Letter to the Editor – Erosion of rights goes beyond Ontario’s borders
November 21, 2018
When I heard about the Government of Ontario’s decision to eliminate the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner and to scrap plans for a French-language university in Toronto, I came to the sad conclusion that the trend to undermine language rights knows no borders.
As we’ve seen, the shock wave created by this announcement has sparked outrage not only among Ontario Francophones, but among Canadians across the country. Needless to say, I am profoundly dismayed by this setback for language rights.
We’re starting to see examples of this well beyond Ontario’s borders, like the decision to move Saskatchewan’s Francophone Affairs Branch from the province’s Executive Council to the Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport; the uncertainty surrounding the future of linguistic duality in New Brunswick following the most recent provincial election; the disappearance of the French Education Branch in Alberta’s Ministry of Education, where French-language services are now integrated with those of the majority; the lack of progress in developing a legislative framework for French-language services in British Columbia; and the Coalition Avenir Québec’s announcement during the last provincial election that it would eliminate all elected English-language school boards, along with French ones, and replace them with service centres whose boards are chosen by parents.
It is astonishing to see language issues of this magnitude back in the spotlight nearly half a century after the first Official Languages Act was passed. The Act is part of Canadians’ collective memory and represents the very foundation of the social contract that unites us. How can something that defines our identity be considered to be a remnant of the past, especially when linguistic duality is such a powerful symbol of openness, empathy and respect?
The government, federal institutions, the courts and a great number of civil society stakeholders have all helped to shape Canada’s linguistic landscape into a very different entity from the one it was before the Act was passed. Through their efforts, linguistic duality and official languages have become embedded in Canadians’ consciousness and deeply woven into Canada’s social fabric, and English and French are now the languages of the national conversation. Setbacks like the one we’ve just seen in Ontario call that social contract into question.
Are we embarking on new conversation that goes against our shared vision of protecting Canadians’ minority language rights?
The language rights enshrined in the Act are a reflection of the importance that Canadians place on the development of official language communities and on the equal status of English and French in Canadian society, in Parliament, in the Government of Canada and in federal institutions. Language rights are ingrained in our history and show the promise of our future. Most Canadians currently support the Act’s objectives—88% of Canadians, to be exact, according to a 2016 Nielsen survey.
I believe that, after all of the work that has been done over the past half century, we need to re-examine our social contract. Official languages are everybody’s business. And setbacks in terms of language rights have a negative impact on all Canadians.
This trend to roll back language rights is riding roughshod over Canadians’ fundamental values. Canada must continue to be a leader and a beacon of progress for linguistic duality, and it must continue to support official language minority communities.
Leaders have a duty to protect the gains we have made, and this is my goal as Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada. I’m calling on all of our elected officials to do the same, regardless of politics or political affiliation.