon said that these measures really need to be defined.
Bill C‑13 does an exceptional job. In fact, I would like to congratulate the team that has done the work to give it some teeth. This means we can ensure that there will be major changes on the ground.
Allow me to provide some examples.
We could be a little more specific and say “required positive measures”. However, that can change, depending on the situation. Positive measures does not mean after-work drinks. In fact, it is something that has to happen on the ground.
Here is an example. British Columbia was trying to find some land for 20, 25 years. There was no land to build a francophone school.
Now, thanks to the federal government selling off a piece of land, the school board will be a to build a francophone school because it is important for official languages.
Halifax just went through the same thing. The Conseil scolaire acadien provincial, for which I once served as director general, was also looking for land. The Government of Nova Scotia was able to purchase land for the school board when Canada sold some real estate.
As members can see, everything works well when the rules are clear and when they promote substantive equality between French and English in Canada.
I want to conclude with some important points.
First, the Government of Canada is a leader. It has to be one. Otherwise, who will?
Second, we must resist ongoing assimilation and find ways to quash it. That is very important, but no one is even asking the question.
Third, I am very proud of the changes that have been made in terms of education. When I was director general, it was said that public school was only meant for kids aged five to 18. People did not think we had to worry about them.
Our government made a change by adding students in junior kindergarten and post-secondary school. I wonder why they were not included from birth until death. I do not like the word “death”, so I will replace it with “adult maturity”.
I would like to close with a little quote whose author's name escapes me: The history of French in Canada is still being written.
This bill will take us a long way. I know my grandchildren and my colleagues' grandchildren will benefit from it for a very long time.