Statement made on 02 December 2008 by Senator Maria Chaput
Hon. Maria Chaput:
Honourable senators, it is an honour to stand before you today as we embark on the work of the 40th Parliament. Honourable senators, you have come from the four corners of this great land to represent Canadians and to defend their interests. I humbly share this privilege with you.
We are gathered in this historic place to work together on behalf of all Canadians. Honourable senators, the public interest must guide our deliberations and must always take priority over political partisanship. History has entrusted to us the responsibility to protect the interests of the provinces, the larger regions of this country, and the minorities who occupy this vast land. We will do so proudly in the name of democracy.
While the "other chamber" represents the will of the people, we represent the will of those who struggle to be heard; those who are inclined to remain silent; those who are too often set aside, who feel forgotten. The Canadian democratic system was founded on a respect for the rights of minorities, and we, esteemed colleagues, are the guarantors of that promise.
History has promised the French-speaking linguistic minority a place in Canada. This is clearly stated in our Constitution and in our laws, regulations and policies. There is a real French culture outside of Quebec. Over 1 million of our fellow countrymen can testify to that.
Honourable senators, I stand before you today on behalf of those people, and insofar as I can be part of your family, they will be, too. I will keep my promise.
I care deeply about the fate of official language minority communities. Everyone here knows that. So when I heard the Speech from the Throne on November 19, I was left feeling somewhat unsatisfied. The speech contained virtually no mention of official languages. I was aghast, so I reread it and thought about it for a while.
If we do not protect Canada's official languages, how can we say that we are "protecting Canada's future"?
Honourable senators, allow me to read from the Throne Speech delivered on November 19, 2008, where it broaches the subject of official languages:
Canada is built on a promise of opportunity, the chance to work hard, raise a family and make a better life. Today, it is more important than ever to deliver on this promise, and ensure that all Canadians share in the promise of this land, regardless of cultural background, gender, age, disability or official language.
Judging by that excerpt, does the Throne Speech uphold the current government's policy as expressed in its Roadmap for Canada's Linguistic Duality? In my opinion, perhaps.
The Conservative government's current policy on linguistic duality, as set out in its Roadmap, recognizes that:
In a highly globalized and knowledge-based marketplace, linguistic duality is a key competitive advantage, which can help Canada further its economic success.
This government policy validates a conclusion that has been clear to many for a long time: the official languages are inextricably linked to the economy. Our official languages are a national treasure. They are engines that drive the economy.
The government must take positive steps to implement language guarantees. In doing so, it is more important than ever to establish a link between linguistic duality and Canada's economy.
The Conservative government must keep its word regarding its financial commitment to promote and protect linguistic duality in Canada. These funds will give official language minority communities the opportunity to enjoy what our country has to offer. In return, these communities will enrich the country's economy. The linguistic treasures of our federation will continue to act as a driving force for our economy.
In June 2007, at the Summit of Francophone and Acadian Communities, 33 organizations and institutions representing Canada's francophone minorities met in Ottawa. Everyone agreed on the importance of community governance in all areas of their development, and then began drawing up a community strategic plan. And for them the economy is a priority. I would like to quote the five goals of the community strategic plan:
- Strengthen and reinforce Canada's Francophone population.
- Expand and stimulate the Francophone community in Canada.
- Support Francophone governance in Canada.
- Increase the influence of the Francophone population within Canadian society and around the world.
- Accelerate economic, social and community development within the Francophone community in Canada.
According to the community strategic plan, by 2017, the economic development of francophone minority communities will be stimulated by a partnership among the various levels of government, community organizations, cultural industries and, in particular, the organizations and networks dedicated to community economic development. We are about to see the genesis of a francophone economic community.
Meanwhile, how will the government ensure that minority francophone communities will continue to have opportunities to benefit from what our country has to offer in these difficult economic times? That is still uncertain. It worries me because we are going through an economic slowdown. Our small and medium enterprises and our families will bear the burden of cuts and unemployment. It will be even harder for people living in minority situations.
Honourable senators, the political compromise that led to the founding of Canada was the agreement that our official languages would have equal status. As Michel Bastarache, former Supreme Court Justice, said so well:
. . . [the courts] have linked the safeguards to the need to provide the linguistic minority with cultural security; they also affirmed that rights are permanent even in a new social and demographic context. Therefore, the relevance of the safeguards does not need to be justified again as the numbers change.
The government is bound by the standard of substantive equality and it has an obligation of result regarding its official language minorities. It is obliged to produce results! In other words, no matter what means are chosen by the current government to meet its official languages obligations in the difficult economic times we are facing, it must attain the expected results for these minorities. It is free to choose how to direct its spending over the next few years, but the results have already been set. We have ownership of the results to be achieved, and they stem from one fundamental concept, that our official languages have equal status.
We agree that the government should focus on results when spending taxpayers' money. But it must never lose sight of the result it must achieve with regard to official languages, and that is the real and substantive equality of our official languages.
Given that support for the development of minority language communities is part of the commitments and the constitutional and legislative mandate of the Government of Canada, these communities rely heavily on the government's support.
Moreover, considering the importance of the official languages to Canada's constitutional and legal framework, not to mention the importance of our founding languages to our identity, they are clearly vital to Canadians. Consequently, the delivery of official languages programs and services remains essential, and if the Conservative government wants to reduce or eliminate any expenditures, they must not be related directly or indirectly to official languages, because such expenditures keep our nation on a strong footing and breathe life into the linguistic soul of our country.
