Government stops halfway with new regulations, says language commissioner

For Immediate Release

News releases | Gatineau, Quebec -

While the proposed amendments to the Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations recently announced by the federal government are a step in the right direction, they do not go far enough to reflect Canada’s changing demographics and protect official language minority communities across the country, according to Commissioner of Official Languages Raymond Théberge.

“Given recent events, it is now more important than ever to have Regulations that are clear and comprehensive so that the Government of Canada can continue to defend the language rights of its citizens and the vitality of its minority communities,” stated Commissioner Théberge.

“The draft Regulations still have some of the same shortcomings I listed in my special report to Parliament last May,” added the Commissioner. “As a result, I have written to ministers Mélanie Joly and Scott Brison to describe three issues in particular that should be revisited while there is still time to make changes.”

The overarching principle—one that I and my predecessors have consistently taken as a position—is that the rights of the minority should not be based on its size relative to the majority population. However, the draft Regulations continue to use the 5% threshold as a baseline.

The proposed amendments include demographic protection—a grandfather clause—that protects official language minority communities in rural areas if they fall below the 5% threshold but stay the same in terms of absolute numbers. This protection does not apply to urban areas, however, where other factors are at play, such as immigration and migration from rural areas, and where services in both official languages may therefore be at risk.

For the first time, the presence of a school in an official language minority community has been identified to illustrate the need for bilingual services. This is a positive measure, but it could favour well-established communities at the expense of others that are in the process of negotiating with their province or territory to obtain a school.

“I recommend that the presence of not only schools, but also other qualitative indicators—such as social, economic, cultural or minority media institutions—be added as criteria to define the vitality of an official language minority community,” said Commissioner Théberge.

The third issue concerns a regulatory framework that is still very complex and hard to navigate, which means that the general public will continue to find it difficult to determine when or where, whether virtually or physically, they can obtain services in the official language of their choice.

The Regulations set out the circumstances in which services are required to be provided in the official language of the linguistic minority. They are therefore a crucial element of the Official Languages Act (Part IV), which is also being reviewed by the federal government.

The language rights enshrined in the Act are a reflection of the importance that Canadians place on the development of official language minority communities and on the equal status of English and French in Canadian society, in Parliament, in the Government of Canada and in federal institutions. Language rights are ingrained in our history and show the promise of our future.

According to the Commissioner, “failure to effect a true reform of the Act and the Regulations, taking both the needs of the communities and today’s realities into consideration, will result in a missed opportunity to deliver a strong message that the language rights of our official language minority communities are to be respected and protected.”

Commissioner Théberge will unveil his vision document on the modernization of the Official Languages Act when he appears before the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages on Monday, December 10, 2018.

The Act must, in every aspect, reflect both the current needs of Canadian society and the future aspirations of that society to be a country that fully embraces linguistic duality. Considering the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages’ experience and the current context, it has become clear that this cannot be accomplished without making major amendments and structural changes to the Act.

“We have to remain vigilant when it comes to the gains we have made in terms of language rights,” Commissioner Théberge concluded. “Over the past few years, a number of our communities have seen their rights being eroded. Now more than ever, we need to effect a true modernization of the Act and its Regulations in order to ensure that we have legislation that is relevant, dynamic and strong, and that we have a clear and consistent regulatory framework to support it.”

The Commissioner of Official languages published a Special Report to Parliament - A Principled Approach to the Modernization of the Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations in May 2018.

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