Notes for an appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages - Presentation of the 2016–2017 annual report

Ottawa, Ontario, June 13, 2017
Ghislaine Saikaley - Interim Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Mr. Chair, honourable members of the Committee, good morning.

Thank you for inviting me to present my annual report for 2016–2017. You already know the individuals who are here with me today: Mary Donaghy, Assistant Commissioner of Policy and Communications; Pascale Giguère, General Counsel with Legal Affairs; and Jean Marleau, Acting Assistant Commissioner of Compliance Assurance.

The Annual Report is divided into three chapters. The first chapter looks at the 150th anniversary of Confederation, which we have the pleasure of celebrating this year. The second chapter addresses a number of topics related to new opportunities for official languages. And the third chapter deals with leadership in the public service. Let’s look at these subjects one by one.

First, in the months leading up to the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages made a significant effort to ensure that federal departments and organizations would take linguistic duality fully into account in their activities and in the services to be provided to the public during this high-profile Canadian event.

We will also be taking part in the celebrations, using this opportunity to better promote the fundamental role that linguistic duality has played in Canada’s history, and its importance for the future.

And the celebrations will not be limited to 2017 because, in two years, we will be celebrating another important milestone in Canadian history. In 2019, the Official Languages Act will turn 50.

This would be a good time to conduct a review of the federal language policy, given how much Canadian society has changed since the last revision of the Act in 1988.

This evolving context, including technological developments, means that it is time to think about amending the Act. The government should address this situation and assess the relevance of updating the Act. That is certainly what we plan to do at the Office of the Commissioner, in consultation with official language minority communities. It may be the only recommendation in this annual report, but many other recommendations were made in various files during 2016–2017.

Throughout the year, advances in some of our files have brought new perspectives to key areas, such as support for early childhood development. On October 3, Commissioner Graham Fraser released his report Early Childhood: Fostering the Vitality of Francophone Minority Communities.

This report revealed that, in Francophone minority communities, early childhood development is hindered by a lack of resources, a shortage of staff at early childhood centres and a fragmentation of services.

It also confirmed that the lack of funding earmarked specifically for early childhood in the Roadmap for Canada’s Official Languages 2013–2018: Education, Immigration, Communities has made these communities vulnerable and often unable to meet their own needs.

Over the past 12 months, the Office of the Commissioner has participated in consultations conducted by Canadian Heritage that will help to develop the next official languages action plan, which will be released shortly.

We noted that the groups that were consulted focused on the promotion of linguistic duality, the vitality of official language minority communities and the active role of the federal government.

With regard to access to justice, on October 20, 2016, the federal government announced changes to the appointment process for superior court judges.

These changes responded to the recommendations made by Commissioner Fraser and his counterparts in Ontario and New Brunswick in their 2013 joint study Access to Justice in Both Official Languages: Improving the Bilingual Capacity of the Superior Court Judiciary.

Many of the Office of the Commissioner’s interventions in 2016–2017 were intended to support the leadership demonstrated by certain institutions, and to encourage others to do the same.

The Office of the Commissioner supported the efforts of those who worked to implement the Act within their jurisdiction.

We also encouraged the use of more strategic approaches to find solutions to systemic problems, and produced tools to help institutions better comply with the spirit and letter of the Act.

Despite all of these encouraging signs, there is still a lot of work to do in terms of respect for official languages, as demonstrated by this annual report, which indicates that the Office of the Commissioner received a total of 1,018 admissible complaints in 2016–2017. We have not seen such a high volume of complaints since 2009–2010, when we received 876 complaints against CBC/Radio-Canada regarding the CBEF radio station in Windsor, Ontario.

As usual, the majority of the complaints (565 of them) pertained to communications with the public. In March 2017, the Office of the Commissioner completed its investigation into complaints about the lack of service in French on Parliament Hill.

Since the complaints on this issue were filed in 2015, responsibility for security on Parliament Hill has been transferred to the Parliamentary Protective Service, which has established a number of operational procedures, including reminders and training programs, to ensure that all of its employees are aware of the requirements under the Act and comply with them at all times.

A total of 183 complaints dealt with Part V of the Act, regarding language of work. This issue remains a cause for concern.

We have also noted a significant increase in the number of complaints filed under section 91 of the Act, with 192 complaints pertaining to the language requirements of positions. This high number is also worrisome.

It is in this context that the Commissioner wrote to the President of the Treasury Board in May 2016, asking him to amend the Directive on Official Languages for People Management in order to address his recommendation concerning the linguistic profile of supervisory positions, which appeared in the Commissioner’s 2010–2011 annual report. We have begun a dialogue with the Treasury Board Secretariat to examine this matter more closely.

Changes are already taking place at some federal institutions with respect to the language skills required for supervisory positions in regions designated bilingual for the purposes of language of work.

In 2016–2017, Shared Services Canada, Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency and the National Gallery of Canada endorsed the Office of the Commissioner’s position on the required language level.

This year, instead of carrying out a report card evaluation of federal institutions, we conducted our own consultations with several official language minority communities and federal departments to gather their comments on the effectiveness of our interventions, specifically our work with federal institutions, our studies and our promotion of linguistic duality. The results are encouraging: the people we consulted appreciate the Office of the Commissioner’s work and want us to do more. You received a letter with more information on the results of this consultation today.

It is important to celebrate victories, but I also am aware that significant challenges remain nation-wide. According to projections recently published by Statistics Canada, the number of Francophones in the country will steadily decrease between now and 2036. This projection demonstrates the importance of current efforts to assist Francophone minority communities across the country in becoming host societies.

Even if we are rightfully concerned that the status of the French language is threatened by demographics, the public opinion of the majority appears to be constantly improving.

In a Nielsen survey commissioned by the Office of the Commissioner in early 2016, 88% of respondents said they support the objectives of the Act.

Another interesting statistic is that 96% of respondents stated that Canadians should be able to receive federal government services in the official language of their choice.

I wanted to end on a positive note, in keeping with the beautiful weather that has finally arrived!

Thank you for your attention.

I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

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