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Substantive Equality of Canada’s Official Languages Bill

Bill to Amend--Motion to Authorize Official Languages Committee to Study Subject Matter--Debate Adjourned

May 19, 2022

Hon. Raymonde Gagné (Legislative Deputy to the Government Representative in the Senate) [ + ]

Pursuant to notice of May 17, 2022, moved:

That, in accordance with rule 10-11(1), the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages be authorized to examine the subject matter of Bill C-13, An Act to amend the Official Languages Act, to enact the Use of French in Federally Regulated Private Businesses Act and to make related amendments to other Acts, introduced in the House of Commons on March 1, 2022, in advance of the said bill coming before the Senate; and

That, for the purposes of this study, the committee be authorized to meet even though the Senate may then be sitting or adjourned, with the application of rules 12-18(1) and 12-18(2) being suspended in relation thereto.

She said: Honourable senators, once again we find ourselves at this busy time of the year, all of us juggling competing priorities while we ensure that we continue to exercise our due diligence. Without rehashing the remarks Senator Gold previously put to the chamber, I do want to briefly echo his argument on why we must pass these motions on these two pre-studies.

Colleagues, a pre-study gives us an opportunity to maximize our time, to give proper and fulsome consideration to the government’s parliamentary agenda and it gives us the flexibility we need to best achieve our work. Work on government legislation, such as Bill S-6, An Act respecting regulatory modernization, and Bill C-19, the budget implementation act, which has drawn on the resources of several committees, is coming to a close. This motion will empower committees to occupy new space as it becomes available.

For obvious reasons, over the past two years, our Senate work has been sidelined. Adopting our government motions, which would enable these pre-studies, is a small way for us to advance important work Canadians expect us to do.

Honourable senators, let me briefly explain why we should allow the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages to conduct a pre-study on Bill C-13. As you well know, during the Forty-second Parliament, the Official Languages Committee produced no fewer than five reports on the modernization of the Official Languages Act. The committee consulted young Canadians, members of official language minority communities, stakeholders who had witnessed the evolution of the act, as well as representatives from the justice sector and federal institutions.

The 20 practical recommendations set out in the report were aimed at correcting the issues with the implementation of the act and were divided into the following themes: leadership and cooperation, compliance, enforcement principles, and judicial bilingualism. In total, between April 2017 and April 2019, more than 300 witnesses and 72 briefs and follow-ups informed the measures that the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages recommended taking to modernize the act.

In fact, the content of Bill C-13, and its predecessor Bill C-32, largely reflects the work of the Official Languages Committee. It should also be noted that Bill C-13 responds to most of the recommendations outlined in the final report of the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages.

The committee members possess impressive expertise, and a pre-study of the content that has already been looked at will enhance their ability to guide the government. Let’s not forget that the Official Languages Act was passed in 1969, which was over 50 years ago, and that it has not been substantially updated in over 30 years. Society has changed considerably in that time. Our reality is more complex, and language laws have to better reflect those changes. A pre-study will give us the time we need to give the content of the bill the attention it deserves.

Pursuant to the order of reference adopted by the Senate on February 10, 2022, the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages began its study on francophone immigration to minority communities in order to examine federal government support for the immigration sector. Because Bill C-13 includes elements essential to francophone immigration for the purpose of enhancing the vitality of francophone minorities in Canada, it is one of the focal points of exchanges between witnesses and committee members.

Practically speaking, we are doing preliminary work on this bill as part of our study. It is also important to note that the witnesses and official language minority community representatives very much want this bill to be studied and passed without delay so the government can adopt an immigration policy and start developing Part VII regulations and a multi-year official languages action plan.

Finally, I would like to remind senators that the general order of reference for the Official Languages Committee states:

That the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages be authorized to study and to report on the application of the Official Languages Act and of the regulations and directives made under it, within those institutions subject to the Act . . .

