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Official Languages Act

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Statement made on 23 November 2010 by Senator Mobina Jaffer

Hon. Mobina S.B. Jaffer:

Honourable senators, today I want to speak in support of my fellow senators who have already spoken about Bill S-220, An Act to amend the Official Languages Act (communications with and services to the public).

This bill, which is a noble initiative of Senator Maria Chaput, deserves our full attention. I would like to congratulate Senator Chaput on taking the necessary step of proposing an update of the Official Languages Act, which dates from 1969 and was merely tweaked in 1988. At that time, there was less of a need to consider family makeup and the travelling public. Over the years, because of immigration, mixed marriages, travel and family moves from one end of our country to the other, the Official Languages Act is no longer very current.

I understand and appreciate Senator Chaput's speech in which she indicated that managing existing resources remains critical for providing services in French. It is also important to keep in mind that this bill does not entail a significant increase in federal resources.

Another important objective of Bill S-220 is to increase clarity. The legislation in its current form is so ambiguous and unclear that even the civil servants who are supposed to enforce it cannot explain the meaning.

It is filled with complicated sentence structures, vague terms and ambiguity. And I have not even gotten to the rights of travellers, the concept of travellers and their right to bilingual services.

But, honourable senators, right now I would like to come back to the change in the composition of today's families.

There is an increasing number of mixed families that the Official Languages Act does not provide for, such as families with a francophone mother and an anglophone father, an anglophone mother and a francophone father, one anglophone or francophone parent and one parent whose first language is neither French nor English, allophone parents who want their children to be able to speak both of Canada's official languages.

My question is this: why does the Official Languages Act not reflect this reality?

Why is the largest group of Canada's current population, mixed families, not mentioned, not recognized, in the current Official Languages Act?

The unique character of Canada's linguistic minorities is part of our everyday reality.

Whether we like it or not, these families, our families, are part of that reality.

While 22.8 per cent of states say they are bilingual or multilingual, very few manage to achieve true linguistic equality.

The battle for language dominance takes place within the state, and the stronger language triumphs. From that moment on, the state begins to oppress the weaker language and protect the stronger.

In his treatise "Linguistics and Colonialism," Louis-Jean Calvet coined the term "glottophagy" to describe the devouring of one language by another.

When we talk about state bilingualism, we need to understand that the state's official languages must be used not only in the legislative arena, in debates, in drafting and enactment of legislation, but also in public administration, justice, teaching, et cetera.

We live in a world where 45 countries are officially bilingual, which represents nearly one quarter of countries worldwide. There are 193 sovereign states, of which 45 are bilingual. Unfortunately, the Americas have the fewest number of bilingual states.

Only Canada and Haiti have two official languages.

Demographic weight plays a critical and fundamentally political role. Canada's take on multiculturalism is unique in the world. Luckily, we do not have significant risks of intercommunity conflict. Linguistic minorities are found all across Canada: in the North, South, East and West.

The most important thing to remember is that if we want these treasured minorities to continue to exist — if we do not want to lose them — we must ensure that services are offered in the minority official language.

How can we ensure that French will be maintained within mixed families while also ensuring the vitality of the minority community?

First, we must make those concerned understand that their minority language has not been eliminated and that it is just as important in our eyes as the dominant language.

Second, we must ensure that the services offered in the minority language are of the same quality as those offered in the dominant language of the region in question.

We should not be satisfied with simply translating the facts. Rather, we must adapt our methodology, our actions, and our attitudes. Everything must be viewed in the appropriate context.

Another of our mandates is to help the federal government assume its responsibilities and set an example worthy of being followed.

The federal government must take a leadership role. It must lead by example to show the provincial governments that it is indeed possible to take into account the public's expectations and that these expectations are normal, given that Canada has two official languages.

Federal, provincial and local service providers must cooperate not only with each other, but also with local centres to ensure the survival and vitality of minority communities, be they anglophones in Quebec or francophones elsewhere, in British Colombia, for example.

I refuse to believe that Canada is bilingual only in word, not in deed. We have bilingual money, bilingual debates, a bilingual Parliament, bilingual cabinet meetings, and both English and French are used in teaching, the media, et cetera.

