Commissioner’s Speech to the Quebec Federal Council
March 10, 2022
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Good afternoon, and thank you for inviting me to speak with you.
Although today’s meeting is taking place virtually, I’d 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.
I’m very happy to be here today, and I’m very interested in learning more about your activities and initiatives. I’d like to talk to you about the current official languages landscape in Canada and speak specifically to some issues within the federal public service that can affect you and your work.
To give you some background on who I am, I come from a small village in Manitoba—Ste. Anne des Chênes—about 50 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg.
I spent a large part of my career teaching, doing research and being a university administrator, including six years as president and vice-chancellor of the Université de Moncton.
Before that I was an assistant deputy minister in Ontario’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, and Director General of the Société franco-manitobaine, which advocates on behalf of Manitoba’s French-speaking community.
I was both honoured and proud to be appointed Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages in 2018 for a seven-year mandate.
The official languages landscape
You may have noticed that official languages are in the spotlight now more than ever, and my office has been staying very busy over the past few years with a wide variety of recurrent and emerging issues.
In my ombudsman role, I receive complaints from Canadians about federal institutions’ compliance with the Official Languages Act. We learn a lot from complaints about Canadians’ experiences with official languages, and about respect for official languages more broadly. The upward trend in complaints continues: we received well over 1,000 complaints in 2020–2021, and this year we’ve 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 could be 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’s 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.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted some ongoing issues related to official languages in Canadian society, especially in terms of public safety and leadership. We’ve heard loudly and clearly that Canadians expect leaders to both understand them and address them in both official languages.
To make lasting progress with regard to official languages, we need an updated Official Languages Act. The Act has helped us achieve many things over the past 50 years: greater representation of the two official language communities within the federal government; improved access to federal services in both official languages; the advancement of English and French in Canadian society; and support and assistance for the development of official language minority communities.
I’m very pleased that the new version of the long-awaited bill to modernize the Official Languages Act has been tabled and is now a reality. This is a key phase in modernizing the Act to make it relevant, dynamic and strong.
There will be some other significant shifts ahead in the official languages landscape.
We expect the 2021 Census data to be available in the fall of 2022, which will have an impact on the implementation of the new official languages regulations. With an increased number of bilingual service points resulting from the new regulations, federal institutions will need to build capacity to meet the new requirements.
The government’s current Action Plan for Official Languages will end in 2023. Monitoring the Action Plan helps us look at how federal institutions contribute to the vitality of official language minority communities and how they foster the recognition and use of English and French in Canadian society. In the coming months, I’ll be publishing a progress report on a number of national programs, along with my recommendations, to help inform the next Action Plan.
We’ve had some good news recently in the case brought before the Federal Court by the Fédération des francophones de la Colombie-Britannique back in 2013. I appealed the Federal Court’s initial decision in the case because the Court ruled that Part VII of the Act, which states that the government must support the development and vitality of Canada’s official language minority communities, did not require federal institutions to take specific positive measures. In late January of this year, the judges of the Federal Court of Appeal restored the rule of law and finally gave full force to Part VII of the Official Languages Act. This is a not only a momentous victory for the Francophone community in British Columbia. The decision also confirms that federal institutions are required to take the needs of official language minority communities into account in their decision-making processes and to take positive measures to mitigate any negative effects their programs or initiatives may have on those communities.
Diversity and public opinion research
With such significant shifts on the horizon, we are moving into a period of enormous potential for official languages.
And at this pivotal time, recent public opinion research conducted by Environics for my office shows that Canadians’ support for official languages is very high, at 87%. These findings are consistent with research from 2016, which shows that public support for our country’s official languages is resilient over time and that official bilingualism continues to be a core value for Canadians.
We are at a time in our country’s history where we’re also taking a good hard look at our Canadian identity and figuring out how to be more inclusive of all Canadians in order to make a better Canada.
In my view, recognizing two official languages, celebrating diversity and reconciling with Indigenous peoples are all part and parcel of the broader societal value of living together—“le vivre ensemble,” as we say in French.
The results of my office’s public opinion research point to the positive relationship between official languages and diversity. A strong majority of Canadians agree that official languages and other forms of diversity go well together and can strengthen each other. In fact, Canadians from diverse backgrounds agree that having two official languages can actually help reinforce other forms of diversity.
Official language minority communities certainly contribute to Canada’s diversity, and our research shows that most Canadians are in favour of measures to support those communities, which of course include the English-speaking community in Quebec and the French-speaking communities in the provinces and territories outside Quebec.
