Notes for an address to the Group of Heads of Francophone Diplomatic Missions
Ottawa, Ontario, April 27, 2018
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Beginning of dialog
Your Excellency the Ambassador of Belgium, Ambassadors, High Commissioners, Chargés d’affaires and distinguished guests, good afternoon!
I’d like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg people, an Indigenous people of the Ottawa Valley. For thousands of years, the Algonquin people lived, hunted, traded and travelled here.
I’d also like to thank Ambassador Delcorde of Belgium for inviting me to address the Group of Heads of Francophone Diplomatic Missions.
And now to business! French philosopher Blaise Pascal once said, “Eloquence is a painting of thoughts.” I’ll now try to paint an honest picture of my background and give you a clear vision of my mandate as Commissioner of Official Languages.
I come from Sainte-Anne-Des-Chênes, which was a very small village in Manitoba. When I lived there, the village’s population was 100% French-Canadian, and yet there was no French school for me to go to.
My parents and many others fought for this right, and my brothers had the opportunity to be educated in their mother tongue. At home, linguistic duality, bilingualism and the future of our community were all part of our daily family discussions.
Talking about official languages and fighting for our rights made me the man I am today. I was therefore honoured and proud to be appointed Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages last January.
I’ve spent my life studying and defending linguistic duality. Some might say that it’s a lifelong battle, but I consider it to be my lifelong passion.
I believe that linguistic duality is a powerful symbol of openness, empathy and respect.
Getting back to how I got to this point in my life, I spent a large part of my career teaching, doing research and being university administrator at institutions such as the Université de Saint-Boniface and the Centre d’études franco-canadiennes de l’Ouest in Winnipeg. I was also director general of the Société franco-manitobaine, which advocates on behalf of the French-speaking community in Manitoba.
In 2004, I was appointed assistant deputy minister of the Bureau de l’éducation française in Manitoba’s Department of Education, Citizenship and Youth. And from 2005 to 2009, I was executive director of the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada. From there, I moved to Ontario’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities as the assistant deputy minister.
In June 2012, I became the ninth president and vice-chancellor of the Université de Moncton in New Brunswick, the largest French-language university outside Quebec.
My current job as an agent of Parliament is to promote official languages and protect the language rights of Canadians. To do this, I will travel back and forth across Canada to engage in public debates and speak to young Canadians, researchers, public servants, community leaders and important stakeholders like you.
I’d like to talk for a moment about Canada’s important role in the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF).
Canada is aware of how important the French language and culture are within its borders and it is committed to promoting its Francophone community on the world stage. The Francophonie is a gateway to the world and provides opportunities for international influence.
The fact that Canada has four seats in the OIF is significant. It helps to raise awareness of our country’s linguistic duality and to stand out on the international stage, especially in terms of language and culture, economy, new technologies and international cooperation.
I firmly believe that Canada will continue to be a vital part of the enormous success of the world’s French-speaking countries and their institutions.
At this point, I’d like to talk about how important it is to build on solid foundations and to continue the work of my predecessors. That’s why I’ll be travelling to Pristina in May to attend the fifth annual conference of the International Association of Language Commissioners (IALC).
Canada is playing a key role in political and economic development in Kosovo, and IALC’s vision is fully aligned with Canada’s efforts to achieve reconciliation among ethnic groups and to promote values like cultural diversity and inclusiveness.
For almost a century, the world has looked to Canada as a leader in linguistic duality.
During the interwar period, the bilingualism of Canadian diplomats and their advocacy for minority rights earned them the respect and admiration of their fellow League of Nations members. As then Minister of Justice and Canadian diplomat Ernest Lapointe said, “To unite and build a great nation, the world must know that two languages, English and French, are spoken here, and these languages are a source of pride for anyone.”
I see Canada as a large and welcoming home. For our ancestors and our newcomers, Canada was and is a new home. And because linguistic duality lies at the heart of the Canadian value of inclusiveness, it has helped show that diversity and difference are not weaknesses, but strengths on which we must build.
Now, let’s take a brief look at the mandate of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.
We have achieved many milestones since the Official Languages Act was passed in 1969. English and French are fundamental elements of Canadian identity. In fact, I like to say that official languages are part of Canadians’ DNA because linguistic duality has always been part of our history.
Throughout its history, Canada has adopted policies and enacted legislation such as the Official Languages Act to better protect and promote official languages for the benefit of all Canadians—from coast to coast.
As I begin my fourth month as Commissioner, I’ve been taking a closer look at my office’s raison d’être.
As the Commissioner of Official Languages, I ensure that official language minority communities both survive and thrive, just as I also ensure compliance with the Act, which will turn 50 in 2019.
My actions and those of my office focus mainly on providing encouragement and guidance to federal institutions so that they fully meet their responsibilities in complying with the Act.
Despite all our efforts, there’s still room for improvement. After all, Canada has changed a lot over the past 50 years—demographically, socially and technologically.
We’re therefore currently focusing on the modernization of the Act by consulting with both the general public and official language communities.
In 2019, the Act will be looking toward the future, and it’s clear that that future belongs to our youth. The last major overhaul of the Act took place long before the Internet, social media and the birth of today’s younger generation, the famous millennials. More than ever, young people are demanding respect for Canada’s linguistic duality.
They imagine a country where it will be normal to live in English and French; they believe that the federal government needs to lead the way in making this idea a reality; and they have a genuine desire to learn about each other’s cultures. The tide has turned, and Canada needs to continue to be a leader and a beacon of progress in terms of linguistic duality and support for official language communities.
I’ll leave you on that note and thank you for your attention. If you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer them.