Notes for an address at the annual general meeting of the Quebec Community Groups Network

Montréal, Quebec -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Ladies and gentlemen, mesdames et messieurs, bonjour, hello!

I am very pleased to be here with you today.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging that Concordia University is located on unceded Indigenous lands. Montréal is the place where the Great Peace of 1701 was signed between the French Crown and 39 indigenous nations. Today, the two Mohawk communities of Kanesatake and Kahnawake are located nearby. The city itself is home to an increasingly diverse population of Indigenous and other peoples. We respect the continued connections with the past, present and future in our ongoing relationships with Indigenous and other peoples within the Montréal community.

As most of you know, I lived in Montréal 30‑odd years ago when I was a PhD student at McGill. As Commissioner of Official Languages, I have a mandate to ensure that official language minority communities not only survive, but thrive, and to oversee compliance with the Official Languages Act. I believe the Act is a lifeline for all official language minority communities, and that includes Quebec’s English-speaking communities.

In 2018 and 2019, 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 2019, just as the Act is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

For instance, the elimination of the Office of the Commissioner of French Language Services in Ontario and the cuts in legal translation in Manitoba last year; provincial cuts in second-language learning a couple of weeks ago; and, closer to home, the apparent decision of the Quebec Minister of Education to invoke special executive powers in the Education Act to force the transfer of schools of the English language minority to a French-language school board; and of course, the impending legislation to abolish school boards and school-board elections in their current form.

Communities are built around their schools. These situations are sensitive, and in my view, are best resolved through consultation and dialogue. Governments at both the federal and provincial level must take special care to consult with their official language minority communities and move prudently when proposing major policy changes.

Which brings us to the school boards. This is an issue that may well have important national repercussions, and it is one that I am following closely.

When other provincial and territorial governments moved to abolish school boards in Yukon, PEI and Nova Scotia, they ended up eliminating the boards for their majority communities, but they kept them for their minority communities.

The Supreme Court of Canada’s seminal decision in the Mahe case was handed down before the dawn of the information age. There was no Google, let alone Survey Monkey. The notion that school-board elections, with their paper ballots and ballot boxes and returning officers, are not worth the money anymore overlooks the fact that technological advances make it very easy today to consult people on-line. While I’m not a lawyer, and I cannot tell you how this will end, I can assure you of my support.

As you may be aware, I spent a large part of my career in academic administration, so I’m familiar with some of the difficult decisions that need to be made from time to time. But I also know that the best solutions usually result from open dialogue. Therefore, I am encouraging the government of Quebec to consult with the community and to consider all the consequences that a decision of this magnitude could have on the future of the province’s English-speaking communities.

Given the current climate in Canada and the fact that the Official Languages Act is turning 50, I think it’s time for the federal 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.

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 when 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.

Linguistic duality lies at the heart of the Canadian value of inclusiveness. It has helped show that difference and diversity are not weaknesses, but strengths on which we need to build.

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. And in order to maintain their rightful place, we need to support our official language minority communities across Canada. What lies at the very heart of those communities? Schools.

In my view, the increasingly accepted view that schools and school boards have a certain responsibility in terms of community development and, more importantly, identity construction is a sign of growing political maturity and policy sophistication.

I’d just like to take a minute to thank you all for your work and for QCGN’s commitment to Quebec’s English-speaking communities. You play an important role in Canadian society, and we must never lose sight of the social contract that unites us.

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, the Act will be looking toward the future, and it’s clear that the future belongs to our youth. The last major overhaul of the Act took place long before the Internet, social media and the birth of today’s younger generations—the famous millennials and the new Gen Z. Now more than ever, young people are demanding respect for Canada’s linguistic duality. They imagine a country where it will be normal to live in English and French; they believe that the federal government needs to lead the way in making this idea a reality; and they have a genuine desire to learn about each other’s cultures.

Our unity is fragile, however. Lack of vigilance has led to complacency, which has in turn led to the erosion of language rights. The less we talk about it, the more erosion will occur. But Canada needs to work on its own advancement as a nation. The recent actions of some governments are alarming, yet the greatest threat to Canada’s linguistic duality is indifference.

Linguistic duality is not just for Francophones, nor is it just for Anglophones in Quebec. It’s a valuable asset that belongs to all Canadians.

Thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts with you today. I hope you have a very productive and successful annual general meeting.