Notes for an address at the Official Languages Act Conference of the Quebec Community Groups Network

Gatineau, Quebec, March 11, 2020
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Good morning!

I’m very pleased to be part of this commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act.

First, I would like to acknowledge that the land on which we are gathered is part of the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg people, an Indigenous people of the Ottawa Valley. For thousands of years, they have lived, hunted, traded and travelled here. We pay our respects to the First Nations ancestors of this land and reaffirm our relationships with one another.

I also want to extend my thanks to Quebec Community Groups Network President Geoffrey Chambers for inviting me, and to all of you for your hard work and for QCGN’s commitment to Quebec’s English-speaking communities.

Now, I’d like to take a look back on the past 50 years—in particular, at the relationship Quebec’s English-speaking minority community has had with the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages—and, as we move forward, give you a little insight on my views on the situation.

Let’s begin by putting some things into perspective. Over the past 50 years, every one of Canada’s eight commissioners of official languages has had an open relationship with the English-speaking communities of Quebec—a relationship shaped by their individual views about what they felt was important to do and by the events that took place while they were in office. With the benefit of hindsight, what we see in the evolution of these relationships since the creation of the Office of the Commissioner in 1970 is a progressive realization that Quebec’s English-speaking communities are a vulnerable minority—despite the growing international influence of English.

I started this job just over two years ago. So far, I have met with representatives of Quebec’s English-speaking communities—many of you here in the room today—to gain a better understanding of the realities facing your communities. These discussions are vital and incredibly important to me. What I know and what needs to be stated is that your communities are not like the Francophone minority communities in the rest of the country. Although you are a vulnerable minority, the context and the realities are different.

What I recognize and hear from many of you is that the English-speaking minority community in Quebec is a relatively “young minority.” Now, considering that the English-speaking community has been in Quebec for more than 250 years, let’s not kid ourselves. It does seem somewhat ironic to be positioning it as a young minority. But what I have heard from you is that there is a need for funding in order to establish or further develop community infrastructure across different sectors, including youth, seniors and women.

I am encouraged to see that Canadian Heritage and the Department of Justice have now taken steps to support improved leadership in the area of youth, seniors and access to justice. But I also recognize that more support will be needed from federal institutions as we move forward.

And this is where I come in. I am here to speak on your behalf, to uphold your rights, to seek support and to monitor funding programs such as the Action Plan for Official Languages. This plan will ensure that the government delivers on its objective “to offer communities the tools they need and not only provide existing programs. And, more important, to seize new opportunities to grow, invest and strengthen these services.”

Since the 19th century, English-speaking Quebec has historically had very strong leadership in education. Lately, I’ve seen the incredible mobilization in your communities to protect your section 23 Charter rights. Last year, I shared my thoughts with many of you about Bill 40, and I issued a statement when the Government of Quebec began its public hearings. I was and continue to be concerned about the repercussions of this new law on your community.

This is a collaborative effort. We’re all here because we are guided by and believe in the inherent principles found in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Official Languages Act.

About this important piece of legislation: your input during the consultations and the views you shared during the 2017 conference on the future of linguistic duality in Canada helped frame my recommendations on the modernization of the Act. I applaud your efforts and sincerely appreciate your contributions.

Something that struck me rather early on as Commissioner was the fact that it’s not easy to get the media’s attention to talk about modernizing the Act or official language policies, especially among the English-language media outside of Quebec.

The Francophone media cover issues related to language rights, but news outlets that represent the majority English-speaking population in Canada are less interested: there’s no crisis, so where’s the story?

I grew up outside of Quebec, and I can tell you that many Canadians don’t even know there’s an English-speaking minority in Quebec!

But, let’s go back in time for a minute. We’re in 1969, there’s a sovereigntist movement afoot, and tension is brewing in Quebec ahead of the October Crisis. That’s the year the Official Languages Act was adopted.

At the time, the Act was created to protect both official language minority communities, English and French. But it was also adopted because it was widely recognized as good for Canadian unity and linguistic duality, and as a real unifying force.

To me, as a young boy in Manitoba, the real incarnation of the Official Languages Act was a man by the name of Keith Spicer. He was the first Commissioner of Official Languages—a real rock star! My own rock star anyway . . . The person, the office, the Act, helped me understand who I was and why it was important to defend my rights as an individual.

The following years saw many challenges and successes. Keith Spicer got himself into hot water in 1973 when he referred to Quebec’s English-speaking minority as “Westmount Rhodesians,” a remark he regretted. Then came Max Yalden. No commissioner presided over as much monumental change in Quebec as he did between 1977 and 1983. After him, D’Iberville Fortier became the only commissioner to be condemned by Quebec’s National Assembly for his criticism of Quebec’s treatment of English and Anglophones in that province. Victor Goldbloom followed Fortier and was the first—and still only—commissioner from Quebec’s English-speaking minority. Then, Dyane Adam fought against the impact of forced municipal mergers on English-speaking communities in Quebec, and Graham Fraser helped bring political momentum to the idea of an Anglophone secretariat within Quebec’s public administration.

And here I am before you today to tell you this: I want to take on the following three challenges—perception, representation and linguistic insecurity.

While the Census suggests Quebec’s English-speaking communities have high rates of bilingualism, subsequent research by QCGN—notably, its 2009 Creating Spaces study—have shown that young people are unhappy with the level of their French-language skills. Nowhere in the world does an English-speaking community speak a second language as widely as English-speaking Quebecers speak French. However, the French proficiency bar is high for meaningful participation in the Quebec mainstream. This is a problem.

As English-speaking Quebecers, you have so much to be proud of: your collective history; your many contributions to Quebec’s cultural, social, political and economic development; and your critical role in shaping the Canada of today.

Quebec’s English-speaking minority still has a lot to contribute to Canadian political, economic and cultural life. Your community bridges the French-speaking majority in Quebec and the English-speaking majority in the rest of Canada.

We can say that minority communities across Canada have made great strides since the adoption of the Official Languages Act in 1969. But many have been limited in their progress far too often because the Act has not kept up with Canadian realities and community needs.

What we need is more than just an updated Act. We need a language policy that does not change with the constant ebb and flow of the population. We absolutely need a policy that makes room for inevitable changes, such as new technologies. We need an Act that is relevant, dynamic and strong.

Undoubtedly, a new draft bill to modernize the Official Languages Act will be tabled, and a modernized Act will be passed. Canada will then need Quebec’s English-speaking communities to step up and actively engage in the process of monitoring—and influencing—the implementation of the new Act.

In doing so, you will help to ensure that linguistic duality continues to be a defining feature of Canadian political life . . . and of Canada itself!

On a final note, I want to express my strong commitment to work toward the preservation and development of your communities and to uphold the rights of all official language minority communities in Canada.

Thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts with you today. I wish you a very successful conference.

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