Notes for an address at the 89th ACFAS Congress: The Health of Francophones in a Minority Language Context: 20 Years of Research

Gatineau, Quebec, May 12, 2022
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Thank you, Mr. Chevaucherie, and hello!

I’m very pleased to be joining you virtually today as part of ACFAS’ 89th congress.

I would like to acknowledge that I’m speaking to you from Treaty 1 territory, the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe, Cree, Oji‑Cree, Dakota and Dene Peoples, as well as the homeland of the Métis Nation. I am happy to be joining you in your respective territories and communities.

I’ve been invited to talk to you about a report I released in 2020 on the impact of emergency situations on official languages. Given that the pandemic has been going for more than two years now, this report is still timely. The health crisis had exposed a number of shortcomings related to the respect of language rights, and it was critical for me to more accurately identify the problems Canadians were having and to make recommendations to the federal government.

Before I get into the findings of the report, I think it’s important to give you an overview of the general linguistic landscape we’ve been living in for some time now.

These are undoubtedly turbulent times in terms of language. And our official languages have been the focus of much media attention over the past year.

The unprecedented attention official languages have generated across the country this past year clearly shows how important they are to Canadians and what an essential role they play in our society.

The language situation in the country has sparked debates at both the provincial and federal levels. Issues such as Francophone immigration, minority language education, the modernization of various provincial language laws and the reform of federal language policy have all helped to make official languages a high-profile concern.

According to the recently released results of an opinion survey conducted for my office, official languages continue to be a fundamental value in Canadian society. In fact, 87% of respondents said they strongly support official languages—clear, categorical support that echoes the results of the previous survey we conducted in 2016 and that has remained remarkably stable for the past few decades.

The survey also showed that Canadians want to receive communications from their governments in their preferred official language, especially during crises or emergency situations.

This is evidenced by the numerous complaints I receive year after year, and the upward trend is continuing. In 2021–2022, I received over 5,000 admissible complaints, which is about five times more than I usually receive in a year.

By filing complaints through my office, Canadians—and Francophones in particular—have spoken. They’ve sent a clear message to the government that it needs to do more to ensure respect for both official languages.

This is even more important in emergency situations.

As I mentioned before, in the early days of the pandemic there were a number of shortcomings on the part of federal institutions in terms of respect for Canada’s official languages.

For example:

  • press conferences were held in only one official language;
  • disinfectant products were labelled in only one official language; and
  • information documents and alert e‑mails were sent to federal employees in only one official language.

As the pandemic gained momentum, I wanted to better understand what Canadians had experienced during various emergency situations over the past 10 years. And so, through an on‑line questionnaire administered in June 2020, I collected feedback from more than 2,200 people from all across Canada who described the impact of these shortcomings on their lives and on their family’s lives.

The respondents’ comments were clear: Leaders must provide important information systematically in both official languages, regardless of which government the information is coming from. The health and safety of Canadians are at stake, and sometimes it could even be a matter of life or death.

Some of the comments were quite moving. Here are a few examples.

One person was concerned about the extent to which official bilingualism is quickly abandoned in emergency situations. The person raised the point that whether it’s labelling on bottles of disinfectants or RCMP advisories on dangerous situations, speed is trumping accessibility for official language minority communities.

Unilingual press conferences held by government officials—whether at the federal, provincial or territorial level—also generated a great deal of frustration and concern. Many respondents told us that they expect their leaders to speak to them in their official language. When this doesn’t happen, they feel like second‑class citizens whose health and safety are being jeopardized.

One respondent said that in a crisis situation, he needs to receive communications in his own official language. He explained that being tired and stressed would likely affect his ability to understand the other language, which could result in an error and therefore put his life at risk.

A number of respondents told us about the stress they felt when they couldn’t receive health care in their own official language and that they weren’t sure they fully understood the information they were being given. Others believe that hospitals should always have bilingual staff.

Some respondents in official language minority communities are worried about being able to understand health professionals and about losing their second language skills as they grow older.

Unfortunately, there are too many examples to list them all. In addition to showing a blatant lack of respect, these shortcomings are quite simply unacceptable because they put the health and safety of Canadians at risk when emergency situations arise.

