Notes for an address to the Club canadien de Toronto

Toronto, Ontario -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

Check against delivery

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

I’d like to thank Dominic Mailloux, Chair of the Club canadien de Toronto, for giving me the honour of speaking to you. I’m very pleased to be here this evening to talk to you—as former Commissioner Fraser has done in the past—about the vitality of Ontario’s French-speaking community and about my priorities as Commissioner of Official Languages.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we are gathered is part of the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and more recently, the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation. For thousands of years, these First nations lived, hunted, traded and travelled here. Today, they are a vital part of Ontario and Toronto society.

For those who don’t know me, I have long been involved in university teaching, research and administration, including six years as president and vice-chancellor of the Université de Moncton from 2012 to 2018.

I come from Sainte-Anne-des-Chênes, a very small village in Manitoba, just outside Winnipeg. 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.

I’ve spent my life studying and defending linguistic duality. That passion has made me the man I am today. I was therefore honoured and proud to be appointed Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages last December.

I believe that linguistic duality is a powerful symbol of openness, empathy and respect.

My job as an agent of Parliament is to promote official languages and protect the language rights of Canadians. I travel across the country to meet with business people, young Canadians, politicians, researchers, community leaders and Francophones and Francophiles like you.

This evening, I want to talk about my mandate and my priorities, but I’d also like to touch on some topics that I trust we all care about: the importance of French as the third language of business on the international stage, the vibrancy of Francophone spaces, the advances French-speaking communities in Canada have made and the challenges they are facing.

Our country has two official languages—English and French. Their status is etched in Canada’s history as well as Ontario’s, conferring rights and guaranteeing institutional support to English- and French-speaking Canadians in minority communities.

My mandate as Commissioner is to promote the Official Languages Act, oversee its full implementation, protect Canadians’ language rights and advance linguistic duality and bilingualism across the country.

Since its creation in 1970, my office has taken all measures in its power to meet the three main objectives of the Official Languages Act: ensure the equality of English and French in federal institutions; support the development of official language minority communities, and advance the equality of English and French in Canadian society.

Canada is aware of the importance of its French language and culture and is committed to expanding its international profile. Our country’s French-speaking communities give us another perspective on the world and open up a wealth of opportunities. I think that the “Innovons ensemble,” theme of this year’s conference of the Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario is particularly relevant.

Canada is also proud of its prominent role in the International Organisation of La Francophonie (IOF).

The fact that our country has four seats on the IOF—not only for Canada, but also for New Brunswick, Quebec and, of course, Ontario—is very significant. It means that we can promote Canada’s linguistic duality and distinguish ourselves on the world stage in terms of language, culture, the economy, new technologies and international cooperation.

The rise of Canadian society is linked to the promotion of greater visibility and use of the French language, which is spoken by more than 274 million people on five continents. The number of French speakers across the globe is constantly growing.

Linguistic duality is a fundamentally Canadian value. Respecting and strengthening that duality will depend greatly on our ability to promote the development of strong and engaged communities. By investing in the future, in young people and in communities, we are ensuring the continuation and vitality of Canada’s official languages.

Young people are truly a force of change.

Today, young people are more likely to speak both official languages than their parents or grandparents. Ninety percent of Canadians aged 18 to 34 who took part in the 2016 Nielsen survey on official languages and bilingualism strongly supported bilingualism.

For more than a decade, Franco-Torontonians have been talking about establishing a French Quarter downtown, bounded by College and Carlton Streets. This popular area is home to Sacré-Cœur Church, TFO, Théâtre français, Centre francophone, Passerelle, Collège français and various monuments. A downtown-based community not only fosters cooperation and synergy among local organizations, it also asserts its existence, which might otherwise have remained invisible.

More and more French spaces are emerging across Canada, such as Calgary’s Cité des Rocheuses and Edmonton’s Cité francophone.

Research shows that the success of French spaces depends on the presence of institutions serving the community in its language and on the private sector, which also has an important role to play. As corporate and societal leaders, you are in an ideal position to help bring about the success of French spaces in your city—by ensuring that your organizations continue to be a fundamental part of Toronto’s linguistic landscape. And why shouldn’t this include bilingual signage and bilingual greetings for members of the community at the reception desk, at the store counter, and on-line?

Let’s move on to the issue of Francophone immigration, starting with a brief overview. From the shores of the Atlantic, to the coast of British Columbia, to the far reaches of the North, Francophones have left an impressive mark on Canadian history. For centuries, they founded dynamic communities, not just in Quebec, but throughout Canada.

Immigration has thus had an immense impact on Canada’s population growth, cultural wealth and socio-economic development.

Both English and French are key languages of communication, which is obvious wherever newcomers are present in large numbers. In Canada, the number of people whose mother tongue is neither English nor French has increased significantly since the mid-1980s. However, as they settle in to their new life in Canada, immigrants often adopt one of the two official languages as the language they use at home.

In order to attract, welcome and successfully integrate French-speaking newcomers into our communities, our workplaces, our schools and our lives, Francophone minority communities must work closely together with all levels of government.

Canada’s French-speaking minority communities have gained a lot of ground in recent decades. And that’s a good thing, because in a minority setting, if you’re not gaining ground, you’re losing ground! Let me reiterate some key points, here.

Under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the number of French-language schools outside Quebec saw a tremendous increase in the first decade of the 21st century.

