Notes for an address at the annual Conference of Official Languages Champions

Ottawa, Ontario -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

Check against delivery

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

I’m delighted to be with you today. I’d like to thank Debbie Beresford-Green, Chair of the Council of the Network of Official Languages Champions, for inviting me to speak. I’d also like to thank Translation Bureau Chief Executive Officer Stéphan Déry who, along with Ms. Beresford-Green, is a member of the Committee of Assistant Deputy Ministers on Official Languages.

First, I want to acknowledge the passion and dedication of all the champions who are gathered here, on land that is part of the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg people, an Indigenous people of the Ottawa Valley.

For thousands of years, the Algonquin people lived, hunted, traded and travelled here.

Second, I would like to say that, as champions, you are an invaluable resource for the public service of Canada. Linguistic duality has prevailed at various times in Canadian history and today, you are not only the guardians of this precious heritage, but also the custodians of its future.

The over 200-member strong Council of the Network of Official Languages Champions, which plays a unique role as a leader and innovator, is celebrating 15 years of existence today, and I’d like to congratulate all of you here and all the members of the Network throughout the federal public service.

Your mandate to promote linguistic duality as a personal and organizational value is key to the development of official languages in the government. I’m counting on your support to ensure that official languages are promoted within your institutions—and within the institutions of all official languages champions—whether in a meeting or when launching a new program for Canadians.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve spent my life studying and defending linguistic duality. Some might say that it’s a lifelong battle, but I consider it to be my lifelong passion.

Linguistic duality is a powerful symbol of openness, empathy and respect. That’s why I accepted the position of Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada last December.

Let’s now take a brief look at my vision and priorities as the new Commissioner.

Montesquieu once said “A thing is not right because it’s law; it must be law because it’s right.” It is perfectly reasonable for English-speaking Canadians and French-speaking Canadians to work in their own language and according to their cultural values, while understanding and appreciating the others’ language and values. These are the principles that inspired the Official Languages Act.

We have achieved many milestones since the Act was passed in 1969. English and French continue to be fundamental elements of Canadian identity. In fact, I like to say that official languages are part of Canadians’ DNA because linguistic duality has always been part of our history.

I’ve just returned from a trip to Pristina, Kosovo, where I attended the annual general meeting and fifth conference of the International Association of Language Commissioners. As you know, Canada has a key role in Kosovo’s political and economic development. For almost a century, the world has looked to Canada as a leader in linguistic duality.

Canada’s public service is a source of pride and the envy of our international partners. In 2017, Canada ranked at the top of a new effectiveness index. Our public service also reflects our country’s linguistic duality and provides services to Canadians in the official language of their choice.

This unique feature has changed over time, and much progress has been made throughout the years. Official language minority communities are better supported, and linguistic duality is valued by the vast majority of Canadians.

Yet it seems that the benefits of linguistic duality aren’t always taken into account. For example:

  • too many public servants who work in bilingual regions don’t feel comfortable using the official language of their choice in their workplace;
  • some public servants have difficulty meeting the language requirements of their position, or see official languages as a barrier; and
  • the use of both official languages is overlooked during meetings.

My actions and those of my office focus mainly on guiding and encouraging federal institutions to meet their responsibilities in implementing the Act.

The year 2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first Official Languages Act. This is the perfect time to ask the government to amend the Act. Clearly, we need legislation that responds proactively to Canada’s changing reality, and I believe that modernizing the Act is critical. But it all comes down to political will.

Given the public statement made by the Prime Minister, I am pleased that the government is committed to moving this file forward.

Based on public consultations that generated over 3,000 responses, I have concluded that the Act must be amended to reflect the many changes that have shaped Canadian society since the last major revision of the Act in 1988.

Canadian society has changed in many ways since the first Act was passed in 1969, especially in areas such as the use of new technologies, the methods used to deliver government services and the significant contribution of immigration. That’s why official languages are everybody’s business.

Possible amendments to the Act include changes regarding the equality of both official languages in the area of justice and education and regarding the need to keep pace with the evolving needs of Canadian society.

With regard to the Clerk of the Privy Council’s September 2017 report on language of work in the public service, I have made a recommendation in my annual report that the Clerk establish an appropriate mechanism to ensure that federal employees receive annual status updates on the implementation of the recommendations in his report.

I have also recommended that the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the President of the Treasury Board review the tools they currently use to evaluate federal institutions in terms of official languages and to make any necessary changes. We need to have a clear picture of official languages in the federal government.

Our two official languages, English and French, are at the heart of who we are as Canadians. They’re at the centre of our history. Together with Indigenous languages, they represent Canada’s diversity and inclusiveness. That’s why Canadians across the country celebrate our linguistic heritage and continue to build a bright future by writing, speaking and working in both official languages.

Thank you for your attention. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them in the official language of your choice, and I’ll be happy to answer them.