Archived - Notes for an appearance before the Senate Standing Committee on Official Languages – Presentation of the 2009–2010 annual report
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Ottawa, May 31, 2010
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, honourable senators, and members of the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages.
To present the findings of volume I of my fourth annual report, I am accompanied today by Sylvain Giguère, Assistant Commissioner of Policy and Communications; Ghislaine Charlebois, Assistant Commissioner of Compliance Assurance; Johane Tremblay, General Counsel; and Lise Cloutier, Assistant Commissioner of Corporate Services.
You will notice that volume I of the annual report does not include the federal institution report cards or any data on complaints. This information will be featured in volume II of my annual report, which will be published next fall.
Volume I of the annual report deals with three separate issues that must be considered as a whole. If the government were to neglect any one of them, setbacks would occur in the other areas. It would be a good idea to keep this in mind as departments and agencies are taking a very close look at their budgets.
If universities are not preparing their students adequately, the government and the private sector will have trouble hiring the bilingual employees they need. If managers and supervisors do not encourage their employees to use the official language of their choice, bilingual services to the public will suffer and the development of official language communities will be affected. If the leaders of federal institutions do not live up to their responsibilities arising from the changes made to official languages governance, the government's performance in this area will quickly deteriorate. Everything is interrelated.
The bilingual workplace is still a long way off
The language of work in federal institutions is important.Footnote 1
Since 1988, federal government employees in certain Canadian regions have been entitled to work in English or in French, depending on their preference. However, only 67% of Francophones report that they feel comfortable using French in meetings, and the same proportion of Anglophones say they have access to all of their professional development training in English.Footnote 2
The language of work situation is undeniably complex. There is no one solution to these problems, but I present a number of paths to explore in my report. Although strong leadership from the government’s senior management is necessary, supervisors and managers also have a role to play in their daily interactions with employees. A respectful relationship between co-workers is key to a successful bilingual workplace.
In many cases, maintaining a unilingual work culture hinders the public service’s efforts to offer quality bilingual services to the public. A bilingual work environment offers both language communities the opportunity to fully contribute, in their first official language, to the development and implementation of policies and programs that serve all Canadians.
Forty percent of the jobs in the federal public service require bilingualism. The private sector also has significant bilingual and multilingual labour needs.
As Canada's largest employer, the federal government must work with the universities and provincial governments so that students across Canada have access to better second-language learning opportunities. Providing better learning opportunities to students will improve the performance of future Canadian workers. But to accomplish this, planning, coordination and strong government leadership are vital.
Decentralization: Off to a bad start
Successful implementation of the Official Languages Act also relies on the application of the principles of sound governance.
Processes that may seem purely bureaucratic often have an impact on the daily lives of people living thousands of kilometres away from decision-making centres. This is why one chapter of my report addresses the recent changes to the way that the federal government’s central agencies fulfill their language responsibilities.
Combined with the elimination of the Canada Public Service Agency and its official languages unit, the recent reduction in the Treasury Board Secretariat's Centre of Excellence for Official Languages workforce has led to a considerable loss of expertise for federal institutions attempting to improve their official languages performance.Footnote 3
Although it is too early to assess the final impact these changes will have on how the federal government fulfills its obligations, I think it’s a shame that these changes were adopted without consulting, for example, those responsible for official languages in the federal departments and agencies. It’s not a good start for an initiative that is fundamentally risky.
In this context, senior management must demonstrate vision. If these managers act without any clear plan to ensure results, we can expect setbacks.
The delegation of responsibilities must not lead to laxity. The government must demonstrate how this new approach will pave the way for a more effective implementation of the Act and improve the vitality of official language communities.
Moreover, leaders of these communities expressed their concerns on the delays in implementing the Roadmap for Canada's Linguistic Duality 2008–2013.Footnote 4 Serious delays in signing the agreements between federal institutions and community organizations are also a source of concern. Working to strengthen the vitality of official language communities, the heads of some of these agencies have gone so far as to use their own credit card to pay for their agency’s expenses while waiting for government funding. When the funding needed by these organizations to provide essential services is not received until very late in the year, the entire community pays the price.Footnote 5
Linguistic duality: A fundamental value for the Supreme Court of Canada
Despite concerns caused by delays in the implementation of its commitments to official language communities, I was nonetheless pleased to note that, in the most recent Speech from the Throne, the government committed to keeping the Roadmap intact.
On the same occasion, the government proclaimed that "Canada's two official languages are an integral part of our history and position us uniquely in the world." To my mind, this statement means that English and French are not only part of our past but of our future as well.
To sustain this vision, the government must act with foresight. It must carefully assess the decisions that could affect Canada’s linguistic duality. The decision-making process must be transparent.
Language policies are sometimes a topic of debate. These debates remind us of the fundamental values that are the foundation of Canadian language policy.
Following discussions in the House of Commons, a bill addressing the bilingualism of Supreme Court judges is now before you in the Senate – and at the heart of the debate. My position is clear: Judges of the highest court in the land must be sufficiently fluent in both official languages in order to hear appeals without needing interpretation. Bilingualism is a fundamental skill for Supreme Court judges—it’s a matter of justice and equality.
This debate clearly shows the relevance of the topics dealt with in my report. Universities must prepare future legal experts to work in a justice system where citizens have the right to be heard in the official language of their choice. Moreover, in order to work effectively and derive maximum benefit from everyone's expertise, judges must be able to discuss cases with each other in the official language of their choice.
In fact, this debate may be thought of in terms of the privilege of legal practitioners who aspire to sit as a judge of the highest court in the land, or in terms of the right of citizens to be understood by the highest court in the land in the official language of their choice. In examining this issue and its obligations under the Official Languages Act, the government must remember the spirit of the Act and the values that it enshrines. I am available to discuss the issue in greater detail should you so wish.
The 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games perfectly illustrated the challenge that the government must meet to fully implement the Official Languages Act. By approaching the Act as a set of rules, we can put all the administrative details into place, but we risk forgetting what is really important. Thus, in Vancouver, many services were offered in French as well as English; the opening ceremony, however, drew much criticism and generated numerous complaints. These complaints are now being investigated. Fortunately, our athletes themselves, through their inspiring bilingualism, reminded us that linguistic duality is a value to be cherished.
Thank you for your attention. I would now like to take the remaining time to answer any questions you may have.
- Footnote 1
The language of work is discussed in chapter 3 and recommendation 4.
- Footnote 2
This data comes from the table on page 32 of the report.
- Footnote 3
The report describes these changes on pages 22 to 26.
- Footnote 4
Implementation of the Roadmap is discussed on page 13 of the report.
- Footnote 5
The delays are discussed on pages 9 to 12 of the Report. Also see recommendation 2.