05/22/2012 05:17 EDT | Updated 07/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Tories launch talks on official languages, shield programs from cuts

OTTAWA - The federal government has launched country-wide consultations on how it can best support Canada's official languages — one area of spending that the Conservatives have shielded from cuts.

Other potentially sensitive files such as Old Age Security, veterans affairs, and environmental assessments have felt the belt tightening, but not the programs that promote bilingualism and the development of linguistic minority communities.

The government announced $1.1 billion for an official languages "road map" in 2008, consisting of 32 different funding initiatives over five years in areas such as arts and culture and education.

The Department of Canadian Heritage is now looking at what should happen post-2013, embarking on a consultation that will include 17 round table discussions across the country and an online forum. The first round table took place Tuesday in Moncton.

Heritage Minister James Moore, one of the most visible bilingual ministers in the Conservative cabinet, says Canada is enriched by the fact it has two official languages.

"Canada having two official languages and a diverse population is to our advantage, it is not a burden, it's not a nuisance, it is a gift, and it's something that we should recognize and celebrate as such and that's what we do with our official language policy," Moore said in an interview Tuesday.

"Our next policy announcement on this through our road map will speak to that and speak to the next set of priorities."

Moore is a bit of a poster boy of the Official Languages Act — a 1969 initiative of Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Moore and his two sisters, all born in the 1970s in British Columbia, attended French immersion classes throughout grade school.

One sister became a French immersion teacher, the other an actively bilingual employee of a multinational, and Moore a cabinet minister.

"My parents just made the decision, just based on their assessment of things, that they thought the three of us would be better off if we learned Canada's official languages," Moore said.

"It turned out to be an entirely enriching and helpful experience in all of our professional and personal lives, and and I hope more Canadians see the opportunity of learning both official languages."

The Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities (FCFA) applauded the consultations Tuesday, and encouraged its member organizations to have their say.

Financial support for bilingualism, whether in government services, within the federal bureaucracy, or at the community level, is not always popular with the Conservative base.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself wrote in 2001 that official bilingualism hadn't worked, calling it a "god that failed."

"It has led to no fairness, produced no unity and cost Canadian taxpayers untold millions," Harper wrote in the Calgary Sun.

Stephen Taylor, director of the National Citizens Coalition, says the Conservatives are trying to build bridges in Quebec, and are likely worried about wading into as potentially divisive an area as official languages policy.

The NCC has questioned spending on official bilingualism in the past, and Taylor pointed to the millions spent on language training for bureaucrats as an area that needs scrutiny.

"The rest of Canada is looking at what that costs, and I think they want groups like the National Citizens Coalition to keep asking questions about how much these things are going to cost, how much we should be investing in these sorts of programs, and for what purpose," said Taylor.

NDP official languages critic Yvon Godin takes a different perspective. Godin is pleased the government is undertaking the consultations, but is concerned about a lack of accountability with the "road map" spending.

He says some groups and communities have found it hard to sort out how to get the money and where exactly it goes.

He also criticizes the fact the Conservatives recently appointed a Supreme Court judge and an auditor general who were not bilingual.

Says Godin: "If they were committed they would be doing it from the top going down, instead of doing what they're doing."