Notes for an appearance before the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages

Ottawa, Ontario, May 30, 2016
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Good evening, honourable senators. I am pleased to appear before your committee to provide an overview of my tenth and final annual report, which I tabled in Parliament on May 19.

This annual report covers a range of issues that have emerged or been dealt with over the past year, and some issues that reveal the progress—or lack thereof—over the 10 years that I have been Commissioner. These include immigration, equality of service, early childhood development, and the significance of bilingualism at major national events, to name a few. But two issues in particular stand out.

First, it is clear that there is an ongoing problem in the area of access to justice in both official languages. Canadians who seek to be heard in the official language of their choice in our courts face barriers that are sometimes impossible to overcome. Lawyers often feel they have to warn their clients that if they insist on exercising their right to be heard in their preferred official language, the legal proceedings will take longer and will cost more.

One reason for this is that the bilingual capacity of the superior court judiciary remains a challenge in a number of provinces and territories. Those who apply for judgeships and self-identify as bilingual do not have their language skills tested. Once they are on the bench, they often discover they are unable to preside over a trial in their second language. The previous federal government resisted taking any action to implement the recommendations I made in the 2013 study on access to justice in both official languages that I produced jointly with my provincial counterparts in Ontario and New Brunswick. And so the first recommendation in my annual report calls on the current government and, in particular, the Minister of Justice, to address this matter.

The second issue is one that was raised repeatedly by former Senator Maria Chaput, as well as by numerous community leaders. It has now been taken up by your chair Senator Claudette Tardif in the form of Bill S‑209. For decades, federal services have been delivered in both official languages in different parts of the country where there is significant demand for services in the language of the minority. A minority community can be thriving and growing, but if the majority grows faster, services are lost. This is simply unfair. A community’s vitality should also be taken into account, not simply the rate at which the majority community has grown. Bill S‑209 provides a way of addressing this injustice, as would a revision of the Official Languages Regulations.

In three years, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act. Planning should start now to conduct a review of how Part IV of the Act, which deals with communications with and services to the public, is applied. The second recommendation of my annual report calls on the government to make this a priority.

Meanwhile, in the federal workplace in 2015–2016, complaints under section 91 of the Act about the language requirements for public service positions increased 13% compared with the previous year. One of the reasons for this is a long-standing disagreement between my office and the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. The Secretariat advises institutions that a BBB linguistic profile is appropriate for most supervisory positions, while I continue to insist that CBC is the minimum level to ensure clear and effective communications with employees in regions that are designated as bilingual for language-of-work purposes.

Along with tabling my annual report before Parliament on May 19, I issued new report cards that rate 33 federal institutions on their compliance with the Official Languages Act. I also released a report on my role before the courts over the past decade. On June 7, I intend to table a special report to Parliament that will propose options that should be examined by the federal government to ensure that Air Canada effectively meets its official languages obligations.

During the course of my 10 years in office, I have delivered 528 speeches and intervened in 23 court cases, including 9 before the Supreme Court of Canada. My office has processed 7,156 complaints. This is the 18th and possibly last time I ill have appeared before your committee. As I look ahead, though, one thing worries me. Sometimes I get the impression that the attitude toward language policy is “it goes without saying.” And so we do not talk about it. But we have to talk about it. For if it goes without saying, it remains unsaid—and what is unsaid is often neglected or forgotten.

In that context, I would be remiss if I did not say how pleased I am that Royal Military College Saint‑Jean is to regain its status as a university. For more than two decades, Canada’s armed forces have suffered from the absence of a French-language military university, and this corrects a serious problem.

As I have mentioned in the past, success is never accidental. This year, I will present my eighth annual Award of Excellence to Canadian Parents for French for its outstanding contribution to the promotion of linguistic duality. I congratulate the organization for its exceptional work and for respecting French as an integral part of Canada.

The Canada 2017 celebrations also offer a unique opportunity to showcase linguistic duality. Numerous groups throughout the country are hard at work organizing events to mark our sesquicentennial anniversary. Linguistic duality must be a key component in all of these efforts.

I commend the honourable members of this esteemed committee for your continuing efforts to promote and protect our official languages. I thank you for your attention this evening and would be pleased to answer any questions you might have.

Thank you.

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