May 13, 2008

LIB

Keith Martin

Liberal

Hon. Keith Martin

Mr. Speaker, I know my colleague from Davenport has been an ardent worker on an array of social issues in his riding of Davenport, as well as across the country.

The cruel aspect of this bill and something that absolutely needs to be addressed in committee is what to do with the acute housing shortage that exists. If a family breaks up, the woman and the children need to go somewhere but the question is, where. Because of the toxic situation of homes on reserves, the lack of absolute numbers and the lack of quality, this poses an extraordinary problem, a problem that has not been addressed and which can be brought to light through this bill and, in so doing, would enable us, I hope, to get the best ideas possible to deal with the housing situation.

I know the minister raised a very good concern, one he and other aboriginal leaders across the country have, which is where the moneys that are going in are going.

Also, however, there is a lack of resources going into housing and the housing that is built is often not of the quality it should be. Some of the unscrupulous individuals who are building substandard housing in Canada should, frankly, be put through the court system and tried for fraud because they are ripping off aboriginal communities and taking money away from those people who can least afford it. They are leaving them with horrific situations and horrific financial conditions that they cannot get out from under.

The third thing is that where housing is being built, there should be a mandatory provision for capacity building within first nations communities. There should be an obligation on a contractor who is doing work in the community to build capacity within and among the aboriginal members of that community. I think that would go a long way to addressing some of the conditions we see and building up the long term capacity that is desperately needed in first nations communities.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act
Permalink
CPC

Rod Bruinooge

Conservative

Mr. Rod Bruinooge (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians, CPC)

Mr. Speaker, I did hear the member opposite make a number of interventions on aboriginal issues. He did speak to the bill, as well, but he raised a number of other issues which I agree do exist within first nations throughout our country.

However, it seemed that he was also latching on to an argument that has been posed by other members, that, in light of the fact there are these other issues that do exist, perhaps that should be used as an argument against supporting this bill. I would like to ask him whether he is using that flawed logic as well.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act
Permalink
LIB

Keith Martin

Liberal

Hon. Keith Martin

Mr. Speaker, as they say, carpe diem, seize the day.

This is an opportunity for us to use the bill, to seize the day, to deal with issues such as aboriginal housing, aboriginal health, access to education, governance structures, environmental conditions on and off reserve.

I say off reserve too, because we know a the large number of aboriginal people living off reserve are excluded. Frankly, they only receive about 3.5% of the moneys through the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. They are left bereft, but their needs are as great as those living on reserve.

This is an opportunity for the government to seize the day, take initiatives, tap into the finest ideas of our land and deal with these issues now.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act
Permalink
LIB

Derek Lee

Liberal

Mr. Derek Lee (Scarborough—Rouge River, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to follow the member, my colleague from Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca. He has used the phrase carpe diem. I want to use the phrase fidelitas in arduis, which is Latin for strength and determination in adversity.

My friend from Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca will be the only person in the House who knows what I am talking about. That is actually the motto of our high school. This past weekend he and I attended the 50th anniversary dinner for Neil McNeil High School in Toronto. This is not the subject of my intervention, but I wanted to mention that.

We are dealing with a statute that will be making a major change in the legislative foundation law that governs our first nations. While one can see the reason why the House and the government are dealing with the legislation, one also has to acknowledge that we would rather, as a Parliament, not have to legislate for our first nations. The best of all possible worlds would be that our first nations would themselves be in a position continually to deal with the personal law matters of their members on their reserves.

Throughout the wide breadth of the country, that is in fact the case. The tribal councils on all the reserves handle pretty well most of the daily needs, legally, of the reserve, albeit under the infrastructure of the century old Indian Act, which they complain, and which most members of Parliament will agree, is a bit too old and decrepit as a statute to govern the modern circumstance.

Approximately eight or nine years ago, I recall three or four separate major pieces of legislation were proposed to the House, which were very controversial. While some of the first nations across the country supported those bills, many did not. Many also regarded those statutory proposals as unwarranted interventions by Parliament in the first nations sphere of activity.

The problem Parliament and government has is that government has a constitutional obligation to manage or oversee what is called Indian affairs. It also has the contractual obligations of treaties and has ongoing societal development issues on the reserves involving our first nations. It is very difficult to do that under the auspices of a statute that is 100 years old.

