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Ottawa, Ontario, December 12, 2013
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Your Excellency the Ambassador of Switzerland and President of the Group of Heads of Francophone Diplomatic Missions Accredited to Canada, Ambassadors, High Commissioners, Chargés d’affaires and distinguished guests, good morning.

I am delighted to be here today to discuss with you my role and mandate as Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages.

But first, I would like to thank the Deputy Head of Mission for the Embassy of France in Canada, Mr. Alexandre Vulic, for hosting us this morning, and Ambassador Lehner of Switzerland for inviting me to address the Group. It is inspiring to see your organization rising to the challenge outlined three years ago in section 39 of the Montreux Declaration.

Canada has a long and proud history as an active member of La Francophonie. We were one of the first countries involved in the creation and development of its institutions in the 1960s and 1970s.

In fact, since 1987, Canada has hosted the Francophonie Summit on three occasions. We have also hosted several ministerial conferences, the 2001 Jeux de la Francophonie and the 2012 Forum mondiale de la langue française in Québec City, where I had the honour of moderating a round table discussion on multilingualism.

Canada’s presence among the 57 members of La Francophonie is invaluable. It helps Canadians to appreciate their country’s linguistic duality and provides opportunities to show Canada as a world leader in areas as diverse as language and culture, economics, new technologies and international cooperation. It is my firm belief that Canada will continue to play a significant role in the ongoing success of La Francophonie and its institutions.

This morning, in addition to speaking about my job as Commissioner, I would also like to explore in some detail the language issues Canadians have been dealing with over the past five decades. As well, I will share a few highlights from my recently tabled annual report, discuss my priorities for the next three years and say a few words about the newly created International Association of Language Commissioners, which I currently chair.

As Commissioner of Official Languages, I am considered to be an agent of Parliament. For some time now, we have used this term in Canada to describe the eight individuals who report to parliamentarians about the government’s performance in areas as diverse as privacy, ethics, elections and audits. This distinguishes us from those who work directly for Parliament, like the Clerk of the House of Commons.

We are not public servants in the classic sense, in that we do not report through ministers and are not responsible for carrying out the priorities of the government of the day, nor are we officers of Parliament, like the Sergeant-at-Arms or the Clerk of the House of Commons, helping to manage the proceedings of Parliament.

I think the case can be made that each of the eight offices was created as a response to a problem that parliamentarians were facing: they felt that they needed a source of information that is separate from the bureaucracy, which reports to the executive. I think of us as guardians of values.

I communicate on a fairly regular basis with the parliamentarians who sit on committees, both formally and informally. My office also conducts surveys to gauge the satisfaction level of complainants and of the institutions we are investigating.

When the Official Languages Act was passed in 1969, it was argued that Canada needed a law to protect the language rights of its citizens and to promote linguistic duality. The concept of linguistic duality is based on the notion that there are two founding peoples in Canada, and the objective of the Official Languages Act is to achieve equality between them. The letter of the law seeks to protect the language rights of members of official language minority communities, that is, English-speaking Canadians in Quebec and French-speaking Canadians in the rest of Canada. But beyond the letter of the law, there is the spirit of the law. In order to respect the spirit of the law, which is a spirit of openness and inclusiveness, Canadians must recognize that both English and French—along with the cultures expressed through these two official languages—belong to everyone.

As Commissioner of Official Languages, I see my role as that of a bridge builder between various parties. Linguistic duality is an essential component of our national identity. I therefore approach my mandate with the objective of encouraging dialogue and creating synergies between English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians, citizens of all origins and federal institutions.

I also see my role as one of working with federal institutions to help them understand their responsibilities under the Official Languages Act and ensuring that they respect them. When I applied for this job, I defined it as part cheerleader, part nag. I have come to appreciate that there are many allies and supporters for Canada’s language policy inside the federal government, and it is often more effective to inspire rather than require compliance.

If a complaint is admissible under the Act—that is, if it deals with a specific incident, a section of the Act and a federal institution—I have to investigate. But I have considerable latitude in deciding what our priorities are, how we will spend our budget, which issues I will emphasize and how, and the tone that I adopt.

The Act itself, which provides for the appointment of a commissioner, was a response to a recommendation by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which observed in 1965 that Canada was going through the greatest crisis in its history.

First of all, what is a Royal Commission? My late brother once had a political science professor at McGill who, in the early 1950s, described it this way: “What is a Royal Commission? I’ll tell you what a Royal Commission is—$100 a day plus expenses!”

