Notes for an appearance before the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages

Ottawa, Ontario, June 20, 2022
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

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

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 with you today to present the results of my in-depth analysis of the government’s proposed measures in Bill C‑13.

This bill clearly represents a major step toward modernized legislation. If passed, it has the potential to transform Canada’s language policy by making the foundation on which it rests—the Official Languages Act—a law that will enable our official languages to advance and that will truly defend the language rights of Canadians.

I’m very pleased to see that Bill C‑13 requires the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration to adopt a policy on Francophone immigration—including objectives, targets and indicators—to enhance the vitality of French linguistic minority communities in Canada.

However, it is important to remember that this policy should cover the entire immigration continuum, including all immigration stages and categories. That is why I am recommending that the Minister be required to specify how he intends to achieve the objectives and targets. Without accountability, the immigration policy may not deliver the desired results.

As I explain in my brief entitled Seizing a Historic Opportunity: For a Complete Modernization of the OLA, Bill C‑13 is very promising, but there are some measures in it that could be improved and clarified. There are also some long‑awaited measures not included in the bill that should be added.

For example, C‑13 does not include any measures to modernize the core components of the Act that govern communications with and services to the public, and language of work. As I point out in my brief, this omission is one of the stumbling blocks in the bill.

The Act needs to specify and clarify the way in which federal institutions are required to make an active offer. More than 80% of Francophones say that when an active offer is made, there is a good chance they will opt for service in French. However, if an active offer is not made, only 14% say they will request service in the official language of their choice. This statistic clearly shows how important the active offer is in ensuring access to government services in Canadians’ preferred official language.

Bill C-13 also needs to make the entire Act technologically neutral. The technologies federal institutions use to communicate with their employees and with the public have evolved dramatically over the past few decades. Who could have imagined, when the current version of the Act was passed in 1988, that one day it would be possible to get information about an emergency by receiving an alert message on a cellphone or that a global pandemic would force most Canadians to work from home and learn how to use new technological tools?

This is why Bill C-13 must include provisions that are not limited to present-day (or earlier) technologies. We need to plan for the unexpected and ensure that the Act stands the test of time.

I also think that Bill C‑13 should enshrine in the Act a duty for federal institutions to draft all federal-provincial-territorial agreements in both official languages and to include enforceable language clauses in those agreements.

Another aspect of the bill that could benefit from some fine tuning are the measures to improve governance, meaning the way the federal government ensures that the Act is implemented effectively.

I strongly believe that the Act would be greatly improved if responsibility for its governance were assigned to a central agency that had the authority and legitimacy to strengthen accountability mechanisms and to ensure federal institutions’ compliance.

In my opinion, the Treasury Board of Canada is in the best position to assume this important responsibility. There is considerable overlap in Bill C‑13 between the Treasury Board’s responsibilities and those of Canadian Heritage. This results in two separate entities being responsible for the implementation of the Act, which is problematic when trying to determine who has the final say.

Although Bill C-13 reinforces the Treasury Board’s obligations, its responsibilities must be strengthened so that it cannot delegate its powers and duties to deputy heads of other federal institutions.

Finally, the provisions of the bill regarding support for the development and vitality of official language minority communities are a step in the right direction. However, I am concerned that these provisions risk undermining the Federal Court of Appeal’s interpretation of federal institutions’ duties as set out in its recent decision in the Fédération des francophones de la Colombie-Britannique (FFCB) case.

In fact, Bill C-13 gives federal institutions too much latitude compared to the duties prescribed in the FFCB decision with respect to the obligation to take positive measures and the obligation to mitigate any negative impact of their decisions, based on impact analyses.

Bill C‑13 needs to better circumscribe the latitude given to federal institutions. Therefore, I am calling on the government to enshrine in the Act the principles set out in the FFCB decision.

In my brief, I explain my position in more detail and make several other recommendations that I hope will help strengthen the Act, which has already accomplished so much to advance official languages in Canada over the past 50 years.

Your committee’s study of Bill C‑13 brings us one step closer to the finish line. However, there are still a number of stages to go before it is passed.

We can no longer afford any more delays. The ball is now in your court, and I urge you to seize the historic opportunity before you today to make this bill a success for Canada’s official languages.

Thank you for your attention. I will be happy to answer your questions in the official language of your choice.

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