June 15, 2023
Honourable senators, I rise today to speak at third reading of Bill C-13, An Act to amend the Official Languages Act, to enact the Use of French in Federally Regulated Private Businesses Act and to make related amendments to other Acts.
Well, here we are at third reading. The Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages heard five and a half hours of testimony on this version of the bill, which includes over 50 amendments passed in the other place. Clause-by-clause consideration at the Official Languages Committee took place immediately following what was perhaps the most complex testimony of all, that of the legal and constitutional experts.
The committee was left with no time to reflect on this testimony or draft potential amendments as a result of what we heard before clause-by-clause consideration. The committee consideration process was, to say the least, swift.
The committee heard from Raymond Théberge, the Commissioner of Official Languages. I asked him whether he still shares similar concerns to those of the Quebec English‑speaking community that the addition of asymmetrical components to the act will undermine the equal status of English and French in law and about the references to Quebec’s Charte de la langue française, and he told the committee:
There’s a lot of speculation in terms of what could happen in the future. I really can’t speculate. There will be some constitutional experts who will provide input on that. I’ll leave it up to them. It is new, I agree. We have other jurisdictions that are referenced, not necessarily in this way.
By that, he meant in the way of the Charte de la langue française.
We do have New Brunswick, which has its own Official Languages Act. We have my home province, Manitoba, with section 23 of the Manitoba Act.
Colleagues, let me reiterate that neither New Brunswick’s nor Manitoba’s language laws are referenced in Bill C-13 in the same way as Quebec’s language law. The commissioner said that he will implement whatever act is adopted by Parliament, and he reflected:
It is what we have now, and what we have to do, moving forward, is ensure that we evaluate its impacts.
I think it’s important to evaluate the impacts of the Official Languages Act on the communities going forward, and we have to do that from the get-go.
I asked the Minister of Official Languages, the Honourable Ginette Petitpas Taylor, about the references to the newly amended Quebec language law, the Charte de la langue française. In response to my question, she said:
Yes, we referred to la Charte de la langue française in our Bill, but, again, the purpose is to indicate that this is the regime applicable in Quebec. We are not saying whether we agree or do not agree, but that is the legislation in force in Quebec at this point. I am not a constitutionaliste, I’m not a lawyer, but to your point, I absolutely have consulted with lawyers at the Justice Department . . . and they have indicated to us that they don’t feel that there are any risks — or minimum risks — to this. . . . With respect to why we proceeded, it is in order of describing what is the law.
But many of the judges and lawyers who testified before the Official Languages Committee did not share the Department of Justice’s evaluation.
As the Honourable Michel Bastarache, former judge of the Supreme Court of Canada, told our Official Languages Committee during the recent pre-study of Bill C-13, even before all the amendments were made by the House:
I am personally opposed to a reference to a provincial act in a federal act. I believe that the federal language regime is very different from the provincial regime.
In addition, Robert Leckey, Dean of the Faculty of Law at McGill University said:
Bill C-13 would add references to the Charter of the French Language to the Official Languages Act. These references would endorse the charter because they presuppose that the objectives and means promoted by the provincial legislation are consistent with those of the federal legislation and the constitutional responsibilities of the Government of Canada. However, this premise is not sound.
And in a letter to the chair of the Standing Committee on Official Languages, or LANG, in the other place, as well as in her testimony to the Senate’s Official Languages Committee, Ms. Janice Naymark, who has practised corporate and commercial law in Quebec for over 25 years, was clear that:
. . . troubling are the references to the Quebec Charter of the French Language in a quasi-constitutional federal law. […] By including references to this legislation in the [Official Languages Act], the federal government is supporting and implicitly legitimatizing [Quebec’s] Bill 96.
As you can see, colleagues, there is hardly consensus within the legal community regarding the references to the Charte de la langue française, so why are we complicating the legislation and creating even minimum risk for English-speaking Quebecers?
As an official language minority community, English speakers in Quebec have historically looked to the federal government for protection and support, but as Eva Ludvig, President of the Quebec Community Groups Network, remarked:
We live in a province where the English-speaking community, especially recently, has been under siege, I would say, from its own provincial government. We’ve always turned to the federal government and to the Canadian Parliament as supporters of the English-speaking community. We are now worried. We feel that this support is now tenuous.
Colleagues, as I pointed out in my second reading speech, while more than 600,000 of Quebec’s over 1 million English speakers live in Montreal, there are tens of thousands more in small communities across the province. I urge you to consider the official language minority communities in the rest of Quebec. Given the critical mass of English speakers in Montreal, services may well remain accessible there, but we cannot take for granted that those same services will remain accessible in the smaller communities.
The English-speaking communities in Quebec must now take solace in the Commissioner of Official Languages’ promise to monitor the impact of the implementation of Bill C-13. As he wrote in a letter to our committee on June 7:
It is crucial that the implementation of the Act be closely monitored in order to assess its impact and identify any problems encountered in its application. The government needs to have a monitoring mechanism, clear indicators and evidence-based data to be able to assess the effects of the Act on communities. This approach will help to realize the full potential of the periodic review and to make the changes needed to ensure the Act’s continued evolution.
Should the commissioner find that the fears of the English‑speaking communities in Quebec come to pass, I hope this chamber will be as swift to address them as it was to pass Bill C-13.
Honourable colleagues, as we are all mindful of, it is our responsibility here in the Senate to give voice to those who have no voice and to represent minorities in our regions. I fully understand how important modernization of the Official Languages Act is to francophone minority communities across Canada, and I fully support the protection and promotion of French minority language rights across the country.
I fully understand the importance of ensuring the survival and vitality of French for Quebec and Quebecers. However, inclusion of reference to Quebec’s Charter of the French Language, with its latest legislative entrenchment of the pre-emptive use of the “notwithstanding” clause, does nothing to help protect French; it only brings unnecessary risks to the other official language minority community, the more than 1 million English speakers in Quebec.
Thus, colleagues, I will be voting against this bill.