Dear colleagues on the Standing Committee for Official Languages, I am pleased to see you today.
My sincere thanks to the media here today.
Mr. Théberge, thank you for joining us this afternoon.
Pursuant to Standing Order 111.1(1), we are studying the certificate of nomination of Raymond Théberge to the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, referred to the committee on Thursday, November 30, 2017. With us today, as an individual, is Raymond Théberge, the nominee for the position of Commissioner of Official Languages.
Mr. Théberge, we will give you 10 minutes for your opening statement. After that, there will be a period for questions that will last about one hour and 45 minutes. Let me say that we are very pleased to welcome you today.
As members of the committee, we all have Canada's official languages close to our hearts. Your appearance before us is very important for the future and the health of Canada's official languages. I am sure you are aware that your replies will be scrutinized and will capture our attention in no uncertain terms.
Mr. Théberge, you have the floor.
First of all, I would like to thank the committee for their welcome today and for giving me the opportunity to introduce myself, to make myself better known, and to discuss with the committee some of the issues and challenges of Canadian duality.
I am honoured that my application for the position of Commissioner of Official Languages has been considered. The position is critical to the development of official language minority communities and to the promotion of linguistic duality as a fundamental Canadian value.
First, I would like to draw the committee's attention to some of my experiences.
I am originally from Sainte-Anne-des-Chênes, Manitoba, and from a French-Canadian family. That is what we were called at the time, French-Canadian. At home, there were always discussions about French-language education. I remember my mother's involvement in school elections, in recruiting enough students for a class in French, and in the advisory committee for the creation of a Bureau de l'éducation française. That office, by the way, is threatened today by the loss of the assistant deputy minister's position. We must always be vigilant. A number of generations fought for French-language education and the demands continue to this day.
The advent of official bilingualism and the Official Languages Act is a seminal event for my generation. The enthusiasm for bilingualism was palpable. It raised enough curiosity in me to lead me to the study of linguistics, so that I could understand and grasp this thing called language that is at the heart of my identity, the central value that defines me.
Back in Manitoba, the Bilodeau case had given rise to negotiations between the Société franco-manitobaine and the provincial government about an amendment to section 23 of the Manitoba Act. That was setting in which I came to head the Société franco-manitobaine.
The community ratified an agreement. The euphoria was short-lived because, once the agreement become known, forces opposing it quickly mobilized. All of a sudden, Manitoba was plunged into a language crisis that lasted several months.
The government backed down. Public hearings were held in communities, mostly anglophone communities. There were municipal plebiscites on francophone rights, and there were certainly threats. Finally, the government abandoned the plan and the Bilodeau case was referred to the Supreme Court of Canada.
I am reminding you of these events because they mark the beginning of a professional journey ever focused on understanding and promoting official language minority communities, whether as a professor, a researcher, an administrator, or even as a public servant.
Research is one of the tools that we have to inform language policy. During the eighties and nineties, I had the privilege to be involved in numerous research projects, individually and collectively, with colleagues from across the country. We investigated various aspects of ethnolinguistic vitality, bilingualism, language learning, and other topics. The result is the existence of a rich and robust evidence base to guide language policy development.
During this time, beyond academic conferences, I was asked to give countless talks on language-related topics to community groups, parent groups, and stakeholder groups. Parents were seeking assurances about the language of instruction and its impact on student success—francophone and French immersion parents alike.
The courts have also relied on research findings and expert witness testimony to arrive at their decision.
I am currently the Chair of the Canadian Institute for Research on Linguistic Minorities, which also works in collaboration with the Quebec English-Speaking Communities Research Network, or QUESCREN.
My role as a senior public servant responsible for French-language education in two provinces, located in anglophone departments, was more often than not to provide an understanding of the realities and aspirations of the francophone community to colleagues, deputy ministers, and ministers. The expectation of the community was that you would defend and promote those policy initiatives that advanced French-language education. Also, in both instances I was given the responsibility for programs in French as a second language.
The francophone university in Ontario is one example of a community project that has come from my group. I was asked to lead the first group of experts tasked to define the best way to meet the needs of post-secondary education in the south and south-west regions of the province. Today, a bill was introduced in the Ontario legislature.
As rector of the Université de Moncton, I headed a wide consultation process with the members of the francophone and Acadian university communities with the purpose of developing the university's first strategic plan. During my mandate, the university adopted its first plan, increased its research funding, established the position of complaints commissioner, and modernized its governance and transparency mechanisms.
The Université de Moncton is a vital player in the francophonie in Canada and abroad. Almost 20% of our student body comes from abroad. The institution is developing so that it can better respond to the aspirations of Acadia and the francophonie.
