Notes for an appearance before the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages
Ottawa, Ontario, February 7, 2022
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Beginning of dialog
Mr. Chairman, honourable members of the Committee, good morning.
Thank you for inviting me to talk to you about the current language situation in the country.
Although today’s meeting is taking place virtually, I would like to acknowledge that I am speaking to you from Treaty 1 territory, the traditional territory of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji‑Cree, Dakota and Dene peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation.
In my 2020–2021 annual report, I highlighted a significant and ongoing lack of bilingual capacity within the federal public service. This had led to the many shortcomings in terms of official languages that we have seen for too long.
The numerous complaints I receive year after year are proof of this, and the trend is on the rise. We received well over 1,000 complaints again in 2020–2021, and this year we have already received more than 5,500.
Unfortunately, problems related to communications with the public continue to be an issue and are the subject of most of the complaints we received in 2020–2021. This is due in part to the difficulty that federal institutions have in establishing the language requirements of positions. In addition, federal public servants are not always comfortable using the non-predominant official language at work, regardless of whether it is their first or second official language.
This prevents federal institutions from being able to provide services effectively in both English and French and to create a work environment conducive to the use of both official languages.
I made several recommendations to the federal government in my 2020–2021 annual report, not only with regard to its obligations in emergency situations, but also with regard to the language requirements of positions in the public service. I have also provided public service managers with a tool to help them better establish the linguistic identification of positions.
Federal institutions’ non-compliance with their official languages obligations is a significant and recurring issue for which targeted measures must be put in place.
A modernized Official Languages Act that gives me stronger powers will help me to better ensure that federal institutions comply with the legislation and thus better ensure that the language rights of Canadians are respected.
I am pleased that tabling a bill to modernize the Act is one of the objectives established by the Prime Minister for Minister Petitpas Taylor. Her mandate letter clearly identifies the need to implement the measures set out in the official languages reform document and to ensure that Canadians receive services from federal institutions in both official languages. I would also like to highlight the support role that Minister Fortier has been given to fulfill this mandate.
Several other ministers have received specific directives related to official languages in their mandate letters, which seems to indicate that official languages continue to be a priority for the government.
The measures presented by the government in its official languages reform document are promising and seem to offer concrete solutions to many of the issues with the current version of the Act. I shared my thoughts on this subject with you last May.
I am very much looking forward to the tabling of the new bill, and I hope to see the same commitment to truly protect the language rights of Canadians. I will be happy to share my perspective of the proposed bill with you in due course.
The time to take action on modernizing the Act is long past due. The unprecedented attention generated by the language situation in the country over the past year clearly shows how important linguistic duality and official languages are to Canadians.
By filing more than 2,500 complaints with my office about Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau’s unilingual speech, and more than 1,300 complaints about Mary Simon’s appointment as Governor General of Canada, Canadians have sent a clear message to the government.
Being able to speak both official languages is a crucial skill for any leader, and especially leaders of institutions subject to the Official Languages Act, whether they are leaders of federal departments and agencies, or of federally regulated private businesses that are subject to the Act, such as airport authorities and Air Canada.
The most powerful tool I currently have is making recommendations, so I need new powers to ensure compliance more effectively. This could have an impact on the institutions against which my office receives a considerable number of complaints every year, such as Air Canada. In my recommendations to the government for modernizing the Act, I asked to be given additional compliance mechanisms, such as the power to enter into enforceable agreements, coupled with administrative monetary penalties.
These mechanisms are essential to help federal institutions improve their compliance with the Act. I sincerely hope that they will be part of the measures proposed in the new bill.
I would like to conclude by saying that official languages are in the spotlight now more than ever, which shows how much Canadians value our two official languages. However, there is still a lot of work to be done so that they can both thrive in today’s Canada and in our country’s future.
Thank you for your attention. I will be happy to answer your questions in the official language of your choice.