Notes for an address at a round table hosted by Laurentian University’s Institut franco-ontarien

Sudbury, Ontario, February 1, 2019
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

I’m very pleased to be taking part in this round table today and am honoured to be among such distinguished panel members.

I would like to begin by acknowledging that we are in Robinson-Huron Treaty territory and the land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Atikameksheng Anishnaabeg. For thousands of years, this First nation lived, hunted, traded and travelled here. Today, First nations are a vital part of Ontario society.

Let me introduce myself. For those who don’t know me, I come from Sainte Anne des Chênes, a very small village in Manitoba, just outside Winnipeg. 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 spent a large part of my career teaching, doing research and being a university administrator, at institutions such as the Université de Saint Boniface and the Centre d’études franco canadiennes de l’Ouest in Winnipeg. I was also director general of the Société franco manitobaine, which advocates on behalf of Manitoba’s French-speaking community.

In 2004, I was appointed assistant deputy minister of the Bureau de l’éducation française in Manitoba’s Department of Education, Citizenship and Youth. And from 2005 to 2009, I was executive director of the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada.

In June 2012, I became the ninth president and vice-chancellor of the Université de Moncton in New Brunswick, the largest French-language university outside of Quebec.

I’ve spent my life studying and defending linguistic duality. That passion has made me the man I am today, and so I was very honoured and proud to be appointed Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages in December 2017.

I travel from across the country to meet with businesspeople, young Canadians, politicians, researchers, community leaders and Francophones like you.

The year 2018 ended on a bitter note for French-speaking Canadians, and I believe that 2019 will be pivotal for the future of Canada’s Francophone communities. As we all know, the elimination of the Université de l’Ontario français project and the end of my Ontario counterpart’s independence have sparked an outcry across Canada, but also fuelled a wave of resistance. If the trend to undermine language rights knows no borders, I think I can say the same about the outpouring of support that we have witnessed in response to these setbacks.

As Commissioner of Official Languages, I have a duty to ensure the vitality of official language minority communities throughout the country. These communities are currently at the centre of a major identity debate. Here are a few examples of the worrisome events that have taken place throughout the country, for our collective memory.

For example, 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. Plus, there is a lot of uncertainty about the future of linguistic duality in New Brunswick following the most recent provincial election. The trend we’re seeing now across Canada is sullying our fundamental values.

The decision to abandon the plans for a French-language university in Toronto 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.

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.

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.

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 rise of Canadian society is linked to the promotion of greater visibility and use of the French language, which is spoken by more than 274 million people on five continents. The number of French speakers across the globe is constantly growing.

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. Provinces and territories have an important role to play in protecting official language minority communities by making sure that linguistic duality is always on the agenda.

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.

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. Ontario has the largest French-speaking population outside of Quebec—over 620,000. In total, more than 1.5 million Ontarians can speak French. Here in Toronto, some 100,000 people are French-speaking, while another 400,000 can speak the language!

Investing in the future, in young Canadians and in our communities ensures the vitality and longevity of Canada’s official languages. Our young people are well aware that it’s an uphill battle and that communities have to stand up for themselves. I look forward to hearing the opinions of the other panellists, so I will now hand the mic over to them.

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