So why are public services not bilingual in well-defined areas and in places where there is a need?

I would like to emphasize again the importance of offering high-quality services: with modern technology at our disposal, translation is easy. But translation is not what we need.

We need people on staff who can offer what the public needs: high-quality services on site, not just translated sentences and memorized lists of words.

We cannot compare our system to other countries, such as Ireland, whose bilingualism is merely symbolic. Their money and stamps are bilingual, but everything else takes place exclusively in English: their parliamentary debates are in English as are their ministerial meetings and teaching, et cetera. I learned the following from a study published by Laval University:

In Chad, government services are available only in French, and are available in a second language in a limited way in Israel (Arabic), the Seychelles (French and Creole), Sri Lanka (Tamil), the Philippines (Filipino), Vanuatu (French), Kenya (Swahili), Canada (French outside of Quebec), and South Africa.

In the public service, the language of work nearly always corresponds to the dominant first language. In Canada, it is English . . .

Why shouldn't bilingualism move toward linguistic equality?

Why not? Yes, we have administrative forms that are bilingual but, unfortunately, the services offered are not up to par: they are not always available in the person's language, whether that is English or French. I would like to go one step further and say that linguistic equality can happen only if the proportion of public servants matches the proportion of the population that speaks that language.

Switzerland has a remarkable system that others can aspire to. Its central administration is bilingual everywhere and even multilingual within some of its cantons. The Swiss system also proves that is possible to offer bilingual government services across the entire country. In the various regions, the public has access to these services in two or even three languages. Other countries that set good examples include Belgium and Cameroon.

As for the rights of travellers, specifically air passengers, Bill S-220 could give the federal government the chance to make competition conditions consistent among airlines and require them to provide services in the minority language in places where there is significant demand.

Allow me to remind you, as I did a few weeks ago, of what happened in Vancouver.

Honourable senators, early this year, Canada welcomed the whole world to the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver. British Columbia was proud to host those events. Unfortunately, though, we have a blot on our record. We did welcome the world, but we let Canadians down. Our English and French linguistic duality was not in evidence during the Games.

The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages received 46 complaints about the Vancouver Games, including 38 specifically about the lack of French during the opening ceremonies. On investigating, the Commissioner's office found that those 38 complaints pointed to violations of Part VII of the Official Languages Act, which is the law of our country.

Before the Games, Canadian Heritage negotiated an agreement with the Vancouver Organizing Committee with a provision regarding official languages.

In his 2009-10 report, the commissioner said that he was disappointed that the provision was not explicit regarding the promotion of Canadian linguistic duality. Why was the provision on language not more specific regarding the committee's responsibilities on linguistic duality?

I believe that Air Canada is justified to have been requesting, for years now, that all airlines be treated equally in federal legislation.

Today, Canada is still an example of linguistic inequality. While equality is within reach for certain areas, we still have a long way to go before we can say that we are a perfectly bilingual country.

Honourable senators, taking into consideration all of these conditions and recommendations, I strongly urge you to support this bill and to ensure that it is sent to the appropriate committee. Please keep in mind that we cannot ensure the vitality of our linguistic minority communities unless the Official Languages Act is updated and unless we pass bills like Bill S-220, which I am honoured to be supporting today.

Honourable senators, when we did not represent a linguistic duality at the Winter Olympic Games, we robbed ourselves and the world of knowing what the true fabric of Canada is. As a British Columbian, I was angry and I now know that we have a lot of work to do in this chamber. When we do not represent our linguistic duality adequately in communications, we do not represent our people well. When we do not reflect our linguistic duality in providing services to Canadians, we let them down.

When I first came to this country, my husband and I decided that our children would learn the three languages of the Americas; namely, French, English and Spanish. It meant sending our children to Quebec and Mexico many times. Now that I am a senator, I am determined to find ways to provide British Columbian children with the means to be fluent in our official languages. That is their heritage.

I am also a grandmother, and I know it is vital that my grandson knows that he belongs to a great country where he has to speak both our official languages. That is not a choice.

Honourable senators, for the sake of unity of our country, for the sake of the great people of our country and for the sake of our children, both French and English must be reflected in all our public communications, services and private communications. That is who we should be. That is who we are.


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