The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was a special case. Nelson Wiseman wrote that “in the 1960s, biculturalism served as a template for the most noteworthy Royal Commission of that decade.” Footnote 1

In 1962, when Leader of the Opposition Lester Pearson proposed the creation of the Royal Commission, and in 1963, when Prime Minister Pearson created it, the always-latent tension between the English-speaking majority and the French-speaking minority was becoming aggravated.

French-Canadian nationalism, focused in Quebec, was surging. The Quebec Liberal government was re-elected on the slogan of “Maîtres chez nous” and the promise to nationalize private hydroelectric companies.

The association of Quebec university students—the Union générale des étudiants du Québec—was in the process of forming and breaking away from the Canadian Union of Students.

A militant separatist political party was created—the Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale. A terrorist organization, the Front de la libération du Québec, was starting to set off bombs in Montréal. This was not without impact on the federal government.

In June 1962, the Conservatives lost their majority and became a minority government, thanks to the election of 26 Social Credit MPs from Quebec.

That fall, those 26 Créditiste MPs from Quebec raised daily questions about French-language services in Parliament and in Ottawa, including the fact that:

  • the Orders of the Day were in English only;
  • the menu of the Parliamentary Restaurant was in English only;
  • MP’s paycheques were in English only;
  • security guards were unilingual Anglophones;
  • the announcements at Ottawa’s Union Station were in English only;
  • the service on what was then called Trans-Canada Airlines was in English only; and, perhaps most dramatically,
  • none of the 17 vice-presidents of Crown corporation Canadian National Railways was French Canadian.

The list was interminable. In that context, in July 1963, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was launched with the mandate “to recommend what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races.”Footnote 2

The goal was social justice for the sake of national unity. In specific terms, this meant helping minority language communities not only to survive but to thrive. It meant ensuring that the federal government provided services in both languages. It meant giving both languages equal status within the federal government.

The Royal Commission looked at the territorial bilingualism of Belgium and Switzerland and the individual approach to bilingualism that is used in South Africa—and was most inspired by Finland.

It is worth pointing out that planning of any kind by the Canadian government has limitations—in that some areas are under provincial jurisdiction—that do not exist in many other countries.

To deal with this, the Royal Commission had to make two kinds of recommendations: those in areas in which the federal government had jurisdiction and those in areas in which it did not, and still does not.

Some of the main recommendations were therefore fairly straightforward and within the federal government’s power to legislate:

  • That a federal official languages act be adopted, to recognize the equality of status of English and French
  • That a commissioner of official languages be appointed to report to Parliament on how federal institutions are meeting their obligations under the Official Languages Act

Similarly, it was within the federal government’s power to enact other recommendations, such as:

  • the right of a federal employee or a candidate for a federal position to be interviewed in English or French; and
  • the right of an individual in the military or the public service to choose the official language to be used in a disciplinary procedure.

The amended Official Languages Act of 1988 clearly defined the right of federal employees to work in the official language of their choice in regions designated as bilingual—including the National Capital Region, northern and eastern Ontario, Montréal and the Eastern Townships of Quebec, and the province of New Brunswick. In other parts of Quebec, the language of work is French; in the rest of the country, the language of work is English.

More recently, a network of official languages coordinators and official languages champions has been created within the federal government, much as the commissioners had recommended.

But in the area of education, which falls under provincial responsibility, it was more complicated. The commissioners made recommendations about the language of instruction, minority-language schools and training programs for teachers—but there was relatively little the federal government could do to enforce their implementation.

Nevertheless, through a combination of moral suasion, lobbying from parents’ groups and financial incentives, provincial programs for second-language instruction were introduced—with the support of federal funding.

It is possible to go through the recommendations of the Royal Commission, 50 years after it was launched and 46 years after the first report was tabled, and marvel at the number of recommendations that have, in fact, been implemented. However, despite these accomplishments, not all of the Royal Commission’s recommendations were accepted.

The ambitious proposal to establish bilingual districts throughout Canada was never implemented. The capital city of Ottawa never became officially bilingual.

In fact, the country has moved in the direction of the linguistic asymmetry to which one of the commissioners, F.R. Scott, was deeply opposed:

  • New Brunswick is the only bilingual province.
  • Quebec is a unilingual French-speaking province.
  • The rest of Canada has a whole range of different arrangements for providing French-language services.

These vary from a clearly defined policy in Ontario, with a commissioner of French-language services acting as an ombudsman, to a situation where British Columbia refuses to accept court documents in French.

