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Motion to Urge Government to Study Impact of Legislation on Regions and Minorities Adopted

Honourable senators, I am delighted to have the opportunity to close the debate today on my motion that the Senate urge the government to accompany all government bills by a social and economical impact study on regions and minorities in accordance to the Senate's role of representation and protection of minorities and regions.

The intent behind the motion is to ensure that any minority group or region in Canada is not inadvertently affected by any proposed government legislation without the Senate having beforehand been informed of the bill's potential consequences.

I feel that it is essential and wise for the Senate to urge the government to accompany all government bills by a social and economic impact study in order to anticipate the repercussions of these bills on regions and minorities. In this way, the Senate will be equipped to meet its constitutional obligations and play its historic and conventional role of representing and protecting minorities and regions. That is precisely the objective of this motion, which is perfectly reasonable and logical when we consider our role as senators and the impact of legislation on regions and minorities. With this important tool, we could improve our analytical abilities in this chamber and in committees, to truly fulfil the mandates given to us by the Constitution for our respective regions and the minorities concerned.

A few concerns have been raised with respect to this motion.

First, it has been said that this legislative requirement can be time-consuming and that it could be problematic when critical laws must be passed rapidly.

In the context of policy formulation, it is common practice for each government department to try to measure the impact of these policies not only on the public at large, but on the specific regions and minorities that would be affected. We know, then, that such studies anticipating the effects of proposed policies and legislation already exist. It is my opinion that senators should have access to them in order to know not only the objectives of the government, but, primarily, to know what the government in office expects the potential impact of a bill to be. The government already conducts these studies. The purpose of this motion is therefore to ensure that the legislative branch has access to impact studies prepared by the executive branch. Providing these studies to senators would not involve more time or money.

Comparatively, it is not uncommon in the U.S. for the government to produce a legislative and regulatory impact assessment, which is published alongside the draft bill that is tabled. This measure aims at assessing the impact of the measures to be included in the bill and, usually, identifies the cost and benefits associated with the government's preferred implementing options. At committee stage, several economic impact studies are tabled usually to enable the legislator to make more informed decisions. These impact studies are usually twofold, measuring both the economic and social repercussions of the proposed legislation and often focusing on a regional basis. This practice is encouraged and laudable but I believe we should extend its scope to minorities and regions to reflect our own constitutional character and the role of the Senate.

Another important critique of this motion was that "minorities" was nor defined and, therefore, it would be too broad and confusing to study the impact of the legislation. It is my understanding that "minorities" in our Canadian context is already defined by court decisions, depending on the context. Therefore, I would leave it to the legal definitions of "minorities" as defined by the Supreme Court of Canada. Generally, a "minority" is defined as a sociological group that does not constitute a politically dominant plurality of the total population of a given society. A sociological minority is not necessarily a numerical minority. It may include any group that is disadvantaged with respect to a dominant group in terms of social status, education, employment, wealth and political power.

Case law on the application of section 15 of the Charter measures the nature of a prejudice to a disadvantaged individual or group. This analysis usually concentrates on the personal characteristics of those claiming to have been treated unequally and asks, among other things, whether those in that group have been subjected to historical disadvantage, stereotyping and prejudice.

The unwritten principle of protecting minorities was considered for the first time by the Supreme Court in 1998 in the Reference re Secession of Quebec. According to the Supreme Court of Canada, there are four unwritten premises underlying and animating the text of the Constitution and the Charter. These principles are: federalism, democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law, and protection of minorities.

The principle of protecting minorities is the government's constitutional commitment to ensuring that linguistic minorities are respected and protected in Canada. It is important to note that the Supreme Court recognized that this unwritten principle also has a normative force binding upon both courts and governments. This principle can therefore give rise to specific and precise obligations, that is, legal obligations that limit the government's ability to act.

This is why it is important for us to have the tools we need to measure the impact of legislative measures on minorities.

Moreover, it was argued in this chamber that this motion is too vague to provide meaningful direction to those preparing the assessments. It is important to note that the onus is on the government to provide the Senate with a social and economic impact study on regions and minorities. I believe that any responsible government and any minister within government, before tabling any kind of legislation, would certainly require the department to supply an analysis and study on the issue. The onus to prepare such studies is already present, given that most departments prepare them and utilize them prior to the legislative drafting stage. In most instances, the fulfilment of this obligation would require a mere tabling of these documents.

In this house on Monday, November 6, 2006, Senator Tkachuk said:

The Senate exists to protect the interests of the regions and the minorities. When bills are referred to committee for consideration, the social and economic impacts of bills on the regions that we represent must be taken into account, as well as what they mean to us and not just what they mean in overall costs to the country. In that way, we would have better knowledge of what is happening.

It would be good for honourable senators to remember, when studies are done, to point out some of these issues. I would hope that the Senate does not always do what the minister wants.

Senators, regardless of political affiliation, seem to agree on the principles underlying this motion. We agree on the fact that when bills are referred to committee for consideration, the social and economic impacts of bills on the regions and what we represent must be available and taken into account. For example, for the Softwood Lumber Agreement and its implementing bill, Bill C-24, how much do we know about how the bill will affect the economy of our regions? What are the foreseen impacts in terms of mill closures, jobs lost and devastation of rural communities? What is the impact of reducing funding for literacy when we know that for every 1 per cent reduction in illiteracy, there is a potential growth of $18 billion to our GDP. What is the impact of eliminating student employment programs in our regions?

What impact will the elimination of the Court Challenges Program have on our regions and, more importantly, on our minority language communities? The answer cannot remain cabinet confidential, without the lawmakers being informed and having an opportunity to assess the information before voting on the matter.

We either have transparent and responsible government or governance, or we do not. We either have a progressive and responsible Senate with the tools it needs to do its job, or we do not. Consequently, this motion calls upon the Senate to urge the government to accompany all government bills by a social and economic impact study on regions and minorities.

The Senate has an historical and constitutional obligation arising from its role in representing and protecting minorities and regions. I believe that such steps ought to have been taken decades ago. Errors have been made by governments of various stripes, and it is up to us to provide better tools to better measure the impact of the bills we consider.

Honourable senators, what I am proposing today is necessary to enhance our efficiency in carrying out our historical and constitutional responsibilities.

Honourable senators, I move adoption of this motion.