Notes for an address to members of the Atlantic Federal Council

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Ladies and gentlemen, good morning.

I’m delighted to be here with you in Charlottetown. This is the first time I’ve had the honour of addressing the Atlantic Federal Council.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is part of the traditional and unceded territory of the Abegweit Mi’kmaq First Nation. We pay our respects to the First Nations ancestors of this land and reaffirm our relationships with one another. Our two official languages, English and French, are at the heart of who we are as Canadians. Together with Indigenous languages—Canada’s very first languages—they reflect the linguistic diversity of our society.

I’d also like to thank the Atlantic Federal Council for its invitation and extend my greetings to Prince Edward Island’s entire Francophone community.

This morning, I’ll be talking about the three priorities I set in my first year as Commissioner. 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 objectives of the Official Languages Act from being met.

Second, I’ll be working with the federal government and its institutions to ensure that the Action Plan for Official Languages 2018–2023: Investing in Our Future achieves the expected outcomes.

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

This morning, I’ll also be introducing you to a new tool called the Official Languages Maturity Model, which my office has designed to help federal institutions achieve continuous improvement in terms of official languages.

The task before us may seem gargantuan at times, but federal institutions need to progress to a point at which compliance with the Official Languages Act is the result of an organizational culture and processes that take official languages fully into account. Unfortunately, it seems that we don’t always leverage the benefits of linguistic duality.

As you all know, the year 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act.

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. And 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 most recent annual report, for those of you who haven’t read it yet, 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 Official Languages Act are ways to make lasting and substantive progress on official languages, aimed at ensuring that the updated Act is relevant, dynamic and strong. We know where the inconsistencies lie in the Act, and my recommendations propose 18 solutions for addressing them.

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.

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.

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.

To achieve this, the federal government needs to make active offer a priority, update and clarify rights, and 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 be entrenched in the modernized Act to ensure a solid foundation.

The new Official Languages Act should also be able to be applied even as Canadian society changes. 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.

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 federal institutions implement most of the recommendations stemming from my office’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 1,000.

In June 2019, my office 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.

Designed to be used solely by the federal public service, this tool is the very first model that focuses on the ability of federal institutions to look at the processes and systems in place. However, as I mentioned in a recent speech, we can’t resolve everything through legislation and mechanisms. Rather, I believe that it’s a question of leadership, respect and recognition. We should avoid seeing official languages objectives as an arduous obstacle course.

I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the leadership role that the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) played in the development of this new tool. ACOA volunteered to participate in the pilot project for the Official Languages Maturity Model and provided invaluable support in testing the on-line tool. I’d particularly like to thank Vice-President of Finance and Corporate Services Stéphane Lagacé for his leadership and senior human resources advisor Ginette LeBlanc for coordinating the pilot project at ACOA. In fact, hats off to all of ACOA’s senior management team for ensuring that all staff attend my office’s workshops on bilingual meetings. I applaud the leadership shown by this federal institution in the Atlantic region.

As managers, you have an ongoing duty to act as official languages champions, regardless of your level of responsibility, and to be guided by the values of linguistic duality and respect. We sometimes forget how important managers’ words and actions are in the workplace and how much influence they carry. When it comes to linguistic duality and bilingualism, what leaders say and do sets the tone for what happens in their organizations. They are the ones who lead the way. As the top federal entity in the region, the Atlantic Federal Council has a duty to promote—through its words and actions—the importance of Canada’s official languages as a core value in the public service.

I’m pleased to see that the Atlantic Federal Council is still making official languages one of its priorities. Your Council stands out on a national level because of the importance it gives to official languages. Whether delivering language training, establishing Official Languages Week in Atlantic Canada or the introducing the language internship program in official language minority community organizations, the Atlantic Federal Council—and the various official languages committees that report to it—continues to come up with innovative ways to promote English and French. Other federal councils could learn a lot from the work being done in Atlantic Canada. I’d like to thank David Burton, your official languages champion, for his dedication to official languages.

