ARCHIVED - Ottawa, March 2, 2009

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


Graham Fraser – Commissioner of Official Languages

Check against delivery

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen, honourable senators, 

I would like start off by introducing you to the people who are here with me today, as there have been some staff changes at my office since we last met. Please welcome Johane Tremblay, Acting Assistant Commissioner, Policy and Communications; Pascale Gigučre, Acting Director of Legal Affairs; Lise Cloutier, Assistant Commissioner, Corporate Services; and Pierre Coulombe, Acting Assistant Commissioner, Compliance Assurance. 

I am pleased to have the opportunity to meet with you at the beginning of this new parliamentary session and, of course, to congratulate all of you on your new mandate. Your committee, along with the “other house’s” committee, is a vital link between my office and Parliament. Your reports and interventions contribute a great deal to the advancement of Canadians’ language rights. 

This is an inspiring time for me to be here because 2009 marks the 40th anniversary of the Official Languages Act. The right to use English or French in public institutions is one of the first language rights to have been guaranteed to Canadians. As such, I thought this was an ideal place to undertake a balanced assessment of the official language successes, challenges and opportunities in Canada 40 years after the Act was adopted. 

Significant advancements have been made in terms of official languages. They include the work accomplished by the language groups themselves, particularly within official language communities, Quebec’s French-speaking population and the French-as-a-second-language movement. Other advancements are the direct result of the actions taken by parliamentarians. Lastly, court rulings have brought about changes—particularly those made by the Supreme Court of Canada. 

In fact, the Supreme Court just handed down a very important ruling in the Desrochers case, for which I served as co-appellant. I am delighted with this ruling because it is a victory for official language communities. This case helped clarify the scope of federal institutions’ obligations to deliver bilingual services.  

More specifically, the Court found it important to clearly establish that a broad view must be adopted when looking at linguistic equality, and that the Government must ensure that the service is adapted to the community’s needs.  

I’d like to give a few examples of the gains made over the past 40 years: the increase in the bilingual capacity of the public service, although it is still not perfect; the remarkable vitality of official language communities, which this committee has studied closely; and the slow but steady increase in the number of bilingual Canadians, both among Anglophones and Francophones. These advancements have benefited the country as a whole, contributing not only to its prosperity in a variety of ways, but also to the well-being of its citizens. 

Implementation of Part VII of the Official Languages Act 

What are the most important challenges now? 

I know that during the last session, this committee was interested in the implementation of Part VII of the Official Languages Act. Full implementation of this part of the Act remains a key priority. Significant importance will be placed on implementation in the performance report cards of several federal institutions that will be published with my annual report in May. While some federal institutions have taken positive measures to support the development of official language communities and promote linguistic duality, others are still wondering about their obligations. 

Federal institutions must take Part VII into account when delivering their programs, particularly in applying components of the Roadmap for Canada’s Linguistic Duality, announced by the Government in June 2008. Obviously, I am eagerly waiting for the Government to share with the public the details of the investments announced and the initiatives to follow. In my view, the silence in the recent budget on this topic was a missed opportunity.  

If the Government truly believes that linguistic equality is a Canadian value, it must be reflected in its actions. If commitments are not clearly established or if there are delays in implementing them, setbacks are often the result. This is why the current delay concerns me. For departments and their community partners, the new fiscal year starts in 29 days. I would think that this should prompt the Government to act quickly.  

2010 Olympic Games and services to the travelling public 

I also see that this committee continues to show an interest in how the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler will reflect Canada’s linguistic duality. I share your interest. This global event presents a unique opportunity to show the world that linguistic duality is one of Canada’s fundamental values and to celebrate the cultural richness of its English- and French-speaking communities. 

In a report I released on December 2 in Vancouver, I mentioned that the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games demonstrated some interest in bilingualism, but that work remains to be done in various areas. Special consideration should be given to communications with the general public, the media and athletes—three groups that have a key role in ensuring successful Games. My report contains 18 recommendations on such things as simultaneous interpretation, bilingual volunteer recruitment, signage, sponsor participation, the role of the Games Secretariat, cultural events, and resources allocated to the organization’s Official Languages Unit.  

The report was well received by VANOC. It seems to me that translation and simultaneous interpretation is one aspect that poses significant problems. In fact, the budget appears totally inadequate given the work to be done, and I am afraid that VANOC is waiting too long to correct the situation. Over the months leading up to the Games, we will continue to closely monitor the progress made and the implementation of our recommendations. 

In addition to this study, we have undertaken an awareness campaign among the federal institutions whose contribution is vital to the success of the Games. This involves the 20 or so institutions working, for example, on security, transportation and direct service to the public. Our campaign targets senior managers and the officials responsible for implementing Olympic programs and initiatives. It is important that these institutions understand that people from Canada and abroad coming to the Games will expect to interact with Canadian officials in both English and French. The Canadian Olympic experience will begin as soon as visitors arrive in Canada. 

We are not only targeting the Vancouver airport facilities, but also the facilities in Toronto. Lester B. Pearson International Airport will act as the gateway to nearly half of the travellers from abroad who will be going to Vancouver. We have been in regular contact with the airport’s administrators for the past several months and I realize the immensity of the challenge in offering bilingual services during an exceptionally busy period. 

Air Canada will have to take up a similar challenge. The airline’s performance will be evaluated as part of its performance report card in my annual report, as will the performance of some major Canadian airports.  

The Canadian television production industry  

I know that this committee is also interested in Francophone culture in Canada, and many of you are interested in the representation of the Francophone and Anglophone minority communities on the airwaves. In a study that I released on January 8, I indicated that federal institutions must redouble their efforts to ensure that official language communities are better represented on television. The remoteness of decision-making centres, the underdevelopment of infrastructure and a lack of funds are among the challenges examined in the study. The report’s 11 recommendations propose actions that could be taken by Canadian Heritage, the CRTC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to better support television production from official language communities. 

Implementing the proposed measures would allow federal institutions to comply with their obligations to take "positive measures" with respect to Anglophone and Francophone minority communities and to promote both official languages.

Public service renewal 

A major change has just been made to official languages governance. Some of the duties of the Canada Public Service Agency will now be assumed by the Treasury Board. We still do not know what place official language issues will have in the future in this organization. I hope we will see changes that aim to improve the federal government’s performance with regard to its language obligations as well as stronger leadership from Treasury Board in this area. 

Conclusion 

I will not hide the fact that, during these difficult economic times, I fear governments will reduce investments in programs supporting the development of official language communities and language instruction. This is what happened in the mid‑1990s, and the setbacks caused by this decision have barely been overcome to this day. In a context of global trade, linguistic duality is an important asset we need to preserve. 

The federal government has very important responsibilities when it comes to official languages. There have always been setbacks during periods of unsteady leadership in Ottawa; progress, on the other hand, has resulted from strong leadership. During this time of economic uncertainty, it is especially important to maintain a strong hand at the helm and not jeopardize the gains made over the past 40 years. 

We are obviously ensuring that the public funds used by my office are prudently managed. Our work with the various federal institutions subject the Official Languages Act is being done with the same concern for efficiency and results. During the last few months, we have established new ways of dealing with complaints from the public, and of being proactive in order to prevent and address situations that could lead to complaints. 

Thank you for your attention. We will be happy to answer your questions and hear your comments.