Archived - Statement to the media for the launch of the 2010–2011 annual report
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Ottawa, October 18, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for coming to the presentation of my 2010–2011 annual report, titled Leadership, Action, Results. This is my fifth annual report.
Language issues can still be emotional and often divisive. We saw this with the Federal Court decision in Thibodeau v. Air Canada. There was also the outcry in the media following our call for tenders to make observations to evaluate the bilingualism situation in the capital.
I think this is a good thing. It is normal for linguistic duality to be at the heart of our social debates. It lets us define ourselves as a society and better serve the Canadian population. It is always useful to set the record straight on the application of the Official Languages Act.
With this new session of Parliament, one concern is front and centre in the public service: the strategic and operational review, also known as the Deficit Reduction Action Plan. Departments are being asked to find ways to reduce their expenditures by 5 or 10%, and some departments are making significant cuts outside of the strategic review.
The government’s financial restructuring could have repercussions on the ability of institutions to fulfill their official languages obligations. Organizations and volunteers whose work is to promote linguistic duality throughout Canada are also worried about possible repercussions. I share their concerns. I am not claiming that official languages are being targeted specifically—or that they should be exempted—but there is a risk that they will be unduly affected. The government must ensure the decisions that are made during each department’s budget review take into account potential consequences for official language communities. It must also limit the negative repercussions because, if each institution independently makes cuts to official languages programs, the cumulative effect will be much greater than 5 or 10%.
Part VII of the Official Languages Act
My annual report examines the support provided for the development of English-speaking communities in Quebec and French-speaking communities in the rest of Canada. Part VII of the Official Languages Act sets forth federal institutions’ obligation to support this development, as well as the promotion of linguistic duality in Canadian society.
This part of the Act is one of the primary tools for ensuring linguistic duality remains a value, a characteristic that strengthens our country’s unity, contributes to our economic, cultural and social development, and is partly responsible for our international reputation.
Five years after this part of the Act was strengthened, the Government of Canada still has not affirmed, loudly and clearly, that full and proactive compliance with the Act is a priority.
This omission is worrying. The government has adopted a narrow interpretation of its responsibilities under Part VII. For example, the decision to eliminate the mandatory long-form census questionnaire was made without taking into account its impact on official language communities. Last month, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) cancelled their official language minority community research initiative. The CIHR was the subject of a report card in this year’s annual report, and the initiative that has just been cancelled is what enabled them to achieve an A for Part VII.
For a federal institution to decide to abolish this kind of program without consulting or evaluating the potential impact on official language communities is a serious problem in terms of the Official Languages Act. It is a source of concern in itself, but it is also a troubling signal at a time when all federal institutions are preparing budget cuts. The impact on official language communities must be examined in every case.
Budget restructuring can also have other effects. For example, my office is currently examining two complaints following the federal government’s decision to close the Canadian Coast Guard search and rescue centres in Québec City and St. John’s, and to transfer them to the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Trenton and Halifax.
Canadians across the country are living different linguistic realities. But we all have shared concerns: economic development, access to health care, strengthening the school system, developing and promoting our culture, effectively integrating newcomers, and building bridges between official language communities and the majority communities.
Our society is based on the principles of linguistic duality and equality. Canada is stronger, both economically and socially, when linguistic majorities and minorities support each other and contribute to the advancement of Canadian society.
Fulfilling the obligations of Part VII helps consolidate Canadian identity: we must give both of our official languages the respect that they deserve. The ability to do business in more than one language is no longer just an asset. It is now a necessity for many Canadian companies. This makes investing in linguistic duality and the development of official language communities across the country a lever for Canada’s economic growth.
The federal government has an important role to play. However, it still has not announced his intentions on the renewal of the Roadmap for Canada’s Linguistic Duality, which expires in 2013. This key initiative is leading to tangible results for official language communities and the Canadian public.
There is no miracle solution or universal panacea to ensure that all federal institutions meet their obligations under the Act. Compliance with the Act requires new approaches and new ways of doing things. Federal institutions must take positive measures by undertaking concrete initiatives. I continue to believe that our government’s strong leadership has enabled federal institutions to better understand their obligations under the Act.
Part VII was amended as the result of a private member’s bill that demonstrated the will of parliamentarians, not necessarily that of the government. But it is the government that is responsible for applying it.
While Canadian Heritage, which is in charge of coordinating the implementation of Part VII, has produced a very useful guide to help institutions fulfill their responsibilities under this part of the Act, the fact remains that no central agency has the authority under the Act to develop policies or guidelines for promoting English and French. This is a significant shortcoming. Federal institutions are all interpreting their Part VII obligations differently, and I believe the time has come to amend the Official Languages Act to give the Treasury Board the legal authority to monitor the application of Part VII through policies and directives, and, if needed, regulations. This will greatly help federal institutions take a comprehensive approach to applying the Act, rather than a fragmented one. I await the government’s response in this regard. I should also reiterate that all federal institutions, without exception, have the duty to promote English and French by consulting official language communities.
My annual report also presents an analysis of selected federal institutions’ compliance with the Act. This year, we evaluated institutions that provide significant funds to Canadians and volunteer organizations. Canadian Heritage and the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat were evaluated in this capacity, not as institutions with specific responsibilities under the Official Languages Act.
In general, the 13 federal institutions evaluated this year achieved fairly satisfactory results in terms of the availability of service in both official languages. However, the active offer of service in person remains problematic for several of them. Of the institutions assessed, only Canadian Heritage received an A, or “exemplary” rating, and eight received a B, or “good”.
The efforts made by federal institutions to implement Part VII have been closely examined. While results are generally good, it is worth noting that few of them check whether the positive measures that they adopted actually had the desired effect on the targeted official language communities.
Complaints and audits
In order to ensure that federal institutions respect the language rights of the public and their employees, my office receives complaints and conducts investigations and audits.
In 2010–2011, we received 1,116 complaints, of which 981 were considered admissible. This has been the trend for many years.
Three federal institutions were subject to an audit this year: Environment Canada, Service Canada and National Defence. These institutions seem determined to act on my office’s findings, and I have confidence in the commitment shown by their senior managers and employees. They will be able to resolve their issues and strengthen linguistic duality in the long term. We will follow up as appropriate to ensure that this is in fact the case.
What is being asked of federal institutions is realistic. Fulfilling official languages obligations requires leadership from senior management, including a knowledge and understanding of the Act and a willingness to plan and coordinate programs and services, and follow up on them in an appropriate manner. Above all, they have to be ready to apply the Act. This is nothing new. It is simply a question of putting words into action.
The 2010–2011 annual report is available on the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages’ website.
Thank you for your attention. I would now like to take the time that is left to answer any questions you may have.