Archived - Notes for an appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages
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Ottawa, March 30, 2010
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Beginning of dialog
Honourable members, members of the Standing Committee on Official Languages, Mr. Chairman, good day.
I am accompanied today by Sylvain Giguère, Assistant Commissioner, Policy and Communications, Johane Tremblay, General Counsel, and Ghislaine Charlebois, Assistant Commissioner, Compliance Assurance.
I am pleased to meet with you today to discuss the linguistic aspects of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
Over the past three years, I have given considerable attention to the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. My staff has maintained regular contact with the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC), as well as with the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games Federal Secretariat, which is part of Canadian Heritage. I first raised my concerns the first time I appeared before you as Commissioner, in November 2006. I published a report on the Games in December 2008 and a follow-up report in September 2009. In addition to visitor and athlete services, the issue of French television broadcasting of the Games received my full attention until the final hour.
The Games are now over. It is time to take stock and draw lessons for the future.
In the coming weeks, my staff will be completing an analysis of the complaints lodged by some 40 citizens, almost all in relation to the opening ceremony. As usual, we are contacting these individuals and the institutions concerned—in this case, mainly Canadian Heritage. Everyone will be informed as the process unfolds and when a final determination is made.
At the same time, the various federal institutions that provided services at the Games will be sending me a report on their activities between now and July 1. Based on these reports and on our own analysis, we will produce an overall performance assessment of VANOC and the institutions. This document will also include my proposals on how best to reflect linguistic duality in the organization of other large-scale events in Canada as well as international events that project the image of the country.
I had the opportunity to spend a week at the Games in order to observe the work that had been done on site. This allowed me to meet with other concerned observers, including the Grand témoin of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, Pascal Couchepin. Also present at the Games were two employees from my office, who were able to observe first-hand how VANOC and federal institutions complied with their language obligations.
My testimony today is based on what I have seen while in Vancouver. Admittedly, they are first impressions of the most visible aspects of bilingualism at the Games, pending a more in-depth analysis.
I would first like to share an observation that could be made by all Canadians who watched the Games on television. I was deeply impressed by the number of our young athletes who could comfortably express themselves in both official languages. Alexandre Bilodeau, Maëlle Ricker, Joannie Rochette, Jennifer Heil, Roberto Luongo, Jonathan Toews, Charles Hamelin, Kristina Groves, Clara Hughes, Jasey-Jay Anderson, Sidney Crosby and countless others charmed their audiences with their desire to excel, their personalities and their bilingualism. The fact that their number is growing from one Olympic Games to another is a powerful message on young people’s commitment to their country and on their openness to the world.
I would also like to emphasize just how much the activities organized for the public by Francophone communities contributed to the festive atmosphere that prevailed at the Games. In Vancouver, as in Maillardville, thousands of people were able to discover the country’s Francophone culture. In fact, the Place de la francophonie received enthusiastic praise from the Vancouver Sun, which awarded it a gold medal for its dynamic programming.
French was visible—and audible—in various ways at Olympic venues and in the streets. VANOC’s bilingual signage was, on the whole, consistent. The athletes’ biographies were available in both languages, as planned.
To continue with a more personal perspective, let me say that I was able to register in French; when I arrived at the Thunderbird Arena, I was greeted with an active offer in both languages at security, and when I asked at the door to the Arena where I should go with the pass I had, I was greeted with “I don’t speak French—Jenny, you speak French.” The volunteer turned to a colleague who sorted out my problem and escorted me to the correct section. It was a model of how people should be served in both languages.
In several of the areas that we identified as problematic in our reports—translation, signage, directions, availability of athlete statements and translation of documents—it can be said that the Vancouver Games were a success.
I appreciate all the work that your committee, the Fondation canadienne pour le dialogue des cultures, the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne (FCFA) du Canada, Minister James Moore and government officials did in this regard.
You may recall that when I first appeared before you, in November 2006, I raised the concern that the Games might not be available for French-speaking Canadians outside Quebec. You picked up on this concern. Thanks to the intervention of Konrad von Finckenstein and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the efforts of the consortium and public-spirited action by the cable companies, the Olympic Games were not only well-covered in both languages, but were also available in French on CPAC across the country.
I congratulate all those involved in ensuring that Canadians from coast to coast had access to the Games in both languages. Unfortunately, many Canadians felt that the opening ceremony did not reflect the country’s linguistic duality.
As we are now investigating these complaints, I will not comment on the opening ceremony today. However, it is unfortunate that a shadow has been cast on the significant achievements that we have seen.
I hope that we will be able to contribute to a reflection on how Canada presents itself to the world in terms of its linguistic duality.
However, my employees on site noticed that the French version of the official souvenir program for the Games was virtually nowhere to be found, except on the website. This was a missed opportunity, not only for VANOC, but for Canada as well, since the program was a promotional tool that could have reached a worldwide audience.
As for service, we often came across VANOC volunteers who were able to provide information in both languages, even though they were sometimes hard to find and their dispersion across the various sites seemed random, at times. Instead of trying to locate a bilingual individual, unilingual volunteers had a tendency to sometimes resort to enthusiastic hand gestures. This was cute, but not always effective.
A number of federal institutions, such as Canada Post, put their on-site infrastructure to good use by setting up oversized displays in both languages. Some sponsors such as Coca-Cola and The Bay provided signage and service in both languages.
Needless to say, Olympic protocol was properly applied: it seems announcers at the venues used French and English systematically, both during competitions and at medal ceremonies.
Before the Games, I expressed some concerns about the services provided by the various federal institutions in Vancouver during the Games. The personal observations I was able to make in this regard are relatively limited. I would therefore like to reserve my comments for the final report, at which time I will have more information in hand. Nevertheless, I can say that considerable efforts were made to increase the number of bilingual employees and volunteers on site, particularly for services provided at the Vancouver International Airport.
Assuming that federal institutions provided bilingual service of greater quality than usual, I think it is worth reiterating that the language obligations in effect during the Olympic Games are, in fact, the same as those that apply the rest of the time. What must be avoided is what some consider a return to “business as usual,” which, in the case of western Canada, is approximate bilingualism and an almost total lack of active offer. Guaranteeing Canadian taxpayers bilingual services that comply with the Official Languages Act in that part of the country requires leadership from the heads of a broad range of institutions, an increased commitment by the Treasury Board and, of course, the watchfulness of parliamentarians.
I will therefore continue to closely monitor the status of federal services in the Vancouver region and, by extension, western Canada. In the coming year, I also intend to focus on the rights of the travelling public. It is important that the obligations of airport authorities be clarified.
It is also important that the minister adopts a bill to clarify the language obligations of the new entities (such as Jazz) created by Air Canada as part of the new corporate structure. Such a bill should not only protect the language rights of the travelling public, but also ensure that Air Canada employees maintain their right to work in the official language of their choice within the new entities in the Air Canada family.
Thank you for your time. My colleagues and I will be happy to answer any questions you might have.