Second reading of Bill S-220, An Act to amend the Languages Skills Act (Governor General)

By: The Hon. Pierre Dalphond

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Ceremonial Guard on Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Hon. Pierre J. Dalphond: Honourable senators, I rise to speak to the bill introduced by Senator Carignan, Bill S-220, An Act to amend the Languages Skills Act (Governor General). I gather that the motivation behind it is the importance of maintaining solid ties between francophone Canada and our federal symbols.

From the outset, I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe nation, as noted by the Right Honourable Mary Simon in the introduction to the Speech from the Throne:

This land acknowledgement is not a symbolic declaration. It is our true history.

Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General’s words remind us of this truth, helping guide us forward together, towards reconciliation. Fundamental to this path is a greater understanding of the First Peoples who thrived in these lands before colonists from Europe arrived, as well as a greater understanding of the events that followed.

In her speech, Her Excellency stated:

Reconciliation is not a single act, nor does it have an end date. It is a lifelong journey of healing, respect and understanding. We need to embrace the diversity of Canada and demonstrate respect and understanding for all peoples every day.

Embracing and reflecting the diversity of the peoples of Canada in our federal institutions can be a challenge with our complex history and evolving reality. Language requirements for appointments in high positions may easily become a delicate subject.

Need I point out that section 16 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that English and French are the official languages of Canada? This statement is important to millions of Canadians, not just francophones. It is also true that French is still under constant threat and pressure in Canada, even within Quebec. Francophones in Canada know there have been various attempts to assimilate them ever since Lord Durham’s report came out in 1839. They want to protect and promote their language, their culture and their identity in Canada, and rightfully so.

Like most Canadians, I also acknowledge Canada’s terrible history of trying to assimilate Indigenous peoples, including suppression of Indigenous languages. As a francophone, I recognize the urgency and need to support the protection and revitalization of Indigenous languages.

In 2019, Parliament’s passage of Bill C-91, the Indigenous Languages Act, provided some meaningful action, and the Senate should work to ensure that this new law is successful.

Indeed, section 22 of the Charter makes clear that having two official languages does not derogate from Indigenous language rights. Former Senator Joyal highlighted this point in advocating for the use of Inuktitut in the Senate, a language with interpretation available here with prior notice since 2008. Today, I am glad to have Inuktitut spoken at Rideau Hall.

By appointing for the first time an Indigenous person as Governor General of Canada, acting on the recommendation of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Queen Elizabeth II recognized the historical place of our own First Peoples in the history of this country. This appointment is in perfect continuity with other significant gestures made since 1952.

As some of you may remember — but not that many — on February 1, 1952, then-prime minister Louis St. Laurent announced that King George VI had approved his recommendation to appoint Vincent Massey of Toronto as the first Canadian-born Governor General. It was a landmark first step to Canadianize the office. Nobody would accept today the appointment of a British aristocrat to hold the office.

It was Massey’s intent as Governor General to work to unite Canada’s diverse cultures. He travelled extensively across the country and delivered speeches promoting bilingualism, some 20 years before the official policy.

In 1959, the appointment of Georges Vanier as the first francophone Canadian Governor General on the recommendation of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker marked another milestone. The first thing he did was add French text to the plaque at the entrance to Rideau Hall. During his tenure, Vanier made much of cooperation between francophone and anglophone Canadians. In one of his last speeches, he said, and I quote:

The road of unity is the road of love: love of one’s country and faith in its future will give new direction and purpose to our lives, lift us above our domestic quarrels, and unite us in dedication to the common good.

Another landmark moment was the 1984 appointment of Jeanne Sauvé, a Saskatchewan-born francophone, on the recommendation of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. She was the first woman to serve as Governor General. In an effort to further Canadianize the office, she asked to be greeted with O Canada rather than the royal anthem.

In 1999, the appointment of Adrienne Clarkson — born in Hong Kong in 1939 before her family took refuge in Canada in 1942 — was a recognition of Canada’s diversity and a powerful signal to new Canadians that they can achieve the highest position in their new country.

This message was reiterated in 2005 by the appointment of Michaëlle Jean, born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, who was 11 when her family fled a dictatorial regime to settle in Montreal. Moreover, for the first time, a woman serving as Governor General was succeeded by another woman.

The appointment in July 2021 of Her Excellency the Right Honourable Mary Simon, born and raised in Nunavik, the Arctic part of Quebec, is another such historic milestone.

For the first time, the position of Governor General is now held by a person from among the Indigenous peoples who have inhabited the lands of this country from time immemorial. I truly support this appointment and hope that it will help to break some of the many barriers imposed on the First Peoples of this country.

I now come to Bill S-220. Its objective, as I understand it, is to restrain the discretion of a prime minister in recommending future holders of the office. In my view, this should be done in a way that is respectful of all the milestones accomplished since 1952.

In other words, I understand the objective of the bill to be that the selection process of future nominees to this office should aim at finding people who are knowledgeable about Canada’s history and cultures, committed to truth and reconciliation, respectful of the inherent equality and dignity of all people and peoples and committed to uplifting our two official languages as well as Indigenous languages. This objective, as so defined, I support.

Incidentally, this objective when so defined reflects the values of the Constitution Act, 1982, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is now a key part of the Canadian fabric.

Let me now comment on some aspects of this bill before committee study, preferably at the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

First, Senator Carignan proposes to achieve this objective by amending the Language Skills Act. However, I wonder if that is the right legislative vehicle. As you know, this law concerns what we call the “officers of Parliament,” who are appointed by the House of Commons and the Senate, such as the Auditor General, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Commissioner of Lobbying and others.

That is not the case for the Governor General, who is appointed by the sovereign upon the recommendation of the Prime Minister. In fact, we are dealing here with one of the last true royal prerogatives, concerning duties that are clearly distinct from those of all other officers of Parliament. To achieve the objective I described earlier, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to amend the Governor General’s Act?

By the way, I would express the same reservations if a bill proposed to amend the Language Skills Act to include Supreme Court justices. In my opinion, that objective would have to be achieved by amending the Supreme Court Act.

Second, the bill focuses solely on the language skills of candidates for the position of Governor General. Although that is an extremely important aspect, as I said earlier, I believe that the Prime Minister should consider people who can also demonstrate, through their past experience and undertakings, that they support all the elements that I described or have ties to them, including Indigenous peoples and reconciliation.

Third, I believe that the committee responsible for studying this bill should verify the constitutional validity of a law that would significantly restrain the Prime Minister’s discretionary power, which is an important element in the process for having the Governor General appointed by the sovereign. I suggest that the committee hear from legal experts on this issue.

In conclusion, colleagues, I support the idea of delineating the discretionary power of a prime minister in connection with the appointment of a governor general in a way that builds on all the milestones that I have referred to, with an inclusive and forward-looking spirit. However, I have reservations about the means proposed to achieve it. Thank you, nakurmiik.


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