Notes for an address before the board of the Swedish-speaking minority organization Svenska folkskolans vänner at Ottawa University

Official languages leadership is also a question of public health

Ottawa, Ontario, February 10, 2017
Ghislaine Saikaley - Interim Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Good afternoon.

Welcome to Ottawa! I am pleased to welcome you to our nation’s capital after your visits to Toronto, New Brunswick and Quebec. Before I begin, I would like to thank Monika Jezak and the Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute at the University of Ottawa for giving me the opportunity to speak to you. I hope your visit here has been informative and that you have been learning about the numerous aspects of our language policy.

Canada’s linguistic policy has several goals:  

  • the protection and promotion of French and English in Canadian society;  
  • the preservation of Francophone and Anglophone minority-language communities;
  • the assurance that citizens can obtain services from the federal government in the official language of their choice; and  
  • the right of federal public servants in certain parts of the country to work in their language of choice.

As Canada’s interim Commissioner of Official Languages, I am responsible for informing Parliament when federal institutions do not meet their obligations under the Official Languages Act, for investigating complaints filed under the Act, and for promoting the use of both languages. I work closely with other language ombudsmen in Canada, including the New Brunswick Commissioner of Official Languages, Katherine ;d’Entremont, whom you have met during your visit, and the French Language Services Commissioner of Ontario, François Boileau, whom you have also met.

Canada is often described as a bilingual country – this is misleading shorthand for the fact that Canada has a policy of official bilingualism, which is quite different.

To give you some context, according to the 2011 Census, 98% of Canada’s 33 million inhabitants speak at least one of Canada’s two official languages, English and French. Of these, only 5.8 million are bilingual in English and French.

Although Canada has two linguistic communities that are unilingual for the most part, each community also has a significant linguistic minority. Almost a million French-speaking Canadians live outside Quebec, Canada’s only majority Francophone province. And, nearly one million English-speaking Canadians live in Quebec. According to the most recent census, one in five Canadians speaks a mother tongue that is neither English nor French. We expect this segment of the population to continue to grow – much like what you’re seeing in Finland.

Before adopting its own language policy nearly 50 years ago, Canada studied the examples of other countries extensively. It finally looked to the Finnish compromise. In 1919, your country offered a compromise between an individualist approach and a territorial approach. From a historical point of view, it is interesting to note that when Finland celebrates the 100th anniversary of its constitution, adopted in 1919, recognizing the equality of two languages, Canada will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its Official Languages Act, adopted in 1969.

For countries that have more than one official language, it is vital that we have tools and flexible policies to enable us to adapt to current realities. Since our demographics are transforming and will continue to do so, Canadian and Finnish linguistic policies must be constantly renewed. In 2010, in order to address certain linguistic issues in Finland, a steering committee made 25 recommendations; one of those recommendations was to appoint a language ombudsman. And, the idea of an International Association of Language Commissioners was originally suggested by Pär Stenbäck, a former minister of Education and minister of Foreign Relations, during a formal dinner with the former Commissioner Graham Fraser at the Finnish embassy here in Ottawa.

One good turn deserves another – just as Canada once looked to the Finnish example for inspiration, the Swedish minority in Finland is now looking to Canada’s example. We can all learn from each other; that’s why it’s important to encourage an open dialogue and to share our knowledge, as we’re doing today.

Canada’s linguistic issues are complex. On the one hand, language issues are rights-based – they are enshrined in our charter of rights and freedoms and defendable before the courts. However, these issues are also values-based: we believe in the values of equality, justice, and access to education in our own official language. It is our duty to protect and promote these rights and values.

We have established laws and policies to protect linguistic minorities, and they work. But the world is changing rapidly; we need legislation and tools that are adapted to that changing world. The answer to achieving our common goals lies in being flexible and sharing our experiences and best practices.

Thank you.

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