We are going to start meeting 147, which is being televised today.
We have the honour of having Raymond Théberge, the Commissioner of Official Languages, with us today.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(3)(f), we are studying the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Official Languages 2018-19, referred to the committee on May 9, 2019.
To give some context to today's meeting for everyone watching, I would like to point out that the act provides for the presentation of an annual report by the Commissioner of Official Languages. This has been the case since 1969, if I'm not mistaken. The committee's conventions and traditions provide that we shall promptly receive the Commissioner each time so that he can submit his report directly.
Mr. Commissioner, you will have 10 minutes, as is customary, to make your opening remarks. Then, according to the committee's procedure, we will have a one-hour roundtable discussion.
Thank you to you and your team for being here today, including Ms. Giguère, Assistant Commissioner, and Ms. Saikaley.
Go ahead, Mr. Commissioner. We are listening.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
I'd like to thank the committee for their commitment toward the advancement of Canada's two official languages. The work of this committee is of great importance and is complementary to the activities in my office, which is why I am always pleased to be invited to appear before you.
Joining me today are the Assistant Commissioner, Ghislaine Saikaley, and my General Counsel, Pascale Giguère.
I am here today to present my 2018-19 annual report and my position paper on the modernization of the Official Languages Act.
My goal in presenting these documents, both of which are vital to the modernization of the act, is to influence the government's decision-making process and to recommend how it should proceed. The federal government, federal institutions, the courts, communities and many individuals have contributed to making English and French the spoken languages of Canada.
Official languages have come a long way since 1969, but 50 years on, Canada is still not where it needs to be. In 2019, Canadians' basic language rights are still not being respected consistently. Unfortunately, Canadians can't always get service from federal institutions in the official language of their choice, even when they have that right.
Federal employees can't always work in the official language of their choice in designated bilingual areas. Official language minority communities are not always consulted or heard when the government implements new policies or makes changes to programs. Canadians don't always get important safety information in the official language of their choice. Canadian voters can't always vote in the official language of their choice, even though it's a fundamental right.
We have to come up with lasting solutions to these systemic problems. My annual report contains four recommendations, one of which calls on the Prime Minister to table a bill for the modernization of the Official Languages Act by 2021. The 18 other recommendations in my position paper on the modernization of the act are ways to make lasting and substantive progress on official languages.
I firmly believe that the government can make significant progress on these issues by implementing my recommendations, which are the result of 50 years of experience and expertise of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. These recommendations also support the three major priorities I set out at the start of my mandate—monitoring the action plan for official languages, making sure that federal institutions meet their official languages obligations, and modernizing the Official Languages Act.
My annual report includes specific recommendations for the to implement accountability mechanisms for funds spent on official languages, such as those resulting from the action plan for official languages. We need to make sure those dollars achieve results in the communities they are intended to support. These include funds transferred from the federal government to the provinces and territories under official language education agreements. We need to make sure provinces and territories are held accountable for how those dollars are spent. I am also proposing solutions to improve federal institution compliance with the Official Languages Act.
The existing division of official languages responsibilities within the government is confusing and inefficient. That is why I want to see an effective governance structure built into the modernized act to make sure that federal institutions and their representatives better understand their obligations and responsibilities.
I therefore recommend that the Prime Minister clarify the federal government's roles and responsibilities for official languages before the next federal budget.
Many communities across Canada have made great strides since the adoption of the Official Languages Act in 1969. That being said, we have been limited in our progress far too often, because the act has not kept up with Canadian realities and community needs. My position paper on the modernization of the Official Languages Act includes a clear set of recommendations for the federal government aimed at ensuring that the updated act is relevant, dynamic and strong. We know where improvements are needed in the act, and my recommendations propose 18 solutions for addressing them.
For example, under the act, the obligations with respect to providing services to the public in both official languages, part IV, and employees' language of work rights, part V, are not aligned. Consequently, my recommendations highlight the importance of aligning these two parts of the act so that rights and obligations regarding the language of work in the public service are clear, current and consistent.
In addition, the implementation and interpretation of part VII of the act, advancement of English and French, continue to be a major challenge. That is why I recommend developing regulations for part VII to clarify certain concepts and establish parameters that will guide federal institutions in taking positive measures.
Official language communities ensure a meaningful presence for both official languages across this country. They are the cornerstone of our linguistic duality. As commissioner, I will bring community challenges before the federal government and Parliament at every opportunity.
As a promoter and protector of language rights, I believe it is important to innovate. That can be done, for example, by providing federal institutions with relevant and useful tools to help them meet their official languages obligations. Although most of my recommendations are implemented by federal institutions following my team's investigations, this has not necessarily produced long-lasting behavioural change. As a matter of fact, complaints have skyrocketed since 2012, from roughly 400 to more than 1,000.
In June 2019, my team will be launching a new tool—the official languages maturity model—to address systemic problems that can't always be resolved through investigations. The tool will enable federal institutions to take stock of their official languages practices with a view to making continual progress.
I would like to take this opportunity to say that my vision goes far beyond legislative and regulatory changes.
