Speaking notes for an appearance before the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance

Ottawa, Ontario, January 29, 2015
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Mr. Chair, honourable committee members, good afternoon.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you on bill C-520.

To begin with, I would like to state that I fully endorse the views expressed in the letter we jointly signed as agents of Parliament. My main concern is the apparent conflict between this bill and the Public Service Employment Act and Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector. I am also concerned about the bill’s impact on the hiring process and issues of privacy.

On a personal note, let me say that during the years I spent as a journalist, I was very aware of the importance not only of fairness, but the appearance of fairness. Throughout my career, I covered governments of very different political stripes, and am proud that I had a reputation of treating all of them fairly.

At the same time, I have always had great respect for partisan activity as a form of public service. In many cases, people are drawn to partisan activity because they want to improve society. After working for a minister or an MP, many choose to join the public service. I have always considered this a good thing; some of Canada’s most distinguished deputy ministers first came to Ottawa as political aides. I am concerned that this bill suggests that partisan experience is something to be ashamed of—a liability rather that an asset.

In his appearance before a House of Commons committee, the member for York Centre said that agents of Parliament “sit in judgment on members of Parliament.Footnote 1” I would say that the reverse is true; members of Parliament sit in judgment of me. They questioned me on my qualifications for the job before voting on my appointment and can summon me to appear, cross-examine me, criticize me and vote to have me dismissed. I report to you on whether federal institutions have lived up to their responsibilities under the Act.

As Commissioner of Official Languages, it is my job to ensure that my staff interprets the Official Languages Act in an appropriate fashion, neither too broadly nor too narrowly, but, as the Supreme Court has put it, in a generous, purposive fashion. As an agent of Parliament, I can be called upon at any time to justify the positions I have taken.

In carrying out this responsibility for eight years, I have to say that partisanship has never been a factor in our work. There have been vigorous internal discussions over many issues: whether or not a complaint is admissible, what recommendations would be most effective and whether or not I should intervene in a court case, among other examples. I am proud of the dedication my staff consistently demonstrates to the mandate. People work in the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages because they are committed to the principles embodied in the Act, and I see that commitment every day. Not once have I felt that these internal discussions were affected by partisan considerations. On the contrary, they were honest, candid exchanges of opinion on how the Act should be interpreted and applied, how I should meet my responsibilities as Commissioner and how we could achieve positive results. Ultimately, the final decision on these questions is mine, and mine alone.

As a small organization, we need people with a wide variety of experience, whether in regions, investigations, policy, corporate services, legal work, communications or parliamentary affairs. Political experience, in my view, is an asset rather than a liability.

On a final note, let me add something as to why previous partisan activity does not affect our mandates.

Each one of our offices was created because parliamentarians decided that there were Canadian values that transcended partisan divides and the government of the day. While governments and policies change, our mandates, and the fundamental values we protect and promote, do not.

There are no partisan audits—there are audits, governed by professional auditing standards. There are no partisan elections—there are fair elections, governed by our democratic principles. And there is no partisan interpretation of the Official Languages Act—the Act speaks for itself. I report to Parliament on whether or not the institutions subject to the Act fulfill their obligations—not, in any case, based on partisan considerations.

If a parliamentarian feels that my decisions have been, or appear to have been, affected by partisan considerations, then I would be happy to appear before the relevant committee to explain my reasoning.

Thank you for your attention. I would be glad to answer any questions you may have.

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