Commissioner of Official Languages urges federal institutions to always respect their language obligations during crisis situations
Publication of the report A Matter of Respect and Safety: The Impact of Emergency Situations on Official Languages
For immediate release
Gatineau, Quebec, October 29, 2020 – During an emergency, Canadians rely on government authorities to provide them with the information and guidance they need to protect their health and safety and that of their families. The health crisis triggered by the COVID‑19 pandemic, like a number of other past crises, has exposed many shortcomings in terms of bilingualism in emergency situations.
In response to linguistic missteps in recent years—for example, unilingual labelling, press conferences in only one language, and English-only emergency alerts—Commissioner of Official Languages Raymond Théberge examined the issue and has presented his findings in his report, A Matter of Respect and Safety: The Impact of Emergency Situations on Official Languages. The report provides an overview of what people have experienced during emergencies over the past decade. It highlights the crucial importance of communicating with Canadians in their first official language during an emergency in order to inform them, reassure them and give them instructions that they can understand and carry out.
In his report, the Commissioner raises the alarm and urges federal institutions to take the necessary steps to ensure that communications to the public are drafted simultaneously in English and French in emergency situations, and that they review their existing emergency preparedness plans to ensure that both official languages are taken fully into account.
During emergencies, official languages need to stop being an afterthought and start being an integral part of crisis management. When Canadians can’t understand the instructions and information federal institutions are giving to them in times of crisis, their fundamental right to safety is at stake. To help better protect the public, federal institutions need to change their practices to ensure that they communicate with Canadians in both official languages during crisis situations.
- According to Statistics Canada’s 2016 Census, 26,007,500 Canadians speak English as their first official language, while 7,705,755 speak French as their first official language.
- More than 2,000 people completed a questionnaire on official languages in emergencies that was posted on the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages’ website between June 8 and 26, 2020.
- Of the 2,228 questionnaire respondents:
- 36% were English speakers from Quebec;
- 29% were English speakers from outside Quebec;
- 26% were French speakers from outside Quebec;
- 9% were French speakers from Quebec;
- 17% said they had had difficulties accessing public health or safety information in the official language of their choice in past emergencies; and
- 24% reported similar difficulties during the current COVID‑19 pandemic.
- The main issues identified as being problematic (because of the use of only one official language) included labelling on cleaning products, press conferences, government communications, emergency alert messages and service delivery by first responders.