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June 20th, 2022 - The subject matter of Bill C-13, An Act for the Substantive Equality of Canada’s Official Languages - Various Witnesses

Senator Poirier: Thank you for being with us again, Mr. Théberge. It’s always a pleasure to see you.

My first question is about Part 2 of Bill C-13, An Act to amend the Official Languages Act, to enact the Use of French in Federally Regulated Private Businesses Act and to make related amendments to other Acts.

The witnesses last week had concerns about the application of the regulations, because there is a lot of uncertainty in that respect. They said that they didn’t know what to expect. The Parliamentary Budget Officer also shared his concerns about the lack of information and clarity, which must be addressed through regulations after Bill C-13 is passed.

You also shared your concerns with us about the definitions set out in Part 2.

In your opinion, with legislation of this scope, would it be best for the government to remove Part 2 of Bill C-13 and bring forward a better-defined bill?

Mr. Théberge: Thank you, senator. I think, with this brief, that we’re contributing something — how we can improve what I call the UFA, the use of French act. Clearly, there is a lot of uncertainty about this bill, because it does not clearly define what constitutes a consumer or an employee, what the threshold is for the number of employees, what constitutes a strong francophone presence and so forth.

I also think the bill redefines somewhat the concept of official languages and the concept of Canadian duality that we’ve become used to working with for 50 years. That said, we clearly need to find a way to promote the use of French nationally. I think this bill warrants serious reflection, and not only should my recommendations be considered, but also recommendations from other stakeholders.

Senator Poirier: Do I still have a bit of time?

The Chair: Yes, absolutely. You have three minutes left.

Senator Poirier: The purpose of the Official Languages Act is to ensure respect for English and French as the official languages of Canada, while the purpose of the use of French act is to defend the French language by completely excluding English from its purpose and protection.

In your opinion, what risk is there in omitting English from this act?

Mr. Théberge: When I look at Bill C-13, it’s clear that my mandate in relation to the Official Languages Act is different from my mandate under the use of French act. As I said earlier, the use of French act represents an important change in the approach used in official language minority communities. As commissioner, I must defend the use of both official languages and both communities based on those two official languages. The current bill grants rights to one community, but not the other. It must be remembered that the purpose of the act is to foster and encourage the use, promotion and sustainability of the French language.

Senator Poirier: I have a bit of time left, so I’ll be quick.

In the bill as it currently stands, could an anglophone in Quebec file a complaint with your office if they believe that their language rights at work are not being respected? If so, how will you handle that type of complaint?

Mr. Théberge: The way the bill currently reads, I don’t think we have enough information to give you a clear response.

The Chair: Thank you for your answers, Mr. Théberge.


Senator Poirier: My question is also about Part 2 of Bill C-32. With this new act, federally regulated private businesses can choose which language regime to adopt. In your opinion, what is the risk of giving businesses that choice? Why is the government giving businesses this choice?

Mr. Théberge: I can’t say why the government’s giving them that choice, but I think offering that choice will certainly cause confusion for consumers. It means that a business could decide to adopt one language regime in Quebec and another outside Quebec. It’s not necessarily clear for consumers who want to know when laws apply and don’t apply. There will be confusion.

In addition, in terms of compliance, it could clearly cause problems. There’s already a legal void in that respect. It’s not up to the Commissioner of Official Languages to decide what level of government or who has jurisdiction in this area, since I’m not a constitutional expert. When consumers deal with a business, they need to clearly know which regime the business is under to be able to have their rights respected.

Senator Poirier: Would it be possible to open the door to the provinces to offer the same choice?

Mr. Théberge: It’s hard to predict what the other provinces would want to do. I can’t speculate on that; it would be pure speculation for me to venture a response.

Senator Poirier: Thank you.


