Statement to the media for the release of the special report to Parliament, On the road to increased compliance through an effective enforcement regime

Ottawa, Ontario, June 7, 2016
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for coming. This morning, I submitted my special report, Air Canada: On the road to increased compliance through an effective enforcement regime, to the offices of the speakers of the House of Commons and the Senate.

The report describes the means my predecessors and I have used to ensure that Air Canada fully complies with its language obligations under the Official Languages Act.

In the report, I propose different options that would allow Parliament to modernize the enforcement scheme for Air Canada. I also reiterate the need to fill certain legal voids that have existed since Air Canada’s major restructuring in 2003–2004.

The report contains only one recommendation addressed to Parliament: to refer the report for study to either of the standing committees on official languages.

Created by Parliament in 1937, Air Canada has always been a symbol of Canadian identity because it was built with public funds and because it has “Canada” in its name and a maple leaf on its logo.

Air Canada has been subject to the entire Official Languages Act for nearly 50 years, first as a Crown corporation under the 1969 Official Languages Act, and then under section 10 of the Air Canada Public Participation Act after the airline was privatized in 1988.

Since its privatization, Air Canada has gone through many financial and commercial transformations. However, as a national airline that was built with public funds, Air Canada must reflect the bilingual nature of the country and continue to meet its official languages obligations.

After 10 years as Commissioner, I believe it is important to provide an overview to Parliament of the ongoing problem regarding Air Canada’s compliance with the Official Languages Act.

Of all the institutions subject to the Act, Air Canada is and has always been among those that generate the largest number of complaints processed every year by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.

With respect to service to the public, a number of investigations showed that in‑flight and ground services are not always of equal quality in both official languages at all points of service and on all bilingual routes. Despite the passing years and repeated interventions by successive commissioners of official languages, the situation has not changed much. Some of those infractions involve routes where providing bilingual services would seem to be obvious, like Montreal–Bathurst or Toronto–Québec City.

After hundreds of investigations and recommendations, after an in-depth audit and after two court cases—including one that went to the Supreme Court of Canada—the fact remains that my numerous interventions, like those of my predecessors, have not produced the desired results.

From 2005 to 2011, four bills were introduced to resolve the application issues caused by Air Canada’s restructuring in 2003–2004. Unfortunately, all of them died on the Order Paper.

This is only the second time in the history of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages that a Commissioner has submitted a special report to Parliament. I believe that this issue is important enough to be considered independently of my annual report,Footnote 1 and I wanted to provide parliamentarians with a full account of our persistent efforts over many years. This is not a single‑year issue. I also had many other matters to address in my annual report, including two important recommendations to government.

I think that it is now no longer enough to make recommendations following investigations or audits, nor is it enough to report on Air Canada’s compliance in annual reports to Parliament. This special report is the last tool I have at my disposal, which is why I submitted it to Parliament today.

It is now up to Parliament to make the necessary legislative changes. The status quo is not working.

I therefore recommend that Parliament refer this special report for study on a priority basis to either of the standing committees on official languages. I propose different options to modernize the enforcement scheme for Air Canada in order to help guide official languages parliamentary committees in their examination of this report, in particular:

  • Amend the Air Canada Public Participation Act in order to uphold the language rights of the travelling public and Air Canada employees in the airline’s current structure; and
  • Strengthen enforcement of the Official Languages Act in order to improve Air Canada’s compliance.

Air Canada says that its obligations under the Official Languages Act put it at a disadvantage compared to its competitors. Air Canada believes that the solution is to make the Act applicable to all airlines.

In my view, a better indicator of success would be a more effective enforcement scheme for the Act that is better adapted to Air Canada’s reality. However, despite our disagreements, Air Canada and I are in agreement on one thing: the Government should act.

As I near the end of my time in office, I think it is important to bring this issue to Parliament’s attention and to propose possible solutions. It is now up to parliamentarians to address the issue.

This special report clearly demonstrates that despite the interventions of the commissioners of official languages, Air Canada has been having problems complying with the Official Languages Act since 1969.

Therefore, I recommend that either of the parliamentary standing committees on official languages review this report as soon as possible.

I also ask that the government make this a high priority in order to protect the language rights of the travelling public and Air Canada employees.

Thank you. I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.


Footnote 1

Official Languages Act, subsection 67(1): The Commissioner may, at any time, make a special report to Parliament referring to and commenting on any matter within the scope of the powers, duties and functions of the Commissioner where, in the opinion of the Commissioner, the matter is of such urgency or importance that a report thereon should not be deferred until the time provided for transmission of the next annual report of the Commissioner.

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