Address for the Launch of the Annual Report and the Position Paper on the Modernization of the Official Languages Act

Ottawa, Ontario -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg people, an Indigenous people of the Ottawa Valley. For thousands of years, the Algonquin people lived, hunted, traded and travelled here.

Today marks the launch of my 2018–2019 annual report and my position paper on the modernization of the Official Languages Act.

My goal in presenting these documents—both of which are vital to the modernization of the Act—is to influence the government’s decision-making process and to recommend how it should proceed.

The federal government, federal institutions, the courts, communities and many individuals have contributed to making English and French the spoken languages of Canada. Official languages have come a long way since 1969, but 50 years on, Canada is still not where it needs to be.

In 2019, Canadians’ basic language rights are still not being respected consistently. Unfortunately, Canadians can’t always get service from federal institutions in the official language of their choice, even when they have that right.

Federal employees can’t always work in the official language of their choice in designated bilingual areas. Official language minority communities are not always consulted or heard when the government implements new policies or makes changes to programs. Canadians don’t always get important safety information in the official language of their choice. Canadian voters can’t always vote in the official language of their choice, even though it’s a fundamental right.

We have to come up with lasting solutions to these systemic problems. My annual report contains four recommendations, one of which calls on the Prime Minister to table a bill for the modernization of the Official Languages Act by 2021. The 18 other recommendations in my position paper on the modernization of the Act are ways to make lasting and substantive progress on official languages. I firmly believe that the government can make significant progress on these issues by implementing my recommendations, which are the result of 50 years of experience and expertise of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.

These recommendations also support the three major priorities I set out at the start of my mandate—monitoring the Action Plan for Official Languages, making sure that federal institutions meet their official languages obligations, and modernizing the Official Languages Act.

My annual report includes specific recommendations for the Minister of Official Languages to implement accountability mechanisms for funds spent on official languages, such as those resulting from the Action Plan for Official Languages. We need to make sure those dollars achieve results in the communities they are intended to support.

These include funds transferred from the federal government to the provinces and territories under official language education agreements. We need to make sure provinces and territories are held accountable for how those dollars are spent.

I am also proposing solutions to improve federal institution compliance with the Official Languages Act. The existing division of official languages responsibilities within the government is confusing and inefficient. That is why I want to see an effective governance structure built into the modernized Act to make sure that federal institutions and their representatives better understand their obligations and responsibilities.

I therefore recommend that the Prime Minister clarify the federal government’s roles and responsibilities for official languages before the next federal budget.

Many communities across Canada have made great strides since the adoption of the Official Languages Act in 1969. That being said, we have been limited in our progress far too often because the Act has not kept up with Canadian realities and community needs.

My position paper on the modernization of the Official Languages Act includes a clear set of recommendations for the federal government, aimed at ensuring that the updated Act is relevant, dynamic and strong. We know where improvements are needed in the Act, and my recommendations propose 18 solutions for addressing them.

For example, under the Act, the obligations with respect to providing services to the public in both official languages (Part IV) and employees’ language-of-work rights (Part V) are not aligned.

Consequently, my recommendations highlight the importance of aligning these two parts of the Act so that rights and obligations regarding the language of work in the public service are clear, current and consistent.

In addition, the implementation and interpretation of Part VII of the Act—Advancement of English and French—continue to be a major challenge. That is why I recommend developing regulations for Part VII to clarify certain concepts and establish parameters that will guide federal institutions in taking positive measures.

Official language communities ensure a meaningful presence for both official languages across this country. They are the cornerstone of our linguistic duality. As Commissioner, I will bring community challenges before the federal government and Parliament at every opportunity.

As a promoter and protector of language rights, I believe that it is important to innovate. This can be done, for example, by providing federal institutions with relevant and useful tools to help them meet their official languages obligations. Although most of my recommendations are implemented by federal institutions following my team’s investigations, this has not necessarily produced lasting behavioural change. As a matter of fact, complaints have skyrocketed since 2012, from roughly 400 to over one thousand.

In June 2019, my team will be launching a new diagnostic tool—the Official Languages Maturity Model—to address systemic problems that can’t always be resolved through investigations. The tool will enable federal institutions to take stock of their official languages practices with a view to making continual progress.

I would like to take this opportunity to say that my vision goes far beyond legislative and regulatory changes.

Without a doubt, we have achieved many milestones since the first Act was passed in 1969. However, can we truly say that Parliament’s vision has become a reality? What will the future hold if we continue to do the same things over and over, make the same decisions and have the same reflexes? Will there be visionaries and ambassadors in the federal government and in Canadian society to defend the cause and celebrate official languages for the next 50 years?

I expect nothing less than a commitment, leadership, and a change in culture by the federal government so that linguistic duality can thrive everywhere in Canada. In 2019, I intend to set the record straight.

To ensure the relevance and continuity of the Act and to implement it as effectively as possible, the federal government must do three things: stop the erosion of language rights, modernize the Act, and provide strong and clear leadership.

The federal government must reflect on the changes that need to be made to the Act. The recommendations in my annual report and those for the modernization of the Act are designed to help protect Canadians’ language rights and to promote linguistic duality across Canada.

Thank you for your attention. If you have any questions I would be happy to answer them. Please feel free to speak in the official language of your choice.