Making a commitment to official languages is a good thing. But that commitment has to be embodied in the actions you take and in the measures you put in place, both here and in your own institutions.

You have a lot to learn from each other, just as you have a lot to offer each other. You have to keep up—or get into—the habit of stressing the importance of official languages at work and in your meetings. As I often say, complacency and inertia must be avoided at all costs. You have to keep an open mind and not be afraid to shake things up.

There are two essential conditions for preserving linguistic duality in Canadian society. First, everyone has to understand that English and French are not foreign languages—they are Canada’s languages. Our two official languages belong to all Canadians, regardless of linguistic background or whether they are bilingual or unilingual. Second, linguistic duality is a value and not a burden, and it must be an integral part of the public service.

We often forget the close relationship between the importance that senior public servants place on official languages and the use of those languages in the workplace. For example, in a meeting attended by employees who work in designated bilingual regions, showing leadership in official languages is not simply a matter of saying a few opening words in both languages and then letting people use the official language of their choice. It worries me when fluently bilingual people do not exemplify linguistic duality in the way they chair or participate in meetings.

If these people would just speak to their audiences in both official languages from start to finish, as they should, the other participants would feel more comfortable using their second official language and wouldn’t need to be reassured. People should not have to apologize for using English or French in meetings. Leaders have to be active and set an example.

Speaking and understanding your second official language is a valuable asset! As managers who lead employees in designated bilingual regions, you have a duty to personify this value through your words and actions. Our two official languages are equally important, and meetings must take place in both.

The advantages are many, including maximizing employee engagement—because people are more productive in the official language of their choice—and encouraging employees to maintain their second official language skills through regular exposure to both official languages. In short, holding bilingual meetings is a sign of respect for the people around the table.

The principle of the equality of the official languages must be entrenched in the culture of your organizations. Many departments now have offices in unilingual regions and in regions designated as bilingual for language-of-work purposes. Some departments have made changes to their work methods in some regions. Your council’s members come from all across Atlantic Canada, and the use of technologies in your departments must respect the Official Languages Act.

When implemented properly, videoconferencing systems and shared servers for virtual teams can provide ways of working more efficiently in both languages. Any changes in the organization of work must take into account public servants’ right to work in the official language of their choice in designated bilingual regions. This requires particular attention when staff from a bilingual region and staff from a unilingual region have to work together.

Official languages are not just for Francophones. There needs to be a dialogue on official languages that calls on Anglophones to participate as well.

Active offer is a key aspect of the federal government’s language obligations. When members of the public wish to be served by a federal office or an organization subject to the Official Languages Act, such as Air Canada or Canada Post, they should automatically be served in both languages with a bilingual greeting like “Hello, bonjour.” This is an important factor in the quality of service provided in both languages in federal institutions in Atlantic Canada.

In Canada, active offer takes place in a wide variety of situations. The realities of official language minority communities vary from province to province, and even from region to region within the same province, due mainly to demographics and legislation. However, when it comes to access to services in both official languages, the objectives must be the same everywhere.

The Atlantic Federal Council must continue to take the lead in official languages in the region and across the country.

Our two official languages, English and French, are at the heart of who we are as Canadians. They’re at the centre of our history. Together with Indigenous languages, they represent Canada’s diversity and inclusiveness. That’s why Canadians across the country celebrate our linguistic heritage and continue to build a bright future by writing, speaking and working in both official languages.

I’d now like to invite you to join me in watching a promotional video on the Official Languages Maturity Model, which will be officially launched in a few days at the Canada School of Public Service in Ottawa.

Talking with federal council representatives like you helps me to see how your region is experiencing linguistic duality. It gives me insight into the challenges you face in implementing the Official Languages Act and the steps you have taken to achieve your objectives. It’s also an opportunity for me to hear about your best practices and innovative projects, which I can then share with other regions.

Thank you for your attention.