Notes for an address at the Assemblée de la Francophonie de l’Ontario’s annual conference

Toronto, Ontario, October 26, 2018
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

I’d like to apologize in advance to anyone who may have heard my speech at the Club canadien’s dinner cocktail last night. I haven’t had a change of heart since then, so I may be repeating myself a little.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we are gathered is part of the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and more recently, the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation. For thousands of years, these First nations lived, hunted, traded and travelled here. Today, they are a vital part of Ontario and Toronto society.

My job as an agent of Parliament is to promote official languages and protect the language rights of Canadians. I travel across the country to meet with business people, young Canadians, politicians, researchers, community leaders and Francophones and Francophiles like you.

Assemblée de la Francophonie de l’Ontario (AFO) is the standard-bearer of Ontario’s French-speaking communities and of the largest Francophone population outside Quebec—over 620,000. In total, more than 1.5 million Ontarians can speak French.

By investing in the future, in young people and in communities, we are ensuring the continuation and vitality of Canada’s official languages.

More and more French spaces are emerging across Canada. Research shows that the success of French spaces depends on the presence of institutions serving the community in its language and on the private sector, which also has an important role to play.

For more than a decade, Franco-Torontonians have been talking about establishing a French Quarter downtown, bounded by College and Carlton Streets. This popular area is home to Sacré-Cœur Church, TFO, Théâtre français, Centre francophone, Passerelle and Collège français and various monuments. A downtown-based community not only fosters cooperation and synergy among local organizations, it also asserts its existence, which otherwise may have remained invisible.

Canada’s French-speaking minority communities have gained a lot of ground in recent decades. And that’s a good thing, because in a minority setting, if you’re not gaining ground, you’re losing ground!

The French Language Services Act has certainly played a major role in this advancement. However, it came into force back in 1989 and, like the Official Languages Act, needs to be updated to stay relevant, as my provincial counterpart François Boileau pointed out.

I know that AFO is committed to seven priority issues, including the precarious financial position in which Franco-Ontarian organizations often find themselves and which leads to a weakening of their organizational capacity.

I am therefore happy to see that most of the investments announced in the Action Plan for Official Languages – 2018-2023: Investing in Our Future are going directly to official language minority communities. However, there is still a need to clarify who will ensure coordination and accountability.

Let's move on to post-secondary education. Franco-Ontarian students are finally getting a French-language university in Toronto! And I hope that that university will turn out a large number of teachers. I’m very pleased to see the wide range of French programs and degrees the university plans to offer, which will promote the linguistic, cultural, economic and social well-being of its students and of the French-speaking communities in Toronto and Ontario. Franco-Ontarians have been demanding the creation of a French-language university run by and for Francophones for years now.

In a July 2018 press release, Premier Ford’s new Progressive Conservative government announced its support for the Université de l’Ontario Français and committed to ensuring the success of the new French-language university. The provincial government has asked the interim Board of Governors to develop policies comparable to those of all other publicly funded universities, and to transition to a permanent board in early 2019. It would seem, however, that the project in its current form doesn’t quite meet the demands of the community. I will therefore be monitoring this issue very closely, although it does fall under provincial jurisdiction.

As Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada, I will be focusing on the following three priorities in the coming years.

First, I’ll be urging 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 federal institutions and partners to ensure that the 2018–2023 Action Plan for Official Languages achieves the expected outcomes.

And third, I’ll be calling for the government to effect a meaningful modernization of the Official Languages Act so that it reflects both Canada’s legacy and its future. Canada is aware of the importance of its French language and culture and is committed to expanding its international profile. Our country’s French-speaking communities give us another perspective on the world and open up a wealth of opportunities. I think that the "Innovons ensemble" theme of this year’s conference is particularly relevant.

Like I said earlier, when we invest in the future, in our young people and in our communities, we ensure that Canada’s official languages continue to be important and relevant.

In closing, I’d like to say a few words about the Federal Court’s recent decision in the case of the Fédération des francophones de la Colombie-Britannique Application versus Employment and Social Development Canada and the Canada Employment Insurance Commission.

The Court held that Part VII of the Act, which states that the government must support the vitality and development of Canada’s official language minority communities, does not require federal institutions to take particular or specific positive measures. I am very disappointed with the Federal Court’s decision.

This decision has had a significant impact on how my office conducts its investigations under Part VII of the Act and on my role in relation to the communities, which is why I decided to appeal.

I’m also very concerned about the fact that any negative or adverse effects of the measure taken by the federal institution must have occurred before a complaint is filed in order for that complaint to be deemed founded under the provisions of the Act.

With respect to the recent media coverage about the decision, some articles seem to suggest that complaints filed under Part VII of the Act will no longer be admissible. However, this is not the case at all.

The primary purpose of Part VII of the Act is still to ensure that federal institutions support the vitality and development of official language minority communities and foster the full recognition and use of English and French in Canadian society.

I want to remind you of the importance of continuing to file complaints when federal institutions appear to be infringing the Official Languages Act. My office’s investigations can result in lasting changes and can sometimes be used to help defend the communities’ rights before the courts.

On that note, I hope you have a great day and a productive conference. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them in the official language of your choice.

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