Archived - Notes for an appearance before the Senate Standing Committee on Official Languages about volume II of the 2009–2010 annual report and other topics
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Ottawa, October 24, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Thank you, Madam Chair. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, honourable senators and members of the Senate Standing Committee on Official Languages.
I would like to thank you for inviting me to speak about volume II of my 2009–2010 annual report, my 2010–2011 annual report, the audit of service delivery in English and French to Air Canada passengers, and social media.
I am accompanied today by Assistant Commissioners Lise Cloutier and Ghislaine Charlebois, Director of Legal Affairs and General Counsel Johane Tremblay, and Director of Communications Robin Cantin.
2009–2010 annual report, volume II
The second volume of my 2009–2010 annual report, that I tabled in November 2010, examined federal institutions’ compliance with the Official Languages Act. It analyzed the performance of 16 federal institutions and provided an overall account of the complaints received by my office. Federal institutions’ 2009–2010 ratings were generally disappointing.
The report concluded that:
- too many Canadians still could not get services from the federal government in the official language of their choice;
- federal employees could not always work in the official language of their choice; and
- official language communities were not receiving the support they needed.
What was being asked of federal institutions was realistic, and it still is.
2010–2011 annual report
My 2010–2011 annual report, entitled Leadership, Action, Results, that I tabled in Parliament last Tuesday, was published in one volume.
I have tabled this report within the context of federal government expenditure review. 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 and Operating Review.
This financial restructuring could have repercussions on the real and perceived ability of institutions to fulfill their official languages obligations. I am not saying that official languages are being targeted specifically, but there is a risk that they will be affected. The government must consider the potential consequences for official language communities. 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
Part VII of the Official Languages Act includes federal institutions’ obligation to support English-speaking communities in Quebec and French-speaking communities in the rest of Canada, and to promote linguistic duality in Canadian society.
This part of the Act is one of the primary tools for fostering Canada’s linguistic duality, and the Government of Canada still has not made it clear that full and proactive compliance with the Act is a priority.
The Government of Canada still has not affirmed, loudly and clearly, that full and proactive compliance with the Act is a priority.
The federal 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 make this kind of decision without consulting or evaluating the potential impact on official language communities is a disturbing sign, especially at a time when federal institutions are preparing for budget cuts.
It is important to keep in mind that Canada is stronger, both economically and socially, when linguistic majorities and minorities support each other and contribute to the advancement of Canadian society.
The federal government has still not renewed its Roadmap for Canada’s Linguistic Duality, which expires in 2013.
Strong leadership on the part of the federal government would enable federal institutions to better understand their obligations under the Act.
Although Canadian Heritage has developed a very useful guide to help institutions fulfill their Part VII responsibilities, 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.
Given that federal institutions are all interpreting their Part VII obligations differently, I believe the time has come for the government 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.
My 2010-2011 annual report also presents an analysis of selected federal institutions’ compliance with the Official Languages Act. This year, we evaluated institutions that provide significant funds to Canadians and volunteer organizations.
In general, the 13 federal institutions evaluated this year achieved fairly satisfactory results. However, the active offer of service in person remains problematic for several of these institutions.
With respect to Part VII, several institutions obtained good results. Generally, institutions that succeeded were open to dialogue with minority communities and took the necessary measures to understand their needs. More often than not, those who underperformed did not plan, execute or understand their obligations adequately.
Complaints and audits
In 2010–2011, my office received 1,116 complaints, of which 981 were considered admissible.
Three federal institutions were subject to an audit this year: Environment Canada, Service Canada and National Defence. These institutions seemed determined to act on my office’s findings, and I have confidence in the commitment shown by their senior managers and employees. We will follow up as appropriate to ensure that this is, in fact, the case.
Fulfilling official languages obligations requires leadership from senior management, including a knowledge and understanding of the Official Languages Act and a willingness to plan and coordinate programs and services, and follow up on them in an effective 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.
Audit of service delivery in English and French to Air Canada passengers
The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages conducted an audit of Air Canada from April 2010 to January 2011 to evaluate services provided in both official languages on board flights on designated bilingual routes.
The audit also examined services provided in airports where Air Canada has language obligations and the services provided by Air Canada call centres.
The audit revealed that Air Canada has a structure in place to manage the various parts of the Official Languages Act and that it has appointed an official languages champion. It has an official languages policy and action plan that must be updated, as they do not take into account all the components of Part IV of the Act. It also has a number of means at its disposal for communicating language obligations to its personnel.
In light of these findings, I have made 12 recommendations to help Air Canada improve its service delivery to passengers in both official languages.
I am satisfied with the measures and timeframes proposed in Air Canada’s action plan for 11 out of the 12 recommendations. The action plan is provided in Appendix C of the audit. However, I am only partially satisfied with Air Canada’s response to Recommendation 11, despite the fact that the recommendation had been slightly modified to address Air Canada’s concerns.
I maintain that full implementation of all recommendations is necessary for Air Canada to be able to meet its obligations under the Act in terms of communications with and delivery of bilingual services to the public.
I am pleased to see that the Committee is looking into the important issue of social media. Federal institutions’ use of social media for internal and external communications brings new official languages challenges, particularly because of the instantaneous nature of these tools. Your work will be very useful in finding solutions to these new challenges.
My office has been exploring these issues for some time, and we are currently working on developing certain principles. We believe that the Official Languages Act was adopted at a time when the legislator could not have foreseen all the changes brought about by the rise of so many new technologies. Despite the challenges associated with advanced technologies, the interpretative principles of the Act must continue to guide us in adopting an approach. One of the most important principles is clearly the substantive equality of the two official languages.
Federal institutions that have already integrated linguistic duality as a value will know how to adapt their practices to the Web 2.0 universe: for example, by using two versions of the same social media, such as a Twitter or Facebook account in English, and another one in French.
Regarding the regulatory framework, I encourage you to consult the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, which is working on developing guidelines for federal institutions in their use of social media in the workplace and in communications with the public.
One final word. Like other Agents of Parliament, I am not obliged to meet the Government’s Deficit Reduction Action Plan.
However, like my colleagues, I have agreed to respect the spirit and intent of the review. I have proposed to discuss our plans with the Parliamentary Panel on the Funding and Oversight of Officers of Parliament, which was established so that Parliamentarians could review the financial proposals of Agents of Parliament in a way that would protect their independence.
However, the Panel has not yet been reconstituted, and I am concerned that its mandate as a pilot project is scheduled to expire in November. I hope I can count on your support for the idea that this mechanism should become permanent.
Thank you for your attention. I would now like to take the remaining time to answer any questions you may have.