Notes for an appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages regarding the 2019–2020 Main Estimates

Ottawa, Ontario -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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

I’m appearing before your committee to present the highlights of the Main Estimates for my office and to talk about a possible federal-provincial-territorial summit. Joining me today are my three assistant commissioners—Ghislaine Saikaley, Pierre Leduc and Éric Trépanier—and my general counsel, Pascale Giguère.

My office has a budget of 21.7 million to carry out its mandate during the 2019–2020 fiscal year. This amount includes $15.1 million dollars in salaries, which is nearly 70% of the Main Estimates.

An additional $4.3 million for operating expenses accounts for almost 20% of the Main Estimates.

The remaining $2.3 million, or just over 10% of the Main Estimates, represents statutory expenditures related to the employer’s contribution to employee benefit plans.

These funds are used to support my office in carrying out its mandate through its two programs—protection of official languages rights and advancement of English and French in Canadian society—which are supported by internal services. Other than the statutory expenditures I mentioned earlier, the budget for 2019–2020 is essentially the same as last year’s.

Protection activities include investigations, audits and other compliance-related activities, as well as legal services. Planned spending in 2019–2020 for this program is $7.6 million, or 35% of the total budget.

Planned spending for advancement activities is $7.2 million in 2019–2020, and $6.9 million has been allocated for internal services, which respectively represent 33% and 32% of the total budget.

Because we are committed to using public funds with the utmost integrity, we have also developed a culture of continuous improvement. Some measures have already been put in place, such as continued investment in information management and information technology to make business processes more efficient and effective. We will continue to ensure sound management of our budget, based on the priorities I will establish.

Of course, if we had a bigger budget, we would undoubtedly be able to resolve some investigation files more quickly and conduct more research, studies and audits. The latter three often take a back seat when we need to focus our resources on investigating complaints and following up on the commitments and recommendations made during those investigations.

As an ombudsman, I have to focus my resources on the two programs through which my mandate is carried out. Complaints have been on the rise since 2012—from upwards of 400 to more than 1,000.

For now, based on the improvements we’ve made to manage our complaint files, I am confident that my staff and I can continue to fulfill our mandate within the current funding envelope. However, if the trend continues, we will understandably have to consider asking for additional funding.

If I may, I’d like to come back to the discussion we had here last December. In 2018, official language minority communities across Canada experienced many setbacks due to various budget cuts and government decisions that weakened the status of our official languages, despite the fact that the Official Languages Act has been around for five decades.

Obviously, I am dismayed and disappointed by this turn of events. I never thought I’d have to make public statements about language rights setbacks in 2018, just as the Act was about to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Sadly, Canadians’ language rights are still being infringed. For example, some voters are still being denied their right to vote in the official language of their choice, even though it is a fundamental right. And it is still difficult for many to obtain services in the official language of their choice where required by law.

Given the current situation and the fact that the Official Languages Act is about to turn 50 years old, I think it’s time for the government to take action on a national level and establish a dialogue with the provinces and territories—perhaps in the form of a federal-provincial-territorial summit—in order to discuss the future of linguistic duality and of official language communities, and to come up with concrete and long-lasting solutions.

The federal government has already taken some positive steps with respect to official languages. For example, it has announced its intention to modernize the Act and has recently begun conducting national discussions on official languages and bilingualism. It has also begun implementing the Action Plan for Official Languages 2018–2023: Investing in Our Future, which provides significant funding for official language communities. Given these positive steps, I see an opportunity for the Prime Minister to exercise strong political leadership to reaffirm linguistic duality across the country.

In order for linguistic duality to be meaningful and to be something that brings us together, Canada’s official languages must claim their rightful place. Without strong support for official language minority communities across Canada, our linguistic duality cannot succeed and the social contract that brings us together is weakened.

As you know, the Act is a federal statute. But the way Canadians live their lives in their own official language is very dependent on provincial and municipal governments—in school, at work, at play, on-line . . . even while simply ordering a coffee. How, then, do we ensure that our two languages have their own place in these public spaces, where the power of federal law is limited? This is an issue that could be discussed at a summit. I’ve said before and I’ll say it again: official languages are everyone’s business.

The provinces and territories have an important role to play in protecting official language minority communities by making sure that linguistic duality is always on the agenda. They need to recognize the economic and cultural contribution of these communities across Canada. I think that a federal-provincial-territorial summit could yield tangible results among key stakeholders, such as increased awareness and a renewed commitment to linguistic duality. Investing in the future, in young Canadians and in our communities ensures the vitality and longevity of Canada’s official languages.

And so, we must continue to be vigilant to prevent federal and provincial authorities from making decisions and taking actions that undermine official language minority communities. We need to strengthen these communities, not weaken them. And we need leaders from all levels of government to make this happen.

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.