Liberals table bill to safeguard French in sweeping update to Official Languages Act

Minister of Economic Development Melanie Joly rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The Liberal government introduced legislation Tuesday to strengthen the protection of French in Canada as part of the biggest overhaul to the Official Languages Act in more than three decades, just days before the House of Commons is expected to break for the summer.

“Once it becomes law, more francophones will be able to work and live in French,” Official Languages Minister Melanie Joly told a news conference in Ottawa.

“More English-speaking parents will be able to send their kids to French immersion and more official-language minority communities will not only survive, but thrive.”

The legislation, known as Bill C-32, aims to guarantee the right to be served and to work in French in businesses under federal jurisdiction in Quebec, as well as in regions, not yet specified, with a strong predominance of francophones.

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It would also grant the official languages commissioner more teeth, with the power to compel companies to abide by tighter French-speaking requirements in most large, federally regulated workplaces.

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It would also confirm that French is the official language of Quebec and that New Brunswick is officially bilingual. It also recognizes the right of everyone, according to the constitution, to use English or French in the legislatures and courts of Quebec and Manitoba.

It also affirms the importance of maintaining and promoting Indigenous languages.

The bill proposes reforms across several departments, from ensuring that Global Affairs Canada is promoting French within the framework of Canada’s diplomatic relations to enshrining the bilingualism of Supreme Court judges.

Joly said the bill comes as a response to developments that had yet to unfold when it first passed under then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau in 1969.

She cited globalization and the internet, where a “hegemony of English” prevails in North America, but also says the government stands by its obligations to protect English-speaking minorities within Quebec.

The tabling of the bill, awaited for years, comes as members of Parliament prepare to pack up their bags to return to their respective ridings for the summer.

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In the event of an election, the bill would die on the order paper and another government would have to reintroduce a modernization of the Official Languages Act.

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“I’m convinced that the passing of this legislation will happen,” Joly said.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet told reporters he was willing to bet $10 that if the Liberals win a majority in the next election, they would not reintroduce the bill in the same form.

The Quebec Community Groups Network, which serves as an umbrella organization for English-language groups across the province, called Bill C-32 “an attack on the equality” of both English and French as official languages in Canada.

The group said the bill “territorializes language rights and extends language rights into the private sphere only for francophones. Such a significant shift will have profound effects for years to come on the official language rights of English-speaking Quebecers.”

In February, Marlene Jennings, a former Liberal MP who heads the network, said she was cautiously optimistic about the promised bill.

— With files from The Canadian Press’ Catherine Lévesque

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