Notes for an appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages

Ottawa, Ontario, May 2, 2016
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Mr. Chair, members of the committee, good afternoon.

I am pleased to appear today before this committee for the first time since the beginning of this Parliament. Although I am not sure how many more discussions we will have before my term as Commissioner comes to an end in October, I would like to say that I am honoured to have been welcomed so frequently by your committee and to have had such productive exchanges with you.

I would be remiss if I did not say a few words about Mauril Bélanger’s enormous contribution to official languages, both as a Member of Parliament and as a Minister. He has always been an invaluable source of support and guidance.

This afternoon, I would like to talk to you about measures to improve access to justice in both official languages, an audit of the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat conducted by my office, and the work I plan to complete between now and the end of my mandate. We will also have an opportunity to discuss the main estimates, which were tabled in February.

With regard to the interest you expressed concerning the selection of the next Commissioner, I have discussed the choice of my successor with both the former and current Clerk of the Privy Council Office and have provided them with a list of six criteria that I believe could guide their choice:

  • Competence, comfort and eloquence in both official languages
  • Ability to articulate a vision of linguistic duality
  • Independence (essential for any agent of Parliament)
  • High ethical standards and a value of respect
  • Comfort as a public figure
  • Credibility (based on prior experience with the issue of official languages, in terms of knowledge of the Act, knowledge of linguistic minority communities and/or knowledge of Parliament).

On reflection, I would add to that list the importance of being what a former colleague of mine called “a digital native”—someone who is comfortable dealing with the new challenges of social media and the Web 2.0 world, and their implications for language policy.

Based on my conversations with the Privy Council Office, the process of developing selection criteria does not seem to be completed. If your committee believes that other criteria would be more appropriate, I think that there is still time to share that information with Mr. Wernick.

Access to justice in both official languages is one of the issues my successor will have to address. The year 2017 will mark 150 years of legislative and judicial bilingualism in Canada.

Too often, Canadians who seek justice in the nation’s superior courts in the official language of the minority still have to plead their cases in the language of the majority or incur additional costs and delays if they want to be heard by a bilingual judge. This is due in part to the bilingual capacity of the superior court judiciary, which continues to be a challenge in several provinces and territories. This is why, in August 2013, I published a study called Access to Justice in Both Official Languages: Improving the Bilingual Capacity of the Superior Court Judiciary.

The study, conducted jointly with my counterparts in Ontario and New Brunswick, found that the process for appointing superior court judges did not guarantee a sufficient number of judges with the language skills required to hear Canadians in the official language of the minority without delays or additional costs. I therefore made 10 recommendations to address this situation. I also stressed the importance of establishing a collaborative approach involving Canada’s Minister of Justice, the Minister’s provincial and territorial counterparts, and the chief justices of the superior courts.

The Canadian Bar Association supported this study by adopting a resolution in February 2014 in which it “urge[s] the federal Minister of Justice to implement the recommendations of the study … in cooperation with the provincial and territorial ministers and the chief justices of Canada’s superior courts and appeal courts.”

In 2015, then federal Minister of Justice Peter MacKay replied that he did not see the need to change the current process and initiated no discussions with his counterparts, despite the interest expressed by some of those counterparts, particularly those in Ontario and New Brunswick.

Indeed, some interesting initiatives have been undertaken in both of those provinces. In the spring of 2015, Madeleine Meilleur, Ontario’s Attorney General and Minister responsible for Francophone Affairs, launched a pilot project to enhance access to justice in French. The objective of the pilot, which focusses on active offer of service, is to provide quality French-language services to French-speaking litigants and lawyers at the Ottawa courthouse. The Minister also wrote to my office in 2015 and said that she would support any measure that the federal Minister of Justice took with respect to appointing bilingual judges. In New Brunswick, Provincial Court Judge Yvette Finn has been running a popular language training program since 2011 for provincially appointed judges from across Canada.

I will be meeting with the federal Minister of Justice soon to discuss this study and other collaborative opportunities that could be undertaken with Minister Meilleur. I will also ask the Minister of Justice to implement the recommendations contained in the study report.

I am hoping that the government will also implement the three recommendations contained in my office’s January 2015 Audit of the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat within the context of the 2011–2012 Strategic and Operating Review. These recommendations focus on ensuring that the shortcomings found in the audit are not repeated in future expenditure reviews.

As a federal institution, the Treasury Board Secretariat must implement Part VII of the Act when carrying out its mandate. It is required to support federal institutions by providing clear instructions on what measures to take to meet their obligations fully and to avoid hindering the vitality of official language minority communities during budget cuts.

The audit results are available on my office’s website.

After 10 years as Commissioner, I am sure that many expect me to provide an overview of the status of official languages in Canada. To that end, I intend to publish a series of key documents between now and the end of my mandate. These include:

  • my annual report, which will be released on May 19, along with new report cards for 33 federal institutions;
  • an overview of how I have exercised my role before the courts;
  • a study on active offer to the public by federal institutions;
  • a study on early childhood development in French-speaking minority communities;
  • the results of a public opinion poll on what Canadians think about various issues related to official languages; and
  • a follow-up to my 2012 audit of Parks Canada.

In June, I will table a special report to Parliament that suggests options to help strengthen the enforcement regime applicable to Air Canada.

A number of other issues will continue to be a priority until this fall, including the jurisdictional conflicts between my office and CBC/Radio-Canada, and planning for the next iteration of the official languages Roadmap. My office will also be monitoring Bill C‑203 concerning the bilingual capacity of judges appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada and Bill S‑209 regarding Part IV of the Official Languages Act.

On a final note, in addition to planning our own activities to celebrate Canada’s birthday next year, my office is working with various federal institutions to encourage them to include and promote official languages during the celebrations commemorating the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

Thank you, Mr. Chair. I would be pleased to answer any questions you or your colleagues may have.

Date modified:
2018-09-13