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

Ottawa, Ontario, October 30, 2017
Ghislaine Saikaley - Interim Commissioner of Official Languages

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Good evening, honourable senators.

Thank you for inviting me to present my 2016–2017 annual report. I would like to introduce the people who are here with me today: Mary Donaghy, Assistant Commissioner of Policy and Communications; Pascale Giguère, General Counsel and Director of Legal Affairs; and Pierre Coulombe, 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 are 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 in more detail.

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 took 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 are also taking part in the celebrations by organizing a national conference on November 30, 2017, on the future of linguistic duality. In fact, we have taken the opportunity on numerous occasions in 2017 to promote the fundamental role that official languages have played in Canada’s history, and the importance they will have for the future.

And the celebrations will not end in 2017. In two years’ time, we will be marking another important milestone in Canadian history: the 50th birthday of the Official Languages Act in 2019. The government needs to seize this opportunity to update the Act to reflect the many changes that have shaped Canadian society since the last revision of the Act in 1988.

I have asked my team to undertake an analysis of major issues that the government will need to focus on to update the Act so that it reflects today’s Canada. We will be completing this exercise within the next 12 months, in consultation with official language minority communities and other interested parties.

There may be only one recommendation in this annual report, but I believe that it is vital to ensure the sustainability of the Act. And although the recommendation is important, it is just one of many we have made on various issues in 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, 2016, Commissioner Graham Fraser released his report called Early Childhood: Fostering the Vitality of Francophone Minority Communities. The report showed that early childhood development in Francophone minority communities is undermined by a lack of resources, a shortage of early childhood educators and fragmentation of services. English-speaking minority communities in Quebec are equally vulnerable, not so much in terms of language but rather with respect to a lack of support.

The report also confirmed that the lack of funding for early childhood development in the Roadmap for Canada’s Official Languages 2013–2018 has left Francophone minority communities vulnerable and often unable to meet their own needs. English-speaking Quebecers are also facing their own challenges.

Last year, the Office of the Commissioner participated in consultations conducted by Canadian Heritage in preparation for the next official languages action plan, which I understand will be released early next year. We noted the focus in these consultations 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, in October 2016, the federal government announced changes to the appointment process for superior court judges. In September 2017, the action plan for enhancing the bilingual capacity of the superior court judiciary was announced.

A number of actions we took in 2016–2017 were designed to foster the leadership shown by some federal institutions and to support their efforts to improve their compliance with the Act in their various activities. We have also taken a more strategic approach to resolve systemic issues and have created tools to help institutions improve compliance with the letter and spirit of the Act.

Despite all of these encouraging signs, there is still a lot of work to do in terms of official languages compliance. As this annual report shows, the Office of the Commissioner received 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 CBEF radio station in Windsor, Ontario, for a total of 1,477 complaints. In 2016–2017, as usual, most complaints (565 of them) were about communications with the public. A total of 183 complaints concerned Part V of the Act, which governs language of work. This issue remains a cause for concern.

We 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 when compared with the average number for the past nine years, which was 57 complaints. In May 2016, the Commissioner wrote to the President of the Treasury Board to ask 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 was issued in the Commissioner’s 2010–2011 annual report. We have begun a dialogue with the Treasury Board Secretariat to examine this matter more closely.

Improvements are already being made at some federal institutions with respect to the language skills required for supervisory positions in regions designated as bilingual for language-of-work purposes. In 2016–2017, several institutions endorsed the Office of the Commissioner’s position on the level of language proficiency required. I am very pleased to see that the recent report on language of work released by the Clerk of the Privy Council includes a strong recommendation about this.

It is important to celebrate victories, but I am also aware that significant challenges remain nation-wide. According to the language data published by Statistics Canada, the increase in the bilingualism rate in most provinces and territories is a great sign. However, Statistics Canada’s projections show that the proportion of French-speaking Canadians will steadily decrease between now and 2036. The dynamics of Quebec’s English-speaking minority communities, meanwhile, are quite different. Despite relative stability in terms of language, these communities are facing significant social and economic challenges. Statistics Canada’s projections underline the importance of current efforts to help official language minority communities across the country in their role as host societies for immigrants.

Thank you for your attention.

I am happy to answer any questions you may have.

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