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Notes for an appearance before the House of Commons
Standing Committee on Official Languages

Graham Fraser – Commissioner of Official Languages

Check against delivery

Parliamentarians, members of the Standing Committee on Official Languages, good morning.

To present the findings of my third annual report, I am accompanied today by Johane Tremblay, Acting Assistant Commissioner, Policy and Communications; Ghislaine Charlebois, Assistant Commissioner, Compliance Assurance; Pascale Gigučre, Attorney and Acting Director of Legal Affairs; and Lise Cloutier, Assistant Commissioner, Corporate Services.

The Official Languages Act is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Clearly, the parliamentarians who worked on its development, culminating in its royal assent in 1969, were visionaries. This legislative framework was absolutely necessary for the future of the country.

The language guarantees contained in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provided a valuable basis that supported a review of the Official Languages Act. Many benefits arose from the Charter in terms of human rights, culture, workforce mobility and the economy. They benefit all Canadians, regardless of their mother tongue.

Nonetheless, the time has come to eliminate the roadblocks and contradictions related to the implementation of Canada's language policy and to attain a certain level of coherence between the various government policies, programs and initiatives.

This year, my report aims to measure the distance between the road that has been travelled and how far we have left to go with regard to three components: the learning of the official languages, the quality of services provided by federal institutions and the organization of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

Learning the official languages

Despite the significant investment that it represents for our country's future, access to official languages learning opportunities remains limited.1

By enabling young Canadians to acquire skills that will benefit them professionally, personally and culturally, we are contributing to their professional mobility. In the current economic climate, I find it unfortunate that governments and post-secondary institutions are not focusing enough on second-language learning programs.

Although students are encouraged to take the bilingual path throughout their academic career, post-secondary institutions seldom provide them with opportunities to continue studying in their second language. After 40 years of language policy, it is high time that we remove the last roadblocks on this path. The federal government should bring together the various players in order to create a true second-language learning continuum.

Services of equal quality

According to our observations of institutions, government services are offered in the minority language, when there is significant demand, 75% of the time. Very often, federal institutions do not actively offer their services in the language of the minority, and citizens hesitate to ask for these services in their language. Moreover, we are too quick to settle on providing the linguistic minority with a translated version of the services provided to the majority.

However, in an important judgment rendered on February 5, 2009, in the Desrochers case, the Supreme Court declared that federal institutions must consider both the nature of services and the specific needs of official language communities. In other words, the obligation to provide services "of equal quality" in both official languages does not necessarily mean "identical" services.

The Olympic Games

Finally, the organization of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games clearly illustrates some obstacles to incorporating linguistic duality into our Canadian reality.2 I continue to be concerned that our country finds it difficult to meet the challenges related to official languages at the Games in an exemplary manner—especially considering its 26 million Anglophone and 9 million Francophone inhabitants.

As indicated by the study I released in December and by the results of the awareness campaign subsequently conducted among federal institutions, the organizing committee and federal institutions must do more to ensure that the Canadian public and visitors have access to services in both of our country's official languages.

I am still hoping that the Games will reflect linguistic duality before, during and after the athletes' arrival. There is little time left to solve the most pressing problems, namely those pertaining to translation, interpretation and signage. Federal institutions that have a specific role to play must realize that the arrival of thousands of additional visitors will lead to an increased demand for bilingual services. This is especially important in terms of services provided at the Games venues and services provided to the travelling public, mainly in the Vancouver and Toronto airports.

The Olympic Games is proof of the need to better integrate official languages into federal institutions, not only in terms of services, but also in terms of support for official language committees and the promotion of linguistic duality.

In 2010, it will be five years since Parliament strengthened Part VII of the Official Languages Act. I am not very impressed with how the government has managed the implementation of the provisions in this part of the Act. The response has been slow and minimal. My staff and I will therefore be paying special attention to this issue in 2009–2010.

To foster linguistic duality in Canadian society, I call upon new stakeholders to get involved. As I will explain in a forthcoming presentation, I encourage post-secondary institutions to forge close ties between the second-language programs offered and the need for bilingual staff from employers such as the federal public service. I also encourage young people to continue improving their second language by taking advantage of opportunities offered by the other language community. Finally, I encourage public sector leaders and managers of public services to show leadership and commitment in to make linguistic duality a value in federal institutions.

Public service renewal should facilitate the training of future leaders who are committed to promoting linguistic duality as a value, both through their day-to-day actions and through the implementation and management of language programs and policies.

Naturally, all of this must be supported by sustained leadership on the part of the federal administration, based on a dynamic vision of linguistic duality that is characterized by respect, dialogue and partnership. For this to happen, the federal government's ongoing commitment is necessary.

In June 2008, the government released its Roadmap for Canada's Linguistic Duality. I am still concerned about the delay in the implementation of this initiative, the lack of information on certain projects and the uncertainty that stems from the elimination of programs in some areas targeted by the Roadmap 2008–2013. The lack of specific objectives pertaining to the government Roadmap does little to assure us that it will be implemented effectively.

Community organizations, the education community and provincial governments are concerned because they do not have a clear vision of the federal government's actions. While the investments allocated to various programs are certainly welcome, the government would do well to outline an overall vision and specific objectives that it intends to achieve.

The parliamentarians’ vision in 1969 was bold, ambitious and above all crucial to the future of this country. Forty years later, other challenges lie ahead. At the time, this vision was a way to bring Canadians together and to ensure that the State could serve them in the official language of their choice; now, it is a way to help them reach their full potential.

Thank you for your attention. I would now like to take the remaining time to answer any questions you may have.

1. The 5th recommendation in Chapter 3 discusses the learning continuum.

2. The organization of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver is dealt with in the 4th recommendation, related to Chapter 2.