Notes for an appearance before the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages – Presentation of the 2017–2018 annual report and the Commissioner’s vision on the modernization of the Official Languages Act

Ottawa, Ontario -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Mr. Chair, honourable members of the Committee, good evening.

It is with a strong sense of duty that I appear before you this evening. I’m accompanied today by assistant Commissioners Ghislaine Saikaley and Pierre Leduc and by my general counsel, Pascale Giguère. As you know, I appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages last October 18 to talk about my 2017–2018 annual report.

Today, I will be speaking to you about certain aspects of my annual report and about the modernization of the Official Languages Act. You have before you a document called Modernizing the Official Languages Act: Vision of the Commissioner of Official Languages, which I encourage you to read very carefully.

But first, I’d like to recognize the hard work your committee has put in and all of the consultations it has conducted thus far with regard to modernizing the Act. I’m very pleased to see that this issue is important to all of us, and I’m following the work you’re doing with great interest.

I’d also like to take advantage of my appearance before you this evening to talk about something that is surely on the minds of everyone present: the Government of Ontario’s decision to eliminate the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner and to abandon plans for a French-language university in Toronto.

Understandably, Franco-Ontarians disagree with the proposed compromise to move the Commissioner’s office to the Ombudsman’s office, a move that would reduce the Commissioner’s role significantly by eliminating his ability to promote and recommend ways to improve French-language services in Ontario.

I have thus come to the sad conclusion that the trend to undermine language rights knows no borders.

As Commissioner of Official Languages, I have a duty to represent official language minority communities throughout the country. These communities are currently at the centre of a major identity debate, and the Government of Ontario’s recent announcement is a serious setback for language rights.

In fact, we’re starting to see examples of this well beyond Ontario’s borders, like the uncertainty surrounding the future of linguistic duality in New Brunswick following the most recent provincial election and the disappearance of the French Education Branch in Alberta’s Ministry of Education, where French-language services are now integrated with those of the majority.

I believe that, after all of the work that has been done over the past half century, we need to re-examine our social contract. Official languages are everybody’s business. And setbacks in terms of language rights have a negative impact on all Canadians.

Leaders have a duty to protect the gains we have made, and this is my goal as Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada. I’m calling on all of our elected officials to do the same, regardless of politics or political affiliation.

Moving on, I’d like to explain what modernizing the Act means for my office. The 50th anniversary of the Act should be the springboard that makes modernization a top priority.

The 1969 and 1988 acts addressed the specific social contexts and realities of their times. The years that followed each, resulted in significant advancements in terms of official languages and Canadian identity.

This legislative process has consolidated and codified the legal foundation on which Canada’s linguistic duality rests. The challenge now is to ensure complete implementation of the Act to give it full effect.

Considering the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages’ experience and the current context, it is clear that this cannot be accomplished without making major amendments and structural changes to the Act.

My vision for modernizing the Act is based on three pillars: having an Act that is relevant, dynamic and strong.

The modernized Act should, 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. It must therefore be relevant to our current context and be able to adapt to changes in Canadian society while resting on a solid jurisprudential foundation. It must also clearly define the responsibilities of the various key stakeholders involved in its implementation and the means they have to ensure compliance.

To achieve this, the government must ensure better access to the federal justice system in English and in French; it must clarify the obligations regarding communications with and services to the public and make sure they meet the needs of Canadians; it must update and clarify the rights and obligations regarding language of work within the Canadian public service; and it must develop a regulatory framework to deliver on its commitment to enhance the vitality of official language minority communities and to foster the full recognition and use of both official languages.

The legal principles that have changed the way language rights are interpreted and applied today, such as substantive equality, should also be entrenched in the modernized Act to ensure a solid foundation.

Drafting a technology-neutral Act to ensure its relevance as new technologies emerge, and requiring that the Act undergo a regular review are two solutions that would help to keep the Act dynamic.

The current modernization of the Act is the first opportunity since 1988 for the government to think seriously about changes that could be made to the Act in terms of governance. If roles and responsibilities are clearly defined, I dare say federal institutions will be better able to comply with the Act.

Federal institutions that value the equality of English and French are more likely to provide services to and communicate with the public in both official languages, to support official language minority communities with real action and to advance linguistic duality in Canadian society.

Similarly, federal public servants whose work environment is conducive to using both official languages will be more likely to deliver quality services in both official languages to Canadians. To achieve this, federal public servants’ language-of-work rights must be consistent with federal offices’ obligations to serve the public in both official languages.

That’s why the two recommendations in my 2017–2018 annual report concerned the review of the tools currently used to evaluate federal institutions’ official languages performance, as well as the implementation of the recommendations made in the Clerk of the Privy Council’s 2017 report on language of work.

My office is currently developing a new tool—the very first official languages maturity model—that will be launched in time for the 50th anniversary of the Act in 2019. This tool will help federal institutions perform an organizational assessment and help them ensure continuous improvement in terms of official languages.

However, beyond tools and mechanisms, leadership is what really matters and what really has to be shown both by the government and throughout the public service—at every level.

The goal we’re trying to achieve may seem daunting, but if we’re aiming for consistent and effective service delivery, federal institutions must also improve and advance to get to the point where complying with the Act is an integral part of the process in an organizational culture that takes both official languages into full account.

I’m counting on the federal government to provide ongoing leadership so that the Act can truly be modernized. Official languages must continue to be a federal priority in order to foster the development of linguistic duality in Canada.

Simply updating the provisions of the Act without examining the responsibilities of the various key stakeholders and the means they have to ensure compliance would be a missed opportunity to create a truly strong Act that inspires exemplary implementation. An Act that is clearer and that leaves less room for interpretation is an Act that will be more effective and easier to implement.

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.