Statement made on 11 June 2009 by Senator Joan Fraser
Hon. Joan Fraser:
Honourable senators, I think it is in order to give a little explanation of this report. This report arises out of the motion proposed by Senator Joyal, a week ago today, that the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs study the motion— before the Senate voted on it — to concur in the passage by the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut of an Official Languages Act.
Honourable senators will recall that there was a passionate debate on this motion last week. I thought it was one of the Senate's finer moments. Senators expressed concern about, and dedication to, core principles — respect for Aboriginal people, respect for individual rights and respect for the rights of minority linguistic communities.
It was in that perspective that the committee held intensive hearings yesterday and adopted its report, which I now present today. Before I go any further, let me say that the committee expresses in its report, and cannot over-express, its gratitude to all the staff who have worked practically non-stop since last Thursday afternoon to enable us to produce a report that the Senate could find useful and appropriate in the short time that was available to us.
We heard witnesses yesterday. We heard from the Government of Nunavut, the Languages Commissioner of Nunavut, the federal Commissioner of Official Languages; a representative of the Francophone Association of Nunavut; from representatives of Inuit associations in Nunavut; and from the Department of Justice Canada.
Honourable senators, it became clear to us that the bill that we are being asked to concur in arises out of a unique situation in Nunavut. In Nunavut, the vast majority of the population are Inuit. However, the increasingly pervasive language is English in the public administration, in the courts, in business, and increasingly even in the home.
There is also in Nunavut a small but determined and committed francophone community, committed to Nunavut as francophones.
The object of this bill, that we are asked to concur in, is to make the Inuit language one of three official languages of Nunavut together with English and French which have been official languages of the territory since before there was a Nunavut and it was all part of the Northwest Territories.
Given that the Inuit are the overwhelming majority of the population in Nunavut, it seems clear that that objective is not only understandable, but desirable.
The bill provides for many things that will be familiar to those who have studied the official languages situation here in the South. Debates, records and journals of the Legislative Assembly shall be in English and French and in the Inuit language and all versions of the acts shall be equally authoritative. The acts shall be published in English and French and may, by resolution of the Legislative Assembly, be published in the Inuit language as well, and all versions will be equally authoritative, as is now the case for the French and English versions of legislation that we pass here.
Individuals may use any of the three official languages in judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings. Final decisions, orders or judgments from those proceedings may be in any of the official languages and a person who has been involved in the pleadings may request and will receive a translation of the decision into another official language. The person will receive a translation if it involves a question of law of specific interest, or importance affecting the minority language community in question; if it is a matter of significant interest to the general public, or importance in general public law; or if it is particularly significant for the individual who is requesting the decision.
Territorial institutions — territorial in the sense of government of the territory — must provide signs, notices to the public and instruments in all official languages. Members of the public have the right to communicate with the institutions in the official language of their choice, always with the head office of an institution and in other offices where there is a significant demand.
The phrase ``significant demand'' raised the antennae of some of us who remember the passionate debates over the phrase ``where numbers warrant,'' which here in the South has often used as a tool to limit the provision of minority language services.
We asked the Official Languages Commissioner of Nunavut how she would interpret that phrase. She gave the most wonderful answer. She said, well, take health services, for example, and in a given community there may be, say, 85 per cent Inuit people, so, of course, for service in the Inuit language there is a significant demand for service in the Inuit language. She went on to say, suppose 10 per cent of the population are English speaking; there is a significant demand for English services. She completed her answers by saying that if there were one francophone; that person would be entitled to health services in his or her language.
May I say, honourable senators, that that answer was typical of what we discovered about the design, development and elaboration of this bill, and of companion legislation which is not before Parliament, because it does not require our concurrence, which is designed to promote and protect the Inuit language.
This program has been developed in that wonderful Inuit tradition of consultation, conciliation, cooperation, compromise and consensus. It was very moving to us, to hear all those who had participated. Honourable senators, I may say that the federal Commissioner of Official Languages, reinforce the fact that it was the basis upon which this program and the bill has been developed.
No one spoke more eloquently or more movingly about this process than the representative of the francophones in Nunavut, who supports this bill with all the passion I can ask you to imagine. He said: We share the Nunavut dream. We believe in the importance of this legislation, and we trust the Inuit majority of Nunavut to work with us as we go forward. He said, we know there are risks; there are always risks in human endeavour, but we believe in this process, and we want it to move forward. I think it is fair to say that every member of the committee was moved and impressed by that avowal.
Our first recommendation, honourable senators, is that the Senate indeed concur in the passage of this bill by the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut which, I might point out, has been waiting patiently for one year for Parliament to get around to doing this. Nunavut passed this bill one year ago, on June 4, 2008. It is not Nunavut's fault that Parliament has taken so long to do what Parliament was asked to do.
We also ask, however, that Statistics Canada monitor and report on the composition of Nunavut's population to identify the use of five Aboriginal languages that, under the terms of this bill, will no longer be considered official languages: Chipewyan, Cree, Dogrib, Gwich'in and North Slavey and South Slavey. Those are all languages that are spoken and used in the Northwest Territories, from which the existing regime in Nunavut was inherited.
Statistics Canada has found, in a number of those cases, no residents of Nunavut for whom any of these is their native language. In the case of several languages it is literally zero; in one or two it is ten or so.
However, we suggest that the situation continue to be monitored, because populations are mobile. We have also suggested that, if Nunavut asks, the federal Commissioner of Official Languages should work with Nunavut to make available his expertise and advice to assist in the implementation of the act and its objectives.
We have strongly suggested that, as we move forward, the Government of Canada make adequate and sustained funding available to the Government of Nunavut for the continued protection and promotion of official languages in the territory, as is consistent with the government's legal obligations. The Government of Canada has numerous legal obligations to the Aboriginal peoples in general, and to the people of Nunavut in particular.
Those obligations — however eloquently we may speak here in the South — will remain empty unless we provide the resources necessary for them to be met.
Finally, honourable senators, there is a recommendation that may seem rather technical, but it is thanks to a question that was raised by Senator Corbin during our hearings, I believe. He noted that this bill was before us for concurrence because the Nunavut act calls for the concurrence of Parliament by way of resolution if a bill that diminishes anybody's language rights is passed in Nunavut. You will recall that, should there be a speaker of Dogrib in Nunavut, his rights will have been diminished because his language is no longer is official. I am trying to suggest to you that diminution is tiny, but we have to concur in it.
The question is what is Parliament? The Department of Justice officials said that, oh well, Parliament in this case — because the act calls for resolutions — just meant resolutions by the Senate and the House of Commons.
As you know, Parliament, strictly defined, also includes Her Majesty. We recommend that, for greater certainty, the Governor General, as the representative of Her Majesty, also be asked to concur in the passage of this bill by Nunavut, thereby eliminating any possible question as to it is validity.
Honourable senators, we believe this bill is important. We believe it is important to adopt this report. I will explain why by quoting from a letter that Thomas Berger wrote as a report to the then Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, the Honourable Jim Prentice, in March 2006. He said:
Inuktitut is the vessel of Inuit culture. The Inuit are determined to retain their language; it is integral to their identity. . . .
Our ideas of human rights, of strength and diversity, of a northern destiny merge in the promise of Nunavut. It is a promise that we must keep.
I urge you, honourable senators, to adopt this report.