One of the trends changing the face of minority-language communities in Canada is the arrival of international students and French-speaking immigrants from Africa, the Maghreb, and other French-speaking countries. International students have contributed to enriched student life on campus and in the community.
Immigration is one of the keys to the continued vitality of minority-language communities, but our communities have to be open and willing to embrace newcomers who speak French but who do not necessarily share the same patrimoine. This trend brings together the themes of diversity and linguistic duality. How do we manage such change? Are communities prepared to accommodate?
Where are we in terms of the intent of the Official Languages Act?
The English-speaking minority in Quebec and the French-speaking communities outside Quebec are different, but an amalgam of factors, such as social demographics, immigration, early childhood and technology, will have an impact on how they will develop or how they will become brittle. There has certainly been progress in education, in health, and in the law, for example, but the evolving social context places the issue of linguistic duality at the heart of the Canadian federation, where it has always been. The issue is not settled, hence the importance of restating that linguistic duality is a federal government priority.
We are now at a defining crossroads. We are waiting for the next action plan for official languages and the Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations are currently being modernized. The Mendelsohn-Borbey working group on the language of work in the federal government shows that difficulties in using French as a language of work still exist.
Finally, the last report of the Interim Commissioner of Official Languages was very eloquent in the economy of its recommendations. There was actually only one:
As the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act approaches, the Interim Commissioner of Official Languages recommends that the Prime Minister, the President of the Treasury Board, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada assess the relevance of updating the Act, with a view to establishing a clear position in 2019.
In English we have a term: “speaking truth to power”. I fully intend to speak truth to power, because when you believe in something, it means taking a risk. It means standing up for something, and that is the role of the commissioner. I say humbly that I do believe I have what it takes to carry out the work of commissioner. My depth of knowledge of the issues and the challenges related to linguistic duality speak in part to why I am the right person to take on the role of commissioner and tackle those challenges within the mandate of the office. I have also demonstrated my leadership qualities in a number of organizations—academic, government, and community.
If you do me the honour of entrusting this responsibility to me, I will continue the commitment of commissioners who have gone before to defend, protect and promote linguistic duality as a fundamental value of Canadian society.
Thank you for the time you have given me; I will be pleased to answer your questions.
I think that it is important to realize that, in Canada, we have a collection of official language minority communities that are different from each other. The English-speaking community in Quebec faces a number of challenges that are unique to them. I think that it is important to recognize that, at the moment, the linguistic minority in Quebec faces major challenges in accessing services, especially in the regions outside Montreal.
Recently, I had a conversation with one of my colleagues from Bishop's University, Michael Goldbloom. He told me that, at the moment, the retention rate in Quebec has stabilized but, once again, in the regions, they are seeing a lack of services in early childhood, for example. They are also seeing that, in a number of regions, the anglophone community in Quebec is facing socioeconomic challenges: the number of students in the schools is going down, the bilingualism rate among young people is going up, and it is more and more common in Quebec. The key to success at the moment is to discover how to serve the regions outside Montreal, such as the Eastern Townships, Quebec City or Trois-Rivières.
In that respect, the role of the commissioner is limited, because a lot of the situations are the result of provincial involvement. For example, a lot of amalgamation is happening in medical services, social services, hospitals and so on. Traditionally, those were places where English-speaking leadership in Quebec was developed. Those institutions are becoming fewer and fewer. So how can we go about ensuring leadership for the future?
Moreover, you probably recall an organization called Alliance Québec at one time. Alliance Québec no longer exists. Now there is the Quebec Community Groups Network, whose current president, Mr. Shea, is one of my former colleagues at Canadian Parents for French.
We must remember that the role of commissioner, in Quebec as elsewhere, is to defend the interests of linguistic minorities at all times and on an equal basis. Clearly, that must be a priority for the commissioner.
The other part of your question dealt with bilingualism in the West and in Ontario, for example. Our Canadian education system is how we are going to increase the country's bilingualism rate. You know that it was Canadian innovation, so to speak, that created what we call immersion. Immersion is wildly successful everywhere, to the point that we have a shortage of teachers all across Canada. Immersion is recognized as the best way to teach French as a second language.
There are also other challenges in post-secondary education. It is all very well to be able to provide primary and secondary education in French, but people also have to have access to university, college, and other programs in French. They vary from province to province. In British Columbia, there is a French department at Simon Fraser University. In Edmonton, the University of Alberta has the Campus Saint-Jean. In Saskatchewan, the University of Regina has the Cité universitaire francophone, and Manitoba has the Université de Saint-Boniface. There are about 14 institutions outside Quebec. So it is a challenge.
I also feel that it would be good to develop an online platform that could be accessed by all Canadians who want to learn French or English as a second language. I know that the government is thinking of doing so and I encourage it to take action. An online platform like that would allow people to go through the training at their own speed.
