Notes for an appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages - State of Canada's Francophonie

Ottawa, Ontario, December 6, 2018
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Mr. Chair, honourable members of the Committee, good morning.

With me are assistant commissioners Ghislaine Saikaley and Pierre Leduc, as well as my general counsel, Pascale Giguère. I am appearing before you today with not a little apprehension.

Given the current trend that is spreading across the country, I am more than concerned about the events that have been making headlines in recent weeks.

I’m sure that the situation has you troubled, as well, which is why I’m bringing it to you so promptly. We all have a part to play and we all need to ask ourselves what we can do.

Here are a few examples of the worrisome events that have taken place throughout the country: the Government of Manitoba announced that it had changed the status of the Bureau de l’éducation française within the Department of Education; it also announced that it was eliminating 11 full-time translator positions within its translation services branch; and the Federal Court dismissed the application of the Fédération des francophones de la Colombie-Britannique. Plus, there is a lot of uncertainty about the future of linguistic duality in New Brunswick following the most recent provincial election.

Let’s move on to the current language crisis in Ontario. Now, while I appreciate the provincial government’s spirit of openness in moving the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner to the Ombudsman’s office, I have to state unequivocally that the decision does not even come close to meeting the needs of the Franco-Ontarian community. This compromise weakens the role of the Commissioner by eliminating his ability to strengthen the public’s right to French services in Ontario, by removing his power to suggest improvements and by reducing his capacity to ensure the development of French-speaking communities.

Right now, Ontario has a Commissioner who has made a real impact. He has been instrumental in ensuring respect for and compliance with the French Language Services Act. The creation of the Office of the Commissioner, with a head reporting directly to the Legislative Assembly, made it clear to Franco-Ontarians that there was real value in having both the Office and the Commissioner.

As for the decision to scrap the plans for a French-language university in Toronto, I believe that this is a major setback that shows a lack of vision on the part of Ontario’s elected officials. This was a project that brought hope, that was to fulfill an essential need of the Franco-Ontarian community—the largest French-speaking community in Canada outside of Quebec. Deficits should not be reduced by sacrificing the rights of Canadians and of official language minority communities.

When I see setbacks like the ones we’ve seen over the past few months, I really have to speak out. Even though my mandate is at a federal level, I am responsible for the language rights of all Canadians and for ensuring the development of both the English and French linguistic minority communities.

As I said recently, it’s astonishing to see language issues of this magnitude back in the spotlight nearly half a century after the first Official Languages Act was passed. The Act is part of Canadians’ collective memory and represents the very foundation of the social contract that unites us. How can something that defines our identity be considered to be a remnant of the past, especially when linguistic duality is such a powerful symbol of openness, empathy and respect?

When we remove the stones one by one from the base of the building, do we not risk bringing down the very foundation of Canadian identity?

The government, federal institutions, the courts and a great number of civil society stakeholders have all helped to shape Canada’s linguistic landscape into a very different entity from the one it was before the Official Languages Act was passed. Through their efforts, linguistic duality and official languages have become embedded in Canadians’ consciousness and deeply woven into Canada’s social fabric, and English and French are now the languages of the national conversation. Setbacks like the one we’ve just seen in Ontario call that social contract into question.

The language rights enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are a reflection of the importance that Canadians place on the development of official language communities and on the equal status of English and French in Canadian society, in Parliament, in the Government of Canada and in federal institutions.

Looking at events that are happening across the country, I can only conclude that provincial leaders have lost sight of constitutional principles like language rights.

This is not unlike the controversy surrounding the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism and the harsh criticism it came under between 1963 and 1969. But despite the difficulties they came up against, commissioners Laurendeau and Dunton persevered to come to a consensus on the issue.

The B&B Commission left us a very important legacy. Its recommendations led to policies on official languages and multiculturalism, and it laid the foundations of both linguistic duality and cultural diversity as Canadian values.

It also created a framework of language rights at both the federal and provincial level that shaped both the Official Languages Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, establishing as quasi-constitutional Canada’s language regime.

Language rights are ingrained in our history and show the promise of our future. There are many examples of significant—and sometimes controversial—developments in the history of linguistic duality since the Official Languages Act was passed. In 1970, French was restored as a language of instruction in Manitoba, a status it had held until 1916. In 1991, the Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations were adopted. In 2003, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick opened its doors. And in 2009, the DesRochers decision was a major legal victory for linguistic duality.

The trend we’re seeing now is compromising our fundamental values. Canada must continue to be a leader and a beacon for linguistic duality and support for official language minority communities.

This is an opportunity for Canadian Heritage to foster the development of linguistic duality at a national level. The government has already unveiled its Action Plan for Official Languages, which is part of Minister Joly’s mandate, but in light of recent events, I wonder whether it’s enough.

I encourage the government to explore other ways to promote linguistic duality. The Department of Canadian Heritage Act requires the Minister to strengthen and promote “Canadian identity and values, cultural development and heritage.” Why not develop a promotional campaign and enhance some existing Canadian Heritage initiatives?

I would add that the provinces and territories also have an important role to play in protecting official language minority communities by making sure that linguistic duality is always on the agenda. Investing in the future, in young Canadians and in our communities ensures the vitality and longevity of Canada’s official languages. I will be calling on all of our elected officials to set aside their political affiliations in order to protect the gains we have made in terms of language rights.

With half a century of experience and expertise in all matters related to the Official Languages Act, my office is in the best position to make recommendations. I submitted a special report to Parliament last May that proposed a principled approach to the modernization of the Official Languages Regulations. Next spring, I will be presenting my position—and my recommendations—on the modernization of the Act.

As parliamentarians and as members of this committee, you are in an ideal position to support the implementation of my recommendations, to study the draft Regulations, which will have a major impact on official language minority communities, and to influence the government’s decisions on the modernization of the Official Languages Act in order to ensure legislation that is relevant, dynamic and strong.

Given the current situation and considering that the Official Languages Act is about to turn 50 years old, I think it’s time for the government to take action and establish a dialogue with the provinces and territories—perhaps in the form of a federal-provincial-territorial summit—in order to discuss the future of linguistic duality and of official language minority communities, and to come up with concrete and sustainable solutions.

Thank you for your attention. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them in the official language of your choice, and I’ll be happy to answer them.

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