Notes for an address on Linguistic Duality Day

Ottawa, Ontario -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon.

I am delighted to be here with you today.

Our two official languages—English and French—are at the core of our Canadian identity. Together with Indigenous languages, Canada’s first languages, they reflect the linguistic diversity of our society.

I’d like to acknowledge that we are gathered here today on part of the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabeg people, an Indigenous people of the Ottawa Valley. For thousands of years, the Algonquin lived, hunted, traded and travelled here.

As you know, the second Thursday in September is devoted to Canada’s two official languages. For almost a century, the world has looked to Canada as a leader in linguistic duality.

During the interwar period, the bilingualism of Canadian diplomats and their advocacy for minority rights earned them the respect and admiration of their fellow League of Nations members. As then Minister of Justice and Canadian diplomat Ernest Lapointe said, “To unite and build a great nation, the world must know that two languages, English and French, are spoken here, and these languages are a source of pride for everyone.”

As we all know, Canada’s public service is a source of pride and the envy of our international partners. In 2017, Canada ranked at the top of the new International Civil Service Effectiveness Index.

Much progress has been made since the Official Languages Act was passed in 1969: the range of bilingual services has increased, official language minority communities are better supported, bilingualism is valued by the vast majority of Canadians, more parents are choosing bilingual education for their children, and the public service’s capacity in both official languages has steadily increased.

Linguistic duality enriches our culture and workplaces in immeasurable ways, and is symbolic of our commitment to diversity and inclusion. The equal status of English and French in federal institutions means that citizens can access federal services in the official language of their choice where there is significant demand. This equal status also guarantees federal employees in designated bilingual regions the right to work in the official language of their choice.

I’d like to highlight the contribution of the Council of the Network of Official Languages Champions, which numbers more than 200 champions and co-champions, several of whom are here with us today.

Since its inception, the Council has been instrumental as a leader and coordinator, having set up an interdepartmental committee on official languages and having made the recommendation to Kevin Lynch, then Clerk of the Privy Council, to establish Linguistic Duality Day, which we are celebrating today.

Official languages champions are an invaluable resource for Canada’s public service. They are the gatekeepers of an important legacy—linguistic duality—and the foundation for its future. I commend them for their dedication in ensuring that that legacy is recognized as a fundamental value in the federal public service.

The champions’ mandate is to promote linguistic duality as a personal and organizational value, and this is essential for increasing the visibility of official languages in the federal government. But there’s still work that needs to be done. Over the past few years, I’ve seen an increase in the number of complaints about the linguistic profile of positions, and roughly a fifth of those complaints were made by civil servants whose rights were infringed. And for quite a few years now, half of the complaints we receive have been about the failure to serve members of the public in the official language of their choice. We also continue to receive complaints about the language-of-work rights of federal public servants.

For example, in March 2017, a training course provided by Transport Canada in Dorval, Quebec, did not contain a single word of French. And e-mails sent to employees prior to the training course were written solely in English.

In April 2017, during a webinar on the Phoenix payroll system that was organized by another federal institution, almost all of the presentations were made in English. Participants were, however, “allowed” to ask questions in French.

On Linguistic Duality Day last year, the Clerk of the Privy Council published his report called The next level: Normalizing a culture of inclusive linguistic duality in the Federal Public Service workplace. The Clerk’s report on language of work paints an honest and balanced picture of the current situation in the federal public service.

Rest assured that I will be keeping a close eye on how the recommendations are addressed, because at the moment, I think we’re just idling. We’ve settled into a routine. And now, not only do we need to see a willingness to change the culture, we also need to see the proof of leadership. That’s why I recommended in my annual report that the Clerk establish an appropriate mechanism to ensure that federal employees receive annual status updates on the work being done to implement the recommendations in his report.

Like all of you, I am very pleased with these recommendations. However, the time has come to push the envelope even further in terms of linguistic duality. We need to encourage people to use their second official language, especially those who’ve worked hard to learn it.