Future of work
We know all too well the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented, and work has been no exception. The public service has had to undergo dramatic shifts over the past two years with the transition to remote or hybrid work. Even before the pandemic, we had begun moving toward a more distributed workforce, which poses certain challenges for federal employees’ language rights.
In Quebec, language-of-work issues between regional offices and headquarters located in the National Capital Region certainly predate the pandemic and are still ongoing. Despite significant progress over the past three decades, challenges remain, particularly with respect to the use of French outside Quebec, and the use of English within that province as a language of work.
At the same time, the participation of Anglophones in the federal public service in Quebec has improved significantly. Some 20 years ago, English-speaking Quebecers outside the National Capital Region made up just 5% of the federal public service. Today, that percentage is 11.3%. Although the participation rate of English-speaking Quebecers in the federal public service is still lower than the demographic weight of the community, which is 13.7%, it is important to recognize the progress that’s been made here.
For the future of work within the public service more generally, we need to take a serious look at language of work and the impact of remote work on employee language rights. Increasingly in the future, employees’ physical location will likely be less predictable, and cross-regional work teams will become more and more common. To ensure that employees’ language-of-work rights are respected, leaders need to actively plan for this reality to build bilingual capacity.
You’ve probably been hearing the term “linguistic insecurity” more and more lately. Linguistic insecurity is a feeling of unease when using your first or second official language, and it’s a real and ongoing issue both in Canadian society and in the federal public service.
Last year, I published a study on linguistic insecurity in the federal public service. Based on the results of a questionnaire completed by some 11,000 federal public servants, our report shows that we often still don’t have the right conditions for employees to use English and French at work, even when they have the right to do so. Respondents who experienced linguistic insecurity said they felt judged, embarrassed, hesitant or apologetic.
We found that French first- and second-language insecurity was a significant challenge among public servants in regions designated as bilingual for language of work. Overall, the public servants who responded to our questionnaire felt the most discomfort when speaking French, followed by writing in French and then asking to be supervised in French.
Although much less common than French-language insecurity, English first- and second-language insecurity was nonetheless present in all regions studied. Discomfort in speaking English was the most common, followed by writing in English and then asking to be supervised in English.
Our findings underscore the importance of creating a work environment conducive to the use of both official languages, and the key role that managers and supervisors need to play in building that environment.
As part of our study, we developed some leadership tips that can make a real difference in building linguistic security within the federal public service. Here are some highlights:
- To help build a linguistically inclusive workplace, leaders need to actively use both official languages and encourage employees to practise their second official language at work. That means using both official languages at work more equally—for example, in meetings and when writing documents and emails.
- It’s also essential to ensure that employees can practise their language skills in order to improve them, or even just maintain them. That requires not only having an adequate budget to support language training, but also making sure employees to have a manageable workload so that they can take the training they need to improve and maintain their second official language skills.
- And anyone learning their second official language could be encouraged to ask colleagues to help them practise. It’s also important to avoid switching to the other language when someone is trying to practise their second official language. Equally important is to discourage over-correcting or commenting on a language learner’s imperfect English or French.
I encourage you to take a look at the full list of leadership tips on our website and make good use of them to help create the conditions for everyone to be comfortable using the official language of their choice at work.
In terms of workplace culture, I’m convinced that linguistic security needs to be a top priority for the Clerk of the Privy Council. In my most recent annual report, I recommended that the Clerk implement strategies to combat linguistic insecurity in the federal public service and to ensure that official languages are at the heart of public service reform. The Clerk’s latest report to the Prime Minister on the public service of Canada refers to “inclusion” and the need to combat linguistic insecurity “by creating spaces for our official languages to flourish.” That important work starts with leaders like you.
As we look to the future, I am optimistic. Although there’s still a lot of work to be done, I see some very positive indications that Canada’s official languages will continue to flourish in our country’s future.
At the federal council level, I encourage you to embrace this exciting new period for official languages wholeheartedly. I want you to know that the actions you take as leaders to uphold the equality of English and French can make a tremendous difference in the lives of your fellow public servants and, in turn, more broadly in Canadian society.
By coming together to discuss your challenges and pool your expertise, I’m confident that you can contribute to making meaningful changes that support Canada’s official languages and help propel the federal public service into a more equitable future.
It’s important to remember that the Act does so much more than spell out obligations. It is a quasi-Constitutional piece of legislation that embodies of some of our core Canadian values. It’s part of who we are.
Thank you for your attention. I will be happy to answer your questions in the official language of your choice.