Official Languages: A Modernized Regulation that Meets Expectations

There was some great news yesterday afternoon: after months of consultations, Ministers Mélanie Joly and Scott Brison unveiled their plans to amend the Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations.

The Regulations are an important official languages document: they specify where and how the federal government provides services to the public. They spell out what “significant demand” means – in other words, who can request services in the minority language.

The last revision of the Regulations dates back to 1991, and Canada has changed a lot in nearly three decades. This modernization is certainly welcome. In fact, it seems as if legislatures have been swept up in a wave of renewal: Alberta has adopted a French Policy; Prince Edward Island has modified its French Language Services Act; and modernization of the federal Official Languages Act and Ontario’s French Language Services Act (FLSA) is on the horizon. I’ll come back to this point later…

The new method of calculating significant demand in the Regulations is more inclusive and allows more Canadians to receive services; previously, a large portion of the population was excluded. Significant demand will grow, and so too will the number of government offices that will have to serve people in the language of their choice.

In my first annual report, I put forward an important principle that should be part of all new and revised laws concerning languages: the Inclusive Definition. In my second annual report, after the Ontario government adopted the new definition, I wrote that I hoped the new definition would spread to other provinces and to the federal government. My wish has been granted.

I’m delighted that the definition is now entrenched in the new Regulations, and that Ontario was able to play a leading role, however minor, in this change.

However, this exercise is more than a mathematical calculation: the vitality of the official language minority communities (OLMCs) must be taken into account when the government studies where services are to be provided in both official languages. In my annual report on the revision of the FLSA, I made precisely that point: any new method of calculating significant demand absolutely must include an assessment of the communities’ vitality. I highlighted that the number of minority-language schools is an important indicator of that vitality.

So I’m happy to see that under the new Regulations, OLMCs’ vitality will also be considered in the planning of services. Elementary and secondary schools will be important vitality indicators and will have an impact on the calculation of demand.

It’s also noteworthy that the Regulations now include the obligation to consult. Since my appointment as Commissioner, I’ve emphasized the importance for the government to consult the public each time they implemented a new policy or program. The decisions made by government bodies affect the public first and foremost, and members of the public should certainly have the right to voice their opinions on those decisions, especially when they deal with fundamental rights like language.

At the beginning of this blog post, I listed all the jurisdictions that have taken a step forward on official languages. Language rights fall within the purview of both the provincial legislatures and the federal Parliament, and all levels of government have a duty to advance them in their respective areas of jurisdiction.

In the case of Canada and Ontario, however, that step has only been announced, not taken.

The two governments recently promised to begin modernizing their respective legislation. So this is the perfect time to be innovative and work toward harmonizing the federal Official Languages Act and the FLSA. In areas such as the inclusive enumeration of potential users of services, intergovernmental co-operation on service delivery, and even the framing of transfer agreements, the governments can make sure that the two laws are consistent and complementary, for the sake of Ontarians.

Ultimately, harmonization of these laws could help to avoid interjurisdictional disputes and reduce the flaws in the public system.

The new Regulations echo a number of the points I have raised over the course of my term as Commissioner. Their adoption confirms the relevance and validity of my recommendations, one of which was the pressing need to modernize the FLSA, sooner rather than later.

So I congratulate Ministers Joly and Brison on producing modernized Regulations that reflect official language minority communities current realities, but also that support the crystallization of their legitimate aspirations.

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