Thank you, Mr. Chair.
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.