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The Official Languages—A Matter of Respect and Leadership for the Federal Government
Ottawa, October 7, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Good morning/afternoon. I’d like to begin by thanking Louise Bruyère of the Library of Parliament for inviting me to speak to you today. I always enjoy meeting with parliamentarians and their employees and finding that they are taking linguistic duality to heart.
This is a new Parliament, so may I say welcome to all new MPs and their staff. You all have a lot on your plates, and the eyes of Canadians are on you. I am looking forward to the new session of Parliament with much optimism. I hope you share my enthusiasm, and that you have the same attitude toward official languages.
As employees of Parliament, you have seen linguistic duality in action. Perhaps you've attended a session of a parliamentary committee where a unilingual Anglophone from Alberta and a unilingual Francophone from Quebec were able to debate thanks to the voices coming through their headsets.
Perhaps you’ve said to yourself: wouldn’t things be so much easier if everyone spoke both of Canada’s official languages? I won’t contradict you on that, but let me remind you that the Official Languages Act does not seek to force Canadians—including parliamentarians and their employees—to be bilingual.
Parliamentarians, like the public, have the right to use either English or French in Parliament. Parliament in turn must provide simultaneous interpretation during debates and other proceedings.
In short, the purpose of the Official Languages Act is to:
- Ensure respect for English and French and ensure equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all federal institutions;
- Support the development of English and French linguistic minority communities; and
- Advance the equality of status and use of the English and French languages.
Let me draw your attention to the first point: “Ensure respect for English and French and ensure equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all federal institutions.” The government has an obligation to take concrete steps to meet this commitment, taking into account the jurisdictions and powers of the provinces. When we think of official languages solely in terms of rights and obligations, important as these may be, we may end up completely ignoring the spirit of the Act. Allow me to explain.
You are probably too young to remember a time, not so very long ago, when the federal government operated mainly—if not solely—in English. That gave rise to a strong reaction from Quebec. Canadians realized that, if the country was to remain united, Francophones needed to be able to work with their federal government in their own language right across Canada, and Anglophones needed this same right in Quebec.
In 1967, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who was then Minister of Justice, defined language rights as twofold: the right to learn and the right to use. The entire edifice of language rights, constructed over the 40 years since then, rests on these two pillars.
The Official Languages Act was passed in 1969. It proclaimed the equality of status of English and French in all federal institutions. It also spelled out the demographic criteria for the delivery of federal services in both languages. The Act was amended in 1988 to include new standards and rules governing such areas as language of work.
The legislation created my job; I am the sixth commissioner of official languages. I am a guardian of a value that Parliament decided should be elevated above the partisan debates of the day. This means I have a particular duty to be transparent about how I spend public money and as clear as possible about how I try to fulfill my mandate.
In 1982, a new constitutional document, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, consolidated equality and language rights. The Charter recognized the right of Anglophones and Francophones in minority communities, regardless of where they live, to manage their school system and have their children educated in their own language, where numbers warrant.
The Charter led to a national dialogue between the courts, governments, official language communities and the public. This dialogue has led to an increasingly broad interpretation of language rights.
Amended twice—strengthened twice—the Official Languages Act is first and foremost a question of respect—respect for our national values, and for federal public servants who have the right to work in the language of their choice.
But above all, it means respect for Canadians who, in many regions of the country, have the right to receive federal services in the official language of their choice. Respect for linguistic duality must be openly demonstrated. It’s a core Canadian value that we all share.
As Commissioner of Official Languages, I oversee federal language issues. My mandate is essentially to ensure that the status of each of Canada’s official languages is respected, and that federal institutions comply with the Official Languages Act. In short, my role is to encourage—and disturb.
As Commissioner, my main responsibility is to promote linguistic duality in the public service and in Canadian society as a whole. I also serve as a language ombudsman—a “protector of the citizen.” My office receives about a thousand complaints a year. Most are from individuals who were not served in the official language of their choice. Others concern language of work and the obligation to support the vitality of official language communities. I investigate these complaints and recommend corrective action as needed.
As I mentioned earlier, we would see considerable progress if official languages were treated as a value and a leadership skill, particularly within the public service, rather than simply as a burden. Linguistic duality lets everyone participate in their government.
Let me explain the difference between value and burden. Here in Parliament, you have an enormous responsibility to respect linguistic duality as a Canadian value.
Canadians—including MPs and federal public servants—interpret linguistic duality based on the messages they hear within government institutions and within the public service, messages that are then repeated in the media. When it comes to showing your respect for duality, don’t forget that small gestures can have big impacts.
For example, posting an MP’s name on the door of his or her office in both official languages, or answering the telephone in both languages are gestures that convey the message of linguistic duality as a value.
Your role in creating the image of Canada's linguistic duality is a huge one. Please don’t forget that.
Our linguistic duality is a powerful symbol of Canada: a symbol of openness, welcome, accommodation and success. As the country’s representatives, we should all be ambassadors of linguistic duality.
The Office of the Commissioner, members of Parliament, the official language communities and the general public share responsibility for the way in which the government meets the obligations prescribed by the Official Languages Act.
Federal institutions need to incorporate linguistic duality as a value in their operations. Also, they should not interpret the Act restrictively, and they should honour its spirit.
My role as Commissioner of Official Languages and the mandate of the Office of the Commissioner are sometimes mistakenly interpreted in the media and within the public service, and this can cause misunderstandings. As a result, I intervene publicly at times to set the record straight concerning the scope of my mandate and of the Official Languages Act.
The current economic climate is worrisome. It is particularly important that the progress that has been made over the past decade in the field of official languages not be lost. It is very important that federal leaders, elected and not elected, live up to their responsibilities under the Official Languages Act.
To be a leader in Canada's public service or in Canadian politics, you need to know how to influence, persuade, engage, energize and empower employees, in English and in French. The issue of respect is crucial. How can you respect members of the public without respecting their language rights? How can you claim to be passionate about linguistic duality when there is nothing to prove it? How can you claim to take duality seriously unless duality is visible in the Canadian government’s core institutions? The Library of Parliament, Parliament itself, MPs’ offices, the House of Commons—we have to walk the talk. Government, and all that it stands for, owes this much respect to Canadians of both official languages.
Showing leadership on official languages demonstrates vision in the workplace, as well as an optimistic and inclusive vision of this country. It expresses faith in our country. Linguistic duality is a value we should hold dear.
I wish you a productive new session of Parliament.
I’d be happy to answer any questions you have.