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 Claudette Tardif: 

Welcome to the Senate of Canada, Mr. Théberge.

When you appeared before the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages on November 6 as the Co-chair of the Consortium national de formation en santé and President and Vice-chancellor of the Université de Moncton, you said:

It is important to reposition the official languages file among political priorities. All the surveys show very strong support for bilingualism in Canada. . . . It is extremely important that the file return to its position on the national scene.

Could you tell us how you would go about that if your appointment is approved here this evening?

Mr. Raymond Théberge: First, as I mentioned in committee, according to the polls, over 80 per cent of Canadians support bilingualism, so it seems to me that there is a consensus on the place of bilingualism in our country.

As I mentioned in my introductory remarks, we get the impression the matter has been resolved, but it hasn’t. I feel that this issue is not getting the attention it deserves on the government policy agenda. In future, the commissioner will have to work with parliamentary committees, parliamentarians, and all of the community networks to advance the concept of linguistic duality as a value-added for Canadian identity.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the official languages file has not been the priority it once was in terms of government policy. The commissioner’s role is therefore to work with decision makers and convince them to put official languages back where they belong on the government policy agenda.

Senator Tardif: Thank you.

You talked about a modernized act, but I have a question for you before we talk about modernizing the act. You mentioned the recommendation issued by the interim commissioner, Ghislaine Saikaley. Her one and only recommendation to us was to modernize the act. Is that a priority for you? If so, which parts of the act do you feel deserve a closer look?

Mr. Théberge: Modernizing the Official Languages Act is certainly a priority. Some parts of the act are not well defined. For example, some aspects of Part VII relate to helping communities thrive and other positive measures, but that is not actually defined anywhere. It would be useful to consider drafting a regulation based on Part VII to better identify and define those terms.

Of course, we are also working with Part IV, but that work is already under way. In my opinion, however, Part VII is most important to the development of official language communities.

Senator Tardif: How can the government ensure respect for the principle of substantive equality as defined by the Supreme Court of Canada in DesRochers?

Mr. Théberge: I think a long-term effort will be required before equal status of both languages is truly achieved. That is the ideal, but we are still a long way away from that ideal. The goal is to continue working with parliamentarians and the committees to move forward on this file.

Senator Tardif: I would like to come back to the role of the commissioner.

You must understand that communities expect the Commissioner of Official Languages to act as a watchdog for official language minority communities. How do you see this role? Are you prepared to assume the role, knowing that you will at times have to investigate and criticize the government, including certain departments?

Mr. Théberge: It is important to understand that this officer of Parliament position was created for a reason. At some point, linguistic duality was established as a fundamental Canadian value. The role of the commissioner is therefore to defend this fundamental value. The commissioner plays several roles: ombudsman, auditor, educator, promoter, liaison, rapporteur. It is all of those things. At the end of the day, the commissioner must ensure that the Official Languages Act is respected.

I can assure you that I will fulfill that fundamental role entirely, specifically, ensuring compliance with the Official Languages Act.

Senator Tardif: Thank you.