Training is really the answer to the question you are asking. The same goes for the public service. Language training must be increased in order to make sure that people can work in French.
Bilingualism is the result of education. In Canada, the number of bilingual Canadians has levelled off, especially in two provinces, Quebec and, more particularly, New Brunswick. So we have our work cut out for us.
However, Canadians are crazy for immersion. So we have to find enough teachers in order to be able to meet that demand. In British Columbia, parents are getting up at 4 o'clock in the morning in order to stand in line to be able to register their children in schools that offer immersion programs.
It is important to remember that, at the time, we wanted to negotiate an amendment to section 23 of the Manitoba Act. We wanted to change the translation of the 1890s legislation to enshrine French-language services in it.
The important thing for communities is to have access to services and to be able to create francophone spaces.
When you launch a lawsuit, it all depends on the case. The Bilodeau case dealt with the translation of the regulations of an act. If that case was won in the Supreme Court, the result would be the translation of the regulations. I therefore learned that, before going to court, it is important to understand the case and assess whether you will obtain the answer you are looking for.
A decision of the B.C. Supreme Court is a recent example. This victory could be described as mixed, because some money has been given to the school, but the fact remains that the French-language school system is not equivalent to the English-language school system.
The danger is choosing a case that does not fit the needs. That said, at the time, it was the best tool we had. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was very recent and section 23 of the Manitoba Act was there. Since the 1980s, language rights have been before the courts. Many cases that went to the Supreme Court helped to clarify the impact of section 23 of the Manitoba Act on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or the impact on section 16.
It is very important to clarify what the charter or certain pieces of legislation mean. I learned that, if you want to take the legal route, you really have to clarify the objectives you are seeking.
Welcome, Mr. Théberge. I am pleased to see you here today. I know that you are not officially our Commissioner of Official Languages and that you are not in that position yet. My questions are not intended to trick you before you become familiar with the files or before you have experienced the reality of the new duties, if they are entrusted to you.
I looked at your career and your curriculum vitae. You have certainly accumulated tremendous experience and you have a lot of arrows in your quiver, having lived and worked with minorities, be it in Manitoba or Ontario. You have a lot of experience in education and you studied in Quebec at an anglophone university. So you are familiar with the dual reality of minorities, anglophones in Quebec and francophones outside Quebec. Clearly, I dare say that you have reached the pinnacle of your wonderful experiences in the last five years at the Université de Moncton, in New Brunswick. I will refrain from saying too much about it so that I'm not called pretentious, which I am not.
In all seriousness, Mr. Théberge, you said a few words that touched me right off the bat. You said that the position of Commissioner of Official Languages is key in promoting minority rights in majority communities. I will not give you a law test, but let me take you back to subsection 16(3) of the Constitution Act, 1982, which says:
Nothing in this Charter limits the authority of Parliament or a legislature to advance the equality of status or use of English and French.
If you officially became Commissioner of Official Languages, how would you see your role, in light of subsection 16(3), which says that the charter does not limit the authority to advance the equality of status or use of English or French?
I think the ideal is clearly the equality of status of English and French in Canada. The reality is that we are far from it.
In my opinion, an officer of Parliament position is created because significant value is seen in it. In this case, it is linguistic duality. That's important, and it has always been part of the Canadian federation. However, the status of French and the status of English are clearly not the same. French is the majority language in Quebec, but it is a minority language in North America. English is a minority language in Quebec, but the majority language in North America. In the provinces outside Quebec, French is very much in the minority.
So we have an extremely long way to go in terms of equality of languages. We have some tools to achieve this. We have the Official Languages Act of course, but it is not enough. We also have the action plan on official languages, but that is not enough. So we need concerted action. As I mentioned, we have the act and the action plan. The act itself is not bad. If it were implemented as it is supposed to be, it would perhaps help us come a little closer to the equality of French and English.
For instance, if we look at parts IV, V and VII of the act, we see significant shortcomings and gaps. If we want to advance toward this ideal of equality of French and English in Canada, we must have the tools to do so.
I would like to give you an opportunity to criticize the government, if I may.
I will start with a digression.
Our official languages committee is working extremely well right now. We all do a very good job here, no matter what party we represent. You said earlier that you read our last report. We will present another one next week.
Despite some reluctance from each of our parties, I can assure you that our committee is independent. The minister said that the committees are independent; I can guarantee you that ours is. We even go against some things.
In interviews, which have gone down in history, the minister said that before, governments were working in isolation, but the current government is taking a whole-of-government approach.
Now, the departments are sending the ball back and saying that it's not their fault, it's the other's fault and things like that. I don't think there is a perfect approach, whether it's vertical or horizontal, but we have to make sure that all the departments fulfill their official languages responsibilities, which is not currently the case.