Speech at the Official Languages Best Practices Forum

Ottawa, Ontario, November 29, 2018
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

It gives me great pleasure to speak to you this morning and share my vision of official languages to inform the many productive discussions I hope will take place throughout the day. I would like to thank the forum’s tripartite organizing committee, that is, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Canadian Heritage and the Council of the Network of Official Languages Champions, for inviting me and for organizing this idea-sharing event.

Let me begin by acknowledging the enthusiasm of all the champions and other official languages ambassadors who have gathered here in this place, which is also part of the traditional unceded territory of the Anishinaabe Algonquin people, an Indigenous people from the Ottawa Valley. For thousands of years, the Algonquin lived, hunted, traded and travelled on these lands. In this era of reconciliation, I believe it is especially important to honour First Nations ancestors and to reaffirm our relationships with one another.

Our two official languages, English and French, are central to who we are as Canadians. Along with Indigenous languages, Canada’s “first languages,” they represent our society’s linguistic diversity.

This morning, I will discuss a priority project, that is, the modernization of the Official Languages Act, as well as language of work and a new tool intended to help federal institutions make ongoing progress in the area of official languages.

I will also discuss a few topics that, I hope, matter deeply to us all and that help advance official languages best practices.

As Charlemagne said over a thousand years ago, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” This so eloquently captures our linguistic duality today, a duality which is in fact a powerful symbol of openness, empathy and respect.

When I heard about the Government of Ontario’s decision to eliminate the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner and to scrap plans for a French-language university in Toronto, I came to the sad conclusion that the trend to undermine language rights knows no borders.

As we’ve seen, the shock wave created by this announcement has sparked outrage not only among Ontario Francophones, but among Canadians across the country. Needless to say, I am profoundly dismayed by this setback for language rights.

We’re starting to see examples of this well beyond Ontario’s borders, like the decision to move Saskatchewan’s Francophone Affairs Branch from the province’s Executive Council to the Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport; the uncertainty surrounding the future of linguistic duality in New Brunswick following the most recent provincial election; the disappearance of the French Education Branch in Alberta’s Ministry of Education, where French-language services are now integrated with those of the majority;

It is astonishing to see language issues of this magnitude back in the spotlight nearly half a century after the first Official Languages Act was passed. This trend to roll back language rights is riding roughshod over Canadians’ fundamental values. I believe that Canada must continue to be a leader and a beacon for linguistic duality and support for official language minority communities. And you are a part of this important process.

As you all know, 2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first Official Languages Act. The Office of the Commissioner started thinking about modernizing the Act in the summer of 2017, and has stepped up its efforts in recent months to continue the discussion with key stakeholders.

On the basis of an online consultation in the spring of 2018 that received over 4,000 responses, I maintain that the Act must be modernized in order to reflect the many ways Canadian society has changed since 1988, the year in which the Act last underwent a major revision.

I therefore believe that the federal government, which has already committed itself to this ambitious project, must consider the following three principles: the Act must be current, dynamic and robust.

Every aspect of the modernized Act should reflect Canadian society as it is today, along with its needs and its aspirations for a country that fully values linguistic duality.

To do this, the government must improve access to the federal justice system in English and in French, and ensure that communication and service delivery obligations are clear and meet the needs of the Canadian population. It must update rights and clarify duties with respect to language of work in the federal public service. And it must develop a regulatory framework to deliver on its commitment to official language minority communities and to fostering the full recognition and use of both official languages.

The legal principles that have transformed the way language rights are now interpreted and applied, such as substantive equality, should be integrated into the modernized Act in order to solidify its foundation.  

The new Act should remain applicable in a manner consistent with an evolving Canadian society. Ensuring that it continues to be relevant as technologies emerge and change, or that the Act will be periodically reviewed, are specific solutions that will contribute to maintaining the dynamic quality the Act must possess.  

I would now like to address the Committee of Assistant Deputy Ministers on Official Languages and all those who have advocated for the Official Languages Act over the years. This is the perfect day to let all participants know about the measures you have been taking to uphold the principles, objectives and spirit of the Act. I remind you that the Clerk of the Privy Council has mandated you to carefully review the recommendations in his language-of-work report in order to provide information to federal agencies and employees about their implementation.