It needs to be modernized. Therefore, if we all agreed on that, I suppose we would then move into the phase of developing modern laws for our first nations, ones that they have wanted. The difficulty is that there is not one first nation. Our first nations are as diverse as the rest of the world is. Each reserve, each tribe, each grouping has local traditions and languages. Therefore, it is very difficult for one Parliament, one legislature, to somehow embrace the whole scope of first nations activity and social development and come up with one set of laws that will govern.

I wanted to get that on the record because any member who speaks in here on these statutes I am sure will want to recognize the complexity of this and why we feel that government is compelled to do this at this point in history. We want to try to do it as best we can, but realize that at the end of the day, we expect and want our first nations to step up to the plate, wherever they can, and manage these issues.

The statute under consideration deals with matrimonial breakup, matrimonial property, domestic breakup, domestic property and also what happens in an estate at the time of death.

Up to now each first nation may have its own way of handling these things. For those who do not or do not do it effectively, there is the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. A lot of the people working there now are first nations peoples, but over history most of them were not. This resulted in the unsatisfactory circumstance of an administration attempting to administer laws and impose rules and regulate affairs on our reserves, when they might have been hundreds and thousands of miles apart and divided by culture and by language, which was very unsatisfactory.

The proposed statute realizes the significant need among our first nations for some clarity, to fill voids in the law. Most Canadians know they have access to laws that govern the breakup of a marriage or govern an estate at the time of a death. This is not the case with every first nation because provincial laws do not govern first nations. I suppose individuals on a reserve could voluntarily subscribe to those laws if they wished to enter into settlements, but those laws do not bind our first nations. The deal that the white man cut with our first nations centuries ago and in treaties was that our first nations people manage those things themselves.

Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is supposed to be there for all Canadians. We are now finding that our legal infrastructure, in some cases, is not accessible by first nations on reserves. If the statute passes, I would like to think our first nations peoples will accept it as a reasonable attempt by Parliament, as a whole, to offer them a legal infrastructure that will allow for some regularization and to fill some of their needs.

There needs to be some consistency across the country and if not across the country, at least within a province. What happens in a family breakup on a reserve can be roughly consistent with what happens in a breakup elsewhere. If two people cannot solve the problem themselves, they have to go to a decision-maker. Who is the decision-maker? What rules will he or she use to decide on this? There has to be clarity and consistency. We have to fill the void. We are a country that thrives and relies on rule of law. We cannot have voids in our law and places in the country where there is the application of discretion, unregulated discretion, arbitrary decisions, or unfair decisions.

The best to expect would be that each couple involved, whether in a breakup or a death, would settle it without a dispute. That happens a percentage of the time, but a lot of the time it does not. We realize that.

Then the next best thing we could have is it could be settled on a first nation reserve, using the rules the first nation itself normally uses, rules that the first nations members themselves have embraced, accepted and are used to applying. That is probably a pretty good arrangement and one that would be consistent with our history and our rule of law, which includes the Constitution-based first nations entitlements.

However, we still may have the problem of inconsistency. If the rules on a particular reserve say that the chief makes the decision, the chief may make a decision that is conspicuously out of keeping with decisions made on other reserves or, for that matter, elsewhere in the province in question.

The statute deals with the family home and then with other matrimonial property. The matrimonial home is dealt with one way and that is how it is handled in most of our provinces, if not all now. The matrimonial property, the money, the heirlooms, the hand-me-downs, are handled separately from the family home.

The proposed law itself begins by setting out some basic definitions. While to the layman, they will read as a very complex thing, what it actually tries to do is encourage first nations to adopt their own rules and laws. If first nations do that, this proposed statute will enable them and assist them to do it. In so doing, it imposes a regime of verification, which is really Parliament's attempt to ensure that when the first nations develop these codification of laws governing these issues, that they are in the ballpark and compliant with our charter and with prevailing norms in terms of matrimonial settlements.

We all realize there has to be some flexibility. As much as in theory, a first nations chief might have the ability to pick between two sometime common law spouses. At the end of the day, it will not be fair if those decisions are made and are way out of keeping with prevailing legal norms. All citizens of Canada, including members of first nations, are entitled to the benefits of the charter, which includes rule of law, some certainly and fairness as to how their lives are sorted out when there is a dispute like this.

