Speech for the 23rd Ministerial Conference on the Canadian Francophonie

Whitehorse, Yukon -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Good morning/afternoon/evening everyone,

I’m delighted to be here today for the 23rd edition of the Ministerial Conference on the Canadian Francophonie. For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve spent my life studying and defending linguistic duality. The issues surrounding linguistic duality resonate to my core. For me, it’s not only a lifelong battle, but also one of my deepest aspirations.

A few words first about my background. I was born in Sainte-Anne-des-Chênes, a very small village in Manitoba. When I lived there, the village’s population was 100% French Canadian, and yet there was no French school for me to go to. My parents and many others fought for this right, and my brothers had the opportunity to be educated in their mother tongue.

Those battles made me the man I am today. I was therefore very honoured to accept the position of Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada for the next seven years.

Since becoming Commissioner, I’ve been travelling across the country to participate in public discussions and to speak to young Canadians, researchers, federal public servants, community leaders and Francophiles. Above all, I want to connect with people who care about the future of official language minority communities—a fitting segue to the theme of this year’s Conference: “Keeping in Touch.”

The Conference’s mandate is to expand the outreach of the Canadian Francophonie, and I know that you’ve been drivers in this venture for almost 25 years. I also know that the Ministers here today have agreed to gradually increase the number of government services available in French to the general public, which is crucial for the vitality of Francophone minority communities. I applaud your dedication. The creation of this network has paved the way for remarkable progress for the Canadian Francophonie, and I thank you for your ongoing work.

Let’s talk now about the mandate I was given. Like you, I’m counting on the federal government’s leadership to ensure respect for official languages.

As an agent of Parliament, my job is to promote official languages and to protect Canadians’ language rights. I believe that Canada must continue to be a leader and beacon for linguistic duality and support for official language minority communities. As Commissioner, I see to it that these communities thrive, just as I, of course, oversee compliance with the Official Languages Act, which will be turning 50 next year.

Needless to say, I want to take action on current and anticipated key files, in the best interests of Canadians. To that end, I’ll be focusing on the following three priorities in the coming years.

First, I’ll be encouraging federal institutions to overcome barriers to achieving the objectives of the Act by developing a deeper understanding of the factors for success.

Second, I’ll be working with the federal government and federal institutions to ensure that the Action Plan for Official Languages 2018–2023: Investing in Our Future delivers the expected results.

Lastly, I’ll be showing leadership to convince the federal government to “walk the talk” and to truly modernize the Act, in order to ensure that it reflects Canada now and in the future.

On another note, I’ve seen significant progress with regard to official languages and services in some provinces. Let me give you a few examples of specific measures.

In Manitoba, the Centre de santé Saint-Boniface provides a wide range of primary health care services to the public in both official languages. In addition, all of the staff members are bilingual.

In Saskatchewan, the Centre Bonjour! is a one-stop shop where Fransaskois can receive government services in French.

In Ontario, under an agreement signed in June 2017, $3 million a year will be allocated to establish centres of excellence for early childhood and child care. These centres will evolve into specialized networks designed to meet needs across the province as they relate to culture, language and geography, among others. Three centres will be created to address needs in the early childhood sector: a provincial centre of excellence, a Francophone centre of excellence and an Indigenous centre of excellence.

In Alberta, 10 Francophone and bilingual child care centres are now part of the Early Learning and Child Care Centre program, which provides child care services for $25 a day.

In Yukon, the new federal investment of almost $14 million over three years will support territorial legislation on French-language services. It will also strengthen government services through greater bilingual capacity, with the number of designated bilingual positions set to increase from six to 60 over the next three years, notably in the social services and health care sectors.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, since January 2018, Francophones have had more information available to them in their mother tongue as a result of the increase in French content on the Service NL website. They now have access to French forms for requests concerning driving records, marriage certificates and death certificates. They can consult French-language content for driver’s licences and vehicle registration. Since the adoption of its French Language Services Policy in 2015, the provincial government has demonstrated leadership in this area in order to improve service in French and, more specifically, to broaden access to information that affects people in their daily lives.

Those are steps in the right direction.

