Archived - Statement to the media for the launch of the 2011–2012 annual report
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Ottawa, October 16, 2012
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 2011–2012 annual report. This is my sixth annual report.
Despite the fact that the Official Languages Act is now into its fifth decade, Canada’s linguistic duality too often remains “incognito.” When everything runs smoothly, bilingual services go unnoticed—they are just a part of normal, everyday life. Only in their absence do they attract attention. Failure is obvious, success is invisible.
As Commissioner of Official Languages, my role is often twofold—sometimes I have to be encouraging, and sometimes I have to stir things up a bit. In this report, I focus on being pragmatic and encouraging. Often, I have to point out failures; this year, I want to emphasize successes. I make some recommendations, particularly regarding actions that need to be taken now to prepare for Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017. I also present the findings of our observations on how English- and French-speaking visitors are greeted in the National Capital Region. Given last year’s media controversy, it appears to be a matter of public interest, as much today as at the time of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. I describe actions that businesses have taken to promote linguistic duality—and talk about the resulting benefits—and I discuss the results of several important investigations conducted by my office.
Promoting second-language learning
Since the passing of the Official Languages Act, the Government of Canada has promoted English and French second-language learning through various initiatives, including educational initiatives at the pre-university level. However, the proportion of bilingual Canadians remains low and, in some regions, the availability of programs in the second official language cannot keep up with the demand. It is important for the federal government to support young people who want to improve their knowledge of English or French. This is why I recommend that the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages work together with provincial and territorial governments as well as post-secondary institutions to increase the number of programs in which students can take courses in their second official language.
The federal government also needs to increase funding for language exchange programs, where demand far outweighs supply. Giving young Canadians more opportunities to experience life in a community where the other official language is spoken is an excellent way to help Canada celebrate its shared heritage in 2017. In the report, I recommend that the Prime Minister take the necessary measures to double the number of young Canadians who participate each year in language exchanges at the high-school and post-secondary levels.
Ottawa: A truly Canadian symbol
In August 2011, the fact that my office was planning to conduct observations on the visitor’s experience in Ottawa made the headlines. These observations—which are analyzed in Chapter 2—have proven to be more positive and, I hope, more instructive than many had assumed.
The bilingualism of businesses in tourist areas is Ottawa’s best kept secret. Our observations showed that, while there is substantial bilingual capacity for visitors to Canada’s capital, it is often invisible. Few employees of these businesses used the “Hello, bonjour” bilingual greeting to show customers that they are proud to provide service in both official languages. Employees of federal institutions, for whom bilingual greetings are a legal obligation, are doing better. As the federal government prepares for the celebrations of Canada’s 150th anniversary, it is important to ensure that both official languages are visible and audible in the capital.
Official languages: Good for business
The federal government is not alone in wanting to provide services in both official languages. Along with provincial, territorial and municipal governments, private businesses are well aware of the advantages of communicating with Canadians in two or more languages. In Chapter 3 of my annual report, I focus on some businesses that have chosen to incorporate the principles of linguistic duality into their management models. For example, Rogers Communications and Mountain Equipment Co-op both offer services in Canada’s two official languages.
Although they are not subject to the Official Languages Act, businesses operating in Canada benefit from doing business effectively in both official languages and are more competitive when they use both English and French in their approaches with clients. This is why it is important for the Government of Canada to continue to support Canadian businesses and international businesses located in Canada that foster linguistic duality. I therefore recommend that the Minister of Industry create a support mechanism to encourage Canadian businesses to develop their capacity to operate and provide services in both official languages.
Federal institutions and linguistic duality
The autumn of 2011 brought more controversy over the high-profile appointments of two unilingual Canadians—one to the Supreme Court of Canada and the other to the position of Auditor General of Canada. These appointments had a substantial impact on public opinion throughout Canada.
The controversy surrounding the appointments has shown that both English- and French-speaking Canadians have greater expectations. The bar has been raised. Canadians expect senior officials across the country to be bilingual.
Unfortunately, these setbacks have obscured a number of successes for bilingualism as far as public officials are concerned. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Clerk of the Privy Council all come from Canada and all speak both official languages. It seems that the critics were wrong 40 years ago when they predicted that the Official Languages Act would prevent many people from western Canada from entering the public service. And, for the first time ever, a majority of provincial premiers are bilingual. For these Canadians, bilingualism has led to a better understanding of their country and enhanced their leadership abilities. For others, the ability to learn another language has opened the door to an international career.
Complaints and results of our meetings with various federal institutions
My office investigated federal institutions against which complaints had been filed during the 2011–2012 fiscal year. Some institutions reacted positively and took advantage of the opportunity to make changes. For example, the Canadian Army corrected many shortcomings regarding the balance of English and French content on its websites. Now, ensuring the equality of English and French has become a higher priority for Canadian Army websites. The Passport Canada office in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, was the subject of a complaint regarding the lack of service in French. Under the Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations, this office is not required to serve the public in both official languages. However, Passport Canada capitalized on the fact that its St. John’s office had bilingual employees, and went beyond its obligations by officially designating the office as bilingual in order to better serve the more than 2,000 Franco-Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.
Our investigations revealed an important truth: that many of our federal institutions have an ongoing commitment to official bilingualism. This positive engagement deserves special mention. I also encourage federal institutions to be more proactive, rather than wait for complaints before improving French-language service delivery in their respective organizations.
Half a century after the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, the linguistic challenges are very different. Now, more than ever before, newcomers to Canada are already committed to linguistic duality, and French-speaking immigrants are settling all across the country. Hundreds of thousands of English-speaking students are doing their elementary and high-school studies in French, and a much higher proportion of Quebec’s English-speaking communities are now bilingual, as compared with their French-speaking counterparts.
At a time when language issues are re-emerging on the Canadian political landscape, it is especially important to remember that the future of Canada’s linguistic duality depends on our ability to foster a unified linguistic environment where English and French both have a place in every region of the country.
Before I finish, I would like to add one more thing. Even though I am focusing on successes this year, we have to remember that success can be fleeting. If we are not steadfast in continuing to protect and promote language rights, the situation can degenerate rapidly.
We have already received a series of complaints regarding budget cuts. Some organizations have chosen to centralize services outside of regions designated as bilingual for language-of-work purposes. We have heard from public servants who are worried about losing their right to work in the official language of their choice. Other public servants are afraid to exercise their right to work in their preferred language because they don’t want to be singled out in attrition exercises. At a time when linguistic debates are in the news again, it is extremely important that the government upholds its commitment towards linguistic duality.
The 2011–2012 annual report is available on the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages’ website. I encourage everyone to join the on-line discussion through our Facebook page and our Twitter feed.
Thank you for your attention. I would now like to take the remaining time to answer any questions you may have.