The order of reference goes on to state:

That the committee also be authorized to study the reports and documents published by the Minister of Canadian Heritage, the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages, the President of the Treasury Board and the Commissioner of Official Languages, and any other subject concerning official languages . . .

So the pre-study of Bill C-13 is consistent with this order of reference.

Thank you. Meegwetch.

Hon. Donald Neil Plett (Leader of the Opposition) [ + ]

Senator Gagné, thank you for your comments. Can you tell us where the bill is at in the other place right now?

Senator Gagné [ + ]

It has not been sent to committee.

Senator Plett [ + ]

So we know where it is not. Of course, I would like to know where it is. They’ve had three meetings so far at second reading — April 1, April 6 and April 12 — and we don’t know when they will have their next meeting. So they have not even considered a vote yet and sending it to committee. Bill C-11 has, at least, made that step, although it also isn’t nearly far enough.

Nevertheless, here is a bill that isn’t even at committee. It has not been referred to committee, let alone had any studies. Again, we are putting the cart before the horse here, and we are studying something that we have no idea when we will get it. We have no idea what it will look like because it may well be amended, and we simply have no idea when it will even go to committee.

Would you not agree, Senator Gagné, that maybe the government should start getting their priorities right over there instead of worrying about our priorities over here? They should get their act together. They should be able to schedule these bills. This, again, is a piece of legislation that is not new to the government. As with Bill C-11, these are bills that were promised — that were presented earlier — and here we are again asking to do a study when we have limited committee time. We are asking to study something that we have no idea what the actual bill will look like when it gets here.

Senator Gagné [ + ]

Thank you for the question, senator.

You know, I think the Senate needs to make a decision on the importance of doing a pre-study, even though the bill is still at second reading stage.

I believe that’s one more reason to conduct a pre-study, in order to guide the government and inform its analysis. As senators, we truly have a responsibility to minorities, including linguistic minorities. We are certainly well-equipped to conduct this pre-study, after a lengthy study that lasted two years, and to study and assess the differences between our recommendations and the bill that was introduced and that is now at second reading stage in the other place.

Hon. René Cormier [ + ]

Would you agree that the Senate is the master of its own affairs? We can read the following about the Rules of the Senate on the Parlinfo site, and I quote:

The Rules of the Senate allow the Senate to examine the subject matter of a bill before the bill has been passed by the House of Commons. The bill must have been given first reading in the House of Commons but not yet been passed by it and, therefore, not introduced in the Senate.

In the context of studying a quasi-constitutional act on which the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages worked for a very long time, demonstrating the complexity of this constitutional act, would you agree, Senator Gagné, that a pre‑study is, in this case, entirely appropriate in our context?

Senator Gagné [ + ]

I completely agree. I also believe that, seeing as we have a very complex bill dealing with a quasi-constitutional law that has not been reviewed for over 30 years, along with the experience and content we’ve been able to gather from the 300 witnesses who appeared and the more than 70 briefs we received, all with very specific recommendations, I think we are in a position to have a second look when we receive the bill for the second, or even third, time.

My question is about the committee’s current mandate.

Can you tell us what the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages is currently studying, and how important it is to francophones?

Senator Gagné [ + ]

Thank you for the question, senator.

The committee is currently studying the immigration policy, which is extremely important in the context of the bill. The bill includes an obligation to develop an immigration policy, so it’s an integral part of the bill.

As I mentioned in my speech, whenever we hear from witnesses, the immigration policy in Bill C-13 inevitably comes up, both in the questions and in the answers.

Am I to understand that, without even receiving an order of reference or permission to conduct a pre‑study of Bill C-13, the committee is already studying immigration policy? Does that mean it’s already studying Bill C-13?

Senator Gagné [ + ]

Thank you for the question, senator.

That is a small part of the study, a fairly limited part compared to all the changes that are being made to the Official Languages Act. I think that the policy has to be discussed in a broader context, and that is why it keeps coming up, with questions about how that policy will be developed within a very specific legislative framework.

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