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

Winnipeg, Manitoba, November 21, 2022
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Mr. Chairman, honourable members of the committee, good evening.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging that I am speaking to you from Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Treaty 1 territory, the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji‑Cree, Dakota and Dene peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation.

I’m very pleased to be joining you today to present my 2021–2022 annual report and to discuss an issue of particular concern: Francophone immigration in linguistic minority communities.

First, my most recent annual report. In 2021–2022, my office received a record 5,409 admissible complaints, an increase of 189% over the previous year. The trend is evident: the volume of complaints has been steadily rising for the past five years.

I’d like to point out that nearly 75% of the complaints we received in 2021–2022 were related to the lack of proficiency in both official languages among senior executives. Almost half of these complaints were about a specific event related to Air Canada.

At the risk of repeating myself—again—being able to speak both official languages is an essential skill for any leader, especially leaders of institutions subject to the Official Languages Act.

The bilingual nature of an organization depends in large part on the bilingualism of those occupying positions at the highest levels. Our leaders need to lead by example and must be able to represent all Canadians in both official languages.

This is why I recommended in my report that one of the parliamentary committees on official languages study the language obligations related to the staffing of senior management positions in the federal public service and to Governor in Council appointments in order to determine whether knowledge of both official languages should be a requirement when hiring for these types of positions and in order to find a lasting solution to the erosion of language rights in the federal public service.

I also recommended that the Minister of Official Languages ensure that federal institutions are fully informed of their obligations under Part VII of the Official Languages Act and that they meet these obligations in accordance with the Federal Court of Appeal’s January 2022 decision in the Fédération des francophones de la Colombie-Britannique case.

With this decision, the Federal Court of Appeal has finally and unequivocally recognized the full scope of the obligations under Part VII of the Act. I expect the federal government to provide the leadership that federal institutions need to guide them in meeting their obligations.

I am aware of the Fédération’s decision to appeal the case to the Supreme Court of Canada. The appeal is specific to the Court’s decision regarding Part IV of the Act. The Fédération is also seeking some changes to Bill C‑13. Needless to say, I will continue to keep a close eye on this case.

Let me now turn to the second reason why I’m speaking to you today. For more than a decade, my predecessors and I have made Francophone immigration to minority communities a priority. Recent language data from the 2021 Census has heightened the urgency of taking action.

Although the number of Canadians who can speak French is higher than ever and despite the fact that Canada’s Francophone population is increasingly diverse, the declining demographic weight of the French-speaking minority population in comparison to the English-speaking population continues to be a major concern.

As you know, my office published a study in November 2021 on the 4.4% immigration target for French-speaking immigrants in Francophone minority communities. This target, which was adopted almost 20 years ago, has never been reached by the federal government. Moreover, our study shows that even if this 4.4% target had been met consistently every year since the original 2008 deadline, it would not have been enough to maintain—let alone increase—the demographic weight of the French-speaking population outside Quebec, which was its objective.

I am disappointed that the federal government still has not committed to reviewing its target for Francophone immigration to minority communities, despite various reports and studies urging it to raise it, including mine. The experts are clear: with an annual target of 4.4%, the demographic weight of Francophone communities outside Quebec will continue to decline.

It’s time to do more and do better. There are many—my office and I included—who have spoken out in recent months, and we expected that decisions would have followed immediately. We need a new, clear objective and a much more ambitious target for Francophone immigration: a target that resolves the shortfall in admissions of French-speaking permanent residents to minority communities and ensures a bright future for our Francophone communities.

Although my study focused on the admissions of French-speaking immigrants, we also need to pay close attention to the retention and integration of newcomers in the communities to maintain the demographic weight of Francophones outside Quebec. It’s all well and good to welcome them to the country, but we must also make sure that they can thrive in Canadian society.

Let me be clear. We need to make adjustments to ensure the sustainability and future of Francophone communities across the country. Immigration is part of the solution. The government must commit to a more ambitious target and consider all the changes required at the various stages of the Francophone immigration continuum.

On a positive note, I’d like to acknowledge the opening of the federal government’s new Centre for Innovation in Francophone Immigration in Dieppe, New Brunswick, which aims to help increase the number of Francophone immigrants coming to Canada.

Modernizing the Official Languages Act is also a way for the government to ensure a stable and dynamic future for official languages in Canada. Bill C‑13 has the potential to transform the country’s language policy by making the foundation on which it rests, the Official Languages Act, a law that will allow our official languages to progress and that will truly defend the language rights of Canadians.

Although there’s still a lot of work to be done, I’m still optimistic about the future. It’s reassuring to know that public support for Canada’s official languages is standing the test of time, as evidenced by the results of a major survey my office conducted in 2021.

We can’t take anything for granted, however. The support of the Canadian public needs to be backed by strong policies and initiatives in all parts of society so that both of Canada’s two official languages can thrive across the country.

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

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