Hon. Marty Klyne: Honourable senators, I rise to speak to Bill C-13, an important piece of government legislation to protect and promote the French language in Canada.
I note as well that Bill C-13 fulfills a government election commitment. This is always an essential consideration in our appointed chamber, as Senators Harder and Dalphond and others have highlighted many times in the Senate’s independent era.
After a substantial pre-study, we received Bill C-13 in May. I will address some concerns I have with the bill around airports in Western Canada through my Saskatchewan lens, while fully supporting Bill C-13’s objective of protecting and promoting French and minority language rights in Canada.
I will start with the big picture. French is one of Canada’s official languages, a point of pride for our federation and for me personally, including through my lineage with my Quebec-born fifth-, fourth- and third-great-grandparents. Our international identity, our shared history and many Canadian cultural conditions reflect our place within the Francophonie. It is essential to protect French, a language at risk of erosion in mainly English-speaking North America and a language integral to Quebecers, Acadians and other French Canadians, not to mention Cajuns in Louisiana, whom the British drove from Acadia in the 18th century.
Métis and many First Nations learned to speak French and English in the years of equal dealings between nations. The Métis were proficient in French, English and Indigenous languages, making them sought after by the Hudson’s Bay Company trading system. They often acted as interpreters, trade negotiators, clerks and guides leading voyageurs and explorers. Europeans otherwise could not have navigated this vast country of complex water systems and the passes through the rugged mountain chains.
However, Canada’s two official languages don’t account for the many Indigenous languages spoken by peoples who have been here since time immemorial.
Samuel de Champlain’s success in establishing New France relied on cultivating alliances and respectful relationships with First Nations. In 1603, the Innu Chief Anadabijou welcomed Champlain at a celebratory feast to set the terms of the great alliance for a French presence in the country. Many scholars argue this nation-to-nation moment, taking place at Tadoussac, where the Saguenay River meets the St. Lawrence, was the true beginning of Quebec and even Canada.
Though damaged by later colonial policies, Indigenous languages are vital to our nation of nations. Section 22 of our Charter makes clear that official language rights do not abrogate or derogate from Indigenous language rights. With Canada’s linguistic future, we remain a long way from restoring Indigenous languages’ rightful roles in our society.
We need to do a better job of promoting and protecting these languages, many of which are seriously in danger of falling out of use. Parliament acted by passing Bill C-91 on Indigenous languages in 2019. Former senators Joyal and Sinclair worked together on language rights, helping set the table for Bill C-91 through Senator Joyal’s earlier efforts with Bill S-212 on Indigenous languages. This is an inspiring example of solidarity of minority linguistic communities in Canada.
In speaking to Bill S-212, Senator Sinclair asked:
“Who are you?” It’s not a rhetorical question. It’s a question which asks you to contemplate the fundamental question of your identity and character. To be able to answer that, you need to know where you and your ancestors came from, what you stood for, your personal and collective history, what your influences have been, what your ambitions have been and are, and what your purpose in life is. . . .
Language and culture are keys to personal identity. Personal identity is key to a sense of self-worth, and spiritual and mental wellness hinge on one’s sense of self-worth.
I want to see Indigenous youth fluent in their languages. One day, I want to see conversations happening with non-Indigenous Canadians in those languages. I note that Minister Miller has endeavoured to learn Mohawk.
Focusing on French, we know that the Official Languages Act was a landmark step when enacted in 1969. It recognized and protected Canada’s predominant linguistic duality in terms of population. We can contrast the Official Languages Act with the Durham Report of 1839, which proposed the assimilation of French speakers in Lower Canada.
Bill C-13 is the first time the Official Languages Act has been substantially updated in many years. I support this bill’s goals of protecting and promoting French and its efforts to support minority language communities.
If I have any caution or concern about this bill, it’s that, as we move towards a more fully bilingual country, we must do so with a clear understanding of where most Canadians are when it comes to speaking both official languages. In this regard, I wear my Saskatchewan hat, and my focus is on practicalities and obligations on airports in Western Canada.
In most Canadian cities, towns and communities, there is one predominant language spoken by most people who live there. Most citizens have only a limited knowledge of the other official language, whether that happens to be French or English. There are exceptions, of course, as we can see from communities in Quebec, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Ontario and in other provinces. Yet, most Canadians are proficient in either English or French and not the other.