Nevertheless, over the past three decades, implementation of the Act has been met with a growing number of challenges, driven by changes like the country’s demographic make-up, immigration and urbanization, and technological advances and their impact on the workplace in federal institutions and on how services are delivered to the public.

Those changes have shone a light on the shortcomings of the Act in addressing these challenges.

Access to early childhood services in French is a priority for the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. With that in mind, the Ministers of Francophone Affairs gathered here could follow up with their colleagues responsible for this issue, to ensure that the needs of official language minority communities are taken into account. I will be paying special attention to implementation of the bilateral agreements between the federal government and the provinces and territories on early learning and child care, to make sure that these agreements meet the communities’ needs.

There will be many opportunities for us to work together over the next seven years, especially since the provinces and territories play a key role in a number of areas at the forefront of the development of official language minority communities, in addition to education in French. I urge you to take the lead and keep a close eye on the progress of these files by developing performance indicators and by promoting discussion of best practices. Your leadership will have a direct impact on the quality of life of your fellow citizens.

Moreover, Francophone immigration to minority communities continues to be another issue of interest to the Office of the Commissioner.

Since 2014–2015, there have been promising developments at the federal, provincial and territorial levels following the recommendations made by Graham Fraser, the former Commissioner of Official Languages. I’m also pleased with the announcement of the 2018–2023 Action Plan and the development of a comprehensive strategy for Francophone immigration to minority communities, whose goal is to support immigrants in their journey from pre-departure to integration in the communities.

I applaud your leadership on Francophone immigration issues. Federal, provincial and territorial governments must work with Francophone minority communities to address these issues as quickly as possible. The Federal-Provincial-Territorial Action Plan for Increasing Francophone Immigration, which you presented at your second federal-provincial-territorial forum, addresses a number of recommendations in the report titled Time to Act for the Future of Francophone Communities: Redressing the Immigration Imbalance. This report was published jointly in 2014 by Mr. Fraser and by François Boileau, the French Language Services Commissioner of Ontario.

Since immigration is a shared jurisdiction, a collaborative approach is key to ensuring that objectives are met.

Despite this progress, a number of challenges remain, and the situation is constantly changing. I shall continue to monitor this issue very closely.

Regarding the right to minority language education, I’m pleased to see that progress has been made in the enumeration of rights-holders under section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Education is key to the vitality of official language minority communities.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on this file to ensure that a complete enumeration of rights-holders is carried out through the questions on the 2021 Census.

I would now like to turn to the digital shift in federal institutions in the delivery of services to the public, a topic that is up for discussion tomorrow. In June 2017, the Interim Commissioner of Official Languages issued three recommendations to Public Services and Procurement Canada and Canadian Heritage following an investigation in 2016–2017 into federal institutions’ increased use of the Internet and the impact on the media that serve official language minority communities.

The investigation found that neither department had analyzed how federal institutions’ increased use of the Internet would affect official language communities, nor had they tried to find solutions to address—or at least mitigate—any negative impact.

Despite the increasing popularity of the Internet and social media as communications tools, federal institutions are still required not only to meet their language obligations when communicating with the public, but also to take positive measures to enhance the vitality of official language minority communities and promote their development under Part VII of the Act.

These new technologies must be harnessed to provide more effective services to Canadians.

In conclusion, I shall continue to monitor progress in official languages in Canada, be it through initiatives in the 2018–2023 Action Plan or through federal-provincial-territorial agreements.

All levels of government must remain mindful of the needs and concerns of official language minority community members, particularly in the areas of immigration, justice and early childhood. Their actions and decisions have a direct impact on respect for Canadians’ language rights and on community vitality.

Much work still needs to be done. Canada has seen dramatic changes demographically, socially and technologically over the last 50 years. Now more than ever, we demand respect for Canada’s linguistic duality, and a country where living in English or in French is the norm. We all have a role to play in achieving this vision.

I believe that the growth of Canadian society depends on the ties that we establish, particularly as we promote the increased use and visibility of French across Canada. More than 274 million people spread across five continents speak French. Internationally, the number of French speakers continues to rise. French is therefore a tremendous asset for Canada. Ultimately, our mission is to play a unifying role so that the influence of French becomes everyone’s business.

Thank you for your attention. I would be happy to answer your questions, and I encourage you to ask them in the official language of your choice.