ARCHIVED - Winnipeg, November 15, 1999

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The Individual, Languages and Languages Laws

Speech delivered to the Association des juristes d'expression française du Manitoba

Dr. Dyane Adam - Commissioner of Official Languages

Check against delivery

It was with great pleasure that I accepted your invitation to speak here today. Associations such as yours are in many ways agents of change. In that sense, you may perhaps be in a good position to assess the role I plan to play as Commissioner of Official Languages, since I plan to be an agent of change.

Sometimes I think the hardest thing about a speech, as with a novel, is finding a catchy title. The title I have chosen, The Individual, Languages and Language Laws may be less intriguing than War and Peace or Remembrance of Things Past, but I hope at least you will find what I have to say more concise and topical. My novel has just a few chapters. I hope nevertheless that it will be enough to convince you that I plan to take a clear stand on both practical and theoretical matters. You may judge for yourselves how I tackle this challenge.

Let us start with the individual, the main character, the hero of our speech today. That individual, as you must have guessed, is Georges Forest. Let us recall that illustrious page in your history, I should say in our history, for a people without history is a people without a soul and thus with no future. We must be proud of our past, of the struggles we have been through. The decision by the St. Boniface Court in favour of Mr. Forest set off a long legal battle, leading in 1979 to a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court of Canada. Mirabile dictu, as lawyers say, the abrogation of French language rights in 1890 was declared unconstitutional.

Finally, in 1985, the Supreme Court of Canada rendered its decision on the federal reference respecting section 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867, and section 23 of the Manitoba Act, 1870. It struck down all Manitoba Acts, rules and regulations.

And what part did Georges Forest play in all this? He was a man of courage. He knew, as Victor Hugo said, that in his darkest hour, every man follows his star. Unfortunately, Georges Forest is no longer with us, but his work lives on to inspire us. You are honoured to have his wife and son with you now. They were at his side in all his endeavours. I salute them on your behalf. I admire their valiance and courage.

But the legacy of Georges Forest is much more than a legal victory. At first, he fought not only against an unjust law, but at times even against the doubts and hesitations of some members of his own community. He proved once again that rights are not negotiable. He proved that one man with the courage to defend his rights can make the state tremble. The law is one thing, its legitimacy another. He believed, like Voltaire's Zadig, that "laws are made as much to help citizens as to intimidate them." The practical results of his convictions can be seen in your daily lives.

It is also fortunate that, thanks to his struggle, people in high places eventually realized, as Molière noted, that rights need a helping hand. If the Court Challenges Program in Canada saw the light of day in 1978, it was largely because of people like Georges Forest. It seems only fitting to have set up the program's headquarters in Winnipeg.

Finally, I must draw your attention to the remarkable work accomplished here in Manitoba by the Institut Joseph-Dubuc. It has played and continues to play an active role in the Program for the Integration of Both Official Languages in the Administration of Justice. It is no coincidence that my Office sought out the talents of its former director, Daniel Mathieu!

In the wake of Georges Forest's activism, the Court Challenges Program in Canada has provided for the speedier implementation, not only of the former language rights under the Constitution Act, 1867, and other constitutional documents from the early days of our national cohabitation, but also of the new language rights incorporated into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Think of all the cases, all the lawsuits brought by people defending their much maligned language rights, cases which stand out as landmarks along the difficult path to linguistic equality: Blaikie, Tremblay, Bilodeau, MacDonald, Société des Acadiens du Nouveau Brunswick, St-Jean, Lefebvre, Ringuette, McDonnell, Penetanguishene, Kapuskasing, Piquette, Paquette, Mercure, Commission des écoles fransaskoises, Mahé, the reference regarding the Public Schools Act of Manitoba, and so on. Glorious as it is, the list of these legal landmarks is too lengthy to state here in full.

As the fifth Commissioner of Official Languages, I want to tell you that I am proud to carry the torch handed on to me. Whenever there is a language issue to debate, count on me, count on our advice, our help, and if necessary and depending on the circumstances, our intervention. When I say "we", this is not of course the royal we, but a "we" which recognizes the excellent and unfailing support I receive from my devoted staff, at the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.