Inevitably, there will be other crises; however, the problems we’ve seen must not be allowed to happen again. This is why, in my report, I’ve proposed potential solutions so that the federal government can resolve these recurring official languages-related problems when communicating with the public in a crisis situation.

I found that in emergency or crisis situations, many federal institutions choose to issue an immediate response in only one official language and then rely on translation to provide the information in the other language. Now, while I understand the need for prompt communications in an emergency, it should never be at the expense of either official language.

I therefore recommended that the federal government implement an action plan to facilitate the drafting and simultaneous delivery of emergency communications of equal quality in both official languages. This could include the establishment of an expedited translation service for emergency and crisis situations.

Another significant and ongoing issue is that communications are not integrated into federal institutions’ emergency preparedness and crisis management planning. Clear, factual and timely information is not routinely available in English and French at the same time.

I therefore recommended that the communication plans and procedures for emergency preparedness of federal institutions be reviewed to include clear directives to ensure that communications of equal quality are issued in both official languages simultaneously in emergency or crisis situations.

In addition, all managers and public servants involved in emergency and crisis communications need to be trained in how to implement the plans and procedures regarding emergency communications in both official languages.

Canadians expect to receive bilingual communications from their leaders from all levels of government during emergencies. I therefore recommended that the federal government develop a strategy to encourage, support and work with the various levels of government to integrate both official languages into communications during emergency or crisis situations.

The ultimate objective of my report was to ensure that in times of crisis, both official languages are systematically treated equally and that Canadians are informed and reassured in the official language of their choice.

Over the past year, I have continued to speak with federal public servants who are directly affected by my recommendations. All were quite receptive to what I had to say.

For instance, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat has tasked an interdepartmental working group with drafting an action plan that will be implemented between 2022 and 2024. More recently, the Prime Minister announced the creation of the Cabinet Committee on Safety, Security and Emergencies and the Sub‑Committee on the federal response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID‑19). Needless to say, I will be closely monitoring the development of these measures to ensure that they are effective.

It is also interesting to note that the federal government, whose duty it is to ensure that the Official Languages Act stays relevant and up to date, has proposed amending the Act’s preamble in Bill C‑13, which was tabled in March 2022. Specifically, the government is proposing that the preamble clearly state that the legal obligations relating to official languages apply at all times, including during emergencies.

It would seem that the government is learning valuable lessons from the issues Canadians have had to face during the pandemic and other emergencies that have occurred over the years.

Protecting the health and safety of Canadians is paramount in times of crisis. But this cannot happen unless they have prompt access to information of equal quality in the official language of their choice. When we communicate in both English and French, we reach 98% of Canadians.

Conclusion

Health in Francophone minority communities is clearly still a major issue, and the wide range of presentations we will be hearing during the congress will no doubt help us to continue the conversation that is already well under way.

It’s good to see so many experts from so many related fields gathered here to advance the research. Given the ongoing pandemic, this multidisciplinary approach to developing best practices and targeted initiatives is more important than ever.

We need to listen to the communities and truly comprehend what they’re experiencing on a daily basis so that we can fully understand their needs.

In my dealings with members of Francophone minority communities, I’ve noted that access to health and educational resources in French is very important to them.

Decision makers need to consider this and work with you, the experts, to better support these two sectors around which Francophone minority communities are developing.

For communities, having a social infrastructure with effective services and resources in the minority official language is key to maintaining and improving the vitality and development of that language.

My team is monitoring the federal government’s current five-year Action Plan for Official Languages, and one of the Plan’s initiatives, which you may have heard of, is called Enhanced early childhood health promotion and targets a very specific aspect in the health field.

Through the vital funding outlined in the Plan for official language minority communities, new projects have been launched that highlight the need for services to address the myriad issues connected with early childhood health. The stakeholders involved are working hard to ensure that essential early childhood health and social services are available.

Furthermore, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that other groups, including French-speaking seniors, also have growing health care needs. Recruiting and training French-speaking health professionals is essential to ensure access to health care. In the same vein, cooperation among the various levels of government is essential to ensure that seniors can obtain care in their preferred official language.

I sincerely hope that decision makers are paying attention and will draw upon your work and expertise to develop programs that will have a tangible positive impact on the development of Canada’s Francophone minority communities.

Thank you for your attention. I will be happy to answer your questions in the official language of your choice.

Date modified:
2022-05-12