Notes for an Address on the Occasion of the Assemblée parlementaire de la Francophonie

Victoria, British Columbia -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

I’m very pleased to be here. I’d like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we’ve gathered today is part of the traditional territory of the Coast and Straits Salish peoples. This building sits on the site of an old Lekwungen village, and this region is covered by the Douglas Treaties

We pay our respects to the First Nations ancestors of this land and reaffirm our relationships with one another.

I’d also like to welcome the Honourable Lena Metlege Diab, chargée de mission de la Région Amérique de l’Assemblée parlementaire de la Francophonie, who is chairing this meeting today.

Today, I will be talking about the theme of the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act, and about linguistic duality and the cultural contributions of the Francophonie.

I grew up in a Francophone community on the Prairies and I’ve worked and lived all over Canada, from coast to coast to coast. I therefore consider myself lucky to have been able to live the Canadian experience in a variety of ways, each with its own unique character and challenges.

I spent a large part of my career teaching, doing research and being a university administrator. My job as an agent of Parliament is to promote official languages, to protect the language rights of Canadians and to enact the equal status of both official languages in government.

In Canada, the federal government, provinces and territories play an essential role in creating these spaces and promoting la francophonie. However, the way Canadians live their language is also greatly informed by the decisions of municipal governments.

The Official Languages Act aims to ensure that the federal institutions are able to provide services and communications to English- and French-speaking Canadians in the language of their choice.

This means that members of the public have the right to access the information and data made available by open government, participate and communicate with federal institutions, all in the official language of their choice.

I encourage every federal institution that participates in this initiative to set objectives that align with its linguistic obligations, in order to be able to communicate and serve the public in both French and English.

So, how about we start by going back in time.

Half a century ago this year, the passing of the first Official Languages Act, which stemmed from the recommendations of the 1963 Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, forever changed the face of Canada.

The language rights framework established by the Commission guided the development of the Official Languages Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and created a constitutional language regime.

The Commission’s recommendations, including the Official Languages Act and the Policy on Multiculturalism, strengthened the foundations of both linguistic duality and cultural diversity as Canadian values.

The decision to more fully acknowledge both distinct language groups has also helped Canadians understand that it is actually possible—and beneficial—for different peoples to coexist within the same political community. In this way, linguistic duality has laid the foundation for greater respect for all cultures.

In the early 1960s, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson stressed “ the importance of the contribution to our national development made by Canadians other than the founding races, ” and recognized that they, too, had Parliament of Canada, House of Commons Debates, 25th Parliament, 1st Session, Vol . 3, December 17, 1962, p . 2725.“ added strength, colour and vitality to the pattern of our national life.1

Pearson understood that Canada’s linguistic duality lay at the heart of a broader spirit of pluralism and inclusion.

It was also one of the country’s most distinguishing features. By its very nature, linguistic duality rejects the American “melting pot” ideal.

The concept of multiculturalism exists alongside linguistic duality, not in place of it. According to Pearson, the two ideals were to be mutually reinforcing. It was a philosophy that traced its origins back to Father of Confederation Sir George-Étienne Cartier, but that saw a resurgence under Pearson and his successor, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada from 1968 to 1979 and from 1980 to 1984. During Trudeau’s mandate, Gérard Pelletier, a prominent figure in Canadian politics, was tasked with developing a bill on official languages in 1968.

Half a century is a long time in the world of public policy. Canada and the world have changed a lot since then.

This morning, I’d like take a look back on the past 50 years. I think it’s important to think about how far we’ve come and about the successes and challenges we’ve faced since the Act was passed in 1969.

Let’s take a moment to put things into perspective. The year the Act was passed—1969—was a year of historic achievements, both in Canada and abroad. In Africa and Asia, the decolonization process was in full swing. In Europe, there were workers’ strikes and student demonstrations. In Canada, Francophones were fighting for more recognition.

Looking back, we can see that the 1969 Act was born in a time of hope, a time when rights were being recognized. It was also born in a time of crisis. The B&B Commission was created in response to what was perhaps the greatest national unity crisis in Canada’s history. As the late Gérard Pelletier said, “ Our common goal, our common work, will be to connect all members of our official communities to the French-speaking world, on the one hand, and to ensure that we are, by doing so, reuniting Canada, on the other hand2.”

