Speech for the Dialogue Canada Annual General Meeting

Ottawa, Ontario -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.

First, thank you for this invitation. I feel privileged to have been appointed Commissioner of Official Languages and to be with you today to start our discussion. I know that it will give me food for thought throughout my mandate.

Thank you for your work over the years toward making the City of Ottawa bilingual. I am very proud that our capital has become officially bilingual. It is an important symbol, and it reminds us that official languages are part of our country’s DNA.

My history is very similar to that of a number of Francophone families in Western Canada. My grandfather left Quebec to settle in Saskatchewan on 160 acres of land. He was one of the early settlers of Western Canada, and along with many others, helped to build his adopted province.

I was born in Sainte-Anne-des-Chênes, Manitoba. At the time, the village’s population was almost 100% Francophone, yet there was no French public school. My parents sent me to a private school so that I could receive a French education.

When it was my brothers’ turn, they were able to attend a French public school. Things had changed. The Francophones’ demands had finally been heard.

The migration of Francophones to Western Canada did not affect their strong desire to preserve their language and culture. That is what makes the Francophone population so resilient. In my parents’ view, a French education was not optional, it was non-negotiable.

Before going to Ottawa to study, I was a French Canadian. When I returned home a few years later, I was a bit surprised to learn that I was part of an official language minority community. It was the first time that I was referred to as a minority.

French Canadians, as they were called at the time, were originally descendants of immigrants from France. Of course, they were also descendants of other peoples. For instance, some First Nations members married French immigrants. The Francophone migration to Western Canada was driven by the opportunity to prosper and settle, given the fertile soil and the railway. It was the right time to acquire land. French-speaking Canadians initially came from Europe. Nowadays, they come from Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean and other places as well.

Both the official language majority and official language minority communities are becoming increasingly diverse as a result of immigration and mixed marriages. The communities are also becoming more and more bilingual, or even trilingual. This situation has contributed to Canada’s rich cultural fabric, but also to the growing complexity of individual linguistic identities.

While this situation has led to new opportunities, challenges have also emerged, especially with respect to linguistic duality. I believe that bilingualism and a knowledge of Canada’s two official languages constitute more than just a list of characteristics of a person or community. Linguistic duality is a fundamental value of our society.

According to recent language data released by Statistics Canada, the bilingualism rate has increased in almost every province and territory, which is a good sign. However, Statistics Canada’s projections indicate that between now and 2036, the percentage of Francophones in the country will continue to decrease. In addition to demographic and linguistic challenges, some communities face significant socio-economic challenges.

I believe that Statistics Canada’s language projections are a call to action for immigration, one of the foremost ways to maintain the demographic weight of Francophone minority communities. I also believe that, to fully ensure the future of language minority communities, there must be a continuum of education, from early childhood services to post-secondary institutions. I plan to focus on these two major issues during my mandate.

You already know that promoting linguistic duality is part of my mandate. However, for me, it is far more than just a responsibility. I have worked on official languages my entire life. Like Obelix, I swam in the potion, the potion of official languages. I lived in a small Francophone minority community. I saw my parents fight endlessly for the right to a French education. All of my studies and academic work in linguistics have helped to shape my current vision. I have worked in Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick, and official languages have always played a key role in my activities.

So, for me, it is more than just a responsibility … it is a calling.

Our current government must make a commitment to linguistic duality and minority language communities. We need strong leadership to increase bilingualism and to ensure that children in language minority communities have equal access to early childhood services and education in their language.

The government can do this through its Action Plan for Official Languages. We are eagerly awaiting this plan, which should provide a good overview of the federal government’s commitment. However, the plan is not an end in itself. It is only a beginning. Next comes the leadership that I just mentioned. It is encouraging to see that the Action Plan for Official Languages is being revamped. I was also pleasantly surprised to see official languages specifically referred to in the budget. However, I look forward to hearing who will be taking the lead on this issue, who will be coordinating the plan and who will be holding the departments accountable to ensure that the plan achieves results for Canadians.

I would now like to take a few minutes to talk about another matter that is just as important, and which I believe will affect the future of linguistic duality and official language minority communities.

As you probably know, the Office of the Commissioner has started to look at modernizing the Official Languages Act. Since the Act will turn 50 in 2019, the time is ripe for proposing to the government that it make changes to the legislation.

I have been here only a few months, but I am convinced that the Act must be modernized to reflect the many ways that Canadian society has changed since 1988. These changes include the demographics of the country, immigration and urbanization, and technology changes and their impact on federal institution workplaces and new ways of delivering services to the public.

Now more than ever, we need legislation that can proactively respond to the changing face of Canada.

While I focus on a number of issues, my team will continue to consult key stakeholders and will start a broader public consultation very soon. These consultations will significantly contribute to our discussion.

Key issues in this important exercise include linguistic equality in justice, the possibility of asserting the Commissioner’s historic role of promoter and educator, the need to consider potential regulations for the promotion of English and French by the federal government, and the inclusion of a provision for periodic review of the Act.

I hope that you will participate in these consultations in some capacity. The Office of the Commissioner wants to take a position that Canadians and language communities can agree upon.

Since my time as a student in Saint-Boniface, I have experienced both the highs and lows of my Francophone community in Manitoba. Through the various positions that I have held, I have seen all the progress made by the Francophone and Acadian communities.

From French Canadian to Francophone Canadian to Francophone, my identity has evolved in step with Canadian society.

I am certain that much work remains to be done to ensure the future of linguistic duality in Canada, as well as Francophone minority communities. We must build on the foundations of official languages and linguistic duality and face the challenges ahead. With the support of organizations such as yours, which have connection at the core of their mandate, I am sure that we will succeed.