Opening remarks - Launch of issue 17 of the journal Linguistic Minorities and Society: 50 Years of Legislation Concerning Official Languages in Canada: Review and Prospects

Ottawa, Ontario -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

Check against delivery

Thank you very much, Mr. Luckerhoff, for this wonderful introduction.

Hello everyone. It is my pleasure to be with you today to mark the launch of Number 17 of Linguistic Minorities and Society.

I would first like to acknowledge and congratulate the organizers of this event, the editors of this issue and all the authors for their contributions. Research collaborations, such as this one, are so valuable. They allow us to better understand our linguistic duality, its past and the challenges it faces today, and to identify potential strategies for the future.

Much has changed since the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act, which I address in the journal. During this pandemic, we are experiencing both great national challenges and global political upheavals, which has placed identity and language issues at the heart of contemporary debates.

In recent years, the language situation in Canada has generated a great deal of excitement, as much on a federal level as on a provincial and territorial one. Francophone immigration, education in official language minority communities and the modernization of various provincial legislation, as well as the announcement regarding the reform of the Act by the federal government, have brought language issues to the forefront.

In order to know where we go from here, it’s good to know where we came from. So, I wanted to begin by speaking about the evolution of language rights in Canada and the Official Languages Act, and then about the challenges the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages is facing today in terms of modernization.

Canada has two official languages, but as a Franco-Manitoban from a small Francophone community, I can confirm that the Canadian language experience is not identical across the country. I have seen and witnessed its many facets throughout my life in the Prairies, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.

Canada’s linguistic duality is expressed differently from one place to another, and also from one period to another. It is a reality that varies in space and time. One might therefore think that this makes the value of Canadian bilingualism rather weak and intangible for the 38 million Canadians who live together in the second largest country in the world.

Well, let me reassure you. The Office of the Commissioner recently conducted a Canada-wide survey on support for official languages. The result? 87% of Canadians support the Official Languages Act.

Another very interesting finding from the survey is the positive relationship between our official languages and diversity. A large majority of Canadians agree that official languages and other forms of diversity work well together and can make each other stronger. The survey also shows strong support for second-language education programs and programs to support official language minority communities.

More than ever, Canadians want their children to reap the benefits of bilingualism, and I believe that no matter where they live, every child in Canada should have the opportunity to become bilingual.

At a time when many societies are turning inward, I find this openness very encouraging.

Speaking of openness, I am proud to say that I am no longer the only commissioner of languages at the federal level. Speaking to you from Treaty 1 territory, the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota and Dene peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation, I would like to say hello to my colleague, Ronald E. Ignace, the new commissioner of Indigenous languages, and his team.

The history between English and French and the more than 70 Indigenous languages spoken has been marked by hardship, tragedy and injustice. Indigenous languages must be valued and protected as part of reconciliation. Fortunately, as our survey shows, most Canadians today believe that Canada can and should promote both Indigenous and official languages.

I see a potential partnership between this promotion of official languages and first languages. Canada is always evolving, reflecting on the Canadian identity when we talk about diversity, official languages and reconciliation. Indigenous languages are part of this reflection. This is proof that we are not a country frozen in time.

I’m talking about the future, but first, let’s take a look at the past. The Official Languages Act is the product of the social and political movement of the 1960s, a tumultuous period punctuated by many battles, including for gender equality, the decriminalization of contraception and homosexuality, and the mobilization of Indigenous peoples. These have led to major and permanent social changes over time. Francophones’ fight for the right to exist and to be recognized as equals falls in the same category. It paved the way for the adoption of the Official Languages Act in 1969.

The Act recognizes the equal status of English and French in federal institutions and allows Canadians to access federal services in both languages. It also made it possible to create the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada, which I have been heading for the past four years.

The Act has set the tone for the reality and legality of linguistic duality issues across Canada. It has guided the fight for official languages in the federal, provincial and territorial spheres across the country for half a century and has itself been enhanced by these citizen-focused efforts.

I am thinking in particular of the adoption of the French Language Services Policy in Manitoba in 1989; the struggle of Franco-Ontarians in the late 1990s against the closure of the Montfort Hospital; the reinstatement of the Court Challenges Program in 1994, and again in 2017; the ongoing fight of English-speaking communities in Quebec to keep their school boards; the Dionne case upholding the right of federal public servants to work in the official language of their choice in designated bilingual regions and the recent victory in the FFCB case.

Other challenges are ongoing across the country, such as access to French-as-a-second-language programs, which requires political will and collaboration between different levels of government.

It seems reasonable to me to conclude that more than ever, Canadians are aware of their language rights, attuned to their challenges and sincere in their desire to proudly assert themselves within their communities in a changing world. Through these events, it is clear that Canada’s linguistic duality is a very contemporary and fundamentally inclusive value that is not only enshrined in the Act, but also in people’s identity.

As imperfect as the Act may be, it has set new standards and expectations, and it has fostered renewed awareness.

The history of language rights does not begin with the Official Languages Act. One thinks, among other things, of Baldwin-Lafontaine, of French-language education when Alberta and Saskatchewan joined confederation, of the New Brunswick Official Languages Act, along with that of the federal government.

These are examples that urge us to consider the Act as an organic and living entity, rather than as an inanimate object or a brutal, set fact. The Act is most effective when it serves as an inspiration or a tool for democratic revitalization against the dangers of complacency and indifference. It helps guide collective action and protect rich community identities, making us all stronger in the process.

Fifty years after the Act was first drafted, the world has undeniably and greatly changed. What we need is a modernized, current, dynamic and robust act and regulations.

Bill C-13, which is aimed at amending the Official Languages Act, was recently introduced in Parliament. It provides for increased powers for the Commissioner of Official Languages and stronger compliance mechanisms, such as financial penalties, to protect our official languages and the rights of their speakers.

The Government has recognized that it is time to move forward. I want to reassure you that my office will be very diligent and open in reviewing the bill to ensure that our official languages are able to meet not only the challenges of today, but also those of tomorrow.

In Canada, language and multiculturalism policies were designed to co-exist: the complementarity of these policies leads to mutual empowerment.

I fundamentally believe that our languages enrich the regions in which they are spoken and that, in practical terms, they offer new social, cultural and economic opportunities. Our official languages are a legacy of our past, but they are resolutely geared toward the future and continue to represent a political and social project that is unifying, optimistic and inclusive: values that guide my actions as Commissioner.

Thank you.