Notes for an address on Linguistic Duality Day and the 50th Anniversary of the Official Languages Act at Public Services and Procurement Canada

Gatineau, Quebec -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

Check against delivery

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

It is a real pleasure for me to speak here today and to celebrate Linguistic Duality Day with you. I would like to thank Public Services and Procurement Canada for this invitation.

I would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we are gathered is part of the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg people, an Indigenous people of the Ottawa Valley. For thousands of years, they have lived, hunted, traded and travelled here. We pay our respects to the First Nations ancestors of this land and reaffirm our relationships with one another.

My job as an agent of Parliament is to promote official languages and to protect the language rights of Canadians.

For almost a century, the world has looked to Canada as a leader in linguistic duality.

Our two official languages—English and French—are at the core of our Canadian identity. Together with Indigenous languages, Canada’s first languages, they reflect the linguistic diversity of our society.

Official languages belong to all Canadians, regardless of linguistic background or how many languages they speak. Linguistic duality is also a pledge that these languages, like their speakers, have their own spaces where they can thrive throughout the country.

Fifty years ago, we decided as a country to recognize the equal status of English and French in Canadian society by adopting the Official Languages Act.

As you know, the Official Languages Act, which turns 50 years old in 2019, ensures that the federal institutions provide services and communications to Canadians in the official 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, to participate in public consultations and to communicate with federal institutions, all in the official language of their choice.

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 in your institutions.

I encourage every federal institution 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.

Much progress has been made since the first Official Languages Act came into effect. We’ve come a long way since 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.

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. 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.

Despite the increasing popularity of the Internet and social media as communication tools, you are still required to meet your language obligations when communicating with the public. These new technologies must be harnessed to provide more effective services to Canadians.

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.

My team has been working tirelessly on a new tool to mark the 50th anniversary of the Act in 2019. The Official Languages Maturity Model will help federal institutions conduct organizational diagnostic assessments and make continuous improvement in terms of official languages. Designed especially for the federal public service, this is the very first maturity model that focuses on the ability of federal institutions to review the processes and systems in place.

Many on-line resources are also available, such as Leaders 2.OL. Being able to communicate in both official languages allows leaders to properly represent Canada and Canadians and helps them to fulfill their obligations under the Official Languages Act.

This tool provides the criteria that must be taken into account in decision-making processes for Governor in Council appointments and for positions filled via federal public service hiring processes. It will help you assess whether knowledge of both official languages is required to fulfill the duties of a position.

Effective practices for chairing bilingual meetings are important too.

In regions designated as bilingual for language-of-work purposes, employees have the right to work and be supervised in the official language of their choice. This includes meetings in which they participate. Optimize participation of all employees by using the Effective practices for chairing bilingual meetings guide and the Take action! tool.

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’ve been given an invaluable legacy. We should avoid seeing official languages objectives as an arduous obstacle course.

That is why I would like to commend all public servants who took language training and who make a point of using their second language at work—in meetings, in writing, in their correspondence, and in their conversations with colleagues.

Learning a second language is never easy. You have to set aside your pride in order to express yourself, sometimes a bit clumsily, in a language you haven’t quite mastered. Although mastering both official languages is a leadership competency on par with the rest, using both official languages in the workplace demonstrates effective leadership.

Second, linguistic duality is a value, not a burden, and it must be an integral part of the public service.

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 how many languages they speak.

The principle of official languages’ having equal status must be engrained in the culture of every organization. And the use of technology must respect the Official Languages Act in every department.

I also would like to take this opportunity to tip my hat to the Official Languages Champions, who are a very valuable resource for the Public Service of Canada. Their mandate to promote linguistic duality as a personal and organizational value is essential to the visibility of official languages within the machinery of government.

Why should we defend linguistic duality in Canada? Our country's identity has been built with English and French as the national languages of dialogue. Our two official languages allow us to communicate with each other from coast to coast.

Thank you for your attention. If you have any questions I’d be happy to answer them.