Clause 7 of the statute sets out a mechanism that allows for the first nations to write some of their own laws and rules. It is noteworthy that in so doing, Parliament in this statute so far, and I have not sensed a will to change it, has decided that the delegation of that ability to make rules, which from a Canadian statutory point, is a delegation to the first nation. However, under first nations perspective, they might not see it as a delegation at all. First nations might say, no, that it is their right to make these laws, that we cannot delegate anything to them that they do not already have the right to do as first nations because the white man and the Queen said that they could do it that way 100 or 150 years ago, or whenever it was.

In the statutes it is described as a kind of a delegation of law making authority, but it also says that this delegation of law making authority is not a statutory instrument. It is not a statutory instrument that would fall under the normal delegation of rule making powers that we often use around here.

If Parliament delegates the authority to a minister to make regulations, those regulations are scrutinized by Parliament and our courts of law. In this statute, when we delegate our way to the first nations, those are not statutory instruments and they will not be scrutinized or treated as statutory instruments.

My own tendency, as a legislator, is to say no, we better not delegate anything without the ability to scrutinize and check it. At the end of the day, out of respect for our first nations, we do this. We say they have the rule making authority and we are not going to oversee and scrutinize it like we do all of our other legislation. We respect their right and need to make those rules and laws. We will help them do it with the verification process, but we are not going to interpose and tell them how to do everything and scrutinize the way we do our other laws.

I want to reference an existing problem included in this. Most members will not be aware that there have been two reports presented to this House from the Standing Joint Committee for Scrutiny of Regulations that reported to the House serious problems with the Indian estates regulations.

As l pointed out, this bill covers the breakdown of a marriage in death, but what happens to the property? Prior to this, under the Indian Act, the government had already encountered problems in dealing with matrimonial property and general property on the death of a first nations member. In most cases, it was pretty clear and members of the first nation knew exactly what was to happen when the individual passed away. But in the modern world with all the changes going on things began to go a bit askew.

I will give an example where a male would get married and maybe the marriage would last for a couple of years and then he would take a common-law wife after that. Perhaps he and the common-law spouse would live together for 20 years and the old marriage was way in the past, but still in existence. Let us say the individual were to pass away. Who, in law, would the spouse be who would be entitled to take the property of the diseased male? And it can work the other way too. But it was very unclear, if the local chief or tribal council did not have that organized, and it was really complicated as to who was going to get the property.

Under the Indian Act, where there was some power to do this, the government decided to adopt regulations. The regulations permitted the minister to make the decision about which spouse and which set of kids inherited the property of the deceased first nations member. Wherever there was a big problem, it seemed to work except for one thing. The government actually never had the power in law to make those regulations.

So, those regulations have been impugned and while we have not struck them down, there are many decisions of ministers deciding to entitle group A and not group B, when group B may have actually had the legal entitlement. There are unresolved cases out there and I give credit to the aboriginal community and the people involved in those matters for acceding to the purported use of power by the Indian Act administration.

This act, unfortunately, does not resolve those regulations. We asked the government to include in this bill a provision that would settle and say that all those old decisions are legal and binding. The government did not take that advice. That provision is not included in here, so there are still some issues outstanding in theory.

Having put that on the record, I will stop there.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act
Permalink
CPC

Laurie Hawn

Conservative

Mr. Laurie Hawn (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence, CPC)

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. There have been consultations and I think you would find, if you were to seek it, unanimous consent for the following motion. I move:

That, notwithstanding any Standing Order or usual practices of the House, during the debate tonight on a motion to concur in the Seventh Report of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, no quorum calls, dilatory motions or requests for unanimous consent shall be received by the Chair, and at the end of the debate, the motion be deemed adopted on division.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Business of the House
Permalink
CPC

Andrew Scheer

Conservative

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Andrew Scheer)

Is it agreed?

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Business of the House
Permalink
?

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Business of the House
Permalink
CPC

Andrew Scheer

Conservative

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Andrew Scheer)

(Motion agreed to)

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Business of the House
Permalink

The House resumed consideration of the motion that Bill C-47, An Act respecting family homes situated on First Nation reserves and matrimonial interests or rights in or to structures and lands situated on those reserves, be read the second time and referred to a committee.