Since then, further progress has been made and Ontario has more than 100,000 students in more than 450 French-language schools. When I became Director General of the Council of Ministers of Education in 2005, the number stood at 92,000. This is exceptional growth!

But we can’t ignore the shortage of teachers in Ontario, both in French schools and in French second-language programs in English schools. It was a problem when I was working in the Ontario education system, and it is still a serious problem today.

The number of teachers has increased, of course, but it’s barely keeping pace with the number of students, which is limiting the growth of the French-language education system and of the teaching of French as a second language.

And teaching is not getting any easier, either, especially given the challenges that come with a large number of exogamous and immigrant families. For the latter, school plays a key role in their integration into the host society and the Francophone community.

Therefore, priority must be given to improving strategic cooperation across Canada, training new teachers, developing a more effective system to attract recruits across the country and hiring foreign teachers.

I’m pleased to see that Canadian Heritage will provide the educational community with the means to overcome this obstacle to the growth of French schools and French as a second language programs in English schools.

In fact, upwards of 62½ million of the $500 million earmarked in the Action Plan for Official Languages will be allocated as early as 2019 to support teacher recruitment strategies.

I’d like to move on, now, to post-secondary education. Franco-Ontarian students are finally getting a French-language university in Toronto! And I hope that that university will turn out a large number of teachers. I’m very pleased to see the wide range of French programs and degrees the university plans to offer, which will promote the linguistic, cultural, economic and social well-being of its students and of the French-speaking communities in Toronto and Ontario. Franco-Ontarians have been demanding the creation of a French-language university run by and for Francophones for years now.

Ontario has the largest French-speaking population outside of Quebec—over 620,000. In total, more than 1.5 million Ontarians can speak French. Here in Toronto, some 100,000 people are French-speaking, while another 400,000 can speak the language!

In this context, establishing a French-language university is essential so that young people have the opportunity to complete their studies entirely in French.

At the third Education Summit, which took place in Ottawa last year, one of the main topics was linguistic insecurity. During the Summit, it was revealed that many French-speaking Canadians in linguistic minority communities feel judged on the quality of their French or on their accent. However, no language ever achieves constant perfection.

Everyone has his or her own history and accent. Ideally, encounters with other Francophones should spark curiosity about the particular ways in which we use the French language, and should bring us closer together.

The varieties of French in Canada are closely connected to the social reality of the Francophone communities that speak them. Our accents have no bearing on the meaning of words. Rather, like melodious notes, they enrich the soundtrack of Canada’s Francophonie.

Think of Paige Beaulieu, the colourful character played by the excellent Franco-Ontarian actress, Katherine Levac, or the popular New Brunswick folk group, Les Hay Babies, who embrace their accent in their songs.

Research shows that language insecurity is also an issue for people who speak French as a second language. As Francophones, we should encourage our Anglophone, allophone and francophile counterparts to use the language. Nearly half a million people in the Greater Toronto Area can speak French: it's time to take advantage of this untapped potential.

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the first Official Languages Act. The timing has never been better for the Government to amend the current Act and give us legislation that proactively addresses Canada’s changing realities. I believe that modernization is imperative.

I am pleased to see that the Prime Minister supports this view and that the government is willing to commit to the process.

Based on public consultations that generated more than 4,000 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.

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

A modernized Act should not only reflect the needs of contemporary Canadian society, but also symbolize its aspirations to be a country that fully values linguistic duality.

I believe that linguistic duality is all about two official language communities, each with its own unique reality, co-existing in each province and territory.

Nevertheless, we can’t solve everything through legislation. I think it’s more a question of leadership, respect and recognition. Official languages are everybody’s business! At the federal level, the example has to come from the top, from the Prime Minister himself and from his Cabinet, and from senior public servants all the way to the front-line staff. The province also has a key role to play, which is why I work closely with François Boileau whenever the opportunity arises.

Speaking of official languages, I would like to say a few words about Indigenous languages—Canada’s first languages. In December 2016, the federal government announced that it would enact an Indigenous Languages Act, developed jointly with Indigenous peoples.

The vitality of many First Nations, Inuit and Métis languages is at a critical point. The preservation, protection and revitalization of these languages are an important element of reconciliation. In Canada, no indigenous language is guaranteed survival, according to UNESCO.

I plan to study the bill when it is completed, but, in principle, it seems to be a positive step. We’re talking here about a distinct status that reflects the reality of Indigenous languages. We’re not talking about anything that detracts from the promotion and protection of official languages.

As Commissioner of Official Languages, I will be focusing on the following three priorities in the coming years.

First, I’ll be urging federal institutions to develop an understanding of the factors for success so that they can break down the barriers that are preventing the Act’s objectives from being met.

Second, I’ll be working with federal institutions and partners to ensure that the 2018–2023 Action Plan for Official Languagesachieves the expected outcomes.

And third, I’ll be calling for the government to effect a meaningful modernization of the Official Languages Act so that it reflects both Canada’s legacy and its future.

The last time the Act’s underwent a major revision, there was no Internet and social media!

We dream of a country where living in English and French is the norm. I believe that the tide has turned and that Canada must continue to be a leader and role model in terms of linguistic duality and support for official language minority communities.

Linguistic duality is a fundamental value. It is a cornerstone of society. Language is diversity and inclusion, and we are in a new era of reconciliation that includes language.

The French language and culture represent a great wealth for our country, and this valuable legacy also belongs to young Canadians.

On that note, I wish you all a good evening. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them in the official language of your choice.