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By Michael Boriero

Local Journalism Initiative

Prior to the federal government tabling Bill C-32, an Act for the Substantive Equality of French and English and the Strengthening of the Official Languages Act, the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages studied the original proposed reform document.

Committee Chair Senator René Cormier spoke to The Record about some of the challenges the committee faced in studying the ‘English and French: Towards a substantive equality of official languages in Canada’ document during a pandemic.

“It was a short study. We didn’t have time to produce an extensive report. We just could produce a document with key points and we hope that this key points document will help the study of the bill itself,” he said.

Although they were unable to meet in the senate, the committee managed to hold two meetings to study the divisive document, working with federal minister responsible for official languages, Mélanie Joly, and the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN).

And while the QCGN acknowledged the importance of protecting French language minority communities in Canada, they also voiced concerns about the effects the reform document would have on the English language minority population in Quebec.

“People are concerned, even though everybody recognizes that, they are concerned that the government still needs to take into consideration the specific needs and challenges of the Quebec English speaking community,” said Cormier.

Access to health care, education, and jobs were all brought up during these meetings, which the senate committee included in its final report. Cormier hopes that whenever the government studies Bill C-32 in the House of Commons, it will consider the senate’s key points.

“The other one was for the language obligation of federally regulated private businesses, in terms of the ability for French-speaking people to work in their own language […] like banks, for example,” said Cormier.

The QCGN and other stakeholders directly impacted by Bill C-32 believe this violates the language equality status in Canada. And it is not just in Montreal, Cormier continued, there is a significant English language minority in the city, but also in the Eastern Townships.

Cormier, who is an independent senator, said he could not speak on the behalf of the federal government. And he would not get into Quebec’s Bill 96, which proposes to strengthen the French language. He did, however, applaud English rights’ groups for sharing their concerns.

“I think, personally, and that’s the role of our committee, the senate, is to make sure that both official languages minority communities are represented and are well-served by the modernization of the act,” he said.

According to Cormier, the federal government does not want to diminish, or push aside, the concerns presented by the English speaking community in Quebec. They want to create, and promote, more equality between French and English in Canada.

“I can understand at the same time the concerns of the English communities in Quebec […] I know how fragile it is, how fragile our institutions are, and how fragile our citizens are in terms of access to jobs and health care,” said Cormier.

He is from the French-speaking minority community in New Brunswick. The dynamic is different there than in Quebec, though, he explained, as it is more of a bilingual province. But Cormier has also dealt with his share of struggles as a native French-speaker.

“In terms of reality, of everyday life, of course I’ve been struggling like all minorities on different issues like being able to be served in your own language, being able to access jobs, being able to access education; all of those issues, it’s an everyday fight for a minority citizen,” he said.

Cormier believes the report will be useful going forward, but he is not sure what the next steps are for the federal government. If there is no election, Bill C-32 will be studied in the House. If there is an election, the next government will need to make a decision on the future of the bill.

“I’m still, you know, maybe because I’m optimistic, I think that the work that we did as a committee is going to be useful and I think that the voice of the English communities in Quebec were heard in that short period of time,” said Cormier.

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