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Motion 410 (Reaffirm the Importance of Both Official Languages in Light of the Government of Ontario’s Cuts to French Services)

Honourable senators, I rise to add my voice to support for Senator Miville-Dechêne’s motion this afternoon, which seeks to reaffirm the importance of both official languages as a foundation of our federation.

It’s also important, I think, to take a moment to recognize the many languages inherited from those peoples who were here a long time before all of us.

I’m speaking today not only as a senator who understands his obligation to advocate for and protect minority and linguistic rights.

I’m also speaking as an anglophone who lives in Ontario.

I recognize that democratically elected governments, as you all do, have the right to set out their legislative and fiscal priorities. But I would like to talk briefly on the consequences of a decision made last week by the provincial government in Ontario that would see the closure of the French Language Commission of Ontario, the cancellation of a French-language university in my community, and continued cuts to the French theatre, La Nouvelle Scène, and education for Franco-Ontarian children.

My dear colleagues, Mr. Ford’s decision to abolish the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner will affect more than just Franco-Ontarians.

It is a decision that will affect all of us across the province. It is symbolic of a deeper issue that sends a message to Ontarians, and Canadians, that linguistic rights and freedoms are not considered valued or important.

The commissioner ensures that the rights of Ontario citizens and the obligations of government and government agencies are respected according to the French Language Services Act. The commissioner makes recommendations for improving the delivery of services in French, monitors progress, conducts independent investigations following complaints or on his own initiative, prepares reports and advises the government, government agencies and MPPs to promote compliance with the act.

Independent commissions are vital to how our governments operate in Canada. They ensure that the rights of Canadians are protected by providing independent oversight to ensure compliance of our laws and ensure fair and equal delivery of services offered by our elected governments.

In the absence of a designated body to oversee compliance with the French Language Services Act, there is a serious potential that the French-speaking minority in my province of Ontario will not be able to access services in their first official language. This would be a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and it would erect significant barriers for those requiring access to public services across the province.

The province also announced that the government will be cancelling plans to build a francophone university in the Greater Toronto Area. This is extremely concerning and unfortunate. Universities, as we all know, are an important source for research and the production of academic resources and set the foundation for future generations’ key areas of expertise and development of their disciplines.

A francophone university in Toronto would provide access to education in our second official language not only to the hundreds of thousands of Franco-Ontarians living in the province, but to many other French Canadians who would have liked to study in the region. The university would have enriched the linguistic profile and diversity of Canada’s most populated city and would have given more options to many French-speaking Canadians and international students who wish to pursue their studies in French. It would have promoted bilingualism, created jobs and added to the social fabric of our community.

Bilingualism is especially important and acts as a defining piece to the overall identity of Canada. I found this having been born in the United Kingdom. I have always thought Canada is made richer because of its protection and promotion of the French language. Bilingualism unites all Canadians by promoting a heightened awareness of linguistic interests as well as a shared minority interest from coast to coast to coast.

Our recognition of two official languages is an international asset. French is the dominant language of important international institutions like the European Union and the United Nations. French is spoken in 29 countries, and it is estimated there are 275 million French-speaking people around the world.

Closer to home, in my province, Ontario is home to the largest French-speaking minority in the country, with over 600,000 francophones.

According to the latest information, 42 per cent of the community live in the Ottawa area and 19 per cent reside in the Greater Toronto Area. I am also personally familiar with Northern Ontario, where over 20 per cent of Franco Ontarians live. The proliferation of the French language and culture in these northern communities has contributed significantly to the unique identity of the region.

On a personal level, it became very clear to me just how important French language services are after arriving in this place, in this Senate. As an anglophone, it is really easy to take for granted how everyone easily accommodates us. I have been really well accommodated. Documents are always prepared in my language, usually first, services are offered first in my language, emails, conversations and debate occur primarily in English first. I often reflect how difficult it would be for me to do my job properly if English wasn’t my first language. I recognize how disadvantaged I may be every day in personal and professional interactions.

Once I realized this, I started taking French courses here, in the House of Commons. I support bilingualism because it is important to me, and I think we need to recognize and respect the language rights of the people of the province I represent.

I urge my anglophone counterparts to encourage and promote the linguistic rights of French Canadians. All our voices need to be heard on this issue.

Even though this voice has a strong anglophone accent.

Honourable senators I urge you to support this motion. It’s significant for all Canadians, and especially for Ontarians, whether you identify as francophone or anglophone. We as Canadians need to unite and celebrate our linguistic and cultural diversity, not only because it is the fibre and identity of our nation, but because it is a right we are afforded under the French Languages Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Meegwetch. Thank you.