LIB

Roy Cullen

Liberal

Hon. Roy Cullen (Etobicoke North, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, I listened very intently to the remarks of my colleague from Scarborough—Rouge River. I can imagine that there are not that many aboriginal or first nations people in his riding as there are not in my riding either of Etobicoke North. I was quite impressed with his knowledge of the landscape of this particular bill.

I have been following the debate on the bill and I think it is a very important piece of legislation. I am surprised that a bill dealing with matrimonial interests and rights does not seem to have the support of aboriginal women in Canada nor does it seem to have the support of the Assembly of First Nations. I find that rather shocking and perhaps if the bill goes to committee there will be ways to improve and enhance the bill.

However, I am surprised that the Conservative government would table a bill that does not seem to even remotely have the support of some of the key stakeholders that would be involved.

I know that my colleague from Scarborough—Rouge River is a very accomplished lawyer. I wonder if he could expand on some of the jurisdictional issues that he touched on and that I have become aware of in following this bill and the debate that is going on.

It is my understanding that the Supreme Court in 1986 ruled that when a conjugal relationship breaks down on reserve, the courts cannot apply provincial and territorial family law because reserve lands fall under federal jurisdiction. So, although on the face of it that seems fairly straightforward, I wonder if the member for Scarborough—Rouge River would speak about some of the constitutionalities of those issues.

These provisions, which I gather if this legislation would come into force, would be an interim measure and would be a bridging measure that would suffice until the various first nations communities brought in their own laws. Indeed, we have been moving toward self-governance among the aboriginal people of Canada.

Currently, how are these problems resolved in the absence of this legislative framework and how does he see it moving in transition from this legislation to a world where there is more self-governance within the aboriginal communities?

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act
Permalink
LIB

Derek Lee

Liberal

Mr. Derek Lee

Mr. Speaker, my feeling is that while we might look upon this proposed statute as a bridge, allowing time for aboriginal communities or first nations communities to actually enact the rules they want in their various communities, it is probably a fact that they will not all get around to it over time. In the absence of really clear, enforceable rules among the first nations, we have problems of lack of clarity and inconsistency, and we have charter problems.

I like what the bill offers in terms of saying to first nations, “Take this and run with it and we will help you do it”. However, for those who never get around to it, the provisions in the bill will govern. I can understand why aboriginal women's groups might be cautious about this. In a sense I am guessing because I have not met with any in the last little while.

However, if there is an aboriginal female on reserve and she looks at the tribal council and she looks at all the guys running the show, she might not feel that comfortable having these guys make up a bunch of rules. A lot of the women might prefer the legislative template and infrastructure that exists in the provinces.

However, women do not have access to those. Also, provincial legislation and federal legislation is not in any way nuanced to deal with the circumstances of the first nations women. They have their own history and culture.

This law has been developed, using current existing legislative norms and matrimonial law norms from across the country. Those women may say that it is great for us in urban Canada, but they have their own thing. This bill does not hit the nail on the head and they need more time, or something. I have respect for that.

On the constitutional side, we are making the best of a very complex basket weave situation here where the provinces just do not, because of our constitutional history, have any jurisdiction involving these matters on reserves. It might be a lot simpler if they did, but if that were to be the case, we would have to have the first nations on the reserve fully plugged into an accountable legislature, and electing people to the legislature. We just have not developed that yet.

I am not sure what the first nations want in that regard, but I sure do not want to propose something that they do not want. What they have now is what they have, and I would like to have members of Parliament work with them and help them develop what they want. However, in the interim, we have this one size fits all with an opt out for first nations who want to customize their own lives in this regard.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act
Permalink
NDP

Joe Comartin

New Democratic Party

Mr. Joe Comartin (Windsor—Tecumseh, NDP)

Mr. Speaker, one of the major criticisms that the first nations have, and the women's groups in particular, has been that there is no provision in the legislation for funding for the transition that will be required. I wonder if my colleague could comment on that and whether his party would be prepared to oppose the bill until we see that kind of relationship established.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act
Permalink
LIB

Derek Lee

Liberal

Mr. Derek Lee

Mr. Speaker, that is really a cogent question. I cannot speak for my party, but most of us could endorse a concept of federal assistance with funding to assist the first nations to develop.

