Notes for an address to the Fédération de la jeunesse canadienne-française

Ottawa, Ontario, January 10, 2014
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Hello. I am delighted to be here today to talk to you about official languages and the Francophonie, and also to discuss my role and mandate as Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada.

First of all, let me congratulate you on your involvement in Youth Parliament. One of the most remarkable memories I have as a student was participating in Model United Nations. Having to improvise in spontaneous debates was a seminal experience for me.

In addition to talking to you about my work as Commissioner, I would also like to focus on the importance of getting young Canadians involved in helping to ensure the vitality of official language minority communities. But before I do, I want to congratulate the Fédération de la jeunesse canadienne-française on its 40th anniversary and on its commitment over those years to young French-speaking Canadians across the country. The FJCF is an important link in the network of Francophone associations. You are contributing to the public debate: you are participating in collective community initiatives; you are paving the road to the future.

The FJCF is the country’s largest network of young French-speaking Canadians in linguistic minority communities. By bringing together young Francophones from across Canada, you contribute to the collective synergy and to the strengthening of Canada's Francophonie. In addition to helping young French-speaking Canadians achieve their potential, you show that the Francophone community extends beyond the boundaries of one place or one province. Your presence here in Ottawa and the debates that will be held are prime examples of your commitment to the French language and to Canada’s Francophonie.

One of the aspects I enjoy most about my work as Commissioner of Official Languages is meeting with young Canadians who are interested in issues that are important for Canada’s future, such as the job market, politics, the environment and, of course, official languages. I am always learning something new.

I am particularly curious to know what you think of our two official languages and of our country’s linguistic duality. But before I ask you about that, perhaps I should explain a bit more about who I am and what I do.

Before I was appointed Commissioner of Official Languages in 2006, I worked as a journalist in Toronto, Montréal, Québec City, Washington and Ottawa. Linguistic duality has always fascinated me, and so seven years ago, I decided to leave journalism to apply for my current position.

The Official Languages Act, which has been in effect since 1969, established the position of Commissioner of Official Languages and defines my responsibilities. My mandate is to ensure respect for English and French as the official languages of Canada. This means that I make sure that federal institutions comply with the Official Languages Act and promote official languages in Canadian society.

I am also Canada’s official languages ombudsman—the protector of Canadians’ language rights. Citizens can contact me when they believe their language rights have been violated by a federal institution. So to sum up, my role is part cheerleader, part nag. The Official Languages Act gives me a number of ways to fulfill this dual role.

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

I think the case can be made that each of these eight positions was created as a response to a problem that parliamentarians had come up against: they felt that they needed a source of information, separate from the bureaucracy, that reports to the executive. I see us as the guardians of Canadian values.

Agents of Parliament are neither 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, helping to manage the proceedings of Parliament. I do, however, communicate, both formally and informally, on a fairly regular basis with parliamentarians on House of Commons and Senate committees.

As Commissioner, I see my role as that of a bridge builder between the various parties involved in the world of Canadian language policy. Linguistic duality is a fundamental part of our national identity. I therefore approach my mandate with the goal of encouraging dialogue and creating synergies between English-speaking Canadians, French-speaking Canadians, citizens of all origins and federal institutions. I promote linguistic duality within the federal administration and also within Canadian society. This aspect of my work is very important to me.

I became truly aware of Canada’s linguistic reality when I was 18 years old. In 1965, I got a summer job at Fort Lennox, on the Richelieu River, near Montréal. I was working on an archaeological dig for this project, and the language of work was French. It was a real shock. There I was in my own country, but it was completely unfamiliar. I didn’t understand what the other students were saying. So I listened a lot and I asked a lot of questions. In addition to learning French, I developed a strong interest in Québec and the Francophonie and a passion for them that has never left me.

My curiosity and thirst for knowledge took me on my career path as a journalist working in both official languages. Your involvement in a program like Parlement jeunesse pancanadien means that you already know how important it is to speak both of our official languages for the sake of your studies and your future career.

The fact that the world has changed a lot is not news to you. Language boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred, electronic communication is instantaneous, and keeping up requires constant effort. One language is no longer enough to deal with all the information coming at us from the four corners of the earth. I am always impressed by young Canadians who have learned their second language and then go on to learn a third or fourth language abroad.

What’s next for Canada’s official languages? What challenges will need to be met over my next three years as Commissioner?

Immigration and the demographic changes it brings are critical issues for official language minority communities and for the entire country. This new diversity that you see in elementary schools, high schools, colleges and universities is a valuable asset. It breathes new life and new energy into the community. However, it is important for the federal government and everyone else involved in immigration to make sure that the language aspect of immigration is also factored into the equation.

Social media will continue to transform the way that the government deals with citizens. More than ever, people expect to receive an immediate response in both official languages. This represents both a major challenge and a great opportunity in terms of language policy.

The Pan/Parapan American Games will take place in Toronto in the summer of 2015 and will be followed by a series of large-scale events leading up to the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017. I see these events as the ideal time for the federal government to send a clear message about its commitment toward official languages. A spirit of inclusiveness and respect for the needs of both official language communities is critical throughout the planning and delivery of these celebrations in order to have truly bilingual Games.

Official languages are one of the fundamental characteristics of Canadian identity. We need to feel that these two languages belong to us and are part of our national identity, even if we speak only one of them. We have to live up to the challenge of fully embracing linguistic duality and making it a core Canadian value, regardless of the language we speak.

During your stay here in the nation’s capital, you will see to what extent English and French are languages of work, debate and leadership, and how they are part of our national identity. At least I hope so! Ottawa is not always a model of bilingualism.

Your generation faces major challenges, but at the same time, you have unprecedented access to information. You have tools your parents did not have. New technologies are opening all kinds of doors for you. You can explore both English and French culture with the click of a mouse.

Canada has thousands of young people like you who treasure French, who want to keep it alive and who want to connect with others like themselves who are in linguistic minority communities.

If there is a single quality that is essential these days, it is curiosity, and I encourage you to be curious, not just about your own part of the country, but also about the rest of Canada. Your ability to speak both official languages allows you to communicate directly with 95% of the Canadian population. The doors are wide open.

As I said earlier, I am curious to know what you think of our two official languages and of our country’s linguistic duality. If I were to ask you what the most important issue is for French-speaking Canadians today, or about what will affect the Francophonie in the years to come, how would you respond?

I will end on that note and will be happy to answer any questions you might have.

Thank you very much.

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