Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today to Bill S-3.
Whereas the government has flip-flopped and hesitated with regard to ways to help the francophone and Acadian communities develop, the Bloc Québécois has long supported francophone communities outside Quebec. For example, the Bloc Québécois urged the federal government to recognize the unique situation facing francophones living in minority situations and to take emergency measures to counter assimilation and foster the development of francophone and Acadian communities.
Over the years, the Bloc Québécois has also filed complaints with the Official Languages Commissioner about the treatment of francophones in the Canadian forces, Treasury Board's failure to ensure that numerous federal institutions comply with the Official Languages Act, the right of amateur athletes to practice their sport in their own language and, finally, Air Canada's obligation to provide service in French outside Quebec.
In all these files, the commissioner demanded that the institutions in question take the necessary measures to fulfill their obligations to serve Canadians in both official languages. In my opinion, those obligations go without saying.
The Bloc Québécois has intervened and taken positions in favour of Canada’s francophones on a large number of issues. Specifically, we have pressured the federal government to increase funding for francophone organizations, to have regional news in French or RDI broadcast in the western provinces and to have the government adopt a genuine development policy for francophone and Acadian communities.
When the Bloc committed itself in 1994 to defending the interests of the francophone and Acadian communities in Ottawa, it also expressed Quebec’s desire to continue this mission when it becomes sovereign. It did so by proposing a reciprocal mechanism in Canada, so that each can verify respect for the rights of the francophone minority in Canada and the anglophone minority in Quebec.
In our opinion, the Official Languages Act, in its current form, already included all the mechanisms that the federal government needed to ensure the development of minority official language communities. However, after years of cuts in the funding of official language communities and a decline in the use of French among the francophone population of Canada, the federal government finally acknowledged that action was necessary to promote the development of the francophone and Acadian communities.
The Action Plan for Official Languages tabled by the government in March 2003 had a budgetary envelope of $750 million over five years. It should, we hope, be sufficient to support the development of the francophone and Acadian communities. The Action Plan, however, is not a panacea, as was also noted by the Commissioner of Official Languages in her report published on October 19, 2004, especially insofar as the Liberal government has not made a sufficient effort with regard to the plan. The plan is still, moreover, being implemented slowly. Unfortunately, the Liberal government’s lack of political will has penalized the minority official language communities.
Our Liberal colleagues have on numerous occasions raised the argument that Bill S-3, to amend the Official Languages Act, applies only to federal institutions. Unfortunately I feel compelled to tell them that our reading of Bill S-3 differs from theirs.
Even though we are aware of the importance of this bill for minority francophone communities, we proposed a series of amendments at the committee stage. What we in the Bloc Québécois wanted was to preserve Bill S-3 in its current form for francophone communities in Canada, but to limit its territorial scope in such a way that the new obligations would not apply to Quebec.
This amendment to Bill S-3 appeared reasonable to us in the Bloc Québécois, since it would have allowed us to preserve the linguistic peace that Quebeckers have been able to achieve and thus to prevent the new obligations introduced by this bill from plunging Quebec into a new conflict over language. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case, to our great dismay, the Bloc Québécois’ amendments were deemed out of order by the clerk of the committee.
What were these concerns? We had some concerns about the judicial scope that might be established by the passage of Bill S-3. I would like to discuss this aspect briefly.
Among other things, section 43 of the current act states:
The Minister of Canadian Heritage shall take measures to ensure the advancement and the equality of status and use of English and French in Canadian society and ... may take measures to—
Hon. members will note that “Canadian society” as used here covers more than “federal institutions”.
Some examples of this are given in paragraph ( d ):
encourage and assist provincial governments to support the development of English and French linguistic minority communities generally and, in particular, to offer provincial and municipal services in both English and French and to provide opportunities for members of English or French linguistic minority communities to be educated in their own language;
One thinks immediately of examples where there may be some grounds for fearing interference in areas under the jurisdiction of Quebec and the provinces. We know that it does not always go down well with the government in power, but when there is reference to municipal services, these are clearly under Quebec jurisdiction. As well, education is also, as far as I know, still under Quebec jurisdiction.
Here is something a bit more serious. The federal government is required to get results as far as implementation of the various regulations under this legislation is concerned. It is supposed to encourage and cooperate with the business community, labour organizations, voluntary organizations and other organizations or institutions to provide services in both English and French and to foster the recognition and use of those languages.
Our fear is that some group, for instance, could take the federal government to court some day for not doing enough to make companies offer services in both languages, or that a group like this could take an employers association or a labour organization to court for not necessarily providing services in both languages. In my view, these questions are much more a private matter.
In general, for example, speaking of labour organizations, they already have translation naturally where services are provided in both languages.
There was a fear in Quebec, therefore, that the linguistic peace that has developed over the last few decades could be disturbed. We do not interpret that, of course, in the same way as the government.
We recognize, however, that it is essential to protect the francophone minorities outside Quebec. The federal government has often failed in this regard.
I can understand why the various associations to defend francophone rights and communities, whether in Ontario, Alberta or the other provinces, are demanding that Bill S-3 be passed and find it necessary. As I was saying earlier, the federal government has failed all too often to defend the rights of our fellow francophone citizens outside Quebec.
In addition, as I mentioned earlier, we still have some concerns about the implementation of Bill S-3, if it is passed. Rest assured, though, Mr. Speaker, that the Bloc Québécois and the people of Quebec hope that they are wrong. After we finish reading Bill S-3, we will try to make sure that we are wrong. We hope we are wrong. We hope that the passage of Bill S-3 will not upset the linguistic peace currently prevailing in Quebec and that it will apply solely to federal institutions.
I will conclude by adding that we understand very well how necessary Bill S-3 is for francophones outside Quebec. However, we think it was unfortunate that we could not get the requirement for a territorial restriction adopted in committee, which would have ensured that Bill S-3 did not apply to Quebec.