I do not think we would put an actual amount in the bill, and if we do not put an actual amount in the bill, then we would have the question of how much and then it is sort of left with the government. I do not think I would want to oppose a provision in the bill that put on the government a statutory obligation in some fashion, either firm or flexible or something in between, to assist financially in the development of the transition as requested by the first nations women.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act
Permalink
LIB

Larry Bagnell

Liberal

Hon. Larry Bagnell (Yukon, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, I think the next speaker on the list might be interested in the answer to this too. I would like to ask the member if he thinks the government supports this bill. As of this afternoon, we have had a whole day of debate and the government has not had a member speak on the bill. The minister of course supports it as it is his bill. He introduced it.

However, every problem has raised a number of issues. The normal procedure would be that the government would say, “Yes, but here is the answer to those issues, and yes, we still support the bill”. We have no indication of that at this moment. I would like the member to comment on the policy making process.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act
Permalink
LIB

Derek Lee

Liberal

Mr. Derek Lee

Mr. Speaker, the member has spotted what might be interpreted as an apparent lack of interest on the part of the government in passing the bill, but there was a time when the member and I sat on that side of the House, on the government side, and there are occasions when a government believes the bill is perfect in every way and does not believe it is necessary to put up members to speak and delay the passage of the bill.

The opposition often takes a slightly different perspective on it and, for all kinds of reasons, wants to make constructive comment on the bill. I have tried to do that here today. I know the next speaker will do the same.

I should point out that earlier today we actually did get another bill passed in this same first nations envelope, so the government is probably feeling fairly good about that.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act
Permalink
CPC

Andrew Scheer

Conservative

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Andrew Scheer)

It being 5:30 p.m., the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business as listed on today's order paper.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act
Permalink

The House resumed from February 6 consideration of the motion that Bill C-482, an act to amend the Official Languages Act (Charter of the French Language) and to make consequential amendments to other acts, be read the second time and referred to a committee.


CPC

Daniel Petit

Conservative

Mr. Daniel Petit (Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, CPC)

Mr. Speaker, several of our government members have already had a chance to voice their opposition to Bill C-482. The only possible conclusion is that this is a bill intended to solve a non-existent problem. The 2006 census shows that French is doing well as the language of work in Quebec.

The census has been collecting data on the language of work since 2001, and the 2006 census shows that 99.2% of Quebec francophones use French most often or regularly at work. This figure speaks for itself. It is very hard, therefore, to claim that English poses a serious threat in Quebec and the federal government is responsible. The facts show that this is simply not the case.

Some 94.3% of all Quebec workers use French, with varying frequency. In addition, between 2001 and 2006, the percentage of immigrants who said they use French most often at work, either alone or together with another language, increased from 63% to 65%. There was also an increase in the proportion of anglophones who use French at work most often or regularly. I also want to remind the House that 69% of Quebec anglophones are bilingual now, in comparison with 63% just ten years ago. Under the circumstances, we really do not see the point of Bill C-482.

If we look at the results of the 2006 census on mother tongue and the language spoken at home, it becomes apparent that certain people have a tendency to draw hasty conclusions about major trends in our society, which in themselves do not pose a threat to the French language. It is true that many immigrants speak their language of origin in the home in order to pass it on to their children. Nevertheless, most of these people work in French and frequently use it in public. In addition, their children attend French-language schools and will eventually find it easy to migrate to this language.

Some concerns were raised last December and January about data on how easy it is for unilingual English staff to get hired in Quebec businesses. Everyone who is familiar with the statistics knows that this was not a serious study and it was undertaken mostly just to stir up trouble without really improving our understanding of the linguistic situation.

We also need to know that the situation in Montreal is not evolving in a vacuum. Every day some 270,000 people from the northern and southern suburbs of Montreal, most of them francophones, cross the bridges to go and work on the island. Nine out of ten of them use French at work: 73% most often and another 16% regularly. Under the circumstances, there is no reason to fear the worst, especially as the data show that the use of French in Montreal has remained stable.

In Canada as a whole, because of immigration, we see the same linguistic diversification and reduction in the proportion of people with English as a mother tongue. Given the importance of English in the world, it is hardly surprising that this is a consequence of our very necessary immigration.