The spate of linguistic reforms in the 1980s has also stimulated the training of French-speaking lawyers practising common law in French, while the Program for the Integration of Both Official Languages in the Administration of Justice unites the rigour of Montesquieu with the pragmatic approach of Her Majesty in right of Canada.

If you form an association today, it is not merely to practise law in French, but to defend the right to French.

I know you work very hard to give French its rightful place in the administration of justice. Even before Justice Chartier last year filed his report on the Manitoba government's policy on French-language services, a task force on improving services in French in the judicial system, which included a representative from my Office, had filed recommendations along the same lines as that report. Recommendations 16 and 17 of the Chartier Report, pertaining to the creation of a bilingual court in St. Boniface and a bilingual travelling court in St. Pierre-Jolys, to serve the areas of La Seine and La Rouge, are also very sound. Setting up those courts would in a way complete the work begun long ago to guarantee a bilingual judicial system in Manitoba.

As leaders in your communities, you must defend your language and heritage, following the example of Georges Forest. I am confident that your individual initiatives and collective efforts will continue to contribute to the growth of French in Manitoba. What a fine legacy to leave to your children: a dynamic language and culture, anchored in modernity, rooted in the West. What a fine passport to the new millennium!

Not being a lawyer by profession, but a psychologist and a defender of our official languages, I seek above all to understand language rights from the perspective of my own work. That work seeks to derive the maximum benefit from the Official Languages Act, for real people. In other words, I work from the premise that the Act sets out objectives for society, as well as standards and occasionally sanctions.

In that context, we must remember the special place given to language rights in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In the recent Beaulac case, the Honourable Justice Bastarache, speaking for the majority of the seven judges, recalled that language rights "must in all cases be interpreted purposively consistent with the preservation and development of official language communities in Canada." He added that, in so far as the principle set forth in the Société des Acadiens decision "stands for restrictive interpretation of language rights, it is to be rejected. The fear that a liberal interpretation of language rights will make provinces less willing to become involved in the geographical extension of those rights is inconsistent with the requirement that language rights be interpreted as a fundamental tool for the preservation and protection of official language communities where they do apply."

Those comments by Justice Bastarache seem to echo the provisions of Part VII of the Official Languages Act, which enjoin the federal government to promote French and English in Canadian society and foster the development of minority Anglophone and Francophone communities. That dictum will certainly have an impact on the language disputes now coming before the courts.

Anglophone and Francophone minorities now see Part VII of the Act as essential to their development, especially at a time when the federal government is undergoing profound transformations because of its policy of privatization, decentralization and devolution. These changes have been brought on by budgetary constraints, technological advances and the desire to bring services closer to those being served. The study we conducted on this matter in 1998 was intended to sound an alarm, to give a warning not to throw the baby out with the bath water, and thus to protect existing language rights. The federal government reacted. It set up its own task force on the matter, the Fontaine group.

Although we had some reservations, we were pleased to see the major recommendations made in this group's report, namely, that the federal government must adjust its sights and once again state, loudly and clearly, its commitment to linguistic duality. This is already happening. It is now time to act. Time is short. The recent improvement in the federal government budget is conducive to the reforms needed to ensure that federal programs and services more closely meet the needs of language communities.

If federal bilingualism means simply being able to buy stamps in French in Winnipeg, we have lost the battle before it begins. Over and above legislation, linguistic duality must be part of our everyday reality, our attitudes and behaviour. A balance must be sought between laws and social action. We must take concrete steps for the economic and social lives of our fellow citizens. The Chartier Report recommendations, especially those dealing with the creation of community service centres, would seem to draw on that philosophy. A society is not just a body of laws, but a network of mutual assistance, support and respect in the attainment of common needs. A society is also a community of dreams.

The greatest threat for Francophones in minority communities will always be the temptation to devalue their own language and culture in favour of those of the majority, so we must build a life in French for the future. Canadian linguistic duality will continue to depend on the constant and renewed efforts by the federal government and its provincial partners, not only to respect the rights of linguistic minorities but to promote a dynamic and effective strategy for survival and development.

For Francophone communities outside Quebec, for Franco-Manitobans, the path to the future is not marked out. It must be invented on a daily basis. That is why in St. Boniface, La Broquerie, Notre Dame de Lourdes, St. Pierre-Jolys, Sainte-Anne des-Chênes, and all over this beautiful province, pride speaks French every day!