Notes for an appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages

Ottawa, Ontario -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Mr. Chair, honourable members of the committee, good morning.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging that the lands on which we are gathered are part of the unceded traditional territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabeg people, an Indigenous people of the Ottawa Valley.

As you may know, in 2021–2022, following a record number of complaints filed with the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, I recommended that a study be conducted on language obligations related to the staffing of senior management positions in the federal public service and to Governor in Council appointments. The idea behind this recommendation was to determine whether knowledge of both official languages should be a requirement when hiring for these types of positions.

The study you are undertaking is in response to this recommendation, and I’d like to thank you for it.

I’ve said it many times in the past: being able to speak both official languages is, in my view, an essential skill for any leader, especially those in federal institutions subject to the Official Languages Act.

The bilingual nature of an organization depends in large part on the bilingualism of those occupying positions at the highest levels. They need to lead by example and must be able to represent all their employees and Canadians in both official languages.

I therefore believe that proficiency in both official languages must become a hiring criterion for senior management positions in the public service and for Governor in Council appointments.

I am pleased with the amendments made by your committee last spring to Bill C‑13, particularly with regard to the language training required to ensure the bilingual capacity of deputy ministers and associate deputy ministers who are newly appointed to the federal public service if they are not bilingual at the time of their appointment.

It will be interesting to see the impact of this change on the public service over the next few years. That said, the job is only half done: in the absence of clear policies and guidelines, how can we ensure that this change will be implemented, measured and adjusted as necessary? What measures will be put in place to support incumbents when they return from language training to enable them to carry out their responsibilities effectively in both official languages? What will happen in cases where senior civil servants are still unable to master their second official language?

I also question the absence of bilingualism in the list of essential criteria for Governor in Council appointments. As you may know, in recent years, a number of appointments have raised eyebrows among Canadians because no bilingualism criteria were required as part of the appointment process. This has led to a significant number of complaints to my office. We should be looking at all senior management positions in institutions subject to the Official Languages Act to ensure that a command of both official languages is part of the requirements of these positions.

Moreover, the Act did not address current senior public servants at the time of Royal Assent, but the legislator’s intention behind the addition for newly appointed deputy ministers should shine through to all senior management. In my opinion, any leader in the federal public service must be able to express himself or herself in both official languages and understand anyone who speaks English or French in order to promote the use of both official languages and encourage linguistic security in the workplace in the federal public service. This also gives a voice to the issues on the table.

Senior management must lead by example and send a clear signal that both English and French have a prominent and equal place in the federal public service so that public servants can flourish in both official languages. It’s high time that we act.

I’m confident that your study will shed light on the hiring criteria for senior public service positions and that it will help government decision-makers take a closer look.

Thank you for your attention. I’m happy to answer your questions in the official language of your choice.