By Gordon Lambie
Local Journalism Initiative
Earlier this week the Government of Canada introduced its proposed update of the Official Languages Act, Bill C-32. If passed, the bill will result in the first changes made to the act since 1988, but in the days since its introduction, the proposed legislation has already drawn criticism from a number of groups including the Quebec Community Groups Network and its member organization, Townshippers’ Association.
Bill C-32 was introduced on Tuesday by Melanie Joly, Canada’s Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages as a clear demonstration of the Federal Government’s commitment to five specific language communities: French speakers outside Quebec, English speakers inside Quebec, French speakers in Quebec, English speakers outside Quebec, and Indigenous language communities.
“Minority language communities have been asking for this for years now,” Joly said, speaking to the merits she sees in the bill. “It is an important piece of legislation and key to federalism and national unity.”
Among the proposed changes to the act are a formal recognition that the French language requires special protection, including in Quebec; a recognition of the government’s duty to promote and protect the use of French as a language of work and service in private companies under federal jurisdiction in Quebec, as well as other regions of the country with a strong Francophone presence; strengthening the powers of the Commissioner of Official Languages to ensure compliance with the Act, and a number of measures to support efforts to preserve, enhance and promote indigenous languages.
Shortly after the bill was introduced, the Quebec Community Groups Network, which only last week presented its initial analysis of Quebec’s language reform, Bill 96, released a statement criticizing C-32 as, “a clear attack on the equality of Canada’s official languages.” Although the group’s statement acknowledged the bill as having “some measures aimed at supporting the vitality of the English-speaking community of Quebec,” it was primarily critical of the way the proposed legislation opens the door to varying language rights across different territories.
Where QCGN held back from more thorough commentary pending further analysis of the document, Townshippers’ Association President Gerald Cutting argued in a written statement that Quebec’s English-speaking communities essentially stand to gain nothing from the bill.
“How will this piece of legislation be effective in the face of provincial legislation like Bill 96 that relegates our community to second class citizenship without recourse before the courts?” Cutting wrote, adding that “the constitutional guarantee that even governments must abide by the rule of law is about to be legislated out of existence in Quebec and much of what is proposed in C-32 would not be applicable here.”
Asked about the negative response to the bill, Joly said that she hears the concerns about Bill 96 and argued that the proposed changes to the Official Languages Act do stand to play an important role in supporting minority language communities.
“Our constitutional duty is to be there to protect official language minority communities, and we will uphold that duty,” she said.
Joly offered the specific example of the bill’s protection of the court challenges program, which is meant to help provide financial support to Canadians to access the courts and to help assert and clarify certain constitutional and quasi-constitutional official language rights and human rights in Canada. She suggested that the program is key to the defence of the English-speaking community before courts.
“The Quebec Government is saying they have full jurisdiction over language,” she said. “We disagree.”
The cabinet minister also said that she is very confident that the bill strikes a strong balance between protecting the French language and supporting English-speakers.
“We think this is a strong affirmation on the part of what the Federal Government
can do,” Joly said.