Canada's Original Think Tank

Committee of the Whole — Commissioner of Official Languages

Committee of the Whole — Commissioner of Official Languages

Committee of the Whole — Commissioner of Official Languages

Senator Serge Joyal: 

Welcome, Mr. Théberge. I have a soft spot for the Université de Moncton. You may have seen in the archives of the university that I can practically claim the Université de Moncton as my alma mater. However, that is not what I want to talk to you about today. Rather, I want to talk about the direction you would like to take and the beliefs that you would like to express in your capacity as Official Languages Commissioner.

As I am sure you know, 10 days ago, an editorial in Acadie Nouvelle questioned whether you truly have the drive to take up the responsibilities associated with the Commissioner of Official Languages position. It also questioned your general management approach, which is more that of a mediator than of a tough negotiator. In my view, those comments in Acadie Nouvelle on November 24, require that you tell us about what is fair or unfair in this characterization of your management style and that you convince us that you have the will and the ability to perform these duties.

Mr. Raymond Théberge: Using a mediation approach is quite useful for moving files forward. We can try to be aggressive, but after a while no one listens any more. The important thing is to work with the current stakeholders, whether they are parliamentarians, members of committees, or representatives in community organizations.

The Université de Moncton went through some tough times these past five years — which was mentioned in the editorial by the way — and we came through it. We handled the situation. It all comes down to handling the situation.

In my opinion, the best way to proceed is to be firm, of course, but also to take an approach that allows us to move the file forward collectively. We are living in a time of compromise. Conciliation can lead to progress. Mr. Fraser himself said that repeatedly taking an aggressive approach does not produce very satisfying results. The important thing is to advance the files. Style is one thing, but results are more important. The Université de Moncton is stronger now than it was five years ago.

Senator Joyal: You are presenting linguistic equality in Canada as a value added. I have to tell you that linguistic equality in Canada is a right. I am a francophone from a majority community in Quebec, but I am a minority in Canada. The only protection I enjoy is the Official Languages Act, which was passed in 1969, more than 48 years ago — it is no longer a novelty — and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, sections 16 to 23, adopted nearly 35 years ago.

We are talking about rights, and when we talk about rights, we talk about respect. When we talk about respect, we must, as you say, mediate, educate and try to come to some sort of compromise. However, at some point, on principle, the Commissioner of Official Languages is required to use Part X of the act. You no doubt have it before you. Part X deals with court remedy. Subsection 78(1) reads as follows:

The Commissioner may

(a). . . apply to the Court for a remedy . . .

There are cases where mediation will work, but there are also situations where the rights in question are not being respected and you have an obligation to go to court. In my opinion, that is what the editorial in Acadie nouvelle seemed to be getting at, that perhaps you do not have the necessary resolve to see things through to the end when it comes to applying the principle.

Your current role is very different from that of a chancellor or the head of a research institute. You are an investigator and a prosecutor. You are a prosecutor. The fundamental role that Parliament is entrusting to you is that of prosecutor in cases where the federal or provincial administration does not respect the rights guaranteed under the Constitution and the Official Languages Act. How can you assure us today that you have the necessary resolve and that you understand the responsibilities of the job as set out in the well-defined parameters of the law?

Mr. Théberge: I can assure you that I am prepared to take on the duties and responsibilities of the job as defined by the act. There are a number of measures set out in the act. The important thing is to ensure that we choose the right measure at the right time. I can assure you that, if legal action needs to be taken, I will see to it that it is. That is the commissioner’s role. I said at the beginning that the commissioner is a watchdog. I will speak truth to power. I will advance the official languages agenda.

Senator Joyal: I do not doubt your good intentions. What I’m trying to understand is how you define your understanding of your legal responsibilities, which are constitutional responsibilities under the charter, and quasi-constitutional responsibilities under the Official Languages Act. You are very familiar with how the courts have interpreted the Official Languages Act and the charter. This is about rights. This is not about trying to convince someone you are right and helping them think their way to the right conclusion. This is about the rights of minority language communities. By definition, they are vulnerable to the decisions and priorities of the majority, which may not support the vitality of minority communities. That is essentially what we’re talking about.

That is why the act confers these powers upon you. You actually have the power to obtain a court order. As I’m sure you remember, you did so in Bilodeau, and the Manitoba association intervened in Bilodeau in 1986 or 1987, nearly 32 years ago now. We need to know what your understanding of that is so we can be sure when we leave this room that you have the skills, the tools, the means, the conviction, and the drive to take on those who do not respect minority rights in Canada 50 years on. That is what this is about.

Mr. Théberge: I fully and completely agree with everything you just said. The commissioner’s role is indeed to enforce the Official Languages Act. I can assure you that I will do my utmost to enforce the Official Languages Act. Appropriate measures under the act will be taken against those who fail to comply with it.

Senator Joyal: I wanted to share with you the definition of the federal regulations for the criteria used to determine the number of people required to justify the federal government’s obligation to provide services in French. In my humble opinion, the criteria are discriminatory. You probably read the reports of the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages and the comments made by Senator Chaput, who had proposed amendments to the Official Languages Act on this matter. Can you tell us where you stand on reforming this criterion, which, in my opinion, is completely discriminatory?

Mr. Théberge: I believe that the current criterion does not reflect the reality facing francophones, first of all. When calculating first language learned, we see that a huge number of potential francophones are missing. As a result, perhaps we need to consider other criteria rather than operating on demographics alone, perhaps criteria that are much more qualitative in terms of what’s currently in place and what kinds of institutions exist in a given region. You are quite right; this calculation was done a long time ago, and the time has come not only to crunch those numbers again, but also to come up with a new approach to determine where the needs justify services being provided. This is about more than just numbers; there is a qualitative aspect in terms of institutions that is extremely important to helping these communities progress.