Archived - Notes for an appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages – Presentation of the 2011–2012 annual report
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Ottawa, October 25, 2012
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Mr. Chair, ladies and gentlemen, honourable members of the Standing Committee on Official Languages,
I would like to thank your committee for its interest in the activities of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. The relationship between Parliament and my office is of the utmost importance.
To present the findings of my 2011–2012 annual report, I am accompanied today by Lise Cloutier, Assistant Commissioner of Corporate Management; Ghislaine Charlebois, Assistant Commissioner of Compliance Assurance; Sylvain Giguère, Assistant Commissioner of Policy and Communications; and Johane Tremblay, General Counsel.
2011–2012 annual report
Last week, I tabled my 2011–2012 annual report in Parliament. This is my sixth annual report.
I tabled the report within the context of the restructuring of the public service workforce and the streamlining of federal organizations following the budget cuts announced in the last federal budget.
Despite the fact that the Official Languages Act is now into its fifth decade, Canada’s linguistic duality too often goes unnoticed. When everything runs smoothly, bilingual services are just a part of normal, everyday life. Only in their absence do they attract attention. Failure is obvious, success is invisible.
This year, I want to emphasize successes, and my report focuses on being pragmatic and encouraging.
I make some recommendations, and I mention the importance of actions that need to be taken now to prepare for Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017. Canada's linguistic duality should always be visible and audible; even more so when we celebrate our history.
I also present the findings of our observations in the National Capital Region that caused a media stir in August 2011. The observations sought to recreate the experience of English- and French-speaking visitors in the National Capital Region, and proved to be very encouraging.
I take a look at the approach of businesses that have chosen to promote linguistic duality in their business practices. I also discuss the complaints filed with my office and the results of some of our investigations.
Promoting second-language learning
As I mentioned, it is very important that linguistic duality be visible when Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2017. Giving young Canadians more opportunities to experience the other official language is an excellent way to help Canada celebrate its shared heritage.
According to the numbers published yesterday by Statistics Canada, the bilingualism rate of the Canadian population edged up from 17.4% in 2006 to 17.5% in 2011. Despite the various initiatives proposed by the government of Canada to promote English and French second‑language learning, the proportion of bilingual Canadians remains low.
Canadians are very interested in becoming bilingual. However, in some regions, the availability of programs in the second official language cannot keep up with the demand. Every year, 20,000 young people want to take part in exchange programs, but only 8,000 available spaces are available.
Therefore, in my 2011–2012 annual report, I make two recommendations to promote second‑language learning in order to increase the number of Canadians who speak our two official languages.
- I recommend that the Prime Minister take the necessary measures to double the number of young Canadians who participate each year in short- and long-term language exchanges at the high-school and post-secondary levels.
- I also 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.
Ottawa: A truly Canadian symbol
This year, Ottawa takes centre stage in my report. In the preamble to the Official Languages Act, the Government of Canada is committed to enhancing the bilingual character of the National Capital Region and to encouraging the business community, labour organizations and voluntary organizations in Canada to foster the recognition and use of English and French. The Act also mentions that it is the Commissioner’s duty to take all actions and measures within his authority with a view to ensuring recognition of the status of each of the official languages.
With these aspects of the Act in mind, my office conducted a number of observations to find out whether linguistic duality is truly a fundamental value in the nation’s capital. We recreated a typical visitor’s experience in the National Capital Region, on the Ottawa side as well as the Gatineau side. The objective was to determine whether it was possible to be served in French at various businesses in Ottawa and in English at various businesses in Gatineau.
Our observations showed that there is substantial bilingual capacity for visitors, but that it is often invisible. The bilingualism of businesses in tourist areas is Ottawa’s best kept secret. Few employees of these businesses used the “Hello, bonjour” bilingual greeting to show customers that they were able to provide service in both official languages. Employees of federal institutions, for whom bilingual greetings are a legal obligation, are doing better.
In Gatineau, on the Quebec side of the National Capital Region, almost all of the businesses were able to serve visitors in English, but only 10% of them made an active offer. In general, most hotels and restaurants in Gatineau set an example that businesses in other Canadian cities should follow.
Official languages: Good for business
My office is interested in the private sector because linguistic duality is everybody’s business. Although they are not subject to the Official Languages Act, businesses operating in Canada are more competitive when they use both English and French in their approaches with clients. For example, Rogers Communications and Mountain Equipment Co-op have chosen to incorporate the principles of linguistic duality into their management models and both offer services in Canada’s two official languages.
This is why it is important for the Government of Canada to continue to encourage the use of both official languages among Canadian businesses and international businesses located in Canada. 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 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—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 when it comes to the bilingualism of senior public officials. Unfortunately, these setbacks have obscured a number of successes.
As the preface in my annual report says, failure is obvious, success is invisible. It is important to focus on the successes of Canadian language policy that go unnoticed, including the fact that many top government officials from Western Canada are bilingual, that the majority of provincial premiers are bilingual and that a great number of ministers and parliamentarians from all parties, from across Canada, are bilingual.
Complaints and results of our meetings with various federal institutions
Part of my mandate is to ensure that federal institutions respect the language rights of their employees and of the general public. Sometimes, I do this proactively—for example, by intervening with institutions to help them comply with the Official Languages Act—and other times my office conducts investigations following complaints that were brought to my attention.
In 2011–2012, my office received a total of 643 complaints, 518 of which were deemed to be admissible (81%). Out of these complaints, 341 involved communications with and services to the public (Part IV of the Act); 79 pertained to language of work (Part V); 45 were related to the advancement of English and French (Part VII); and 42 concerned the language requirements of positions (Part XI, section 91).
My office investigated the federal institutions against which these complaints were filed. Some institutions reacted positively and took advantage of the opportunity to make changes.
- The Canadian Army corrected many shortcomings regarding the balance of English and French content on its websites, and 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, which is not required by law to serve the public in both official languages, 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.
Now let’s now take a look at the audits.
In September 2011, Air Canada published its Linguistic Action Plan at about the same time as the public release of our audit report. Because my office continues to receive complaints about Air Canada, it is important for the carrier to address all of the recommendations in the audit report as quickly as possible.
In 2011–2012, my office conducted an audit to determine how well Parks Canada was providing services of equal quality in English and French to visitors. Although there are a number of shortcomings that need to be addressed, Parks Canada has many strengths with regard to official languages.
In 2011, my office conducted an audit of Industry Canada. In the audit report, I made six recommendations to help Industry Canada improve its performance under Part VII of the Act.
Before I answer your questions, 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. Some organizations have chosen to centralize services outside of regions designated as bilingual for language-of-work purposes.
We have already received complaints about the impact of government cutbacks, including the closing of an experimental farm located in a rural Francophone area, the closing of nine scientific libraries, two of which served French-speaking Canadians, and the termination of the Co-operative Development Initiative, the only federal program dedicated to cooperatives.
We have also 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 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. English and French both have a place in every region of the country.
Thank you for your attention. I would now like to take the remaining time to answer any questions you may have.