Notes for an address at the 2022 Cross-Canada Consultations on Official Languages Summit

Ottawa, Ontario -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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I’m very pleased to be joining you today for the summit on the 2022 Cross-Canada Consultations on Official Languages.

Before I start, I’d like to acknowledge that we are gathered here today on part of the unceded traditional territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg people, an Indigenous people of the Ottawa Valley.

I’d also like to add that I think we need to do more to promote and protect Indigenous languages, both within the public service and in Canadian society as a whole.

And now, at the end of this particularly important consultation process, I’d like to take a few minutes to share with you my perspective on official languages in these turbulent times.

As you know, official languages have been in the news for some time, and numerous compliance issues are regularly making the headlines. The number of complaints filed with my office has soared in recent years, and since the creation of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, we’ve received over 60,000 complaints. Given the sheer volume of these instances of non-compliance with the Act, I think we’re entitled to ask ourselves this: Do we have the right tools in place to advance official languages in the federal government?

I have also seen the 2021 Census data on language in Canada, which reflects not only a highly dynamic social and demographic context for official languages, but also a country in transformation. And while we can celebrate the richness of our linguistic diversity, we should also examine its impact on official languages.

Although we have more French speakers in Canada today than ever before, the decline in their demographic weight relative to that of English speakers continues to be a major concern.

Why should we care? For those of us here at this summit, the answer is clear: because the very future of our official language minority communities depends on it. But why should all Canadians care, including those who are not members of those communities? Because their future depends on it, too.

The fact of having two official languages—instead of just one—lies at the heart of the Canadian values of diversity, inclusion and human rights. Without a meaningful presence of both official languages across the country, those values are at risk.

As a society, we must ensure the vitality of both of our official languages and the survival of our official language minority communities. Given the current economic challenges and anticipated budget cuts, we need to be frank and clear-eyed about the challenges we’re facing.

Now more than ever, we have to ask ourselves what measures will really help us achieve our official languages objectives?

In my opinion, there are two mechanisms available to us to kick-start our efforts to address official languages issues: an effective Action Plan for Official Languages and a modernized Official Languages Act.

The high level of participation in the consultations by communities and other interested groups shows how important the Action Plan is for the future of our communities and our official languages.

As you know, monitoring the Action Plan has been one of my priorities since the beginning of my mandate in 2018, and this past May I published a report on how the Action Plan is being implemented. Overall, I am satisfied with the implementation of most of the initiatives we’ve monitored. For the most part, they seem to be meeting the needs of Canada’s official language communities.

The initiatives we looked at certainly do promote progress toward substantive equality for official language communities. However, there are many areas of intervention that are still underfunded. For example, Quebec’s English-speaking communities are finding it difficult to access early childhood services in their official language.

In my report, I made recommendations to the government for the next action plan for official languages. Many of these recommendations are in line with stakeholder demands that we’ve been hearing over the past few months of consultations.

Successive action plans have made it possible to invest in official languages in sectors where there had never been any before. Even today, these funds are being made available through the Action Plan, rather than through the architecture of the programs themselves.

I believe that we need to encourage longer-term funding and streamlined administrative processes, especially with respect to applications and reporting.

For some time now, contribution recipients have been stressing the need for timely funding so that they can successfully carry out their activities. This seems to be an ongoing administrative issue with the Action Plan, at least to some extent.

The recommendations in my report could clearly help official language minority communities—not only to ensure their vitality, but also to ensure that Canada continues to benefit fully from their unique contribution. I therefore strongly encourage the government to take them into consideration. The consultations that are ending today have raised some excellent elements that the federal government should also take into consideration as it develops its next action plan for official languages.

As I mentioned earlier, the modernization of the Act, along with an effective action plan, is an essential mechanism to ensure a stable and dynamic future for official languages in Canada.

Bill C‑13 has the potential to transform Canada’s language policy by making the foundation on which it rests, the Official Languages Act, a law that will allow our official languages to progress and that will truly defend the language rights of all Canadians.

Like other stakeholders, I have recommended some improvements and clarifications to the bill. However, the bill’s current text is very much what I’d hoped to see in a modernized act. I am confident that the new powers the federal government proposes to give me, including the power to impose administrative monetary penalties, enter into compliance agreements and make orders, will help to ensure better compliance with the Act.

This past June, I presented the results of my in-depth analysis to the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages, and I plan to do the same in the fall with the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages.

I am pleased that the federal government’s bill includes provisions requiring federal institutions to consult with official language minority communities and take their needs and interests into account in meeting the government’s commitments under Part VII of the Act. This requirement is all the more important at a time when we are witnessing a decline in the demographic weight of French-speaking Canadians.

In its bill, the government also recognizes the importance of fostering the full vitality of official language minority communities, in particular by committing to supporting the key sectors—such as education and immigration—that contribute to that vitality.

At the risk of repeating myself, the recently released 2021 Census data has heightened the urgency of taking action on Francophone immigration.

Today, we’re seeing that the failure to meet Francophone immigration targets over the past decade has contributed to a demographic erosion that, over time, is having an impact on the critical mass of Francophone minority communities and their long-term ability to claim their right to the services and infrastructure that are essential to their survival.

Although the demographic weight of Francophones in linguistic minority communities is affected by various factors, immigration is one on which the federal government can have a significant and direct influence, particularly in terms of recruitment rates and the composition of immigration. I am glad to see this in the bill.

Canada sees itself as being strong in its diversity and expertise from around the world. Canada’s Francophone communities are part of this vision for the future.

Our communities are vibrant and present, as evidenced by the number of French-language schools across the country, the number of children enrolled in those schools and the number of children in French immersion programs.

Unfortunately, all too often we see situations where French is relegated to second place. The federal government must be exemplary in always putting both of our official languages on an equal footing.

Without wanting to sound alarmist, it’s high time we had new tools to protect French in Canada and to protect the rights of our English and French linguistic minority communities. Just as past choices have led to the current situation, today’s choices will define the status of official languages for future generations. It’s up to us to make the right choices.

I’m very pleased that the federal government has nominated a bilingual Indigenous judge to the Supreme Court of Canada. As I’ve said on several occasions over the past year, recognizing two official languages, celebrating diversity and reconciling with Indigenous peoples are all part and parcel of the broader societal value of living together—“le vivre ensemble” as we say in French.

Although the current situation may seem a little bleak, I am still optimistic about the future. We have to look at how far we’ve come since the Official Languages Act was passed more than half a century ago. We need to celebrate the successes, both big and small.

In recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many young people who truly care about our official languages. It’s reassuring to know that the next generation will be there to take up the cause! They have a different perspective on languages and a unique way of living their bilingualism that will no doubt shape future changes to Canada’s linguistic landscape.

I’d like to thank the Summit organizers for inviting me to speak here today, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the event!