Notes for an address at the annual meeting of the Fédération de la jeunesse canadienne-française

Ottawa, Ontario, September 7, 2018
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog


I’m delighted to be here with you today. I’d like to begin by welcoming all of the young people who are gathered here in this place, which is also part of the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabeg people, an Indigenous people of the Ottawa Valley. For thousands of years, the Algonquin lived, hunted, traded and travelled here.

Since taking office as Commissioner of Official Languages, I’ve been travelling across Canada talking to researchers, community leaders, residents of Francophone minority communities in Canada, members of Quebec’s English-speaking communities, and young Canadians like you. For example, on June 21st, I met with post-secondary education representatives on Prince Edward Island to talk about a network of partners who are working to foster a greater appreciation of the French language and culture. In short, I’m trying to reach out to people who care about the future of official language minority communities.

My job as an agent of Parliament is to promote official languages and protect the language rights of Canadians. As the Commissioner of Official Languages, I am responsible for making sure that official language minority communities thrive, in addition to my more obvious duty to ensure compliance with the Official Languages Act, which will be turning 50 in 2019.

Linguistic duality is a fundamentally Canadian value. Respecting and strengthening that duality will depend greatly on our ability to promote the development of strong and engaged communities. By investing in the future, in young people and in communities, we are ensuring the continuation and vitality of Canada’s official languages. Linguistic duality has triumphed at different times in Canada’s history. As José Rizal, one of the 20th century’s great linguists, said, “The youth is the hope of our future.” Today, you represent the future of this priceless heritage.

You are here today because you are the agents of change in your communities right now, and I am here because I believe in the Fédération de la jeunesse canadienne-française and in what you do.

Young English-and French-speaking Canadians’ receptiveness to linguistic duality has been demonstrated by nearly a century of efforts to connect with each other and to learn and use their second official language. Nearly half a million young English-speaking Canadians from across the country have shown their enthusiasm for learning their second official language by enrolling in French immersion programs.

And today, hundreds of thousands of young French-speaking Canadians have the opportunity to go to school in their mother tongue, something that was difficult to do in the past and that continues to be an issue even now in some regions.

Young people are truly a force of change.

Today, young people are more likely to speak both official languages than their parents or grandparents. Ninety percent of Canadians aged 18 to 34 who took part in the 2016 Nielsen survey on official languages and bilingualism strongly supported bilingualism.

More and more French spaces are emerging across Canada, such as Calgary’s Cité des Rocheuses and Edmonton’s Cité francophone in western Canada. The benefits of having a space where Franco-Albertans can connect with each other are clear, but what about making personal or on-line connections with Francophones from Quebec or from other parts of the country, or from Europe or Africa?

At the third Education Summit, which took place in Ottawa last year, one of the main topics was linguistic insecurity. During the Summit, it was revealed that many French-speaking Canadians in linguistic minority communities feel judged by the quality of their French or by their accent. However, no language ever achieves constant perfection.

Don’t we all have the same relationship with the French language? Everyone has his or her own history and accent. Ideally, encounters with other Francophones should spark curiosity about the particular ways in which we use the French language, and should bring us closer together.

The varieties of French in Canada are closely connected to the social reality of the Francophone communities that speak them. Our accents have no bearing on the meaning of words. Rather, like melodious notes, they enrich the soundtrack of Canada’s Francophonie.

And, as you said in your brief to the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages last year, the face of the Francophonie is changing across the country. Still, for various reasons, many young Francophones unfortunately don’t yet feel comfortable speaking French. This is not a new phenomenon, but I realize that it is manifesting itself in different ways today.

I’m happy to see that solutions have been put forward that will help communities increase linguistic security across the country.

And now, if I may, I’d like to switch gears completely. I was asked to come here today to talk about the importance of filing complaints when it is believed that federal institutions have contravened the Official Languages Act.

Obviously, this is one of my favourite topics. Taking action when rights have been infringed on is a good thing. It’s a way of showing that you believe that things can change in a positive way.