Bill C-13 hopes to change that reality, and I support that goal. At the same time, if we are going to ask businesses and federally regulated sectors to embrace enhanced bilingual requirements, then we need to do so with a realistic understanding of where most Canadians are when it comes to speaking an official language that is not their mother tongue.
Part 2 of the bill speaks to or defines what is considered a strong francophone presence and expectations of federally regulated businesses. How does the bill apply to communities and/or businesses’ workforce in regions that have minimal or minor francophone representation and are federally regulated?
Take, for example, my home province of Saskatchewan. In 2020, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages noted that French is the mother tongue of about 1.5% of the population. That’s a very minor representation among the people who live there. There is no question that francophone Saskatchewanians should have their language rights protected and supported, especially when they are engaging with federally regulated services. However, we need to be mindful that transitioning to a more fully bilingual country will take time and commitment, especially in places like Saskatchewan, where French speakers are a minority. That said, in Saskatchewan, a province of at least 1.2 million people, there are at least five francophone communities that I can think of. We also have French immersion schools and a growing and thriving representation of Fransaskois residing around the province’s largest cities.
Yet for many youth, particularly those facing poverty in their early years, learning a second language is a difficult hill to climb, even if they have the opportunity.
Parliament has heard many voices both for and against the legislation. Those in favour of the bill cite its support for the promotion of French and protection of minority language communities. Those who have expressed concerns about the bill have talked about its potential impact on English-speaking Quebecers and have raised questions on how the bill’s provisions will be implemented.
To discuss one concern I have, I will use an example that was highlighted in the annual report recently tabled by Raymond Théberge, the Commissioner of Official Languages.
In one part of his report, the commissioner noted that many Canadians still struggle to receive service in the official language of their choice when flying in major airports.
This is a concern for many Canadians who, as part of the travelling public, want to use their preferred — or perhaps only — language on a journey. I sympathize with that concern. Major airports already have obligation under Part IV of the Official Languages Act. When those obligations are not met, it can be frustrating, particularly for francophones.
In his report, the commissioner notes that he has been working with airports to ensure stronger compliance with the act, and that he believes the new powers Bill C-13 will give him will help achieve that goal.
At the same time, some organizations in the travel industry, such as airport authorities, have expressed concern about the additional powers that would be granted to the commissioner. This bill gives the commissioner added powers to enter compliance agreements, to issue orders and to impose administrative monetary penalties in the travel sector. This may be an important step in helping make Canada more bilingual. However, if organizations, such as airport authorities in places like Regina and Saskatoon, struggle to meet orders due to staffing challenges associated with finding staff who can speak French, then that’s a dynamic that must be navigated with a lot of care.
I note that the Senate Official Languages Committee added an observation in their report indicating confusion over the language rights regime for Canada’s travelling public, recommending that the federal government should:
. . . establish a coherent and clear language rights regime for the travelling public . . . .
That’s a good idea. I believe we need further clarity in this area so that airport authorities, airlines, the government and Canadians can move forward with a shared understanding.
Senators, we need to ensure that we do not accidentally burden businesses and organizations that operate in largely unilingual communities with bilingual language commitments that they will be unable to meet. It is difficult to find francophone speakers in Saskatchewan simply because they are under-represented.
In Saskatchewan, our unemployment rate is 4.4%, and we are looking for employees. We are building more houses and rental alternatives if bilingual professionals and skilled tradespeople are interested in living, working and playing in our great province.
Regional differences and francophone representation vary across Canada. With this bill, I believe there is no one-size-fits-all solution that will work. In places like Regina or Saskatoon, where French speakers are relatively few, increasing bilingual services is easier said than done. That’s a reality we need to be mindful of. At the same time, we wish to respect and embrace this point of unique international identity and ensure we’re not alienating Western Canadians from our federation’s linguistic values.
I expect that all senators in this chamber support helping more Canadians become bilingual and to receive services in the language of their choice, but we must work toward this goal in a way that acknowledges the realities of a country where most people currently only speak one language. For that reason, I expect the Senate will continue to play an oversight and accountability role in the application of Bill C-13, including providing critical evaluation and recommendations that might be necessary, while basing that role in respect of French, English and Indigenous languages.
I will vote for Bill C-13, and urge you to do the same. I similarly urge this chamber to oversee and safeguard the reasonable interests of airports in Western Canada, and ensure that we offer practical solutions as we move toward becoming a more bilingual country. Thank you, hiy kitatamihin.