QCGN seeks feedback on new federal language legislation
Ruby Pratka, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
As Bill 96, the Legault government’s sweeping planned reform of the Charter of the French Language, makes its way through the legislative process, advocates for the English-speaking community are also keeping a close eye on Bill C-13, the planned reform to the federal Official Languages Act (OLA) which went through first reading in early March. Bill C-13 replaces Bill C-32, which died on the order paper before last fall’s federal election.
On April 7, the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN) hosted a town hall webinar attended by more than 60 people, which was later posted on YouTube. During the webinar, QCGN policy, research and public affairs director Stephen Thompson and legal adviser Marion Sandilands explained the implications of the bill, which is currently undergoing second reading in the House of Commons.
The OLA was first passed in 1969 and underwent substantial reforms in 1988. Thompson explained that discussions about how best to modernize the act had been ongoing through much of the past decade, particularly regarding Part VII, which sets out the government’s commitment to enhance the vitality of official language minority communities, support and assist their development and foster the full recognition and use of both official languages.
By the 2019 federal election, explained Thompson, a broad consensus had been reached. After the election, “the landscape completely changed” when the Liberals returned to power with a minority government and the Quebec government sent a new list of demands to its federal counterpart, in light of a report by the Office québécois de la langue française which indicated a decline in the number of first-language French speakers in the province. “The political orthodoxy now is that there’s a decline in the use of French in Canada [as a whole] and in Quebec. This is the atmosphere that we’re living in right now,” Thompson said.
Proposed reforms outlined in the 2020 federal throne speech brought forward the idea that “official language rights would be territorialized” – enforced to different degrees in different parts of the country – and new, asymmetrical rights and obligations would be created around the French language, Thompson explained.
Sandilands explained that the current OLA, which regulates bilingualism within the federal government and in certain Crown corporations, is “highly symbolic,” recognizing the presence of two official languages and of official language minority communities. “The act right now is symmetrical – it treats both languages in an equal fashion throughout – and it applies the same way everywhere in Canada,” she explained. Its reach does not extend to provincial government bodies or most private companies, and it does not restrict the use of other languages. Bill C-13 recognizes French as a minority language in need of specific protection, and recognizes “the diversity of provincial and territorial language regimes,” specifically referencing the Charter of the French Language, Sandilands explained. The bill also allows the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages to fine certain violators. A provision in Bill C-32 regulating the use of French in private businesses in Quebec will now be tabled as a separate proposed act.
The QCGN has raised concerns about how the new act’s commitment to “protect and promote French in each province and territory” and to co-operate with provincial governments will affect services provided to English-speaking Quebecers. QCGN executive director Sylvia Martin-Laforge emphasized that the organization has not yet developed an official position on the bill. “We’re gathering information through different consultation mechanisms, to prepare our position,” she said. “The individual member of the English-speaking community doesn’t normally pay much attention to the Official Languages Act, but it affects every English speaker in the province.”
Thompson expects the bill to go before a House committee as early as mid-May. Martin-Laforge invited community members with concerns about the bill to contact Thompson directly at stephen.thompson@ qcgn.ca.