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Notes for an appearance before the Senate Standing Committee
on Official Languages on the 2010 Olympic Games Preparations


Graham Fraser – Commissioner of Official Languages

Check against delivery

Senators, members of the Senate Standing Committee on Official Languages, good evening.

I am accompanied today by Johane Tremblay, Acting Assistant Commissioner, Policy and Communications and Ghislaine Charlebois, Assistant Commissioner, Compliance Assurance.

It is a pleasure to talk about my follow-up report on the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which was just recently released. I was glad to see that your committee also released its report on this matter and I was impressed by your recommendations. Your committee's sustained interest in this issue has contributed significantly to the progress made in this important area.

In December 2008, I published a report on the significant official languages shortfalls of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) and Canadian Heritage. I also highlighted VANOC’s goodwill and commitment, but also the many challenges that must still be overcome in order to make the 2010 Winter Olympics an event that reflects Canada’s linguistic duality.

I noted that several federal institutions did not realize that the Games are an important test of their capacity to serve the public in both official languages. My staff therefore launched an awareness campaign for federal institutions last winter.

Now, five months before the Games begin, I see that significant progress has been made. VANOC has accomplished a great deal, and some federal institutions have launched innovative initiatives to provide the public with an “Olympic-calibre performance” that is also authentically Canadian.

However, the follow-up report that I have published highlights many areas for improvement. If these shortcomings are not rectified soon, they could compromise the success of the Games where official languages are concerned.

The deadline is looming and it is time for an extra push. There are only 137 days until the opening ceremonies. To be fully prepared when the puck drops, VANOC, Canadian Heritage and the various federal institutions that will be providing services to Canadians and visitors during the Games must take decisive action in the coming weeks.

My follow-up report contains 11 recommendations. Some are for VANOC, others are for Canadian Heritage in its coordination capacity, and a number of others are for federal institutions, especially those present in Canada’s major airports.

VANOC

Most of the recommendations for VANOC deal with recruiting and training volunteers, signage, translation and the delivery of services to the public.

I was pleased to learn that the federal government announced an additional $7.7 million for translation, signage at Olympic venues and for the medal ceremonies. Given the urgency and importance of this issue, VANOC and Canadian Heritage needed to find a solution to the problem as soon as possible. This announcement was certainly a positive one. VANOC is now fully equipped to succeed and to ensure that all clauses of Annex A of the Multiparty Agreement are respected. My expectation is for these additional funds to produce concrete results that will enable athletes, media representatives and Canadians to have a positive experience of the Games.

That being said, the other challenges identified in my report should not be ignored.

Recent changes to the model that VANOC plans to use for outdoor signage are very encouraging. However, I am still concerned that VANOC’s municipal and provincial partners have not shown enough urgency in this respect. The Olympic Oval in Richmond is a symptom of a larger problem. The additional funds for signage should allow VANOC to prevent this type of situation from occurring in the future.

Regarding volunteers, the follow-up report notes that the assessment of the level of bilingualism for volunteers is adequate. In addition, VANOC seems to be on its way to reaching its objective of 3,500 bilingual volunteers out of the total 25,000 volunteers. However, this 14% proportion leaves very little room to manoeuvre in cases where personnel may need to be moved or replaced. The volunteer deployment plan should include provisions for posting bilingual volunteers wherever they are required, at any time.

As you note in your report, I also found that the countdown ceremony was very disappointing in terms of reflecting the country’s Francophonie. The quality of the cultural festivities surrounding the Games should be much higher in order to reflect all Canadians and to provide a complete image of Canada’s cultural richness. This is especially true for the Games’ opening and closing ceremonies, which will be watched around the world.

This is, in sum, what my report says about elements that are under the responsibility of VANOC.

Federal institutions

For the majority of people who travel to Vancouver to celebrate, work or participate in the Games, the Olympic experience starts at the airport and in other places where federal institutions are in contact with the public. This is why my report examines in detail the measures taken by these institutions. We have also made a series of in-person observations on the availability of service in numerous locations.

I am highly concerned about the results.

Our analyses of on-site observations show that, despite efforts made by some institutions to improve their results, generally, there is still no reflex to actively offer service in English and in French.

In general, the airports are not prepared to welcome visitors in both official languages. There is often a complete lack of French-language service. And when it is present, employees still tend to make initial contact with visitors in English only. At Vancouver Airport—the gateway to the Games!—security screenings, Air Canada and even the airport authorities obtained particularly alarming results, including a score of zero for commercial tenants at Vancouver Airport. As host airport and official supplier for the Vancouver 2010 Games, Vancouver International Airport will be welcoming thousands of travellers. If the observation results are any indication, a business-as-usual approach is clearly insufficient.

The situation is also far from perfect at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, which is Canada’s largest airport as well as a major hub. A large number of visitors will be passing through Pearson while travelling to the 2010 Games.

On a more positive note, I should emphasize that employees of Parks Canada and Service Canada can provide bilingual service in nearly all cases. However, these institutions need to ensure that all their employees greet visitors in both official languages to let them know that bilingual service is available. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which administers the important Granville Island site, also seems to be able to provide bilingual services, but has the same issues with bilingual greetings.

I have asked each of these institutions to provide me with an assessment of their official languages performance, after the Games. I hope that these will be stories of success and innovation, not embarrassing failures.

In conclusion, I would like to clarify one thing. The Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games belong to all Canadians, and it is essential that they reflect Canadian values, including linguistic duality. I do not want visitors to be greeted with “Sorry, I don’t speak French.” Let me echo your third recommendation on the need to develop tools for volunteers in order to ensure an active offer of service in both official languages. My own follow-up report also contains a similar recommendation for federal institutions.

I believe that there needs to be a system, a protocol or a method in place where volunteers, VANOC personnel, security officers or other employees can say “Un instant s’il vous plaît”—and refer a visitor to a bilingual colleague.

In Western Canada, 600,000 people are fluent in both our official languages, about half of whom live in British Columbia. Many federal institutions prove every day that official languages are an important part of quality service. And for every challenge, there is a solution. These solutions may be those developed by the various players themselves or put forward in my report.

I am pleased to see the progress made so far, but worried that certain key elements are still not in place. Everyone involved must act now to give it the necessary push.

The Games are an international event and a unique opportunity to showcase linguistic duality as a fundamental Canadian value. The international Francophonie’s expectations for Canada are high. As Mr. Raffarin, former French prime minister and Grand Témoin de la francophonie at the Beijing Games pointed out, “since Canada is an officially bilingual country, no one would understand if French were to take a back seat during the Games” [translation].

Thank you. I will be happy to answer any questions you might have.