Statements & Speeches

Motion 410 to Reaffirm the Importance of Both Official Languages as the Foundation of Our Federation

November 29, 2018

Hon. Judith G. Seidman: Honourable senators, I rise today in support of my colleague Senator Miville-Dechêne’s motion to reaffirm our commitment to the importance of Canada’s two official languages as a foundation of our federation.

A third generation Montrealer and member of Quebec’s English-speaking minority language community, this is an issue I care deeply about.

Shaped by the facts of Canada’s rich history and development, bilingualism has always been at the core of our nation’s identity. It began with Jacques Cartier in the early 1500s, who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to discover the beautiful Gulf of St. Lawrence and the shores of the St. Lawrence River. He set his eyes upon present day Quebec City and Montreal and proudly declared it as his home. It continued with Samuel de Champlain in the early 1600s, the father of New France, who established the first French settlement in Canadian territory.

From early on, in the late 15th century, French and British voyageurs explored, fought for and created present-day Canada. And over these centuries elements of Indigenous, French and English culture and language have combined to shape our rich Canadian identity. Today, we recognize and honour their legacy in establishing Canada, a nation we deeply cherish.

Honourable senators, linguistic duality is the thread that binds Canada and its genesis can be traced back more than 150 years. Our Fathers of Confederation recognized the importance of including measures in the Constitution Act that would protect the right of English and French speakers to communicate in the language of their choice. It is because of their efforts the Constitution Act of 1867 includes section 133, which guarantees legislative bilingualism; that is, establishing the right to use English and French in federal Parliament, the legislature of Quebec, the courts in the province of Quebec and the federal courts.

Section 133 remains in effect today.

In 1969, history was made again when the federal government enacted the Official Languages Act, designed to be the cornerstone of institutional bilingualism. This act solidified the equal status of Canada’s two languages, English and French. It inspired English and French-speaking communities across Canada not only to coexist but to complement one another, to foster mutual understanding.

The official languages minority communities, both English and French, have played such a positive role in Canada, now a country strengthened by our linguistic and cultural duality.

To quote our new Commissioner of Official Languages, Raymond Théberge:

To maintain linguistic duality in Canada, we need two key ingredients: respect and recognition. And that means equality of both official languages. We must allow the use and visibility of both languages. Doing so is part of our Canadian identity and international reputation.

I speak today as a proud member of the English-speaking minority language community in Quebec, a minority community within a francophone population that itself is a minority in North America. Our experience is unique and it comes with its own set of challenges, its own special context.

However, it is important to understand while there may be both similarities and differences in how our two official language minorities may experience their realities and challenges, their special needs must be taken into account. Ultimately, both strive for the vitality of their communities. It is only when we understand this that we can find real solutions to the needs of linguistic minority communities.

I would be omitting something important just now if I do not, here, refer to the work we did as members of the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages in 2010.

That report was titled The Vitality of Quebec’s English-speaking Communities: From Myth to Reality. Witness testimony taught us about the realities my own community was experiencing. It gave us a new understanding of the challenges of living as an English-speaking minority community in Quebec. Our communities focus not on language preservation and transference but on economic, social and political inclusion within our majority.

Honourable senators, although the challenges experienced by the English-speaking and French-speaking minorities in Canada may sometimes differ, I strongly believe their battles must be fought together. As senators, we must recognize the importance of our leadership in upholding the Official Languages Act, in preserving the duality of French and English, the two languages upon which our nation was built.

What’s more, it is our particular role as senators to speak for minorities, to give voice to those who are often not heard. In my inquiry on the Senate’s role in the protection of regional and minority representation introduced in May 2016, I spoke of how our founding fathers recognized the fundamental need to accommodate for differences within the federation.

Sir John A. Macdonald was clear the Senate was not meant to be a “house of the provinces” but rather “one house of the federal parliament occupied by members who contribute a perspective that is, at once, regional and national.”

Thus, it is perfectly appropriate for us, as senators, to remind the Government of Canada of its responsibility to defend and promote language rights, and to urge the Government of Canada to take all necessary measures within its jurisdiction to ensure the vitality and development of official language communities.

The particular formation of Canada has helped shape our nation into an inclusive and multicultural place where Canadians are united, whichever official language they may speak.