The second good reason to oppose this bill is just as important, since is has to do with a truly Canadian value: the equality of status of English and French, and the commitment of the federal government to enhance the vitality of English and French linguistic minority communities in Canada. Our government cannot emphasize enough the principle that both official languages are equal.

With this bill, the Bloc is implying that the federal government is a threat to the French fact in Canada, when nothing could be further from the truth. Yet again, the Bloc proposes a backward-looking vision, where the knowledge of one language is necessarily a threat to another.

Through its official language policies, the government encourages not only francophone minorities, but also all Canadians, to learn French. That is why we now have a record number of Canadians who are able to speak both official languages.

The government supports the French fact throughout Canada and particularly supports francophone minority communities. There are more than one million francophones in our own country. This opens the door to the international Francophonie.

This year, the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City, some important international Francophonie events will be held. Quebec City will host the next Sommet de la Francophonie from October 17 to 19, 2008. It is no coincidence that francophone heads of state and government are turning to Canada to hold their discussions. Canada is a beacon of support for the dissemination and promotion of the French language.

Canada is proud to be a partner in the celebrations, which highlight an important chapter of our history. We want the 400th anniversary of Quebec City to be a celebration all Canadians will remember. It is a great opportunity to celebrate the event, the francophone presence in the Americas, and the vitality of the French fact.

The two official languages of Canada are also languages with high standing internationally, let us not forget. French, which is one of the ten most commonly spoken languages in the world, ranks second for the number of countries where it is spoken, and in influence. Like English, French can be found on every continent, and it has official language status in 29 nations.

The Prime Minister has often said it, and I quote him without hesitation: we share a long-term vision of a Canada where linguistic duality is an asset both for individuals and for institutions across Canada.

The future depends on learning the second language, and even other languages, in a global economy and a spirit of openness to the world. Languages are the key that enables us to understand and appreciate other cultures.

The Canadian language framework that has been developed in recent decades originates in and is based on the principles and provisions found in our Constitution. Canadians today still say that these values are widely shared, and we will make sure that future generations have an opportunity to enjoy the benefits of bilingualism, one of Canada’s fundamental characteristics.

Our language industries are helping to position Canada on the international stage and they will continue to thrive in the years to come thanks to the cutting-edge research that is being done and will continue to energize this entire sector of the economy and thereby Canada as a whole. I would like to take this opportunity to note that Canada continues to be a world leader when it comes to translation and other activities of that nature. We are also a model for many countries in the management of linguistic duality.

In conclusion, we are determined to continue working to help the official language communities flourish, in a spirit of open federalism and in a way that respects the jurisdictions of the provinces and territories. Our approach to developing a new strategy is therefore aided by our continuing dialogue with the provinces and territories, and in particular by the work done by the Ministerial Conference on the Canadian Francophonie.

The provincial and territorial governments are the ones that can take direct action on issues of crucial importance to the vitality of official languages communities throughout Canada, and our government looks forward to working with them to promote Canada’s linguistic duality.

In recent years, the Government of Canada has developed a number of policies on official languages, and our government is working actively on the next phase of the action plan, in order to take into account social and demographic changes in Canada. We want to offer Canadians the support that is best suited to their needs. We want to help them preserve their linguistic and cultural heritage and reap the full benefits of that heritage and pass it on to future generations.

Our government will continue to build on existing accomplishments so that Canadians can benefit from all the advantages our country has to offer because of the unique cultural wealth our two official languages represent in North America.

Topic:   Private Members’ Business
Subtopic:   Official Languages Act
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LIB

Jean-Claude D'Amours

Liberal

Mr. Jean-Claude D'Amours (Madawaska—Restigouche, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise here in the House today to speak to Bill C-482, An Act to amend the Official Languages Act (Charter of the French Language) and to make consequential amendments to other Acts.

When we look at the whole issue of the Official Languages Act, there is one thing we must always keep in our sights, one very important thing. That is ensuring that the legislation will improve the conditions of official language minority communities, for both francophones outside Quebec and anglophones in Quebec.

In order to be able to move forward and not backward we must also ensure that the act can be properly defended. If we want to be in a position to properly defend it we must make sure that, when people propose amendments to certain acts, those proposals do not run counter to what many generations have been trying to do over the years to improve the conditions of official language minority communities.

