The role of the Commissioner of Official Languages was established by the Official Languages Act (1969), and the first Commissioner was appointed in 1970. Each Commissioner is appointed by Parliament for a term not exceeding seven years. If the Commissioner’s term is renewed, it cannot be for more than another seven years. Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages ensures that the Official Languages Act is followed within the federal government and the Parliament of Canada. The Commissioner also ensures that both of Canada’s official languages, English and French, are recognized as having equal status in accordance with Canada’s language policy. The Commissioner reports directly to Parliament and oversees the administration of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.
The Commissioner of Official Languages is an ombudsperson, which means that they act independently and are responsible for defending citizens’ language rights. This role gives the Commissioner the authority to receive, review and investigate complaints regarding non-compliance with the Official Languages Act. The results of these investigations may be shared directly with the person who filed the complaint and the institution implicated in the complaint; the results may also be mentioned in special reports to Parliament.
The Commissioner acts as an inspector of the Canadian government’s language practices, conducting periodic reviews of government activities when it comes to the application of language rights. The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages has regional offices, which allow the Commissioner to be a liaison between public bodies, government institutions and the different linguistic communities in Canada. The Commissioner systematically monitors the creation of Canadian laws that affect language rights, educating the public, championing linguistic duality and promoting bilingualism. The Commissioner is also the primary intervener in legal cases concerning the use of English and French in Canada.
Lastly, the Commissioner has a reporting role, and makes recommendations to the Parliament of Canada in an annual report usually based on studies carried out by the Office.
History of Canada’s Language Commissioners
Keith Spicer (1970–77)
A scholar, public servant, journalist and writer (born 6 March 1934 in Toronto, ON), Keith Spicer taught at the University of Ottawa (1961–66). He was a researcher for the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1964 and then served as special assistant to the Minister of Justice and President of the Privy Council Office (1964–65). He returned to teaching at the University of Toronto (1966–69), and later served as Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages (1970–77). He was an editorial writer at The Globe and Mail and a journalist at The Vancouver Sun (1977–84). He worked as editor-in-chief of the Ottawa Citizen (1985–89) and then was the chairperson of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission from 1989 to 1996, except during a hiatus from 1990 to 1991, when he chaired the Citizen’s Forum on National Unity.
In 1970, Spicer ceremoniously became the first to assume the role of Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages. His aim was to create a role that would promote human dignity as well as balanced and equal opportunities for the languages of two of Canada’s founding peoples. He strove to make the Office known to the general public and to promote his mandate. He is recognized for creating the association Canadian Parents for French.
Maxwell Yalden (1977–84)
A public servant and diplomat (born 12 April 1930 in Toronto, ON; died 9 February 2015 in Ottawa, ON), Maxwell Yalden joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in 1956. He was the Assistant Under-Secretary of State (1969–73) and Deputy Minister of Communications (1973–77). He was Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages from 1977 to 1984. He later served as the Canadian ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg (1984–87), chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission (1987–96), and a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee (1996–2004).
During Yalden’s mandate as Commissioner of Official Languages, regional offices were created in Moncton, Winnipeg, Montréal, Sudbury and Edmonton. Facing some public resistance over the Official Languages Act, Yalden made proposals that would bring it more in line with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982.
D’Iberville Fortier (1984–91)
A diplomat (born 5 February 1926 in Montréal, QC; died 22 April 2006 in Ottawa, ON), D’Iberville Fortier was the Canadian ambassador to Libya, Tunisia, Italy, Luxembourg and Belgium (1952–84). He was also Canada’s High Commissioner to Malta and Canada’s interim High Commissioner to Cambodia. He served as Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages from 1984 to 1991.
Fortier was the first Commissioner of Official Languages from Québec. He continued the work begun by his predecessor of updating the Official Languages Act. The culmination of his work was a new Official Languages Act adopted by the Parliament of Canada in 1988.
Victor Goldbloom (1991–99)
A pediatrician and politician (born 31 July 1923 in Montréal, QC; died 15 February 2016), Victor Goldbloom joined the board of directors of the Collège des Médecins du Québec (Québec College of Physicians) in 1962. He held various political roles in the Québec government, including Member of the National Assembly (1966–79), Minister of the Environment (1970–76), Minister of Municipal Affairs (1973–76), Minister responsible for the Olympics Installation Board (1975–76) and president of Québec’s Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (1987–90). He was Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages from 1991 to 1999, and then presided over the board of administration for the regional health and social services board in Montréal-Centre from 2002 to 2012.
Goldbloom carried out an extensive study to investigate the availability of services in both official languages within Canadian government offices that were officially designated bilingual. He began a second and equally far-reaching study to investigate the possibility of assigning the coordination of all of Canada’s linguistic policies to the Privy Council Office. In 2009, the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN) established the Sheila and Victor Goldbloom Distinguished Community Service Award. The annual award honours individuals who have had a positive impact on Quebec’s English-speaking community.
