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Official Languages Act

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill S-205, An Act to amend the Official Languages Act (communications with and services to the public).

First, I would like to thank the bill's sponsor, the Honourable Senator Chaput, for her fierce passion for official languages.

Senator, your sense of justice, which drives your desire to ensure that linguistic minority rights are protected, is absolutely laudable. On behalf of all Canadians, I congratulate you for your unflagging dedication to that quest.

I am pleased to speak today to the provisions of the bill. This gives me the opportunity to stress our government's firm commitment to respecting both official languages.

This also gives us the opportunity to consider the significant progress that has been made in promoting the use of French and English across Canada.

Most importantly, colleagues, I wish to emphatically affirm that there is no active movement of any kind to dilute or diminish minority language rights in Canada.

Honourable senators, it should be noted that this year marks the 25th anniversary of the President of the Treasury Board's annual report on official languages. It's also the anniversary of the coming into force of the renewed Official Languages Act.

If we take a look at the past two and a half decades, we can see that considerable progress has been made. In 1988, one out of every three federal government employees was bilingual.

Now the public service has a pool of bilingual employees who make up 45 per cent of the workforce.

Let's look at the facts and figures.

The proportion of bilingual positions in the federal government has nearly doubled since 1978. It now sits at 42.8 per cent. In 1978, 24.7 per cent of federal government positions were bilingual. In 2000, under the Liberal government, 35.3 per cent of positions in the public service were bilingual. Under the current Conservative government, the proportion of public servants who must be perfectly bilingual reached 42.8 per cent in 2013.

Compare that to 1978, when only 70.4 per cent of public servants met the language requirements for their position. Under the previous Liberal government, in 2000, it was 82.8 per cent. Since the current government came into power, it has increased to 95.4 per cent.

This has enabled and permitted the Government of Canada to communicate with and serve Canadians more effectively in the official language of their choice.

Today, the vast majority of Canadians can access information through a range of services, such as in-person and through telephone services and via websites, toll-free 1-800 numbers and publications. These services are provided by approximately 200 federal institutions that are subject to the Official Languages Act.

Each of those institutions is responsible for applying the law within the organization, and that includes designing and delivering official languages programs. The vast majority of institutions have taken effective measures to ensure that high- quality communications and services are available to the public in both official languages in all forms of communication: oral, written and electronic. It is clear that all public services are provided so as to comply with the law.

Honourable senators, we do not need to look very far to see that federal institutions are making progress. We only have to look at our government's latest annual report on official languages, which was tabled in Parliament on February 13. The report shows that most institutions offer language courses to employees to help them advance in their careers and meet the requirements of their positions. These institutions also provide the appropriate work environment for employees who come back from language training and need to use and maintain their second language skills.

It clearly shows that there has been steady progress in the number of public service employees who meet the language requirements of their positions. And at the community level, managers in the public service are cognizant of the needs of their offices. Embracing this, they seek to fill openings from qualified applicants who live in the local area and have the linguistic capability and attachment to their heritage that equip and enable them to effectively serve that particular community's needs.

In short, honourable senators, the results were positive overall. We can assure all Canadians that our government is determined to continue to build on this solid foundation of accomplishments. We are determined to ensure that Canada's official languages continue to represent a big part of our national identity.

Last year, we released the Roadmap for Canada's Official Languages 2013-2018. This new roadmap follows the Roadmap for Canada's Linguistic Duality 2008-2013 and will focus on three priority areas to enhance the vitality of English and French in Canada: first, education — with support for minority language education and second language learning; second, immigration — with language training for economic immigrants and immigration to official language minority communities; and last but not least, communities — with programs that support economic development, training and access to health care services, as well as community cultural action.

Our commitment to the official languages is also seen in our support for legislation such as Bill C-419, which requires those appointed to certain positions to have the ability to speak and understand both official languages clearly when they are appointed.

We also updated the language obligations of federal offices after the release of the 2011 Census data. This exercise is ongoing, and some 10,000 federal offices are being examined and are adapting to those language obligations in the light of the most recent census data.

And I can already share with you that the preliminary results of this review indicate that there will not be significant impact on minority language communities. In fact the language obligations of 99 per cent of the nearly 7,800 offices that were examined in Phase 1 remain unchanged.

We understand that Canadians expect their government to adapt to today's realities. That is why social media are now included in the methods for communicating with the target population in the new group of official languages policies.

We understand that Canadians expect to be able to communicate and to obtain services in the official language of their choice, quickly and efficiently, in both official languages. We understand that they also expect the federal government to have the institutional capacity needed to achieve that objective.

We recognize all that and we are determined to meet the expectations of Canadians across the country.

That brings me to the bill before us today for study, a bill that our government does not support for many reasons. First and foremost, honourable senators, we already have a solid legal framework that defines all the necessary rules that federal institutions must follow in order to make sure that the linguistic rights of Canadians are respected. That framework, of course, is to be found in the Official Languages Act and Regulations.

Second, the regulations already take into account both the impact of the movements of the minority population and the impact of immigration on the demographic data.

Thirdly, the regulations also do not rely exclusively on demographic data to determine what constitutes significant demand. They take into account other factors such as the type of region, the target clientele and the distribution of federal offices in the region. They also consider the type of services being offered, the volume of general traffic at certain locations and the overall demand for services in the minority language over a period of one year.

Together, the regulations establish a comprehensive set of rules that ensure the government is able to meet its linguistic obligations.

They also ensure that we provide bilingual services where there is demand.

Honourable senators, there is a very real concern that under the bill before us, many federal offices could receive a bilingual designation where there is very little or no real demand for such service.

Honourable senators, those are just a few of the reasons to oppose this bill, which would change the calculation used for determining the size of official language minority communities.

The reality is that our government is already providing bilingual services where needed, based on stable, measurable data.

These needs are assessed regularly and adjusted according to the information we gather.

Responsible management of public funds demands that federal services respond to real needs. This bill would undermine that process.

By adopting amendments to this bill, we would be causing an increase in the offer of service where the numbers do not warrant it.

Speaking of numbers, there is a matter of associated costs, which would likely be significant were this legislation to be adopted. It is for this reason that this bill should be studied by the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance. That is where it was studied in the past in its previous incarnation, and it is where we believe such studies should occur as it moves forward once again.

Honourable senators, let me reiterate: our Conservative government is committed to respecting the linguistic rights of Canadians, not diluting them.

As I illustrated today, we are doing so through the Roadmap for Canada's Official Languages 2013-2018, which we developed after consulting Canadians.

This roadmap encompasses and reflects our government's ongoing commitment to linguistic duality and the use of both our official languages.

We must build on the many efforts made since the Official Languages Act came into force in 1969 to ensure that Canada's official languages continue to be an important part of our national identity.

We recognize that we have a responsibility to take a leadership role on official language communities. We take that responsibility very seriously and will not shirk it.

Honourable senators, I am reminded today of some wise words once uttered by a distinguished Canadian, the Honourable Laurier LaPierre, who, as we all know, served Canada in this place. He said, "Canada is the only country in the world in which the majority is the moral guarantor of the minority."

Honourable senators, our government will honour those words by continuing to meet the needs of official language minority communities within today's changing demographic context and to provide Canadians with efficient service in the official language of their choice, be it English or French.