Mr. Speaker, it is of course with great pleasure that I rise today to address Bill S-3, an act to amend the Official Languages Act (promotion of English and French).
I would like to begin by referring to the promoter of this bill, former senator Jean-Robert Gauthier. I want to stress the work and dedication of former senator Jean-Robert Gauthier in the defence of francophone minorities and the promotion of their rights.
I also wish to sincerely thank my fellow Bloc Québécois members who addressed this legislation during the first hour of debate at second reading. I am referring, among others, to the hon. member for Repentigny and the hon. member for Verchères—Les Patriotes, who are both staunch defenders of the rights of francophone minorities.
This bill, which amends the Official Languages Act, was the fourth one tabled in the Senate by senator Jean-Robert Gauthier. He first introduced Bill S-32 during the first session of the 37th Parliament, then Bill S-11 during the second session and, finally, Bill S-4 during the third session. These three bills, which died on the order paper, were, for all intents and purposes, identical to Bill S-3.
The bill that is now before us primarily seeks to enhance the enforceability of the federal government's obligations under Part VII of the Official Languages Act. We are referring here to the federal government's commitment to enhance the vitality of the English and French linguistic communities in Canada, to support and assist their development, and to foster the full recognition and use of both English and French in Canadian society. We are talking about section 41, which would be amended to make it enforceable and thus provide guidance for its interpretation by the courts.
Bill S-3 also proposes to amend section 43 to read as follows:
The Minister of Canadian Heritage shall take appropriate measures to advance the equality of status and use of English and French in Canadian society.
Finally, it is proposed that part VII be added to subsection 77(1) of the Official Languages Act. This amendment to section 77 would allow citizens to file complaints before the courts to ensure that the obligations included in Part VII are met.
In summary, the purpose of this bill is to clarify the responsibility of federal institutions to implement Part VII of the act and to adopt regulations for the enforcement process of the requirements provided in section 41 of the act. Furthermore, it requires that the federal government take measures to advance the equality of status and use of English and French in Canadian society. Finally, it provides for a court remedy to challenge a violation of Part VII of the Official Languages Act.
As we have said already, the Bloc Québécois cannot support this bill in its current form. We believe Bill S-3 is incomplete and contains elements that do not reflect the linguistic reality of Quebec and Canada in confirming the implementation of identical measures in Quebec and in Canada. This situation would deny the distinct character of Quebec.
Indeed, under section 43 of the Official Languages Act, as amended by Bill S-3, the government shall advance “the equality of status and use of English and French in Canadian society”. However, in Quebec, French is the very foundation of Quebec's identity in North America. Quebec is the only place on the continent where French can become the common language and the language of convergence and exchange of its citizens. On a continent where the overwhelming majority of people speak English, promoting the equality of use of English and French in Quebec would weaken the status of French in Quebec and in North America.
Another thing that must be kept in mind in this debate is that the Official Languages Act does not recognize the asymmetry of needs. Both minority linguistic communities in this country do not benefit from the same services. It is clear that the needs of the minority French communities are much greater than those of English speaking people in Quebec. The situation of French speaking people outside Quebec remains very alarming and uncertain in some regions.
Our political party has several times mentioned the notion that the Official Languages Act should recognize the asymmetry of needs. Unfortunately, Bill S-3 still does not reflect the importance of recognizing that asymmetry.
By the way, I should point out that the Bloc Québécois is not alone in proposing this approach. Indeed, the current environment minister and the Commissioner of Official Languages have said in the past that an asymmetrical approach should be taken to the official languages file.
Another major shortcoming of this bill is that section 43, as amended, could prompt the federal government to meddle in areas that are exclusively under the jurisdiction of Quebec. We all know how much the federal government, especially when it is led by the Liberal Party, has increased, year after year, its intrusions in jurisdictions exclusive to Quebec. Members will understand that the Bloc Québécois cannot support that aspect of Bill S-3.
The amendment to section 77 of the Official Languages Act, which gives citizens the power to turn to the courts to enforce the obligations listed in Part VII, also has many shortcomings. How can one explain the absence of precise criteria regarding results achieved by the federal government in the promotion of English and French? We believe that the absence of clarity could not only foster excessive recourse to the courts, but also encourage the central government to take measures in violation of the Charter of the French Language.
I would like to conclude my remarks by making two important points. Throughout this debate, it is obvious that the federal government, in and of itself, could feel obligated by Part VII of the Official Languages Act to ensure the development of minority French-speaking communities.
The problem, according to us, is not legislative, but political, one of attitude and conviction. Undoubtedly, there is a lack of leadership in the federal government with respect to official languages and this has been the case since the very beginning of the Official Languages Act. It is that lack of political will on the part of the federal government which has penalized francophone minority communities.
When a government cannot manage to enforce a piece of legislation that has been in effect for 35 years, and this legislation is disregarded with impunity in its own jurisdictions, departments, and public service, it is because this government does not have the political courage to enforce it.
Today, it is being suggested that making Part VII of the act enforceable could settle all the problems. Come on. As I just said, for 35 years, the federal government has not had the will to enforce the sections of the act that are already enforceable. Why would its attitude change overnight?
Our party is aware of the special difficulties French-speaking minorities have. Unfortunately, the federal government chose not to recognize their special situation. I want to emphasize that our position on Bill S-3 does not take anything away from our commitments to French-speaking and Acadian minorities in Canada. In fact, the opposite is true. Since 1994, when it made a formal commitment not to let down French-speaking Canadians and Acadians, the Bloc Québécois has been the political party in the federal Parliament which has most often raised issues that are important for French-speaking minorities.
On numerous occasions, we have pressured the federal government to raise the level of funding for French-speaking organizations. For example, we asked the Minister of Canadian Heritage to increase the funding for the Canada-communities agreements to $42 million annually to meet the request of the FCFA. Unfortunately, the government has still not responded favourably.
We also raised other issues such as the number of French-speaking Canadians at senior levels in the public service, the use of French at work, the requirement for Air Canada to provide service in French outside Quebec, and so on.
The Bloc Québécois has worked on all fronts and it will continue to do so.