Statements & Speeches

Bill C-13 – Substantive Equality of Canada’s Official Languages – Amendment

June 15, 2023

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak in support of Senator Loffreda’s amendment. Thank you for introducing it, senator.

Colleagues, the words we use really do matter, and we should be especially mindful of the words that we include in our legislation. We can’t know now just what unintended consequences these three references to the Charter of the French Language may have, but we do know with greater certainty that there will be no harm done by removing them. After all, Bill C-13 makes no references to New Brunswick’s Official Languages Act nor to any other pieces of provincial or territorial legislation. It is my contention that the unique Charter of the French Language references are superfluous and potentially harmful. Therefore, colleagues, they should be removed.

Last week, I listened to Ezra Klein of The New York Times interview Jennifer Pahlka about the machinery of government. In 2013, Pahlka was the Deputy Chief Technology Officer in President Obama’s administration. In 2020, she helped California Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration fix its Unemployment Insurance program. She has great insights about, as Klein puts it, “why things go wrong [in government] even when the people involved are trying to make them go right.” She is focused on an area of policy that is too often ignored by policy-makers, which is implementation. Her insights are transferable to legislators in any country, including ours.

In the interview, Pahlka recounts the story of how a piece of technology that was included in a federal act merely as an example has, as translated through the hierarchy of government departments in the years since its adoption, become a requirement. That is because within bureaucracies, civil servants are most often held accountable based on whether or not they followed a process, and those processes are based on the words found in legislation.

Ms. Pahlka’s experiences working with American governments at the city, state and federal levels demonstrate that the words used in legislation are really important and consequential. As legislators, we must carefully consider whether the wording of legislation might have unintended consequences.

Last week, Eva Ludvig, the president of the Quebec Community Groups Network, expressed concern about how Bill C-13 might be interpreted by civil servants. She said:

Once something is in law, we don’t know how that will be interpreted, not only by the courts but also by civil servants who implement it.

However, when I asked about the words included in Bill C-13, Minister Petitpas Taylor disagreed. She said:

Yes, we made reference to the Charte de la langue française in our Bill, but it’s only for descriptive purposes, to say that that regime applies in Quebec.

Justice department lawyers, she told us, have assured her that there is minimum risk to the reference to the charter. Minimum risk — but risk, colleagues. Meanwhile, the committee heard from lawyers not currently employed by the government who suggested that the references do pose a significant risk.

Honourable senators, in the introduction to his interview with Jennifer Pahlka, Ezra Klein noted:

In our media . . . There’s a ton of focus on politics, on elections, on big policy questions and fights and theories. But then the bill passes and the nitty-gritty of how that policy actually shows up in people’s lives is left up to someone somewhere. And when it . . . makes people’s lives worse because of how it is implemented, there’s often no outcry because there’s no attention, and so there are no fixes.

Colleagues, Senator Loffreda’s amendment offers us the opportunity to reduce the risk written into this legislation now, when the spotlight is still on, so that we can avoid some of the unintended consequences that this legislation may have on people’s lives. I urge you to join me in supporting this amendment.