Third Reading of Bill C-13, Substantive Equality of Canada’s Official Languages Bill

By: The Hon. Michèle Audette

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Hon. Michèle Audette: [Editor’s Note: Senator Audette spoke in Innu-aimun.]

I’ve been looking forward to sharing my love, my emotions, but also my experience as a senator in speaking to Bill C-13, for the substantive equality of Canada’s official languages.

I’ve noticed that you have a great deal of passion for those living in a vulnerable situation, in regions where there’s no French at all in downtown areas, where signage is strictly in English. My son lives in Vancouver and I want him to keep speaking French, my granddaughter too, but it is tougher.

I see things across Canada, but I’ve seen things here too: the passion, the determination, but especially the fear of losing and I understand that. I’ve tried not to scare you, but I’ve remained true to myself, true in my approach and in my words. We’ve all travelled, we’ve all enjoyed other places. Everywhere we go, the language is the first thing we hear. Sometimes, we notice the difference. It is the language that gives us an identity, a culture, a relationship with the land and also rights, responsibilities, a history, a contemporary life, but also aspirations for the future.

It’s the same here in Canada. It’s the same here, in this big, beautiful chamber. I’m certain everyone heard the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami in 2018 when he brought out his bill to have Inuktitut recognized as an official language.

It didn’t work; it turned into a law for indigenous languages. However, it was important for the Inuit. They are the ones who live in the North but can be found throughout Canada. However, it was decided otherwise.

I try to speak English too, although sometimes it’s more like “franglais.” Thank you for being patient when I invent words. I can see from the look in your eyes when you don’t understand what I’ve said, but you are patient. Otherwise, I ask someone —

“Can you repeat what you are saying?”

That is my day-to-day reality. However, I also speak French. I learned it. As I have already said, my father is the most amazing Quebecer, but my mother is Innu. You will understand that I carry both identities. That is my responsibility. Every time a bill deals with languages, you will hear me say that Innu-aimun is also an official language. However, I haven’t gone to court yet, or found a lawyer yet, even though I’m surrounded by lawyers. It is not up to me to take that step, it is up to my nation and the other nations, and it is also up to you.

The international community will also say, and UNESCO will say, that Indigenous languages around the world, and even in Canada, are the vulnerable languages. They can even be classified as being at risk, vulnerable, seriously endangered or quite simply critically endangered.

So I understand you. I felt that you understand me, but we don’t have the same rights. That is when we start to wonder how we will bridge the gap and find ways to ensure that our rights can eventually line up.

I don’t want to have to keep going to court for that to happen. In any case, it would be too expensive for me, much less my nation. We already have too many cases before the courts.

That duality also inspires me when I look at the bill, because it will defend French, which is extremely important. As for the situation of the English-speaking minority, it is the same for the Naskapi, the Innu and the Cree, who were required to learn English. Mary May Simon was forced to learn English, and she was not allowed to study in French. With what is happening in Quebec, that becomes another legal and systemic barrier. That is yet another concern.

There is also something else I keep thinking about. Maybe someone can clarify. We keep hearing the term “Charter of the French Language.” Isn’t it just a legal tool to prevent the nations from challenging this issue before the Quebec courts? Some say no and some say yes, so it will be important to consider that perspective in the studies and analyses. Sometimes we do things and then realize later that we need to make adjustments. You know that I’m right about that. However, I know that it is important when a language is in a dangerous or precarious position.

You heard Senator Downe say that he felt as though we missed a historic opportunity to add Indigenous languages to the preamble or to mention it as one of the founding languages. What harm would that have done? I just have 60 amendments on that to present this evening. That was an Innu joke.

All that is to say that I am convinced that this will be added in 10 years. Something tells me that it will be added. There is the Indigenous Languages Act, but it doesn’t have the same teeth as the Official Languages Act. The commissioners don’t have the same powers at all.

You will tell me that it is not the same, but for me it is, because I am the first in the family to not pass on Innu-aimun. That hurts. It took an inquiry on Indigenous women and girls to once again say, “Let’s go. The provinces, territories and Canada need to add our Indigenous languages to their big book of official languages.”

Perhaps I will see it happen when I am a ghost haunting the Senate, but I would like to see it happen before that. Right after I was appointed, I met with the minister and I wished her good luck. We talked, and it was very pleasant and friendly, but there were still four things that I said to her. First I said, “Make sure that Indigenous languages are mentioned in the preamble. That is important. Words are important. Words make up paragraphs, paragraphs make up bills and so on.”

Then it will have to pass the test under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That part is not a given. I’m not sure, but we will see how the analysis goes.

Then I said to the minister, “I hope you and your team will get involved with the stewards, linguists, technolinguists and lawyers. Go see them and tell them where we can build bridges to make this more effective and to make sure that when I go to a federal organization, I can hear what is happening in my Indigenous language, and of course in English or French as well.”

That didn’t happen. I’m told that it should be in the Indigenous Languages Act. I’m certain that a balance could have been achieved, if we’d had the time. I was told that we would have the time in this place. I have some time, until 2040, in fact. We’ll have the time to thoroughly analyze this. However, I can tell you that for this one, it happened fast, too fast. So much so, in fact, that emotionally, it caused tension between friends and colleagues. I had a hard time with this situation, but I recovered after 24 or 48 hours.

Let’s make sure that when we get up and talk about reconciliation, when we talk about royal commissions, when we talk about commissions of inquiry into issues relating to Indigenous women, when we talk about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canadians and the government have ordered us to do these things to give us social projects, particularly regarding languages. How can we harmonize, how can we coexist, how can we ensure that today I’m 17 — even if I’m 51 because of the Indian Act — and that I get the same rights and protections that we’re going to give to linguistic minority communities?

I have confidence. I’m patient, most of the time, though not always. However, I will not give up, I will never give up. Some of you know me, but if you don’t, let me assure you, I will not give up.

I have no issue telling Mr. Marc Miller or the next minister responsible for Indigenous relations, or the next minister responsible for Indigenous health or economic development, that the government is refusing to translate into an Indigenous language a success story between the nation and the government, the success of a federal department. I think that in this case as well, it should be added to the study to make sure that someone takes responsibility for it. If one day, I disclose something to a commissioner, I hope that the commissioner will have the power to make good recommendations, to ensure that there is no fear when making amendments or making this law more effective.

I hope you’ll be back. I hope that one day, we’ll manage to ensure that Indigenous peoples are entitled to 5% of music in the eyes of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, that it will not be considered foreign music, particularly considering that we were the ones who welcomed you when you arrived.

[Editor’s Note: Senator Audette spoke in Innu-aimun.]

Hon. Senators: Hear! Hear!

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