Each provincial policy reflects a different degree of language planning:

  • clear requirements designed to protect the majority language in Quebec, which is a tiny minority in North America;
  • legal and constitutional protections for both languages and communities in New Brunswick;
  • an obligation to proactively provide French-language services in designated districts in Ontario.

To the casual observer, Canada’s approach to language policy can appear complex, even confusing. Over the course of my first mandate as Commissioner, one of the questions that I have often received is the most general and difficult one: how are we doing in terms of official bilingualism? The answer is often unsatisfying—it depends.

In my seventh annual report, which was tabled in Parliament on November 7, 2013, I attempted to explain that answer in some detail.

As I begin my second term—last February, Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked me to stay on as Commissioner for an additional three years—I can look back on the successful outcomes that have resulted from our investigations and proactive interventions over the past seven years.

Here are a few highlights:

  • My investigation into complaints by official language minority communities following the abolition of the Court Challenges Program of Canada showed that the government had not respected its obligations.
  • My investigation into the appointment of a unilingual auditor general added credence to a bill that now requires all agents of Parliament to be bilingual at the moment of their appointment.
  • My office’s collaborative work with federal institutions and the organizing committee of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games led to a very successful event presented in both official languages—with the unfortunate exception of the cultural component of the opening ceremonies.
  • My investigation into the decision to move the Québec City Marine Rescue Sub-Centre to Trenton and Halifax led to the postponement of the move until emergency services on the St. Lawrence could be guaranteed in French.
  • The question before the Federal Court about whether I have the jurisdiction to investigate complaints about CBC/Radio-Canada’s decision to eliminate virtually all local programming at a French-language radio station in Windsor, Ontario, was confirmed in a preliminary decision.

As Commissioner, I have a number of powers to protect the language rights of Canadians and to promote linguistic duality in Canada. My power to intervene before the courts is not well known among parliamentarians and members of the public. Since 2006, I have intervened in 14 court cases relating to language rights guaranteed by the Act or the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

I usually play a strategic role, mostly as an intervener, in court remedies initiated by complainants. Through these interventions, I feel that I have been able to make a unique contribution to the language rights debate. From a legal standpoint, however, it is the courts themselves that help to advance language rights by encouraging governments to demonstrate their leadership and engage Canadians in public dialogue.

Have there been any failures or disappointments during my mandate? Yes, of course. The government did not agree with me that our superior court judiciary should be bilingual. And just a few weeks ago on the Hill, a briefing for parliamentarians on the omnibus budget bill was conducted in English only—much to the surprise of the Francophones in attendance and much to the embarrassment of government officials, who apologized after the briefing and had to reschedule it for the following day in both languages.

My work over the past seven years has shown me how much leadership matters in federal institutions.

As Commissioner, I will continue to stress the importance of second-language learning, whether in our universities or in the public service, and I will continue to position the use of both official languages as a key leadership skill.

What lies ahead in the field of official languages? What challenges will need to be addressed over the next three years of my mandate?

Immigration and the demographic change it brings are critical issues for minority-language communities and for the country.

Social media will continue to transform the way that government deals with citizens. Essentially, the public’s expectation for an immediate response in either official language is greater than ever. Social media represent both significant challenges and tremendous opportunities in terms of language policy.

The Pan American and Parapan American Games will be taking place in Toronto in the summer of 2015. There will also be a series of major anniversary events leading up to the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017. I see these events as opportunities for renewed engagement and leadership from the federal government. Throughout the planning stages and delivery of these events, it will be critical to respect the needs of both official language communities.

In conclusion, I would like to say a few words about the International Association of Language Commissioners, which I chair. The Association came into being last May in Dublin at the behest of several language commissioners—myself among them—who see value in meeting on a regular basis. The idea is to give language commissioners from around the world who are striving to preserve and promote minority languages an opportunity to share ideas and best practices on issues of mutual concern.

At the moment, the membership consists of representatives from countries and regions with language commissioners, including Canada, Catalonia, Ireland, Kosovo, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Wales. Other commissioners are welcome to join us in the future. Immediately following the International Conference on Language Rights coming up this March in Barcelona, the Association will meet officially for the first time in order to refine our objectives, finalize founding documents and agree on content for a website to help establish our public presence. I am very much looking forward to the work we have ahead of us.

On that note, your Excellencies, I thank you for your attention and would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.



Footnote 1

Nelson Wiseman, In Search of Canadian Political Culture, UBC Press, Vancouver, Toronto, 2007, p. 94.

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Footnote 2

A. Davidson Dunton, André Laurendeau, et al., “The Terms of Reference,” Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Book I: The Official Languages, Ottawa, 1967, pp. 173.

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