Archived - Notes for an address at a quarterly meeting of the Ontario Federal Council
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Toronto, November 26, 2012
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to start by thanking Dr. Bruce Archibald and Monika Deeg Damato for inviting me here. This is my first visit to the Council, but I have already met some of you on previous occasions. I am very pleased to be here in Toronto to speak with you.
Today I would like to present the highlights of my annual report, share good practices to help you promote the delivery of quality services in both official languages, and facilitate networking—all to support the development of Ontario’s French-speaking community.
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, I often have to point out failures. This year, in my annual report, I wanted to emphasize successes. In the report, I make some recommendations, particularly regarding actions that need to be taken now to prepare for Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017. I present the findings of our observations on how English- and French-speaking visitors are greeted in the National Capital Region, and describe actions that businesses have taken to promote linguistic duality. I also discuss the results of several important investigations conducted by my office.
To this day, there is still this belief that Canada’s language policy has as its ultimate goal to make everyone bilingual. On the contrary—the fundamental goal is to ensure that people do not have to learn the other language to deal with the government. It exists so that ordinary people do not have to be bilingual to deal with the state. There are four million unilingual Francophones in this country, and they have the same rights in terms of services from the federal government that the roughly 23 million unilingual Anglophones do. It is important that we keep this in mind.
There are only a few reasons why public servants should have to speak French. One is to serve the public at a certain number of designated bilingual offices where numbers warrant. At a more senior level, it is important for public servants to be able to brief a minister in the language of his or her choice. There are two fundamental elements to language services: what you need if you are living in a minority community, and the right as a Canadian to be able to travel across the country and get services. There are thousands of Quebecers who travel, which is why it is so important for our tourism industry to be able to welcome French-speaking Canadians throughout the country.
For my annual report, I decided to see for myself how bilingual our nation’s capital is. Our observations in Ottawa showed that, while there is substantial bilingual capacity for visitors to Canada’s capital, it is often invisible. Few employees of businesses in Ottawa tourist areas use 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.
Along with provincial, territorial and municipal governments, private businesses are well aware of the advantages of communicating with Canadians in two or more languages. Although they are not subject to the Official Languages Act, companies 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. Therefore, in my annual report I 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.
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 in my annual report 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.
Second-language learning also includes language training. I would like to tell you about my personal observations on how language training has evolved within the federal public service. In the early 1970s, a massive remedial language program was set up for thousands of public servants, mainly middle-aged or older employees. It was a kind of “war effort”—in other words, an intensive but temporary measure.
The program gradually became grandfathered in the public service and is now permanent. Some English-speaking public servants began to develop an attitude of noncooperation, even passive resistance: “You want me to learn French? Then send me off to language training!”
It was thought that, over time, universities would fill the language training gap and produce future bilingual public service employees. But this has not happened. Instead of supplying more bilingual graduates to the labour market, universities removed the second-language component from their admissions requirements. Thus, two categories of students were created: those who have come from an immersion program and those who have not. Consequently, some students are quite proficient in French when they arrive at university, and others do not speak a word of French.
Times have changed. In the public service, the focus is no longer on having an extensive language training program for workers who are 48, 52 or 56 years old, because now there is an urgent need to target younger workers.
Universities have now passed the language training buck back to the public service, when the public service had been counting on the universities to handle it. I have heard faculty in charge of a certificate program in public affairs say that “if our students need to learn French, well, the government will take care of that. We don’t have to worry about that—that’s not our department.”
We are now seeing the consequences of this kind of thinking. The high-profile appointment of a unilingual auditor general has created a very damaging impression of the government’s commitment to official bilingualism. The controversy surrounding the appointment has shown that both English- and French-speaking Canadians have greater expectations of their public officials. The bar has been raised. Canadians expect senior officials across the country to be bilingual. And no one has come back with an argument that I was wrong in making that suggestion.
In this period after the Quebec election in September, it is all the more important that the government get it right, that the message be very clear that Quebec does not have a monopoly on the French language, and that English and French are Canadian languages, not foreign languages. That is why I reacted as strongly as I did when the Quebec minister of education said that English is a foreign language. English is not a foreign language in Canada; French is not a foreign language in Canada. They are Canadian languages. But there is no question of the link between language policy and national unity—this is why we have to recognize that it is even more important for the federal government and federal institutions to do what the law says they should do, which is to provide services. There is more attention on the issue than there was before, and the government cannot afford to make mistakes on this. The stakes are that much higher.
My annual report describes investigations my office conducted of federal institutions that had had complaints filed against them during the 2011–2012 fiscal year. Some institutions reacted positively and took advantage of the opportunity to make changes. For example, 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 Regulations, this office is not required to serve the public in both official languages. However, capitalizing on the fact that its St. John’s office had bilingual employees, Passport Canada went beyond its obligations by officially designating the office as bilingual in order to better serve the more than 3,000 Franco-Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. This initiative was possible thanks to the leadership and dedication of the manager of Passport Canada’s St. John’s office, Ron Thompson.
In my annual report, I encourage federal institutions to be more proactive, rather than wait for complaints before improving French-language service delivery in their respective organizations.
Even though my annual report focuses on successes, 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.
I 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. I 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 do not want to be singled out in attrition exercises.
At a time when language debates are in the news again, it is extremely important that the government uphold its commitment towards linguistic duality.
Investing in linguistic duality and the development of official language communities across the country is a lever for Canada’s economic growth. The federal government has an important role to play, of course. Federal institutions have to take positive measures in the form of concrete action. But people are the lifeblood of federal institutions. Yes, it is true that strong leadership from our government would enable federal institutions to better understand their obligations under the Official Languages Act. However, without the leadership of individual public servants, it is difficult to move forward. Cooperation between federal institutions and provincial governments is essential to promoting linguistic duality. We need to focus on good communication, effective partnerships and beneficial collaboration. Linguistic duality must be allowed to continue to thrive, even in this period of budget cuts and program changes.
At a time when language issues are re-emerging on the Canadian political landscape, we need 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.
I would like to draw your attention to an important distinction. As citizens, we are entitled to expect our government to show leadership when it comes to promoting our national values, which include official languages. Canada’s policies on linguistic duality help not only to strengthen our social fabric, but also to define ourselves as Canadians. This is why the government, through its institutions, has to lead the way.
Each of your organizations needs to take measures to promote linguistic duality and to support the development and enhance the vitality of official language minority communities. At the very least, you need to consult these communities on your initiatives and programs, particularly during the development phase, to ensure that community needs are taken into account.
Ensure that each of your organizations has a mechanism for ongoing cooperation with the Franco-Ontarian community and assesses how it can contribute to the development of this community and the promotion of linguistic duality.
Share information with your colleagues about existing initiatives. Look at what other federal councils are doing—some of them are very active in official languages. Talk to the champion in your organization. Better yet, appoint an official languages champion to your federal council.
Thank you for your attention. My 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.
I would now like to take the remaining time to answer any questions you may have.