Notes for an address at the 39th Annual Conference of the l’Association des juristes d’expression française de l’Ontario
Moncton, New Brunswick, June 22, 2018
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Beginning of dialog
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
I am delighted to be back in Moncton for the 39th annual conference of the Association des juristes d’expression française de l’Ontario (AJEFO) and to be speaking to you this morning.
I’d like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is part of the traditional and unceded territory of the Maliseet and Mi’kmaq. For thousands of years, these Indigenous nations lived, hunted, traded and travelled here.
I’d like to thank conference chair Michel Doucet and AJEFO for inviting me to talk to you today. I’d also like to welcome the members of the associations of French speaking legal professionals from Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
For those of you who don’t know me, I have devoted many years of my life to post-secondary teaching, research and administration, including six years as president and vice-chancellor of the Université de Moncton from 2012 to 2018.
Before that, I was an assistant deputy minister in Ontario’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, and director general of the Société franco-manitobaine, which advocates on behalf of the French-speaking community in Manitoba.
I come from Sainte-Anne-des-Chênes, a very small village in Manitoba. When I lived there, the village’s population was 100% French Canadian, and yet there was no French school for me to go to. My parents and many others fought for this right, and my brothers had the opportunity to be educated in their mother tongue.
I’ve spent my life studying and defending linguistic duality. Some might say that it’s a lifelong battle, but I consider it to be my lifelong passion.
That passion made me the man I am today. I was therefore honoured and proud to be appointed Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages last December.
The presence of Francophones all across the country is an eloquent reflection of the fundamental contribution of French-speaking communities to Canadian society.
Today, my job is to protect the language rights of all Canadians, and equal access to justice in both official languages is a topic that requires our utmost attention.
As you all know, Canada’s legislative framework and those of its provinces and territories guarantee, at least in principle, Canadians’ formal language rights before the courts.
Unfortunately, in seeking justice, Canadians who speak the official language of the linguistic minority all too often come up against barriers that force them to plead their case or testify in the language of the majority, despite their fundamental rights.
Advancing language rights—whether by intervening before the courts, conducting studies, appearing before parliamentary committees or holding conferences—has been a priority for every commissioner of official languages for nearly 50 years now.
Cases taken to court by official language minority communities play an essential role in defining and defending language rights in Canada. Over the years, court cases involving education rights—such as Mahe, Arsenault-Cameron, Doucet-Boudreau, Solski and Rose-des-Vents—have helped define the scope of the rights of the communities concerned.
For example, let’s look at the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1990 decision in the Mahe case. The Court recognized the right of parents belonging to the linguistic minority to manage their own educational institutions, where numbers warrant. This decision was an important milestone in the development of French-language minority communities because it clarified the scope of their right of linguistic minorities to have their own schools and to manage them.
Another example is the Doucet-Boudreau case, in which the Supreme Court of Canada retained its jurisdiction to monitor the Nova Scotia government’s progress in building a French-language school.
More recently, in the case involving the French-language school in Saint-Paul-de-Kent, the Court of Queen’s Bench of New Brunswick denied the decision of the former Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development to close the school, on the basis that the right to do so rests with the school board. What happens next remains to be seen, given that the provincial government has just announced that it will appeal the decision.
Last September, in response to changes made to the superior courts appointment process, the government introduced its Action Plan: Enhancing the Bilingual Capacity of the Superior Courts to improve the bilingual capacity of superior court judges, as has been repeatedly called for by the commissioners of official languages of Canada, Ontario and New Brunswick.
It is vital that this plan, like any other initiative in the area of justice, reflect the objective of the Official Languages Act that ensures Canadians are able to access justice in our courts in either official language.
On that note, I am pleased to see the Court Challenges Program has been reinstated and modernized. The Program, which will support litigation involving the Act, will provide financial assistance to Canadians to bring cases of national significance before the courts. It will be implemented and managed by the University of Ottawa, which is independent of the government, and funding decisions will be made by two independent expert panels—one for official languages rights and one for human rights. The members of these committees will have to understand and be sensitive to the realities of official language minority communities.
It’s a step in the right direction for clarifying and advancing official language rights and human rights in Canada that are guaranteed under the Constitution.
I’d now like to say a few words about my office’s mandate. To fulfill our mandate we will be standing shoulder to shoulder with you. We all have a role to play in the modernization of the Official Languages Act, and although we have made considerable progress in defending language rights in Canada, there is still much work to be done, especially in terms of access to justice in both official languages.
I would therefore like to recognize the contribution French-speaking legal professionals have made in ensuring compliance with the Official Languages Act—something that is crucial for the survival of our official language minority communities. You were pivotal in the establishment of the Act, and you continue to play a key role in improving access to justice in both official languages.
Our work as members of official language minority communities, as legal professionals and as commissioners is especially important in the wake of decisions such as the Federal Court ruling in the case involving the Fédération des francophones de la Colombie-Britannique. We need to be mindful of the importance of our legislation and case law when advancing language rights. These new developments will be one of the topics addressed during the first panel discussion, at which one of my staff, Christine Ruest Norrena, will be speaking.
Thank you for your attention. I hope your conference goes well and trust that your discussions are both stimulating and productive.