Without a doubt, we have achieved many milestones since the first act was passed in 1969. However, can we truly say that Parliament's vision has become a reality? What will the future hold if we continue to do the same things over and over, make the same decisions and have the same reflexes? Will there be visionaries and ambassadors in the federal government and in Canadian society to defend the cause and celebrate official languages for the next 50 years?
I expect nothing less than a commitment, leadership, and a change in culture by the federal government so that linguistic duality can thrive everywhere in Canada. In 2019, I intend to set the record straight.
To ensure the relevance and continuity of the act, and to implement it as effectively as possible, the federal government must do three things: stop the erosion of language rights, modernize the act and provide strong and clear political leadership.
The federal government must reflect on the changes that need to be made to the act. The recommendations in my annual report and those for the modernization of the act are designed to help protect Canadians' language rights and to promote linguistic duality across Canada.
Thank you for your attention.
If you have any questions, I would be happy to answer them. Please feel free to speak in the official language of your choice.
Currently, within the federal government, official languages governance is divided between the Treasury Board, which is responsible for Parts IV, V and VI, and the Department of Canadian Heritage, which is responsible for Part VII. Part VII concerns mainly the communities, while Parts IV and V concern communications, service delivery and language of work. The difficulty with this approach is that there isn't one person, minister or structure responsible for the management of official languages throughout the federal administration. To remedy that situation, some have suggested that this be left to the Treasury Board. Others have suggested that it be done by the Privy Council Office. However, we must agree on certain principles. I think that if we can do this, we can agree on the choice of central agency that will manage this.
As I said in my presentation, the first step is to clarify roles and responsibilities, in other words, to determine who is responsible and who does what within the federal government. Second, we need an accountability framework. In other words, for official languages, there must be indicators to specify who does what. Third, we often talk about the “official languages lens”. There must be one for all programs and activities. Instead of thinking about official languages after developing a program, we should think about them from the beginning. Fourth, good management, good stewardship, which means promotion. We must promote official languages, and not only within the federal government. Believe it or not, even today, there are federal organizations that, without necessarily questioning the fact that they are subject to the Official Languages Act, interpret their obligations very narrowly. Finally, we must always ensure that we prevent the decline of official languages.
In 2003, the minister responsible for official languages was Stéphane Dion, who was at the Privy Council. Other ministers were also members of this group. They were supported by a committee of deputy ministers. So when a message came from above, it was clear where it was going. Today, there is no longer a committee of deputy ministers responsible for official languages. There is a committee of assistant deputy ministers responsible for official languages who report to various employers. In my opinion, this structure must be much more centralized and there must be a decision-maker on official languages. This is extremely important, because when everyone is responsible, no one is.
I'd like to thank the three witnesses from the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages for being here today.
Mr. Théberge, you talked about your three objectives or wishes for the coming years, namely, stopping the erosion of language rights, modernizing the act, and providing strong and clear leadership. I think this is extremely important. I have just met with representatives of the Fédération de la jeunesse canadienne-française, who somewhat criticized the fact that Canada's youth policy doesn't address official languages, when it should be part of our Canadian identity in every respect.
Recently—I think it was yesterday or the day before—Mr. Bigeau of RDÉE Canada, the Réseau de développement économique et d'employabilité for francophone minority communities, deplored the fact that the Canadian tourism strategy does not include a francophone component. According to him, “If the situation isn't corrected, francophone tourism will be neglected for five years in a rapidly changing sector. We can't afford to walk, when everyone else is running.”
In key or strategic sectors where we must promote both official languages, it therefore seems that we are forgetting our Canadian identity, one of the principles of which is bilingualism, the existence of our two official languages. It seems that we forget it and, when we point out this omission, we're told that bilingualism is implicit, that it goes without saying and that it isn't necessary to mention it.
What do you think about these omissions or this way of thinking and saying that bilingualism is obvious and doesn't need to be included in the youth policy or the tourism strategy, for example?
Thank you, Mr. Chair. Welcome to your chair of office.
Welcome, everyone, once again.
Mr. Théberge, in your introduction, you used a sentence that I myself have been repeating for years. I feel that everyone here repeats the sentence: “What does the future hold for us if we continue to act in the same way, make the same decisions, and react in the same way?” Whatever the government, whatever the party, that question should ring out loud and clear in every caucus, every year. Now we have an election coming.
For an anglophone in Quebec and for a francophone outside Quebec, the word “equality” leaves a bad taste in the mouth in any discussion on language rights or the Official Languages Act. The word is extremely precise, and leaves no room for interpretation. Despite all that, because of the way the case law has evolved, we can see that the word “equality” has often been stripped of all its meaning.
I am telling you this after reading an article in the Acadie Nouvelle this morning. It dealt with a decision from the Court of Appeal of New Brunswick in a language rights case. Once again, a community had to go to court for no reason, but it won its language rights. Once again, it was a waste of time and resources, for no reason.
Let me ask you a difficult question. Your office has 50 years of experience, but the Standing Committee on Official Languages, and those that have gone before us, have quite a number of years of experience also. We have heard from constitutional experts. We have heard it all. There are quite enough reports on the shelves.
