Speaking Notes for an Appearance Before the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages

June 7, 2021
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Study of the official languages reform document

Mr. Chairman, honourable members of the Committee, good morning.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to participate in the study of the official languages reform document.

Although today’s meeting is taking place virtually, I would like to acknowledge that I am speaking to you from Treaty 1 territory, the traditional territory of Anishinabe, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota and Dene peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation.

On February 19, the federal government released its reform document entitled English and French: Towards a substantive equality of official languages in Canada.

I carefully analyzed all of the government’s proposals. I am confident that these proposals will reinvigorate efforts to protect and promote our two official languages, while strengthening linguistic duality.

The cornerstone of our language regime, the Official Languages Act, must be reviewed thoroughly to ensure that it is relevant, dynamic and strong, and that it keeps pace with Canadian society.

I am pleased that the government’s strategy includes many of the recommendations I made in 2019 regarding the modernization of the Act, as well as those that you identified in your own report on the modernization of the Act.

For example, we are giving official language minority communities a place of importance, and we are clarifying the obligations that federal institutions have towards them.

Also, the enhanced powers that the government intends to give to the position of Commissioner of Official Languages would allow me to ensure greater compliance with the Act by federal institutions.

Since the reform document was released, I have consulted with key organizations that support official language minority communities to gauge their reactions to the government’s proposals.

Overall, the government’s proposals have garnered very positive feedback from the communities.

The proposal to codify the principle of substantive equality in the Act and the protection of communities are good examples.

I applaud the government’s commitment to making the principle of substantive equality central to its reform of the Act, so as to foster the development and vitality of our two official language minority communities, while promoting both official languages in Canada.

However, like many other stakeholders, I am very concerned about the addition of certain asymmetrical components to the Act, which would put the emphasis on the protection and promotion of French.

While the impact of this new approach is not yet known, I am concerned that these asymmetrical components in the Act would undermine the equal status of English and French. Moreover, such an approach is contrary to the principle of substantive equality.

To protect official language communities throughout Canada, I am of the opinion that the government must advocate substantive equality rather than legislative asymmetry.

It is important to remember that English and French have equal status and rights, and that the Official Languages Act is based on these fundamental values, which are enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

English and French face different circumstances and challenges in different parts of the country. Across Canada, French is a minority language, while in Quebec and Nunavut, English is a minority official language. Our support for both official languages and communities must take into account these different realities from coast to coast.

Moreover, the principle of substantive equality already dictates that federal institutions must consider the distinct circumstances and specific needs of official language minority communities in different regions of the country.

Thus, specific protections for one of the two official languages or one of the communities in question should be reflected in the application of the Act or in other instruments, rather than in the Act itself. The Act can and should be implemented differently in different parts of the country, where necessary and appropriate. After all, the Act is—and must remain—a law of equality for all Canadians.

Finally, some of the recommendations that I made in 2019 and that you included in your own report are not reflected in the reform document. Nonetheless, they deserve to be considered by the government when drafting the bill, especially with respect to Part IV of the Act which, as you know, deals with Communications with and Services to Canadians

I am thinking, among other things, of the obligations of federal institutions that deal with both the travelling public and the general public.

The government could also review the concept of communications in the era of new technologies in order to make the Act technology-neutral.

I had also recommended that administrative monetary penalties be imposed on federal institutions that do not comply with their official languages obligations. These measures have proven their worth and could fit perfectly into the gradation of power advocated in the reform document.   

“I had previously recommended that regulations be made regarding language‑of‑work rights under Part V of the Act in order to ensure that they are consistent with the communications and service delivery requirements in Part IV. This issue is even more important now that the federal government is planning to introduce new obligations for federally regulated private businesses in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada where there is a strong Francophone presence.

These are priority issues that the government must take into consideration in order to ensure that our long-awaited bill meets the expectations and needs of all Canadians.

In closing, I encourage you to read my 2020-2021 Annual Report, which I tabled in Parliament last week. The report contains recommendations to the federal government for making long-term progress on official languages, particularly within the public service.

Thank you for your attention. I am ready to answer any questions you may have in the official language of your choice.

Thank you.

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