Clearly, anyone who tries to improve the conditions of official language minority communities must be an ardent defender. The Liberal Party of Canada has always been an ardent defender of official languages in this country. We have taken steps to advance many causes and have ensured that programs are in place to enable communities to defend their rights before the courts.

However, when we look at a bill like Bill C-482, we might ask ourselves some serious questions. Serious questions might come to mind because, indeed, as though by chance, this bill is trying to separate one part of the official languages issue in this country and shift it. In the end, it conveniently addresses one part of the issue without considering the overall situation. And the overall situation is very important.

It is not possible to try to make amendments to an act or take over an act—acts under federal jurisdiction—that exists to ensure respect for communities, that exist to ensure that communities, even those in a minority situation in any given region, province or territory, do not see any decreases in their services, their standard of living or their rights.

Respecting their rights also includes the whole issue of employment and language of work. Certainly, if at some point we try to generalize and say that everything is going to go in one direction, people are going to suffer. People are going to suffer because their rights will not be respected. That is one of the reasons why we have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to ensure that communities, including language communities, are respected.

But this is a constitutional issue as well. The Official Languages Act guarantees Canadians the right to be served in the language of their choice, be it French or English. Some people want services in both languages, because many communities across the country are bilingual. However, the government has to be able to provide those services.

Imagine for a moment telling the people who work in institutions and undertakings governed by the Canada Labour Code, “Now, you no longer have the right to serve people or work in your own language.” It is a matter of respect.

This does not necessarily mean that the language of work has to be English only or French only. There has to be a balance. In my riding, for example, there are francophones, mainly in the Madawaska area, and there are more anglophones in the Restigouche area. We cannot say that the francophones would not have the right to work in French and would have to work in English only, because it is the majority language in New Brunswick. The reverse is also true. Imagine if it were to happen one day. In one case, the rights of the francophones would be trampled, while in the other, the rights of the anglophones would be violated.

When it comes to official languages, we must always make sure we do not come up with just any bill to promote one part of the official languages issue for our cause. The issue here is not just a separatist cause versus a federalist cause. People all across the country have the right to be served in their own language, but they are also entitled to some respect when it comes to language of work.

As I mentioned earlier, we must never forget that there are other communities in the country, notably francophone communities outside Quebec. These people would like to be able to work in their language, but they are conscious of the fact that they are not necessarily in the majority and that there are also anglophones who work in their language.

We cannot simply tell a minority community that some of their rights will be taken away because the language of work must be limited to a single language. Nor can we say that their rights will be set aside because they are not important. We have to be careful. Often when we talk about linguistic issues it leads to debates because it directly affects individuals. People most often express their gut reaction because they remember the struggle they went through to defend their rights.

It is hard to comprehend that a Bloc Québécois member has introduced such a bill. Bloc members must also be aware that Canada has two official languages. The problem does not crop up province by province. If things were that easy, there would not be any problems in the world. At some point, we have to be able to recognize that each one of us has the right to our own little space and the right to more forward in consideration of our linguistic situation.

It is a bit difficult to understand where people want to go with this bill. We need to have a broad overview and not just look at elements here and there. If we only look at the elements in isolation, we would never be able to move society forward. That would certainly benefit some. However, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms exists to protect minorities.

If there were no injustices, there would be no laws. If justice prevailed across the country and there were no problems, we would not need any laws. However, it is because there are injustices, and rights are not being respected, that we have to bring in legislation to govern the country fairly and appropriately, to ensure respect for official language communities within the country and within each province.

Imagine if each province made its own decisions on this. Some provinces might be interested in doing so. Imagine though how difficult it would be to have the official languages respected. People would end up having to choose which province to live in to receive certain services or to have the right to work in their language. It is somewhat illogical to think that way. That is not what we want. We want people to stay in the province of their choice and work in their language. That does not mean it has to be English only or French only. It is a matter of basic respect.

At the very beginning of my speech, I was saying that we have to make progress on the entire issue of the Official Languages Act. I will give an example that is rather easy to understand. Recently, Ms. Paulin from New Brunswick stood up for her rights and won, and now the RCMP has to provide services in French in New Brunswick. This is a reality: the law will enhance the quality of life of citizens who will be respectfully served in their official language.