Your mandate to promote linguistic duality as a personal and organizational value is essential to the visibility of official languages within the machinery of government. Now more than ever, I am counting on your support in advancing the official languages in your respective federal institutions. By investing in the future and in communities, we are ensuring the continuation and vitality of Canada’s official languages. The example has to come from the top, from the Prime Minister himself, from the cabinet, from officials, all the way to the front-line service providers.

I also would like to take this opportunity to tip my hat to the Council of the Network of Official Languages Champions, which plays a unique and essential role within the federal government. The champions themselves are a very valuable resource for the Public Service of Canada. Leaders of official languages initiatives, they create a bridge between management and employees. 

The task before us seems gargantuan at times, but, to strive for consistent service delivery, federal institutions themselves must progress to a point at which compliance with the Act is the result of a culture and processes that fully take the official languages into account. Unfortunately, it seems that we do not always leverage the benefits of linguistic duality. 

My team has been working tirelessly to develop a new tool in honour of the Act’s 50th anniversary in 2019. The Official Languages Maturity Model will make it possible to conduct a diagnostic organizational review within federal institutions and to help them make continued progress in official languages. Made specifically for the federal public service, this tool will be the very first model to focus on federal institutions’ ability to reflect on the processes and systems in place.    

However, as I mentioned in a recent speech, we cannot resolve everything through legislation and mechanisms. I am rather of the opinion that it is a question of leadership, respect and recognition. Need I say that we have a valuable legacy, one that will bring us a brighter future? That is how I see things. We should avoid seeing official languages objectives as an obstacle course.     

We have certainly witnessed great progress recently, such as the unveiling of the Action Plan for Official Languages 2018–2023: Investing in Our Future and the publication of the Clerk of the Privy Council’s report on language of work within the federal public service. Language of work is at the centre of our priorities, but the timeline to implement the Clerk’s recommendations goes well beyond 2021.  

As I stated on Linguistic Duality Day in September, it is time to step up our game in terms of linguistic duality. For example, it is important to encourage Canadians to use their second official language in their day-to-day lives—especially those who put so much effort into learning it.

That is why I would like to commend all public servants who took language training and who make a point of using their second language at work—in meetings, in writing, in their correspondence, and in their conversations with colleagues. Learning a second language is never easy. You have to set aside your pride in order to express yourself, sometimes a bit clumsily, in a language you haven’t quite mastered. Although mastering both official languages is a leadership competency on par with the rest, using both official languages in the workplace demonstrates effective leadership.

And now I would like to raise the issue of language profiles. It is common to see, for example, a position involving the supervision of employees in the National Capital Region paired with a BBB language profile. However, such a profile cannot meet the requirements of supervisory work and managing a bilingual public service. Indeed, I have noted an increase in complaints regarding the language profile of certain positions in the last few years. There is still work to be done.

Official language minority communities are an essential component of linguistic duality. It is therefore essential that we remain attuned to their needs and concerns, so that they receive the services they need in order to flourish. I’d like to reiterate that Canada’s French language and culture are an incredibly rich part of its heritage.

It goes without saying that I want us to take action on the key issues—current or anticipated—in the best interest of Canadians. Here are three priorities I will be focusing on in the coming years.

First, I will encourage federal institutions to overcome the obstacles that make it difficult for them to fulfill the objectives of the Act, by thoroughly understanding the factors of success.

I will also work with the federal government and federal institutions to ensure the implementation of the Action Plan for Official Languages 2018–2023: Investing in Our Future achieves the intended outcomes.

Last, I will continue to encourage the federal government to turn dialogue into action, and truly modernize the Official Languages Act to reflect the Canada of today and tomorrow.

In short, I invite federal institutions to take their leadership role seriously and to “walk the talk.” Official languages must remain on the agenda if we are to advance linguistic duality in Canada.

I believe that you represent change, and that is why I encourage you to strive for no less than excellence. I wish you all fruitful discussions throughout the day and invite you to take a moment to ask yourselves: “What more could we do?” Because ultimately, official languages is everybody’s business!

Thank you for your attention. I am happy to take your questions, which you are welcome to ask in the official language of your choice.

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