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Notes for an Appearance before
the Standing Committee on the Status of Women


Graham Fraser – Commissioner of Official Languages

Check against delivery

Madam Chair and members of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, 

Thank you for inviting me to talk to you about the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages and to explain to you my mandate as an Officer of Parliament. 

Joining me today are Catherine Scott, Acting Director General, Policy and Communications Branch, and Dominique Lemieux, Director General, Compliance Assurance Branch. 

The past few decades have witnessed the creation of a series of specialized agencies to support Parliament in its role of overseer of public administration.

I would like to commend you for examining the role of agents—also often called Officers—of Parliament. In his recent book The People's House of Commons (University of Toronto Press, 2007) the political scientist David E. Smith notes that there has been little study of our role. "Officers of Parliament either singly or as a collective are largely unexplored phenomena," he writes. (p. 64) 

He points out that there are two broad features that we share: "first, independence from the executive, and second, accountability—this last itself manifested in contrasting ways: officers are accountable through their reports to Parliament, and government's accountability to Parliament is heightened as a result of the officers' activities." (p. 64) In addition, as Smith underscores, I also have the role of "ensuring that language equality remains a defining principle of the constitutional architecture of Canada, its Parliament and its government." (p. 63) 

The institution of Ombudsman has out of necessity grown since its creation.

The factors that have led to the further development of the institution of Ombudsman are well known. Within the last generation or two, the size and complexity of government have increased considerably as much in quality as in quantity.  

Parliament appoints Officers of Parliament to work that is crucial to ensuring the integrity of our democratic system. The Canadian parliamentary agencies led by these Officers are the guardians of the fundamental values of our society. 

Parliament has assigned the Commissioner of Official Languages the role of ombudsman to allow the fulfillment of the mission of protecting language rights and promoting linguistic duality within Canadian society. So that this mission could be fully carried out, Parliament granted him the status of Officer of Parliament and set out the necessary conditions to ensure independence from the government, namely regarding the appointment process and compensation. 

Appointment process and remuneration 

As stated in the Official Languages Act, the Commissioner of Official languages is appointed for seven years by the Governor in Council, by commission under the Great Seal after approval by resolution of the Senate and House of Commons. The nomination can be revoked by the Governor in Council. The Commissioner has the rank and the powers of a deputy head of a department and benefits from the same protections and benefits as a Federal Court judge. 

While the independent status of an Officer of Parliament should also be reflected in the budget process and the accountability process, Officers of Parliament currently do not experience this kind of independence. The budget approval process puts Officers of Parliament in the position of having to request funding from the government, the very entity whose performance they are supposed to be reviewing. This situation, which we believe weakens the independent status of Officers of Parliament, has led a number of us, including the Auditor General, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Privacy Commissioner and myself, to propose the creation of a Parliamentary Panel. This advisory group of parliamentarians, which is currently a pilot project, would be responsible for reviewing our budget applications and how we are carrying out our mandate and managing public funds.  

The other aspect of the Officer of Parliament role that we believe should be reviewed from the perspective of independence is current staffing mechanisms and processes, which are governed and regulated by the Public Service Commission, meaning that the Treasury Board has a certain degree of control over the approval of resource allocation.  

As you can see, the conditions of independence related to Officer of Parliament status raise complex issues and should be clarified and defined in terms of the ultimate goal, which is to enable Officers of Parliament to carry out their social mission with all the credibility and authority that Canadians expect of them.  

As Officers of Parliament, we are working with Treasury Board to develop guidelines that define our relationship. I foresee a productive relationship and hope that this pilot project will become a permanent instrument of Parliament.

Acting independently 

As set out in subsection 56(1) of the Official Languages Act, it is my responsibility to take all actions and measures within my authority with a view to ensuring recognition of the status of each of the official languages and compliance with the spirit and intent of this Act in the administration of the affairs of federal institutions, including any of their activities relating to the advancement of English and French in Canadian society.  Our organization has over 175 employees spread throughout 4 branches and 5 regional offices.  Our annual budget is approximately $19 million. 

Mandate of the Commissioner of Official Languages 

As Commissioner of Official Languages, I see my role as that of a bridge builder between the various actors. Linguistic duality is an essential component of our national identity. I therefore approach my mandate with the objective of encouraging dialogue and creating synergies between Francophone and Anglophone Canadians, citizens of all origins, and federal institutions.  

As my mission is to take every measure necessary to achieve the objectives of the Act, I am taking specific actions in three clearly-defined areas: protection, promotion, and prevention. Under the protection component, I conduct audits, monitor the advancement of English and French, I receive complaints and, as needed, conduct investigations and intervene before the courts. Under promotion, I inform Canadians of their language rights, conduct research and publish studies. I make the public aware of the benefits of linguistic duality, work with federal, provincial and territorial governments, I work closely with official language minority communities and I ensure government takes appropriate measure in support of their development. Under prevention, I develop strategic approaches to finding sustainable solutions.  

Our mandate is to see to the full implementation of the Act while considering in particular the major amendment to Part VII of the Act adopted by Parliament in 2005. All federal institutions are now required to take positive measures to support the development of official language minority communities and promote linguistic duality. 

As ombudsman, I receive close to 1,000 complaints a year. I review them and conduct investigations were warranted. For example, the administrative changes to Status of Women Canada announced in 2006, as part of the expenditure review, resulted in a significant increase in complaints to the Office of the Commissioner by citizens concerned about the impact of budget cuts on agencies that support women in official language minority communities.

Accountability 

The Office of the Commissioner has for many years readily adhered to basic principles such as transparency and accountability to Parliament. An excellent example of our practices is our annual report to Parliament. This report discusses the status of the implementation of the Official Languages Act as well as compliance by the government and institutions subject to the Act. The report also contains recommendations to the government. Regarding internal audits, we have developed our own internal audit policy and we are now subject to the Access to Information Act. 

Challenges awaiting the Office of the Commissioner

In the mid term, the Office of the Commissioner will face new challenges that will lead us to revisit our ongoing operational needs. I am currently reviewing how the Commissioner plays the ombudsman role and studying the effectiveness of this role in contributing to attaining the Act’s objectives. 

To ensure that section 41 (2) of the Official Languages Act is respected, we will have to monitor the level of government commitment to linguistic duality and community participation in drafting government policy. It will therefore be important to call on official language majority communities for participation.  

As an Officer of Parliament, like the other commissioners before me, I fully respect the principles of government policies aimed at ensuring good practices in the management of public funds. I am also determined to ensure that the Office of the Commissioner retains its independence from government and continues to be accountable to Parliament.  

I would be pleased to answer any questions.