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Percy Downe

The Hon. Percy E. Downe, B.A. Senator Percy E. Downe was appointed to the Senate of Canada by the Right Honourable Jean Chrétien. He has served in the Senate representing Charlottetown in the province of Prince Edward Island since June 26, 2003.

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Second reading of Bill S-220, An Act to amend the Official Languages Act (communications with and services to the public)

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Statement made on 07 December 2010 by Senator Marie-P. Charette-Poulin

Hon. Marie-P. Poulin:

Honourable senators, in rising to support Bill S-220, I do so in the knowledge that, in the last several decades, great strides have been made in advancing the concept of equality between Canada's two official languages.

Having been at times in the vanguard of French language rights, I am aware of the vast amount of work that is required in order to build a sound case to preserve and enhance the policies and regulations that reflect our bilingualism. In this regard, I would like to express my admiration and gratitude to the Senator Chaput for undertaking such a difficult and time-consuming task to bring before us the matter at hand — an updating of the Official Languages Act. She has done an outstanding job and deserves our appreciation.

Central to Bill S-220 is the concept of "equal quality" in the provision of language services to better reflect today's language duality and, just as importantly, to make the law consistent with judicial decisions. A review of case law over the past two decades shows that the purpose of recognizing language rights must be to enhance the vitality of official language minority communities, taking into account the specific situation of each community and the majority-minority dynamics in each province and territory.

In Beaulac, in 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada stated that language rights must be given a large and liberal interpretation to ensure the preservation and vitality of minority language communities. From this ruling a spectrum of new principles were postulated, which I will refer to later.

In DesRochers v. Canada, 2009, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that all services of federal institutions must not only be offered in both official languages, but those services must be of equal quality.

Overall, Bill S-220 contains 10 clauses aimed at improving the quality of language services offered to official language minority communities and the health of bilingualism in those minority communities. Many of the proposed changes are directed at Part IV of the Official Languages Act which deals with communication with and services to the public, and which has been particularly affected by court rulings and demographic change.

This is the first time since 1988 that a bill to amend this section has been introduced in Parliament. Accordingly — and in keeping with the legal interpretations of our language laws — the proposed changes to Part IV would take not only statistical analysis into account for determining the provision of minority language services but also qualitative criteria, that is, the characteristics of the minority communities themselves. Factors other than population numbers would be considered. These new criteria would include such matters as whether there is a local minority-language newspaper or school, or whether there is a post office.

As I have indicated, the law at present basically speaks of populations in broad terms, as measured by Statistics Canada. However, people who can communicate in the language of the minority population are left out of the equation.

An example of this would be a child who speaks one official language at home but attends a school that functions in the other official language. That educational aspect is omitted in the calculation of minority language numbers.

As well, there is evidence that some immigrant groups might be overlooked in tabulating language services demand.

The fact that the regulations do not recognize the institutional vitality of a community ignores the sociological nature of communities. In small communities the absence of those elements can make the difference between having minority-language service or not.

As an extra consideration, S-220 proposes that bilingual services would be offered in any areas where they are provided by the provinces and territories.

Furthermore, consultation would be required before any minority service is withdrawn.

In a historical context, this bill is an extension of bilingualism in this country.

The first Official Languages Act was enacted in 1969 as a result of recommendations from the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. It gave equal status to English and French throughout the federal government system.

The 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms expanded the bilingual nature of services within the federal sphere and dealt with minority language education rights.

In 1988, the 1969 Act was scrapped and replaced by a new Official Languages Act that beefed up regulations and established the powers of the Commissioner of Official Languages, the complaints process and the obligation on the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the President of the Treasury Board to be accountable to Parliament for responsibilities relating to official languages.

In the intervening years, various regulations have been introduced and clarifications issued, particularly regarding where Canadians can expect to be served in official languages. Let me share that list with you: the head or central offices of federal institutions; offices in the national capital region; offices of an institution required to report to Parliament, such as the Auditor General; offices where there is significant demand and take into account various formulas; offices justifying official language services, such as public health, safety and security; offices serving the travelling public; and third parties offering services to the public on behalf of federal institutions.

In summary, then, the Official Languages Act has made progress to reflect changes at the social, linguistic, demographic and judicial levels.

Earlier, I mentioned the 1999 Beaulac case in which the Supreme Court of Canada noted that factors other than numbers should be considered when determining the need for minority language services.

These factors include the language spoken not only at home, but at school, in the workplace and even on the street.

Honourable senators, the Official Languages Act of 1988 enabled the government to adopt regulations specifying how the Act was to be implemented. The only regulations adopted were in 1992, prompting the Commissioner of Official Languages to state in the COL's annual report of 2005-2006 that they belonged to a bygone era.

In fact, the commissioner went on to say that the strict application of numerical criteria gave rise to unfair, complex and unequal situations in the delivery of minority language services.

It is in the spirit of addressing those inconsistencies that Bill S-220 is brought before you.

Another item of note is that the bill introduces rights for the travelling publics and calls on every federal institution to ensure that language services to travellers are available, including third-party persons or organizations operating on behalf of federal institutions.

When examining the merits of the bill introduced by my colleague, Senator Maria Chaput, do not forget that you are being asked to support the natural evolution of one of our fundamental characteristics, bilingualism, by broadening and making mandatory the criteria currently used to determine the pertinence of providing services in both official languages while giving some latitude to the Governor in Council.

To prevent permanent imbalances from being created by the new law, the President of the Treasury Board, or another federal minister designated by the Governor in Council, will review the regulations every 10 years to verify whether or not they are effective.

Honourable senators, the amendments proposed by Bill S-220 would modernize the Official Languages Act, clarify the regulations and strengthen the concept of official bilingualism in federal jurisdictions especially since — let us not forget this important fact — 14,000 federal offices are subject to this law.


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