Statement to the media for the release of the 2015–2016 annual report

Ottawa, Ontario, May 19, 2016
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

Check against delivery


Beginning of dialog

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for coming. I am pleased to appear before you today to deliver my tenth and final annual report.

It has been a privilege to serve as Commissioner of Official Languages for the past decade. Since I entered office in 2006, it has been a fascinating and challenging journey working to protect language rights and promote linguistic duality as a key element of our national identity and as a value rather than a burden. At the core of this vision of linguistic duality is an enduring conviction that our respect for both official languages fosters opportunities for growth and understanding among Canadians.

I have fully embraced my role as part cheerleader, part nag—or, as I have taken to saying in French, “un rôle d’encourager et de déranger.I have also tried to be a bridge builder, seeking to encourage dialogue and create synergies among English-speaking Canadians, French-speaking Canadians, federal institutions and Canadians of all origins. This aspect of my work has been very rewarding.

But my work can also be akin to running up the down escalator: stop for a moment, and you are carried backwards. This is undeniably the case for our official language minority communities, where pressures from the majority and the market are constant. The active engagement and visible leadership of our elected officials make all the difference.

This annual report covers a range of issues that have emerged or been dealt with over the past year, and some issues that reveal the progress—or lack thereof—over the 10 years that I have been Commissioner. These include immigration, equality of service, early childhood development, and the significance of bilingualism at major national events, to name a few.

But two issues in particular stand out.

First, it is clear that there is an ongoing problem in the area of access to justice in both official languages. Canadians who seek to be heard in the official language of their choice in our courts face barriers that are sometimes impossible to overcome. Lawyers often feel they have to warn their clients that if they insist on exercising their right to be heard in their preferred official language, the legal proceedings will take longer and will cost more.

One reason for this is that the bilingual capacity of the superior court judiciary remains a challenge in a number of provinces and territories. Those who apply for judgeships and self-identify as bilingual do not have their language skills tested. Once they are on the bench, they often discover they are unable to preside over a trial in their second language. The previous federal government resisted taking any action to implement the recommendations I made in the 2013 study on access to justice in both official languages that I produced jointly with my provincial counterparts in Ontario and New Brunswick. And so the first recommendation in my annual report calls on the current government and, in particular, the Minister of Justice, to address this matter.

The second issue is one that was raised repeatedly by former Senator Maria Chaput, as well as by numerous community leaders. It has now been taken up by Senator Claudette Tardif in the form of Bill S-209. For decades, federal services have been delivered in both official languages in different parts of the country where there is significant demand for services in the language of the minority. Significant demand is based mainly on the proportion of the linguistic minority population as compared to the linguistic majority population. In essence, the rights and services provided to the minority depend on the growth rate of the majority.

A minority community can be thriving and growing, but if the majority grows faster, services are lost. This is simply unfair. A community’s vitality—namely, the presence of institutions such as schools, community centres, credit unions and community media—should also be taken into account, not simply the rate at which the majority community has grown. Bill S‑209 provides a way of addressing this injustice, as would a revision of the Official Languages Regulations.

The Official Languages Act has been amended only twice: in 1988 and 2005. In three years, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the Act, and planning should start now to conduct a review of how Part IV of the Act, which deals with communications with and services to the public, is applied. The second recommendation of my annual report calls on the government to make this a priority.

Meanwhile, in the federal workplace in 2015–2016, complaints under section 91 of the Act about the language requirements for public service positions increased 13% compared with the previous year. One of the reasons for this is a long-standing disagreement between my office and the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. The Secretariat advises institutions that a BBB linguistic profile is appropriate for most supervisory positions, while I continue to insist that CBC is the minimum level to ensure clear and effective communications with employees in regions that are designated as bilingual for language-of-work purposes.

In addition to tabling my annual report before Parliament today, I am issuing new report cards that rate 33 federal institutions on their compliance with the Official Languages Act. I am also releasing a report on my role before the courts over the past decade. This report contains findings that should be taken into consideration by the Government of Canada, by parliamentarians and by federal institutions in order to foster a more effective dialogue on language rights and strengthen Canada’s linguistic duality.

On June 7, I intend to table a special report to Parliament, a rare occurrence in the history of this office. The report will highlight ongoing challenges regarding Air Canada’s compliance with the Official Languages Act. It will also propose options that should be examined by the federal government to ensure that Air Canada effectively meets its official languages obligations.

As I have mentioned in the past, success is never accidental. This year, I will present my eighth annual Award of Excellence to Canadian Parents for French for its outstanding contribution to the promotion of linguistic duality. I congratulate the organization for its exceptional work in the area of research and promotion, for providing opportunities for young Canadians to learn French in school and communities, and for respecting French as an integral part of Canada.

Serving as Commissioner of Official Languages is one of the most interesting and challenging positions imaginable, and I consider myself very privileged to have served. During the course of my 10 years in office, I have delivered 528 speeches and intervened in 23 court cases, including 9 before the Supreme Court of Canada. My office has processed 7,156 complaints.

One transformative change that has occurred over the past decade is the explosion of social media and their impact on how governments communicate. My successor will need to be ready to tackle the challenge of protecting and promoting linguistic duality in the Web 2.0 world. He or she may also want to renew the dialogue with government concerning the legislative framework for official languages as well as this office’s capacity to deliver fully on its mandate, considering its current funding.

One thing worries me, though. Sometimes I get the impression that the attitude toward language policy is “it goes without saying.” And so we do not talk about it. But we have to talk about it. For if it goes without saying, it remains unsaid—and what is unsaid is often neglected or forgotten.

In that context, I would be remiss if I did not say how pleased I was at the Government’s announcement that the Royal Military College Saint‑Jean is to regain its status as a university. For more than two decades, Canada’s armed forces have suffered from the absence of a French-language military university, and this corrects a serious problem.

Looking ahead, the Canada 2017 celebrations offer a unique opportunity to showcase linguistic duality. Numerous groups throughout the country are hard at work organizing events to mark our sesquicentennial anniversary. Linguistic duality must be a key component in all of these efforts.

I look forward to the 150th anniversary of Confederation sparking renewed energy in our shared vision of a Canada that includes and celebrates English and French. This is a vision for the future that we can embrace with optimism and confidence.

Thank you.

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