Archived - Speaking notes for an appearance before the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages
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Ottawa, Ontario, November 25, 2013
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Beginning of dialog
Good afternoon, honourable senators. I am particularly pleased to be here before the Committee today to share a few of my thoughts on my 2012–2013 annual report, which I tabled in Parliament on November 7.
But first, I would like to recognize the newly elected Chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages, Senator Claudette Tardif. With your background as one of this country’s foremost advocates and defenders of official language minority community rights, Madam Chair, I am confident that your knowledge and experience will guide the Committee steadily in its deliberations during this current session of Parliament.
Honourable senators, this past February, Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked me to stay on as Commissioner of Official Languages for an additional three years. I was honoured to accept.
Over the course of my first mandate as Commissioner, one of the questions that I have often received is the most general and difficult one: how are we doing in terms of official bilingualism? The answer is often unsatisfying—it depends.
My seventh and latest annual report will attempt to explain that answer in some detail. The report was conceived as a summary of my seven years as Commissioner of Official Languages. Even though my mandate has been extended for another three years, I feel this has been a useful exercise to examine the progress—or lack of progress—made during these past seven years.
As I begin my second term, I can look back on the successful outcomes that have resulted from our investigations and proactive interventions. Seven years ago, my investigation into complaints by official language minority communities following the abolition of the Court Challenges Program of Canada—and my subsequent seeking of intervener status before the Federal Court—showed the government had not respected its obligations under Part VII of the Official Languages Act. Mobilization by these communities resulted in an out-of-court settlement that established the Language Rights Support Program.
Last year, my investigation into the appointment of a unilingual auditor general added credence to a private member’s bill that was passed unanimously by Parliament and now requires all agents of Parliament to be bilingual at the moment of their appointment.
In addition, my office’s collaborative work with federal institutions and the organizing committee of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games led to a very successful event presented in both official languages—with the unfortunate exception of the cultural component of the opening ceremonies.
The invaluable lessons learned from this experience resulted in the production of a practical guide to promoting official languages for any organization hosting a major sporting event in Canada. This past summer, Canada Games organizers in Sherbrooke used the guide and were clearly successful in promoting both official languages during this national event—proof we have made great strides.
I can also point to our investigation into the decision to move the Québec City Marine Rescue Sub-Centre to Trenton and Halifax, which led to the postponement of the move until emergency services on the St. Lawrence could be guaranteed in French.
As well, when CBC/Radio-Canada’s decision to eliminate virtually all local programming at French-language radio station CBEF in Windsor generated 876 complaints in 2009–2010, I asked the Federal Court whether I have the jurisdiction to investigate such complaints. This was confirmed by the Court in a preliminary decision.
There have also been a few outcomes during my tenure that I would characterize as conspicuous failures. For example, the government failed to see the importance of having bilingual Supreme Court judges. I have given my support to Bill C-232, which sought to amend the Supreme Court of Canada Act, as I firmly believe that any litigant appearing before the Supreme Court should have the right to be heard and understood by all the judges in either official language without the aid of an interpreter.
This year, my office completed a study on the bilingual capacity of the superior court judiciary, which I presented at the Canadian Bar Association’s legal conference in August. This marked the first time I worked on a joint project with my provincial counterparts in New Brunswick and Ontario. The impact of this study and its recommendations are crucial for Canadians who will use the court system. This is why we are urging the Minister of Justice to act quickly on the recommendations in the study, in close collaboration with his provincial and territorial counterparts as well as with the chief justices of the superior courts.
Since I first came aboard in 2006, there have been some pleasant surprises. I have found that there is much less resistance to the Official Languages Act inside federal institutions than I had expected. But from time to time, there are incidents that indicate that officials simply don’t understand what it means to have two official languages with equal status.
Last month, there was an incident on the Hill that, I must admit, I found completely unacceptable. A briefing for parliamentarians on Bill C‑4, the omnibus bill, was made available only in English. An MP complained, officials objected and another MP complained that he didn’t understand the conversation. The briefing was delayed for a day.
Frankly, I thought that unilingual briefings had gone the way of typewriters and that “French to follow” was a thing of the past. I thought that Parliament’s unanimous decision to ensure that agents of Parliament were bilingual was recognition that Canadians, not to mention parliamentarians, have an absolute right to equal quality of service in the official language of their choice.
The fact that a Member of Parliament even had to ask for a briefing in French in 2013—55 years after simultaneous interpretation was introduced into the House of Commons and 50 years after the launch of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism—is deeply disappointing.
Despite these embarrassing lapses, most federal institutions—and most public servants—want to do the right thing. Sometimes, they simply have trouble getting the tools they need and developing the reflexes to use them. To do our part, my office developed on-line tools for federal institutions and employees, including:
- a self-assessment tool for managers to evaluate whether their behaviour supports the use of both languages in the workplace; and, more recently,
- a tool to develop effective language training practices.
There have also been some disappointments. The complaints I have received, coupled with the findings of our various studies and audits, tell me that much remains to be done in order to meet the obligations and the spirit of the Act fully. When federal employees provide services to Canadians, active offer is still the exception, not the rule. It also remains difficult for air travellers to be served in the official language of their choice in Canadian airports. Too often, people have to ask. And too often, when they do, they face incomprehension or delays.
In the public sector, it is quite common for leaders to say a few words in French and then continue, uninterrupted, in English—as if the use of French at a public event were merely a symbolic gesture rather than the natural expression of a Canadian language. Even here in Ottawa, I get the feeling that speakers, even if they are bilingual, are hesitant to speak French in public.
As well, federal institutions have been uncertain about how to take positive measures for the growth and development of official language minority communities, as required by the 2005 amendment to the Official Languages Act.
Five years ago, the government issued its Roadmap for Linguistic Duality, which expired this year and was replaced with the Roadmap for Canada’s Official Languages, which runs through to 2018. During this time, we have experienced a period of financial instability, heavy federal investment in infrastructure projects, the Strategic and Operating Review and the Deficit Reduction Action Plan.
Generally speaking, official languages have not been targeted, but there has been collateral damage and unintended consequences for official languages stemming from closures and cutbacks. The result has been a subtle erosion of bilingualism through:
- the transfer of federal offices from bilingual to unilingual regions;
- the reduction of language skill levels required for bilingual positions;
- the pressure on public servants to produce documents in English only; and
- the regular failure to offer a sufficient number of training programs in French.
We also see the posting of senior management positions where both official languages are described as an asset rather than a requirement—or described as a requirement and then not considered as such.
The consequence of all this is a quiet undermining of the use of both languages in the workplace, and of the ability to offer services in English and French.
My work over the past seven years has shown me how much leadership matters in federal institutions.
As Commissioner, I will continue to stress the importance of second-language learning, whether in our universities or in the public service, and I will continue to position the use of both official languages as a key leadership competency.
What lies ahead in the field of official languages? What challenges will need to be addressed over the next three years of my mandate?
Immigration and the demographic change it brings are critical issues for minority-language communities and for the country.
Social media will continue to transform the way that government deals with citizens. Essentially, the public’s expectation for an immediate response in either official language is greater than ever. Social media represent both significant challenges and tremendous opportunities in terms of language policy.
We know the Pan American Games will take place in Toronto in the summer of 2015, as well as a series of major anniversary events leading up to the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017. This is an opportunity for renewed engagement and leadership from the federal government. Throughout the planning stages and delivery of these events, it will be critical to respect the needs of both official language communities.