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Official languages bill to enshrine francophone immigration in law clears House of Commons

Official Languages Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor addresses the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, in Montreal, Monday, May 8, 2023. The House of Commons has passed third reading of a bill that aims to enshrine a francophone immigration program into law. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi. CMU

A bill that aims to enshrine a francophone immigration program into law is heading to the Senate after clearing the House of Commons.

Bill C-13 would modernize the Official Languages Act and recognize that French is the only official language in Canada that is under threat and therefore must be protected within federal workplaces.

The bill passed third reading in the House of Commons Monday with Montreal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, who has expressed concerns about its effect on the minority English-speaking community in Quebec, being the only one to vote against it.

“This is really a historic day. It’s a really important day for this legislation and an important day for our country,” said Official Languages Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor following the vote in the House.

The bill, if it becomes law, would introduce immigration in the Official Languages Act for the first time, and recognize its importance to the vitality of francophone minority communities outside Quebec.

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The Liberal government believes this will help increase childcare, education and health-care services in French across Canada, where programs are affected by a lack of bilingual workers.

“Through this modernization we’re talking about putting in place an immigration policy with indicators and targets to make sure that we reverse that decline,” Petitpas Taylor said.

The bill would also require that all judges appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada are bilingual in order to improve access to justice and to ensure that future governments can’t change the policy.

The bill has been described by MPs as having more teeth, which they said was needed because “baby teeth are not forever teeth,” as Conservative MP Joel Godin said during a committee meeting.

Click to play video: 'Quebec Anglophones concerned over Bill C-13'
Quebec Anglophones concerned over Bill C-13

The bill would give more tools to the Commissioner of Official Languages.

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It also would give people working in federally regulated private businesses in Quebec — or in official-language minority communities outside of Quebec — the ability to work in French and be served in French. However, that won’t apply to the broadcasting sector.

Strengthening the Official Languages Act had been part of the Liberals’ 2021 election platform.

A previous version of the legislation was introduced in 2021, but it never passed. Bill C-13 was later tabled in March 2022, and if it becomes law it will apply to all federal departments and institutions such as courts, post offices and Service Canada offices.

Petitpas Taylor has said it will also apply equally to all official-language minority communities in Canada, whether they are French-speaking people living in Manitoba, or English-speaking Quebecers.

Housefather broke away from the party line to vote against the bill on Monday and Quebec Liberal MP Sherry Romanado abstained from voting.

Throughout the committee’s study phase, Housefather raised concerns because the bill’s preamble references the government of Quebec’s Bill 96, which was adopted last May before the federal bill was drafted, and requires all provincial businesses to operate in French.

That provincial law was passed using the notwithstanding clause, which allowed the government to temporarily override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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Warren Newman, senior general counsel in the federal Justice Department, told MPs during a committee study of the bill that the mention of Bill 96 will not limit services to English-speaking minorities.

“I don’t see that federal services from federal institutions would be in any way compromised by the mere mention of the fact that the Charter of the French Language and other linguistic regimes are matters that the government recognizes as part of the overall context,” Newman said during a March committee meeting.

Following the bill’s passing in the House, Petitpas Taylor also took a moment to reassure English-speaking Canadians.

“I want to be very clear to anglophones listening to us today that C-13 in no way takes away any rights away from official minority communities, and that includes our anglophone communities in Quebec.”

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