Notes for an appearance before the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages

Ottawa, Ontario -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Mr. Chair, honourable members of the committee, hello.

Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge 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.

I’m pleased to be with you today to present my 2023–2024 annual report.

As you know, the modernization of the Official Languages Act in June 2023 marked the beginning of a new chapter not only in the history of official languages, but also in the history of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.

After many months of work, the foundations for exercising my new powers are solidly in place. We’re now ready for action according to the timeline I unveiled when I tabled my annual report.

Therefore, between July and September 2024, I’ll begin offering federal institutions the opportunity to enter into a compliance agreement in order to resolve a complaint.

Between December 2024 and February 2025, I will be able to formally issue orders to offending federal institutions to comply with the Act.

And with regard to administrative monetary penalties, I’ll be able to use this power once the government has issued a Governor-in-Council order and adopted regulations governing their terms and conditions. I know that the government is working on these elements right now, and my office and I will be ready when they are.

Furthermore, between June and August 2024, we’ll gradually begin offering a mediation service to complainants and federal institutions in order to try to find mutually acceptable solutions to the issues raised in complaints.

By July 2024, we’ll also be introducing a new investigation process that will enable us to serve the public as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Finally, by the end of March 2025, summaries of some of my investigations will be posted on our website.

Of course, the upcoming changes will require a certain period of adjustment, both for the parties involved and for my team, which is why we plan to start gradually phasing in the use of these new tools with the funding we’ve been granted in the 2024 budget.

It’s hard to say at this point whether this amount will be enough, though, because we don’t yet have all the details on the new Use of French in Federally Regulated Private Businesses Act or on my new power to impose administrative monetary penalties. We’ll know more once they come into force.

That said, let me be clear: my team and I are fully prepared to ensure greater respect for the public’s language rights.

As you probably noticed in my annual report, the 847 admissible complaints filed with my office in 2023–2024 are a bit of a contrast to the very high volumes of complaints we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. Is this a trend that will continue over time? Unfortunately, I don’t have a crystal ball to help me answer these questions with any certainty. Only time will tell.

One thing is certain, though: this decrease doesn’t mean that we need to take our foot off the gas. Au contraire! We need to keep up the momentum and build on the progress we’ve made to effect concrete, lasting changes in order to secure the future of both of our official languages across the country. I’m counting on all federal institutions to step up their efforts to meet their language obligations, including the new ones in the modernized Act.

Despite the fact that regulations have yet to be made, federal institutions still have new obligations that they’re required to meet right now, including those under Part VII of the Act, which deals with advancing the equality of status and use of English and French.

Therefore, to help ensure compliance with Part VII, I’ve recently published a roadmap that is designed to be a practical tool to help federal institutions understand and meet their obligations, and to help members of the public better understand their language rights.

In my annual report, I recommend that by May 31, 2025, all deputy ministers and deputy heads in the federal public service incorporate into their strategic plan a plan for ensuring full implementation of Part VII of the Act that draws from this roadmap, which I put forward to support federal institutions.

Although compliance with Part VII of the Act does not depend on the development of regulations, they will set clearer parameters for federal institutions to fully and effectively meet their obligations.

Fortunately, things are moving forward. The federal government is currently developing instruments to support the implementation of the modernized Act, including the Part VII regulations. I’m monitoring this file very closely and have recently released a position paper outlining the main principles that I believe should guide the development of the regulations.

Among the changes introduced in the modernized Act is the requirement to review the Act every 10 years to ensure that it remains in step with Canadian society as it evolves.

However, in order for this to happen, indicators need to be developed as quickly as possible to monitor the application of the Act, track any changes in the issues at stake and propose solutions in a timely fashion.

In my annual report, I therefore recommend that by June 2026, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, with the support of the President of the Treasury Board, develop and publish indicators for reviewing the provisions and operation of the Act in preparation for the 10-year review in 2033.

As you’ll have noticed, this year I’m reporting on a period of change and transition in the world of official languages.

Although we still have a lot of work to do to ensure better respect for the language rights of the public and of federal public servants, I think that it’s achievable. The progress we’ve made since the Act was passed nearly 55 years ago is testament to this. Every success counts.

Because your committee begins its pre-study today, I’d like to turn to a few aspects of Bill C-69. As you know, this bill proposes certain changes to the Use of French in Federally Regulated Private Businesses Act, which is part of An Act for the Substantive Equality of Canada’s Official Languages.

One of the main changes proposed in the bill is intended to allow me to exercise my investigative powers with respect to complaints received by current employees of federally regulated enterprises, as well as former and future employees.

In my opinion, this change will be beneficial because it will enable more employees of private companies under federal jurisdiction to work in French.

In studying these new provisions, I also noticed that the wording of the section dealing with the sending of my investigation reports would have the effect of preventing me from sending my investigation reports to complainants, which seems possibly unintentional. This section could be amended so that complainants, as well as executives from the organizations under investigation, receive my investigation reports.

Since the modernization of the Act, we’ve been working to put in place a solid foundation to ensure a better future for our official languages. The modernized Act is stronger and better adapted to today’s society. It represents a major step forward in protecting the public’s language rights and the vitality of our official language minority communities.

We need to seize this opportunity to ensure that the Act is implemented fully, and we need to make concrete, lasting changes to improve the state of our official languages, both in the federal public service and in Canadian society as a whole.

By making sure that the Act is reviewed thoroughly, implemented fully and supported by strong leadership from senior officials, we will help to build a future where members of the public have every opportunity to succeed in both official languages, and where federal public servants can finally feel free to work in the official language of their choice where the Act applies.

Thank you for your attention. I’m now ready to answer your questions, which you’re welcome to ask in the official language of your choice.