To my way of thinking, early childhood support and intervention are essential to preserving the cultural and linguistic heritage of francophones in minority communities, as well as to their success in school. A strategy based on a continuum of French-language education, from preschool age to adulthood, would be an important tool for retention and francization for minority language communities. Moreover, a national child care strategy would guarantee that parents wanting to place their preschool children in a French-speaking environment could do so. These daycares would be tied to French-language schools and would play a key role in expanding French-speaking communities. In this respect, the Conservative government's child care benefit was and still is a dismal failure.
For francophone minority communities, like my community in Manitoba, French-language child care centres are a life raft in a sea of English. It has been well established that a preschool education in French allows children to acquire the linguistic base they need in order to pursue their primary and secondary studies in their official language. In Manitoba, there is a shortage of French-language child care centres and therefore access to this essential service, so critical to the survival of my community, is severely limited. The situation is no better in other provinces and territories in Canada. The Conservative government's policy in this area does not meet any of the needs of francophone minority communities, which must continually struggle against assimilation.
An Environics poll conducted in September and October 2008 shows that the lack of affordable child care is a serious problem for 77 per cent of Canadians, demonstrating that the Conservative government is out of touch with the people and has not helped parents who are having a hard time finding quality child care.
Honourable senators, the linguistic survival of a minority francophone individual is determined in early childhood. It is the federal government's responsibility, as the watchdog protecting the rights of official language minority communities, to act intelligently and in good faith to support Canadian families Investing in early childhood development means investing in the physical, social, emotional and intellectual well-being of our children. It also ensures that Canada remains competitive among other developed nations. Healthy development of minority francophone children contributes directly to the social and economic well-being of our beloved country.
Healthy child development is part of the foundation of the 21st century economy, which is becoming ever more knowledge-based.
Improving early childhood services in minority francophone communities will help to improve literacy among francophones. Let us hope that, someday soon, the historical gap between our two official languages in terms of level of education will close completely. Increased education for young people and adult education programs will enable francophones to acquire the reading, writing and arithmetic skills they need to participate fully in the 21st century economy.
As you know, honourable senators, the roots of Canadian francophones lie in a traditional society characterized by oral traditions, low levels of education, and an inferior socioeconomic status, as the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism found in 1969.
In just a few decades, their situation has changed drastically. Francophones are engaged in a process of transition and catching up that, in terms of education, is not yet complete. The strategic challenge they face is to make the transition to the knowledge-based society, an educational society where they will improve their oral and written mastery of the language while revitalizing their culture and bringing it up to date.
Francophones write less well and read less often than anglophones, and reading and writing are less a part of their daily lives. The federal government has a constitutional and moral obligation to correct this embarrassing situation, which has gone on for too long.
The federal government must continue to monitor the official languages situation and work to meet its responsibilities to its official language minorities. It is the government's job to facilitate academic upgrading for francophone populations in Canada. And early intervention by the federal government is key to real equality — substantive equality — of the official languages.
I can assure honourable senators that educating our young francophones will lead to more artistic innovation and creativity.
While the Conservative government recognized in its Speech from the Throne that the arts will continue to contribute to Canada's cultural and economic vitality, the government will have to walk the talk by investing still more in the arts, not by eliminating existing programs. What purpose will be served by the Conservatives' proposed new system to protect intellectual property if the government does not promote the creation of Canadian works of art and literature?
Most Canadian artists, and certainly most minority francophone artists, live in near poverty. Very few are well off. However, these Canadian artists create cultural and economic wealth.
The Hon. the Speaker: I regret to inform Senator Chaput that her time is up. Is it the pleasure of the Senate to grant Senator Chaput another five minutes?
Hon. senators: Agreed.
Senator Chaput: Clearly, a thriving arts and culture sector, supported by adequate investment by the federal government, will place Canada at the forefront of a global society that values innovation, excellence, social cohesion and economic prosperity. The arts, culture and heritage sectors represent a significant segment of the economy. The Conference Board of Canada estimates that in 2007 the sector contributed 7.4 per cent of Canada's GDP.
Adequate government investment in the sector is critical to ensuring that the sector continues to grow and that Canadians continue to have access to outstanding artists and works of art. Furthermore, particular attention must be given to francophone artists in minority communities who often have to fight for their economic and linguistic survival.
The Canadian federal government must lead the way when it comes to official languages. We have entrusted it with that role.
As the Honourable Justice Bastarache reminds us:
. . . Official language minority communities are not demanding something that is a universal right, or in fact, an essentially moral right. They are demanding something that is their constitutional right.
We are waiting for this support. We, as francophones in a minority situation, truly need it.
My wish is that all young, minority francophones may fulfill their dreams in our vast, prosperous country.
My hope is that these young people do not have to fight the way their ancestors did. May those historic battles — such as the demonstrations against Regulation 17 in Ontario or our recent successful fight to save the Montfort Hospital — remain things of the past.
May this next generation of francophones in minority communities be able to express themselves with pride in their mother tongue, in their official language.
"Today, it is more important than ever to deliver on this promise, and ensure that all Canadians share in the promise of this land, regardless of official language." Those words, from the Speech from the Throne delivered on November 19, 2008, must not go unheeded. We must put these words into action.
In its Roadmap for Linguistic Duality, the current government recognizes that, in a highly globalized and knowledge-based marketplace, linguistic duality is a key competitive advantage, which can help Canada further its economic success. So let us focus on this key competitive advantage.
I am asking all of you to work together for the good of all Canadians. And I hope that our work here will be marked by mutual respect and a profound love of our federation that is so beautiful in its diversity.
Honourable senators, thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak to you.