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Ottawa, August 10, 2011 - Language is a sensitive subject in this country and in this community, and I appreciate the measured tone with which Mark Sutcliffe and the editorial page have responded to news of my plan to learn about the visitor experience in Ottawa. However, I disagree with the argument that I have stepped outside my mandate. Here is why.

The Official Languages Act states that “the Government of Canada is committed to enhancing the bilingual character of the National Capital Region and to encouraging the business community, labour organizations and voluntary organizations in Canada to foster the recognition and use of English and French.”

It is my job to see how the government is living up to its commitments. How can it enhance the bilingual character of the National Capital Region if it doesn’t know what that character is?

Let me be very clear. We are not policing or regulating the private sector. We will not be naming, blaming or shaming business owners, or applying federal obligations to shopkeepers. We are seeking information about the visitor’s experience in Canada’s capital and hoping to find best practices in the private sector that we can learn from.

There have been other initiatives that my predecessors and I have taken that have started the process of change by finding out what the situation is before making any recommendations.

For example, shortly after I became commissioner, we began a process of finding out what opportunities exist for second-language learning in Canada’s post-secondary education institutions. This involved consultation, a survey, focus groups – and the production of a variety of tools for universities, colleges and prospective students. There were more courses and resources than I had expected, and we have been able to share the best practices adopted by different institutions. I have gone on to discuss these tools with universities and colleges across the country.

Similarly, at the same time – in fact, a year after my predecessor Dyane Adam had first raised the subject – we set out to discover what preparations were being made by the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. The reaction from the Vancouver media to the news that we were budgeting for this may sound familiar: it was none of my business, outside my mandate and a waste of money. But we evaluated the preparations, launched an awareness campaign among federal institutions, did a follow-up study, and published a final report – and the result was a huge success, highly praised by the Grand Témoin de la Francophonie, Pascal Couchepin.

It has now been four decades since the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism published a report on Ottawa, in which the commissioners observed “... a capital is a symbol of the country as a whole. It should express, in the best way possible, the value of the country as a whole, its way of life, its cultural richness and diversity, its social outlook, its aspirations for the future. …Citizens from across the country who visit their capital should find in it a fuller understanding of their country’s traditions and a pride in personal identification with it.”

Since then, Ottawa has made huge strides in achieving that ideal. And in some cases, the private sector has provided examples of best practices. Canada’s banks proudly advertise in both languages in Ottawa, adding to the sense of a bilingual public space.

My hope is that we will find other examples of best practices. But anecdotally, there are some shortcomings. When ministers responsible for Francophone affairs had a meeting in Ottawa several years ago, the hotel where they met was unable to offer a bilingual menu. When a major French-language national organization had its annual general meeting in another Ottawa hotel, the delegates were unable to register in French. I have often had the experience of being served by bilingual waiters who had to explain the unilingual English menu to French-speaking guests. Are these exceptions to the rule? Or is that the regular situation? I don’t know – and neither does anyone else.

Ten years ago, the federal government signed a $2.5 million agreement with the City of Ottawa to help the city – and local businesses – with translation, and continued to renew that agreement over the last decade. Was that effective? Are there better tools?

And so I ask again, how can the federal government meet its commitment to enhance the bilingual character of the National Capital Region if it does not know what that character is?

Ignorance is not, in fact, bliss. It is hard to improve if no one knows what the facts are. As we did with the Olympics and post-secondary institutions, I hope the facts we learn will help Ottawa do better in welcoming Canadians.



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