All too often, violations of the Act go unreported, and so there are no consequences for those who commit them. The investigations conducted by my office can lead to lasting changes and help to defend the language rights of communities, sometimes all the way to court.

The power of complaints should never be underestimated, and that’s why I’d like to talk briefly about my office’s complaints process. I’ll also give you examples of how complaints can lead to other actions in order to advance linguistic duality and issues that are important for official language minority communities.

Some federal institutions are never cited in complaints, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any problems.

Most complaints we receive are about federal institutions that have a greater presence in Canadians’ daily lives and about those that play a major role in the development and vitality of official language minority communities.

Burolis is an on-line public database that lists federal offices that are required to provide services in English, in French or in both languages, in accordance with the Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations. Burolis is the go-to web portal when you want to know which offices have official languages obligations.

We all know that the Regulations are currently being reviewed, and I’ve submitted a special report to Parliament that outlines the principles I and my office feel are important to keep in mind when modernizing the Regulations.

Our position on this file is based, of course, on our discussions with official language minority communities, but it’s also largely based on information we’ve gathered over the years following thousands of complaints filed under Part IV of the Act, which governs communications with and services to the public.

So, what good does filing a complaint do?

  • It asserts your language rights: It’s perfectly normal to expect your rights to be respected.
  • It helps to find solutions: As an ombudsman, I use persuasion and try to initiate constructive dialogue with federal institutions to come up with fair, effective and long-term solutions. Of course, that can take time.
  • It serves to report problems: Investigations, audits, observations and social media all reflect what’s going on in federal institutions. They help my office identify systemic problems and prioritize the steps to be taken.
  • It raises federal institutions’ awareness: Often, an institution’s failure to meet its language obligations stems from a lack of knowledge or a misunderstanding of the Act’s requirements. By filing a complaint, you are helping to raise federal institutions’ awareness and to effect cultural change.

It is not always a matter of bad faith on the part of the institutions concerned. Sometimes, it’s just an oversight, and these mistakes can be quickly rectified.

Let me give you some examples:

  • Last fall, the Canada Border Services Agency forgot to post the French version of an article on its Facebook page. We received a complaint about it and had the institution change the content within 45 minutes.
  • In the summer of 2017, a complaint was made about an exhibit on the Arctic at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Videos were being shown in English with subtitles in French. The use of subtitling in these videos did not comply with the requirement to ensure the equal status of both official languages. Following our investigation, the Museum was quick to rectify the situation, and French versions of the videos were ready a few months later.

In general, my office is achieving its goals. Nearly 80% of our recommendations are implemented. Of course, there are some problem cases, but we continue to monitor and follow up on them. My dedicated staff take their work very seriously.

Like all of you, I believe that linguistic duality is all about two official language communities, each with its own unique reality, co-existing in each province and territory.

Official language minority communities are an essential component of that duality. And that’s why we need to stay attuned to their needs and their concerns so that we can ensure that they receive the services they need in order to thrive.

Needless to say, I will be taking action on major issues, both current and emerging, to serve the best interests of Canadians. To that end, I will be focusing on the following three priorities in the coming years.

First, I’ll be encouraging federal institutions to develop an understanding of the factors for success so that they can break down the barriers that are preventing the Act’s objectives from being met.

Second, I’ll be working with the federal government and its institutions to ensure that the Action Plan for Official Languages 2018–2023: Investing in Our Future achieves the expected outcomes.

And third, I’ll be urging the federal government to turn its words into actions and to effect a true modernization of the Act so that it reflects both the legacy and the future of official languages in Canada. And we can’t stop at the Regulations.

The last time the Act underwent a major revision, there was no Internet or social media.

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the first Official Languages Act. There’s no better time than now to urge the government to amend the current Act and give us legislation that proactively addresses Canada’s changing realities. I believe that modernization is imperative.

I am pleased to see that the Prime Minister supports this view and that the government is willing to commit to the process.

You dream of a country where living in English and French is the norm. I believe that the tide has turned and that Canada must continue to be a leader and a beacon of progress in terms of linguistic duality and support for official language minority communities.

Thank you for your attention. If you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer them.

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