We talk about making provinces accountable for federal transfers in education. I am bringing that up because—and I believe that there is consensus around this table—of all the items to be dealt with as priorities, education, starting from early childhood and going through to post-secondary, is often one. If we lose people then, we lose francophones. We lose any potential for exponential growth in the next generation.
As for your third recommendation, when federal transfers are made to the provinces for education, how can we make sure that the provinces do their part, really do their part? How can we make sure that we have access to the data that will allow us to measure the impact that those transfers may have had on francophone communities outside Quebec or on anglophone communities in Quebec? How will we know whether the money invested has really been invested in the right place and has borne fruit? I know that this is our fondest wish, but how can we do all that while respecting provincial and federal jurisdiction, and with everything we already know?
I want to hear about the mechanism, the way in which we are going to do it.
Thank you to you and your team, Mr. Théberge, for the work you have done. You have taken the position at a time when things are being discussed. Modernizing the act is a hot topic, it seems.
In a way, it is a challenge, because a lot of shots are coming from everywhere. However, it is also a great opportunity to really influence the changes that are crucial in order for the act to have some genuine teeth.
As I consult your report, I find very good things. The words seem to express very well how things should work.
I am going to try and do as my colleague did and spice things up a little. I am going to throw out some subjects and you can tell me how they will work, according to your vision.
Let us take the census. Statistics Canada is an independent agency over which the government has no real direct influence, except for certain processes that it can impose through cabinet. There have been debates and discussions for two years. We have almost written the question.
How will it work, in your opinion?
I see where you are going, but I want to go further.
In the next year of your mandate, I challenge you to find any unilingual francophone public servants in Canada. I challenge you. They are practically all anglophone. Just try to find a unilingual francophone.
I live in Lévis, close to Quebec City. In my constituency office in Lévis—Lotbinière, I have met with people who want to work in the federal public service in Quebec City. However, the requirement to know English is quite high. In Quebec City, they all work in French, but they are told that there may be meetings in which they will have to discuss a number of communications in English and that, if they do not reach the level required, they will not be able to work.
I doubt whether it is the same in Toronto. In Toronto, they work in English. If an anglophone’s level of French is not adequate, perhaps they will provide him with courses, which he may never need.
This discriminates against francophones. The opportunities are not equal. Francophones all need to speak English in order to get into public service trades and professions. Francophones are the ones adjusting. Let me give you a simple example: 12 public servants attend a meeting. The first person to speak talks to the others in English. Then the entire meeting carries on in English, even with 11 francophones there. It is always like that.
As part of your mandate, will you be able to encourage those who are making an effort? Often, we talk about problems, but we do not talk about initiatives inside a department. For example, to raise awareness, why not have everyone speak French every Tuesday morning, even at lunch? They have learned French, but they do not use it.
If we are incapable of establishing that in our federal institutions, if we are incapable of setting an example, there is absolutely no reason to continue. There is absolutely no reason to have an Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. You have to promote good practices, and perhaps remind people that they can do more.
There are very good examples of initiatives in the public service where people are in fact encouraged to use their second language. In our office, we have developed tools so that we can hold bilingual meetings. We provide training about it. Some departments, like Natural Resources, have prepared their own second-language courses based on the specialized lexicon they use. So there are initiatives.
Generally speaking, in surveys, when we ask public servants whether they feel comfortable if they write in the language of their choice, between 92% and 95% of anglophones say yes but, with francophones, it's only between 67% and 70%. That has not changed for 10 years.
I go back to what I was saying just now. Some complacency has taken hold. We have to find ways of addressing it. We can do so using Part V. We must make sure that we have language training. We have to provide tools and opportunities to use the second language.
We are currently working on a study on language insecurity in the public service, with both francophones and anglophones. It is at an exploratory stage. We are examining the results. It is interesting that anglophones want to have the opportunity to use French, just as francophones want the converse. So it is important to create situations that allow that.
However, for a number of years, less and less language training has been provided, which means that we do not have the tools we need. Work teams are virtual; the way of working is changing.
Clearly, if we want better service in both official languages, public servants must be able to work in the language of their choice.
Thank you, Mrs. Boucher.
Mr. Choquette has honourably given up his three minutes.
Commissioner, I have two questions for you, and I am sure that Mr. Samson will be happy to hear the first one.
I would like to talk about bilingualism for the justices of the Supreme Court of Canada. I do not think I am mistaken in saying that all members of this committee would like to see the legislation change so that the justices of the Supreme Court of Canada must be bilingual. After all, we all voted in favour of Mr. Choquette's commendable bill.
I have a special request for you, which goes beyond the work of this committee. We only have three weeks left, but you have at least six years.
At the moment, there is a serious problem. Some lawyers from the Department of Justice claim to be constitutional experts, and some really are. Let me throw this idea at you, although I do not know whether you have the authority to do it. They do not work for nothing, but would you be able to employ some constitutional experts to help you to write a legal text, a solid, well-supported counter-argument in opposition to the legal minds in the Department of Justice? That is a text that we could use in the future.
We need you. As members of Parliament, we do not have the resources we need to employ eminent constitutional scholars, but your office does. You have a substantial budget. Would it be worthwhile to prepare a constitutional argument in support of Mr. Choquette's motion?