Notes for an Address at Health Canada’s Science Colloquium on the Health of Canada’s Official Language Minority Communities

Ottawa, Ontario, February 27, 2017
Ghislaine Saikaley - Interim Commissioner of Official Languages

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Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a great pleasure to be here with you today for the Second Science Colloquium on the Health of Canada’s Official Language Minority Communities. The research you are doing is essential for the development of tools and practices to enhance the health of these communities and to improve health services in both official languages. Research will also help the federal government to focus its objectives for the next official languages plan.

Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the conference organisers and thank you for accepting their invitation. In a few minutes, we will have an opportunity to hear Jean‑Gilles Pelletier, Director General at the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner of Ontario, present a special report on the importance of service providers’ making an active offer of bilingual services. Hearing French in a greeting is crucial for clients, especially in the health care field.

Active offer—greeting the public in both official languages with a phrase like “Hello! Bonjour!” or “Bonjour! Hello!” or another similar greeting—is an obligation set out in the 1988 Official Languages Act. It clearly establishes the linguistic parameters of the communication. In federal offices that are required to provide services to the public in both official languages, a bilingual greeting unequivocally informs people at first contact that they have the right to use the official language of their choice.

Active offer is not a new concept when we talk about the right to be served in the official language of your choice. Unfortunately, employees who provide services are often inconsistent when it comes to making an active offer. That is why my office published a study last July called Bilingual Greetings in Federal Institutions: Let’s Talk About It! The study sought to better understand the individual, organizational and social factors that can influence whether front-line employees make an active offer. It is available on the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages’ website.

Active offer is an essential part of delivering services of equal quality in both official languages, and it is important to the vitality of our official language minority communities. Their growth depends a great deal on actions taken by the provinces and territories, particularly in the field of health care services.

Clients who are requesting services are often unaware that they have the right to be served in the official language of their choice. Or, if they are aware, they can be hesitant to exercise that right for various reasons. Without a clear active offer, the interaction between the service provider and the client starts off on the wrong foot. Clients who are not immediately offered service in the official language of their choice may assume that service is not available in that language or they may think that, if it is available, asking for it may cause delays or embarrassment. Some people are intimidated by having to ask for service in their preferred official language, especially when there are a lot of people around or when the employee seems to be very busy.

You only have to imagine this situation in a hospital or a clinic to see that the absence of an active offer can have more serious consequences. When people look for health care services, they are looking to be taken care of. Very often, people are sick, worried and vulnerable. The first thing they need is to be greeted—and understood—in their language. Their official language preference is not written in their faces, nor can you hear it in their names. Just because their name is Smith does not mean that they speak English, and someone named Tremblay does not necessarily speak French.

There is only one simple way to start taking care of the people to whom we have a duty to serve well, and it is to welcome them in their language: “Hello! Bonjour!” or “Bonjour! Hello!”.

This is where the title of Mr. Pelletier’s study, which he will present to us in a few minutes, comes in: Active Offer of Services in French: The Cornerstone for Achieving the Objectives of Ontario’s French Language Services Act. When it comes to health care services, active offer is the foundation upon which rests the respect for the language rights of official language minority communities.

Before we hear from Mr. Pelletier, I would like to mention the excellent spirit of cooperation and teamwork that exists between our two organizations. It is a major asset for our official language minority communities. By sharing our best practices regarding service to the public—and, specifically, regarding active offer—we are able to better support the development of our communities and promote their development: objectives our two organizations have in common.

Without further ado, I present to you Jean-Gilles Pelletier.

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