Archived - Notes for an address to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages
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Appearance to discuss Bill C-419
Ottawa, April 16, 2013
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Chair, ladies and gentlemen, and honourable members of the Standing Committee on Official Languages,
Thank you for having me today and allowing me to speak to you by videoconference. I am currently in Winnipeg to meet with Manitoba’s Francophone community. I appreciate the steps you are taking to adapt our democratic processes to new technologies, especially when those technologies better serve the needs of federal institutions and result in cost savings for Canadian taxpayers.
I am here with Johane Tremblay, General Counsel. Ghislaine Charlebois, Assistant Commissioner, Compliance Assurance, and Sylvain Giguère, Assistant Commissioner, Policy and Communications, are there with you in Ottawa.
I am addressing you today not only as Commissioner of Official Languages, but also as an agent of Parliament.
Bill C‑419, which was put forward by the NDP MP for Louis-Saint-Laurent, is to the point and unequivocal. Its purpose is to ensure that persons whose appointment requires the approval by resolution of the Senate, House of Commons or both Houses of Parliament can understand and express themselves clearly in both official languages, without the aid of an interpreter, from the moment they are appointed.
It is an important bill for the future of Canada’s linguistic duality. I therefore support it unconditionally.
Everyone to whom this bill applies—with the exception of two individuals—is an agent of Parliament. If I may, I will use the expression “agents of Parliament” to refer to the 10 persons covered by the bill to keep things simple.
As you are aware, the controversy surrounding the high-profile appointment of a unilingual Anglophone to the position of Auditor General of Canada resonated strongly with a segment of Canadian public opinion and with the parliamentary committees responsible for reviewing it.
Following the appointment, my office received 43 complaints and has conducted an investigation.
I determined that the Privy Council Office had not met its obligations under Part VII of the Official Languages Act with respect to the Auditor General’s appointment process because it failed to take into account the language requirements under subsection 24(3) of the Act, the spirit of Parts IV, V, and VII of the Act and the specific nature of the roles of agents of Parliament.
Agents of Parliament exert national—and sometimes even international—influence. They are responsible for monitoring how federal institutions are living up to the obligations that parliamentarians have imposed on them to ensure the integrity of our democratic system.
Several of them serve as ombudsmen for the public, and as independent and impartial critics of government action for both parliamentarians and the public. Their job is to provide timely notification of any actual or perceived infringements of the values and rights they are required to protect on behalf of all Canadians. They must report the findings of their work not only to parliamentarians, by publicly tabling their reports and appearing before parliamentary committees, but also to the public through news conferences and media interviews.
Consequently, their office and their public presence have become more visible in recent years. Their interventions thus have a greater impact.
The role played by agents of Parliament is changing. The requirements for independence associated with our positions enable us to carry out the social mission entrusted to us, with all the credibility and authority that Canadians expect. As incumbents of these positions, we must demonstrate a high degree of leadership, influence, visibility and transparency.
As Ms. Latendresse said in the House of Commons, the presence of unilingual elected MPs in the House is perfectly normal. However, just as government must adapt to the needs of Canadians, Parliament must adapt to the needs of elected MPs, regardless of which official language they use.
Members of Parliament expect—and rightly so—to be able to engage in private conversations with agents of Parliament, and to be understood. These agents must understand and express themselves clearly in both official languages without the aid of a translator or interpreter. Proficiency in French and English is therefore an essential appointment criterion.
This bill is consistent with my own recommendations to the Privy Council Office. The latter must state loudly and clearly that linguistic qualifications deemed to be essential for candidates should not be seen merely as assets. Accordingly, candidates will be able to take steps to learn their second language in advance.
This will also encourage universities to do more in terms of offering second-language programs to students. Indeed, I made a recommendation to the government along those lines in my 2011–2012 annual report.
All Canadians—Anglophones and Francophones—expect senior officials who have to communicate with parliamentarians and Canadians across the country to be bilingual. That was also the position taken by several English-language dailies during the public debate following the Auditor General’s appointment.
During my term of office, I have often said that proficiency in French and English is an essential leadership criterion. The ability of federal institutions to operate efficiently, to fulfill their language obligations with regard to their employees and the public, and to reflect contemporary Canadian values across this country and abroad depends in good part on the language skills of their leaders.
Furthermore, at the beginning of 2013, my office launched a study to determine how the Privy Council Office establishes the language qualifications for positions whose incumbents are appointed by the Governor in Council. I would be delighted to share the findings with you once the study has been completed.
As Ms. Latendresse said, agents of Parliament “have a clear mandate: to uphold, promote and monitor integrity. They have the right to know everything, to ask anything and to understand everything that is happening within their jurisdictions.”Footnote 1 It is critical that we, as agents of Parliament, have the language skills to understand and express ourselves in both official languages without the aid of a translator or interpreter.
Agents of Parliament must demonstrate exemplary leadership. The time when elected MPs had to adapt to the unilingualism of Parliament without citizens questioning the credibility of their government is long gone.
Thank you for your attention. I would now like to use the remaining time to answer your questions.
- Footnote 1
House of Commons Debates, December 10, 2012.