Evidence of meeting #84 for Official Languages in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was théberge.

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Raymond Théberge  Nominee for the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, As an Individual

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Alupa Clarke

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.

3:30 p.m.

Raymond Théberge Nominee for the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, As an Individual

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.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Alupa Clarke

Thank you for your presentation, Mr. Théberge.

We will now start a round of questions.

At the outset, Mr. Théberge, I would like to tell you that our objective really is to determine your competencies in terms of the role of Commissioner of Official Languages, your qualities and your knowledge of the legislation.

Before we proceed, I would like to mention that I have consulted the members of the committee and we are prepared to agree that, at the end of the question period, the Bloc québécois should be allowed to ask a question, for a minute or two. Do we still have unanimous consent to that effect?

3:40 p.m.

Some Hon. Members

Yes.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Alupa Clarke

That's great.

So let us begin with the first question, from Mrs. Kusie.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

Thank you, Mr. Vice-Chair.

Mr. Théberge, thank you for being here today and congratulations on your nomination.

Sadly, we are starting with me, the lady from Alberta,

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

René Arseneault Liberal Madawaska—Restigouche, NB

Happily.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

First, historically Official Languages has functioned to protect the French language. I don't think it's a surprise when I say that. How will you work to include anglophones as we strive to be a truly bilingual country? You've touched on the points I'm going to mention and the questions I'm going to ask, but that would be my first question, Monsieur Théberge.

3:40 p.m.

Nominee for the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, As an Individual

Raymond Théberge

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.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Alupa Clarke

You have 30 seconds left.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Similarly, you touched on this, but in your opinion, what is the relevance of our two official languages in what has evolved into our multilingual society? You mentioned this in your opening remarks. Could you expand on it, please, in your opinion?

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Alupa Clarke

A quick answer, please.

3:45 p.m.

Nominee for the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, As an Individual

Raymond Théberge

Okay.

The diversity that we are seeing in Canada now is one of the fundamental changes, especially because of immigration. Linguistic duality has always been part of our federation. Of course, we had two languages, French and English, even before confederation existed.

Today, though, linguistic duality is seen in a multicultural framework, which is a situation we have been seeking for a long time. However, multiculturalism is no longer defined as it was in the past. Today, we talk about diversity and inclusion. Communities have to be supported so that they can come to terms with this new reality and be in a better position to receive immigrants.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Alupa Clarke

Thank you, Mr. Théberge.

We now move to Mr. Vandal.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Dan Vandal Liberal Saint Boniface—Saint Vital, MB

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Mr. Théberge, from one Franco-Manitoban to another, it is a pleasure for me to welcome you. Welcome to Ottawa. We are not in the House of Commons, but we are very close.

You have worked very hard for Canada's francophonie, in Manitoba, in Ontario and in Acadia. However, I would first like to talk about your experience in Manitoba, specifically as assistant deputy minister in the Bureau d'éducation française, the BEF. As you know, the BEF is very important for Franco-Manitobans. There has been a lot of talk about it in the media recently.

Could you describe the role you took on and the way you went about representing the interests of Franco-Manitobans in the government of that time?

3:50 p.m.

Nominee for the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, As an Individual

Raymond Théberge

Thank you for the question.

First, I feel that it is important to give you some details about the selection process for the assistant deputy minister in Manitoba. The selection committee includes members of the community. That means that the selection of the assistant deputy minister is not solely reserved for public servants or government representatives. Community members play a role also.

As I said earlier, during my presentation, when we work in an English-speaking environment, our role is very often to make other people understand the reality of francophones in a minority situation. You have to repeat it a lot, but it takes time before our colleagues get it. In a lot of cases, we had to revise a policy or proposed policy from a francophone point of view. I always made the deputy minister or the minister aware of the impact that a policy could have on the francophone community.

I also had a specific mandate, which was to develop a funding formula for French-language education. The idea of the formula was to ensure the sustainability of the Division scolaire franco-manitobaine, the only French-language school board in Manitoba. It covers the entire province. We had to develop a funding formula to meet its needs. In that context, there were a lot of discussions involving the DSFM and the community. Each time there was a new program, we had to ensure that it met the needs of the Franco-Manitoban community.

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Dan Vandal Liberal Saint Boniface—Saint Vital, MB

Thank you.

One of your former colleagues at the BEF described your sensitivity to the linguistic experience of minorities. In 1985, you became the director of research at Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface, which is now the Université de Saint-Boniface. You said that the language crisis in Manitoba was a turning point for Franco-Manitobans. You lived in our community. In Manitoba, the fight for language rights and linguistic duality is still on today.

Could you describe the lessons that you learned from this historic event in Manitoba and that you can apply to the work you are going to do?

3:50 p.m.

Nominee for the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, As an Individual

Raymond Théberge

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.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Alupa Clarke

Thank you, Mr. Vandal.

We will now go to the NDP. Ms. Quach, go ahead.

3:55 p.m.

NDP

Anne Minh-Thu Quach NDP Salaberry—Suroît, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Good afternoon, Mr. Théberge. Congratulations on your nomination.

Let me go back to section 49 of the Official Languages Act, which provides that “the Governor in Council shall... appoint a Commissioner of Official Languages for Canada after consultation with the leader of every recognized party”.

What do you understand by the word “consultation”? In your opinion, does that just mean information, or seeking the consent of the leader of each party?

3:55 p.m.

Nominee for the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, As an Individual

Raymond Théberge

I do not feel I'm in the best position to answer a question about consultation.

On my end, I have followed a process developed by someone else. I'm aware of all the discussions about the consultation but I don't think I am in the best position to talk about it.

3:55 p.m.

NDP

Anne Minh-Thu Quach NDP Salaberry—Suroît, QC

Okay, but if you had to consult, would you simply provide information to people or would you be interested in getting their opinion?

December 5th, 2017 / 3:55 p.m.

Nominee for the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, As an Individual

Raymond Théberge

If I am chosen as Commissioner of Official Languages, when I consult people from the communities, I will listen to them.

However, I have no comments about the specific issue you just mentioned.

3:55 p.m.

NDP

Anne Minh-Thu Quach NDP Salaberry—Suroît, QC

That's fine. I completely understand.

You talked about the issue of anglophones at the Office of the Commissioner. I do not know whether you are aware that the only bilingual anglophone who is a director at the Office of the Commissioner will be retiring. Have you thought about a strategy or a way to replace him?

3:55 p.m.

Nominee for the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, As an Individual

Raymond Théberge

You are telling me something that I did not know. Since I am not the Commissioner of Official Languages yet, I am not necessarily informed of what is happening in the office.

However, one thing is clear: the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages must be representative of the communities it serves. One person may not be enough.

I would like to go back to what I said earlier. The commissioner's role is to protect all official language minority communities, and it is important that he be equipped to do so.