If the Ontario government requires a major incentive to propose a revision of the French Language Services Act, it needn’t look any further than the province next door. Manitoba’s newly minted government has just introduced what can only be described as an exceptional bill. Bill 5, The Francophone Community Enhancement and Support Act, was tabled in Manitoba’s Legislative Assembly last Tuesday. It is essentially the same bill introduced by the previous government before the Assembly was dissolved for the general elections.
This was unquestionably a very fine gesture by the new government. Since the two opposition parties have also endorsed the bill, the table is set for it to pass quickly. But even if that were not the case, the adoption of this law in Manitoba will help heal the still open wounds of the 1980s language crisis. As you may remember, at the time of that constitutional and linguistic crisis, the president of the Société franco-manitobaine (SFM) received death threats; the SFM’s building burned down; and the Pawley government was brought down by acerbic and vitriolic comments. May I suggest that you read journalist Frances Russell’s excellent book on the crisis, The Canadian Crucible.
So the problem started a long way back. And it is important to understand where things started before one begins criticizing. By introducing this bill so early in the new session of Parliament, the government is making it clear that the Manitoban Francophonie is no longer a partisan issue but rather a matter of equity and respect for a community that has made such a great contribution to building the province. As a Franco-Manitoban by adoption, I am very proud of the level of maturity shown by the politicians of our neighbouring province. After holding talks with the various political parties in Ontario, I am confident that we too have attained that level of maturity.
The bill confirms not only the importance of the Franco-Manitoban community, but especially the government’s desire to foster the advancement of the Francophonie in Manitoba through a sectoral approach applicable to all pertinent bodies (this is in the preamble, and I will explain later). But first, it is important to note the very broad definition given to the expression “Manitoba’s Francophone community”: “those persons in Manitoba whose mother tongue is French and those persons in Manitoba whose mother tongue is not French but who have a special affinity for the French language and who use it on a regular basis in their daily life.” At first glance, this may seem nightmarish for statisticians, but when we look at the definition more closely, we see that it is quite similar to Ontario’s Inclusive Definition of Francophone (IDF), which, I remind you, is still not enshrined in the French Language Services Act. For how, I ask you, can we define people who have a special affinity for the French language and use it on a regular basis in their daily lives except by statistically measuring how many people whose mother tongue is not French not only speak and understand French but also speak it at home (in other words, the IDF!).
The bill also contains a statement of purpose, which is missing from Ontario’s law. That statement reads as follows: “The purpose of this Act is to provide a framework for enhancing the vitality of Manitoba’s Francophone community and supporting and assisting its development through the work of the secretariat and the advisory council and the use of French-language services plans.” Very interesting, but it’s important to look at what follows.
The concept of active offer is spelled out in the bill, another major deficiency in Ontario’s FLSA. The bill states that active offer is the cornerstone for the provision of French-language services. “These services are to be made evident, readily available and easily accessible to the public and are to be of comparable quality to English language services.” Quite comprehensive, I’d say, at first glance.
The functions of the minister responsible for Francophone Affairs are clearly stated and are so interesting that it is worth reproducing them here:
“The minister responsible for Francophone Affairs is responsible for taking measures to enhance the vitality of Manitoba’s Francophone community, including measures to
(a) support the ongoing implementation of the French-language services policy;
(b) advocate that the policies, programs and services of relevant bodies take into account the needs of Manitoba’s Francophone community and that those needs are resourced equitably;
(c) encourage representation of Manitoba’s Francophone community on the boards of government agencies and on administrative tribunals; and
(d) encourage the efforts of public bodies in supporting and assisting the development of Manitoba’s Francophone community.”
Hence, the bill contains ideas about espousing programs that are designed to meet the Francophone community’s needs, representing the community on boards, and supporting efforts to develop the community. Powerful and positive. As for the Francophone Affairs Secretariat, the equivalent of our Office of Francophone Affairs, the bill assigns it very clear responsibilities for promoting and increasing public awareness of the laws relating to Manitoba’s Francophone community, for cooperating with other levels of government, and for establishing partnerships at the local, provincial, national and international levels.
The bill also establishes a Francophone Affairs Advisory Council (which I recommend as well in a revised FLSA). The council’s membership consists of the Clerk of the Executive Council (no less!), at least five deputy ministers, five members of the community, and the president and CEO of the SFM. The council’s role is primarily to review plans for French-language services. Every public body is required to prepare and submit a proposed multi-year strategic plan relating to the provision of French-language services. Those plans must describe the priorities of Manitoba’s Francophone community, the French-language services that the public body intends to provide, even if they are delivered by third parties, and other measures needed to enhance the vitality of Manitoba’s Francophone community and to support and assist its development. Very strong. Not absolutely perfect, but very strong nevertheless. What’s more, the advisory council may provide advice and make recommendations concerning those service plans (which I also recommend in a revised FLSA).
So everything will depend on how one defines “services”. That said, the language used by Manitoba’s lawmakers, if the bill passes without amendment, is quite clear, with statements on service plans, the roles of the minister, the secretariat and the advisory council, and especially the measures to be taken to enhance the vitality of Manitoba’s Francophone community and to support and assist its development. Music to my ears. Of course, the future of the Franco-Manitoban community will always hinge on its own members, including family first and foremost, as well as schools and community institutions. The government has a complementary role that remains extremely important. Public recognition of French and its use in the public domain are important factors in persuading Francophones to make the daily choice to remain Francophones.
In short, while the bill contains other provisions that would be of interest to jurists, such as the matter of regulatory powers, I won’t go into further detail here, as I’ve been verbose enough. But, as I’m sure you understand, I’m very excited to see this bill. And most of all, the timing could not be better, with the discussions I hope to begin soon with the new Minister Responsible for Francophone Affairs, the Honourable Marie-France Lalonde.