I therefore applaud all of the public servants who, after completing their training, make a point of using their second official language in the workplace—in meetings, in reports and correspondence, and in conversations with their colleagues. Learning a second official language is never easy, especially for adults. It means swallowing your pride, not being afraid to risk an awkward turn of phrase, and expressing yourself in a language you’re not completely comfortable in yet.

Linguistic insecurity is a very real challenge for learners. Studies have shown that the best way to help them overcome it is to create opportunities for them to use their second language in a real-life setting, particularly in the workplace. We have to show our support and actively encourage them to “speak up.” And above all we have to avoid criticizing the way they speak and trying to help them by switching languages.

Now more than ever, we have to ensure that there’s a process in place to support employees who’ve just completed their language training, either by integrating their new skills into their work or developing strategies to help them maintain what they’ve learned.

The Official Languages Act doesn’t oblige anyone to learn or use their second official language. Many Canadians see learning a second language as an opportunity for personal growth. Ultimately, it helps strengthen national cohesion and promote mutual understanding.

It is therefore important for everyone to have access to training so that they can learn and become fluent in their second official language.

I know that language training is expensive and that managers have to deal with budget pressures; however, we need to look at language training as an investment.

But are on-line training courses effective? How about courses provided by subcontractors? Are lower costs more important than high-quality instruction? Federal institutions sometimes tend to cut corners to save money, and that’s always a mistake. As Benjamin Franklin said, “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.”

The government must ensure the quality of training services for its employees.

And language learning is not strictly a workplace affair. It’s a medium of culture and a way of living. It’s not just something you learn during working hours. Language has to infuse every part of our lives, and we have to create an environment that’s conducive to learning. We have to be open and receptive to the other language and the other culture. We can’t think of language learning as just a means to a bonus.

Instead, we need to ask ourselves why we should defend linguistic duality in Canada. Requiring bilingualism for certain positions in the federal public service is in keeping with the Official Languages Act. Much more than that, though, linguistic duality is a Canadian value. And being able to speak both English and French is even more relevant today. Our language skills help make Canadian society stronger and more successful.

My job as an agent of Parliament is to promote official languages and to protect the language rights of Canadians. I believe that Canada must continue to be a leader and a beacon of progress in terms of linguistic duality and support for official language minority communities. To that end, I’ll be focusing on the following three priorities in the coming years.

First, I’ll be encouraging federal institutions to develop an in-depth understanding of the factors for success so that they can break down the barriers that are preventing the Act’s objectives from being met. It is important that this leadership be seen at all levels of government and the federal public service. I’m counting on your support in ensuring that official languages are on the agenda in your federal institutions, whether during meetings or when launching new programs for Canadians.

My second priority will be to work with the federal government and its institutions to ensure that the Action Plan for Official Languages 2018–2023: Investing in Our Future achieves the expected outcomes. Federal institutions need to stay attuned to the needs and concerns of official language minority communities—particularly in the areas of immigration, justice and early childhood—to ensure that their actions and decisions come after careful consideration of the language rights of Canadians and the vitality of those communities. That’s why I’ll be keeping a close watch on the implementation of the 2018–2023 Action Plan. As I’ve said before, roles and responsibilities still need to be clarified, and accountability measures need to be defined.

My final priority will be to take the lead in urging the federal government to turn its words into actions and to effect a true modernization of the Act so that it reflects both the legacy and the future of official languages in Canada. My office launched its review of the modernization of the Act in the summer of 2017 and has increased its efforts in recent months to ensure ongoing discussions with key stakeholders. When the Act turns 50 in 2019, I’m confident that it will have been updated to reflect the myriad changes that have occurred in Canadian society.

In conclusion, I see Canada as a large and welcoming home for 36 million people. Linguistic duality, which lies at the heart of the Canadian value of inclusion, has helped to show that our diversity and our differences are strengths on which we must build.

I’ll leave you on that note and thank you for your attention. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them in the official language of your choice.