The same is true for language of work. It is important to observe reality and get statistics. How many people who speak a certain language work in the public service or in places governed by the Canada Labour Code? Sometimes, these percentages are quite low.

Often, people adapt. Minority communities adapt far more than others to the language of the majority. At the very least, an anglophone should not be required to speak French and vice versa. It is always the same issue: we do not want the inverse to happen. We do not to put others through something we would not want to experience ourselves.

My presentation is drawing to a close. In my opinion, we must remember this: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If we want our rights to be respected then we have to give everyone rights.

Topic:   Private Members’ Business
Subtopic:   Official Languages Act
Permalink
NDP

Denise Savoie

New Democratic Party

Ms. Denise Savoie (Victoria, NDP)

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today to Bill C-482, concerning the Charter of the French Language.

This bill proposes a number of changes with the goal of increasing the use of French as the language of work. It also proposes an amendment to the Canada Labour Code to protect the language rights of francophone workers in the federal sector governed by the Canada Labour Code.

My NDP colleagues and I believe that this bill deserves to be examined in committee. Our primary interest is to protect French where there is the largest group of francophones—in Quebec—and then to focus on the need to increase and promote the use of French at work. Of course, that does not mean that we want to reduce the presence and influence of French elsewhere in Canada. On the contrary, everyone wins when we strengthen Canada's uniqueness and truly try to respect the spirit of bilingualism.

We are all aware that there are still numerous obstacles preventing many Canadians and Quebeckers from truly learning French. Several reports suggest that the use of French is declining even in Quebec. Is this true? We do not know. Further study and discussion are required. A few months ago, the writer Roch Carrier spoke about the high rate of illiteracy in Quebec. That is disturbing. This bill should be examined in light of that kind of problem.

After listening to the comments of my Liberal colleague, who seems to simplify the problem, I believe that we should stop fueling the separatist cause. In a recent interview, the Commissioner of Official Languages expressed his disappointment with the Conservative government's policies pertaining to official languages. I am thinking of the appointment of judges and others, the abolition of the court challenges program— which truly helped francophones exercise their rights outside of Quebec—or the lowering of standards for French in the public service and the military. All these actions taken by the Conservative government undermine this type of educational programs. Yet, the Prime Minister himself is an example of the success of these programs. So why refuse to study a bill that seeks to protect the right to use French as the language of work?

Affirming the language rights of francophones does not at all diminish the rights of anglophones. On the contrary, these actions provide all Canadians with choice and, in this way, ensure the continued growth and vitality of the French language throughout the country.

We know that this is an important issue for Canadians living outside Quebec as well. For example, in my riding, French immersion programs are in high demand and are probably the most popular education program in British Columbia. That is definitely the case in my riding.

On a personal note, my own experiences growing up in Manitoba showed me the importance of promoting French there.

French was banned from the education system for an entire century. I even remember being a little girl, taught by nuns, and when the inspector came into the classroom, we had to put away our French textbooks and hide them. Imagine such a situation. It really created a feeling of being attacked. We had the impression that we did not have the right to speak French.

And if we believe that the French fact enriches Canada as a whole, it must be given the support it needs to fully develop.

However, it remains to be seen if this bill could do that, if it could really achieve those goals, given that we are talking about areas of federal jurisdiction. That is one of the main reasons why we are suggesting further deliberations on this bill in committee.

In addition, the issue of how the provisions concerning federal institutions and companies will be imposed still has yet to be resolved. My hon. colleague from Acadie—Bathurst already raised this question in his comments. What impact will this bill have on companies such as Air Canada, VIA Rail and many others?

The business administration of these federal institutions, and particularly the promotion of French in those settings, will be a focal point of the committee deliberations, if the bill is in fact referred. That is another reason this debate is necessary. It would be one way of assessing the health of French in those federal institutions.

I am convinced that if we keep an open mind, both in the House and in committee, we will successfully make decisions that will allow us to achieve the following goals: first, to allow Quebeckers to express themselves fully at work in their mother tongue and, second, to preserve and encourage the use of this rich, dynamic language, which we are fortunate to be able to use anywhere in Canada.

Topic:   Private Members’ Business
Subtopic:   Official Languages Act
Permalink

May 13, 2008