Dyane Adam (1999–2006)
A psychologist, teacher and university administrator (born 1953 in Casselman, ON), Dyane Adam taught at the University of Ottawa, Glendon College and Laurentian University. She was also the Assistant Vice-President for French Programs and Services at Laurentian University (1988–94) and the President of Glendon College (1994–99). She was Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages from 1999 to 2006. From 2008 to 2010, she was a mentor for the Trudeau Foundation and a member of the Conseil supérieur de l’éducation du Québec. She began as vice president of the Trudeau Foundation Society in 2011.
Adam was the first female and the first Franco-Ontarian Commissioner of Official Languages. During her mandate, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages made a distinct shift towards language activism. Dyane Adam severely criticized the government for its application of the Official Languages Act in the sectors of the armed forces, the Internet, elite sports, the aviation industry and immigration. The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages became more sensitive to Canada’s new linguistic plurality during this period. A particular emphasis was placed on reinforcing the status of minority language communities by using official language legislation. Three amendments were made into law in 2005 when the Act to amend the Official Languages Act was adopted. Federal institutions were required to ensure that positive measures were taken to promote English and French in Canada while respecting the provinces’ jurisdiction and powers.
Graham Fraser (2006–16)
A journalist and writer (born 1946 in Ottawa, ON), Graham Fraser was a reporter and columnist for the Toronto Star and also taught journalism at Carleton University. He has been Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages from 2006 to 2016. He is the author of several books in English and French as well as many articles for Maclean’s magazine and for The Globe and Mail, the Montreal Gazette and Le Devoir.
During Fraser’s mandate, an award of excellence was created for the promotion of linguistic duality in Canada. Also during his mandate, two important reinterpretations of the Official Languages Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms were made by the Supreme Court of Canada during the DesRochers (CALDECH) case and the Nguyen case. Both cases dealt with citizens’ rights to receive service of equal quality in both official languages. In a report made public in January 2016, Commissioner Fraser denounced the austerity budget policy led since 2011 by the Conservative government, because it had a dramatic impact on the reduction of services offered to minority official language communities.
Interim Commissioner Ghislaine Saikaley (2016-2018)
A career public servant with a background in criminology, Ghislaine Saikaley (born 1962 in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec), joined the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages in 2008. In December 2016, she was appointed as Interim Commissioner of Official Languages for a six-month period.
In May 2017, prime minister Justin Trudeau proposed Madeleine Meilleur, a Quebecer by birth, Franco-Ontarian by residence, and former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister, as the next Commissioner. This choice was criticized by many who saw the nomination as partisan. On 7 June 2017, Meilleur withdrew her candidacy before it could be approved by the House of Commons and the Senate. Saikaley's 6-month term as Interim Commissioner expired without a new commissioner in place. In June 2017, Saikaley's term was renewed for another six months.
Raymond Théberge (2018 – present)
A scholar and public servant, Raymond Théberge (born 1952, Sainte-Anne-des-Chênes, Manitoba) took office as Commissioner of Official Languages in January of 2018. A Franco-Manitoban, Théberge is the first from Western Canada to hold the position. He has a PhD in linguistics from McGill University, a master’s degree in applied linguistics from the University of Ottawa, and a bachelor’s degree in history from the Collège universitaire de Saint‑Boniface.
He has worked in many fields related to language and education and has published extensively on Canada’s official language minority communities. President and Vice-Chancellor of the Université de Moncton from June 2012 until his appointment as Commissioner, Théberge spent much of his career at the Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface (1985–1995 and 1997–2003), where he was director of the research centre, a professor in the faculty of education and then dean of education. From 2001 to 2007, he was an associate professor at Université Laval. He also served as assistant deputy minister at the Bureau de l’éducation française in Manitoba’s Department of Education, Citizenship and Youth (2004-2005), executive director of the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada (2005 to 2009), and then as Assistant Deputy Minister of the French Language, Aboriginal Learning and Research Division at Ontario’s Ministry of Education, and at Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.
Commissioner Théberge has identified three main priorities for his mandate. First, to hold federal institutions to account for their implementation of the Official Languages Act. Second, to provide leadership and guidance on the modernization of the Official Languages Act. Third, to ensure that the new Action Plan for Official Languages 2018–2023: Investing in Our Future achieves its expected outcomes.
Public Perception of the Commissioner
When the Canadian media comments on the actions of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, it is often to highlight the indifference towards the role and the difficulties faced in carrying out its duties. The anglophone press tends to view the Office as a guard dog for the French language, whereas the francophone press tends to view it as a covert agent of linguistic assimilation. Media in both linguistic communities sometimes agree that the Commissioner has roles that are both costly and unclear. The general public has a fairly vague understanding of the existence of the official actions of both the Commissioner and the Commissioner’s Office.