French-speaking Canadians from across the country, and particularly from Quebec, had grown understandably frustrated at the socio-economic inequality that separated them from English-speaking Canadians. They were also frustrated by the fact that they were still underrepresented within the federal administration and that they continued to have to deal with a government that did not serve them in their own language, as it did for their Anglophone counterparts.

It is in this context that the successes and the ongoing challenges of the Act must be viewed. But what successes have we achieved? Our linguistic duality is the greatest and most obvious.

Linguistic duality is the recognition of two official languages, each of which is equal to the other in status and both of which belong to all Canadians, no matter what language they speak or where they come from. Linguistic duality is also a pledge that these languages, like their speakers, have their own spaces where they can thrive throughout the country.

Canada has two official language majorities—French-speaking in Quebec and English-speaking in the rest of Canada—among whom we find vibrant official language minority communities. Both the majority and minority linguistic populations give life to our linguistic duality, which is vital to the success of this political experience we call Canada. The continuing existence and vitality of official language minority communities is the real proof that the Canadian project is even possible. As Gérard Pelletier told Franco-Manitobans during a December 1968 rally, “ You confirmed to me, if need be, that in Canada two peoples need each other. If you didn’t exist, Canada would be different or would not even be.”

Linguistic duality is our most successful experience in terms of national reconciliation, despite the fact that the process is continually evolving. It encourages Canadians to use the valuable lessons they’ve learned to help advance other reconciliation projects.

Historically, it is often the official language minority communities that have made the greatest effort to foster mutual understanding and intercultural cooperation between English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians and to encourage the two majority language communities to recognize the rights of the linguistic minorities within them.

Franco-Ontarian politician and minority rights advocate Aurélien Bélanger put it well a century ago when he spoke about the role of official language minority communities: “ [They] are, so to speak, the link, the missing link, in the evolution . . . which must come if there is ever going to be a Canadian nationality worthy of the name.3

It was in this spirit that Charles Howard, an English-speaking Quebecer and the Member of Parliament for Sherbrooke, stood up in the House of Commons in 1927 to support Henri Bourassa’s call for a bilingual federal public service. It was high time, argued the Townshipper, for the government to recognize what were, in his words, “the two official languages of Canada.”

In order for linguistic duality to be something that brings us together, Canada’s official languages must claim their rightful place across this country. Without strong support for official language minority communities across Canada, our linguistic duality—and, by extension, our country—cannot succeed. Without these communities, Canadian linguistic duality simply doesn’t exist.

What we need are a modernized act and updated regulations that do not measure the vitality of minority communities based on their size in relation to the majority communities. We need a federal language policy that does not change with the constant ebb and flow of the population. In short, we need an Act that is relevant, dynamic and strong.

Although in 1969 the Act was bold enough, by 1988 it required a overhaul to broaden its scope, and in 2005 further amendments were needed to make it more explicitly aimed at protecting the English and French linguistic minorities. Now, the time has come for another necessary overhaul.

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, even though the federal public service is generally composed of a proportional number of both official language groups. 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.

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.

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 more than 1,000.

In June 2019, my team launched a new 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?

Canadians understand that linguistic duality makes us greater than the sum of our parts, and has propelled us onto the international stage. English and French remain the languages of Canadian diplomacy and international relations. Canada’s official languages are strengthened by our involvement in international organizations such as the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, the Commonwealth and the Assemblée parlementaire de la Francophonie, which are gathered here today! In fact, the authors of our Act looked to the international scene for inspiration, most notably Switzerland, a member of the Assemblée today and a French-speaking country that has found innovative ways to promote its own official multilingualism.

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 the provincial and private sectors—in school, at work, at play, on-line. 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? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: official languages are everyone’s business.

I would like to remind you that even the best of laws will not be fully effective if it is not backed by strong leadership from governments.

In this golden anniversary year, it’s time for the government review the Act in its entirety in order to make it relevant, dynamic and strong. Without specific and detailed attention, we risk losing the opportunity to make the Act more consistent with current and future realities. A more coherent Act would make it possible for federal institutions to better meet their obligations to official language minority communities and to promote official languages in Canadian society.

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.

Both official languages, English and French, are at the heart of our Canadian identity. They are at the core of our history. Together with Indigenous languages, Canada’s true first languages, they are the foundation of the values of diversity and inclusion in our society. Indigenous languages are an important part of Canada’s cultural landscape. In the spirit of reconciliation and in accordance with the fundamental values that unite them, all Canadians can support their country’s first languages and their country’s official languages.

Thank you for your attention.