Senator Poirier: My question is for both witnesses and is first related to Part 2 of Bill C-13. Last week, witnesses from FETCO shared their concerns about the uncertainty surrounding Part 2, saying that there were no regulations. They don’t know what to expect. Do you share the same concerns, and should we remove Part 2 of Bill C-13 and ask the government to take the time to properly define the key elements before the bill is passed instead of after?

Mr. Rheault: Part 2 of the bill, is that the part that applies to federally regulated businesses, the new part that the commissioner called the UFA?

The Chair: Yes, it’s the Use of French in Federally Regulated Private Businesses Act.

Mr. Rheault: Very good. With respect to the application of that act, it must be understood — and we tried to explain this in our presentation — that that part does not cover businesses that are already subject to the Official Languages Act under another act. For instance, Air Canada is subject to the Official Languages Act under the Air Canada Public Participation Act.

As a private business, Air Canada will nonetheless remain subject — I don’t know whether its called Part 1 — to the Official Languages Act as it stands now. The same is true for airports, which are subject to the act because they were privatized by the government.

What we said in our presentation is that the regime that will apply to other airlines under Part 2 of the bill must be consistent with the regime currently in place in Part 1, so that passengers can make sense of it all. Under the current act, regulations define which routes and services at which airports must be bilingual. If these concepts are defined for other airlines, it’s important that it be the same thing, or passengers will be confused by the regimes.


Senator Poirier: Mr. Phelan, do you have any comments?

Mr. Phelan: Yes. As I understand it, as National Airports System airports are already captured under the Official Languages Act, Part 2 would not apply. Given the various governance models, most airports are municipal entities, so I don’t believe this act would apply. But I’m still learning more and would happily be corrected.


Senator Poirier: Do I still have time, Mr. Chair?

The Chair: Yes, but there’s a bit of a technical challenge.

Thank you, Mr. Rheault. We’ll come back to this. I’m sorry, I don’t know where we were.

Senator Poirier: I had a question, Mr. Chair.

The Chair: Go ahead, senator.

Senator Poirier: I had other questions, but I don’t know whether it’s worth asking them, if I’ve correctly understood the responses. Are you telling me that you have no obligation under Part 2 of Bill C-13 and that it doesn’t affect you at all? Did I understand that correctly?

Mr. Rheault: What we explained was that Part 2 creates obligations for businesses that are currently not subject to any language obligations. Air Canada and airports are already subject to the Official Languages Act, so, no, Part 2 doesn’t change that. The obligations that apply to Air Canada are in the current act, which will be amended by Bill C-13, so —

Senator Poirier: With respect to your current obligations under the Official Languages Act, there’s nothing in Part 2 of Bill C-13 that covers that, because you’re already covered. Did I understand that right?

Mr. Rheault: Exactly. For instance, I don’t know whether we can call it Part 1, but the Air Canada Public Participation Act will be amended in that the commissioner will have more powers, particularly the power to issue monetary penalties. What Part 2 sets out, however, is a new language regime for federally regulated businesses that are not covered by the current act.

This includes other airlines, telecommunications companies and banks, but Air Canada’s obligations under the Air Canada Public Participation Act are already set out in the current regime. The locations where those obligations apply are already defined by regulation.

Senator Poirier: I was just a bit surprised because we’re studying Part 2 while, in reality, it doesn’t affect you at all.

The Chair: If I can ask a follow-up question to clarify yours —

Senator Poirier: Please.

The Chair: This is a follow-up question. That means that, in a specific case, Air Canada is subject to the Official Languages Act and that another airline would be subject to the Use of French in Federally Regulated Private Businesses Act.

Mr. Rheault, is Air Canada concerned by this different regime for airlines that have the same mandate, transporting travellers in Canada?

Mr. Rheault: Indeed, our public position, which was set out in the Senate committee’s 2019 report on the modernization of the act, is that there needs to be some uniformity in the regimes applicable to the industry as a whole. The definition of significant demand applicable under Part 2 must be consistent with the one applicable under the current act.

Senator Poirier: Thank you.

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