Eighteen years ago the issue led to an open revolt in the Progressive Conservative caucus. When the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau unveiled its Official Languages Act in 1969, 17 out of 72 Tory MPS defied the wishes of then-party leader Robert Stanfield and voted against the attempt to increase the use of French in the federal public service. But when the Conservative government tabled an even tougher language bill last week, Tory backbenchers hid any discontent. According to government sources, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney consulted—and sometimes lectured—his MPs in an effort to avoid public dissent over the new official languages act, which Justice Minister Ray Hnatyshyn said will unite the nation by promoting greater linguistic equality. And Hnatyshyn pointedly added, “All members of our caucus are committed to that end.”
The new bill—which both opposition parties have pledged to support—is intended to strengthen, by court action if necessary, the right of people to work for or be served by the government in the official language of their choice. New bilingualism requirements would
be imposed on federal agencies and some courts. The Canadian Council on Official Languages would be established to advise the government on promoting bilingualism. And Ottawa would spend $25 million over three years to help provinces and municipalities develop bilingualism in such areas as health care and social services. Said Liberal MP Jean-Robert Gauthier, a longtime lobbyist for firmer measures: “It appears to be thorough, solid and carefully crafted.”
Still, the legislation contains some grey areas. For one thing, it would oblige the government to provide bilingual services only where there is “significant demand.” Treasury Board President Robert de Cotret said that he is now drafting regulations—which must be approved by cabinet and not by Parliament—to define exactly where such demand exists within the federal civil service. Said Commissioner of Official Languages, D’Iberville Fortier: “The regulations will be almost as important as the act itself, and we must wait and see what exactly they say.” And with Parliament scheduled to begin its summer recess this week—and facing an already overcrowded fall legislative agenda—it will be months before the full impact of the new bill is known.
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