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Statement to the media for the launch of the 2006-2007 Annual Report


Graham Fraser – Commissioner of Official Languages

Check against delivery

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

You have in your hands my first annual report as Commissioner of Official Languages. It contains some rather serious observations on the status of official languages in Canada, as well as five recommendations for the government. Before I answer your questions, I would like to take a few minutes to cover the main points.

First, I would like to say that part of this report covers the work of Dyane Adam during her last year as Commissioner of Official Languages. I want to acknowledge the extraordinary work she accomplished during her seven-year mandate. I wish to thank her publicly for leaving in place a dedicated and professional team.

Even though I covered official languages issues as a journalist for many years, I have had new insights into these issues since assuming this position. This is why I included in my annual report a foreword summarizing my vision of the place our two official languages hold in Canadian society and the role of the Commissioner of Official Languages. Naturally, this vision is still evolving. The basis of these reflections was already in place when I was appointed seven months ago, but I have rethought, questioned, refined, and strengthened this as the result of conversations with many leaders in the field, parliamentarians, specialists, teachers and students from one end of the country to the other.

My vision of official language is guided by one simple idea: our two official languages, English and French, belong to all citizens of Canada and build bridges between us. We live in a country where people speak 150 languages, some of which were spoken well before the Europeans arrived, but the national conversation takes place in English and French.

This notion is based on respect: respect for unilingual citizens, for official language communities, for members of the public who are served by the federal government, and for employees who work for it.

Nearly forty years after the Official Languages Act came into force, its application is still not entirely successful. The five commissioners who preceded me highlighted the successes of previous governments, but also the delays, failures, errors, and setbacks.

So how is the government doing now?

Since the current administration took office, it has sent positive signals with regard to Canada’s linguistic duality. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s behaviour in terms of official languages, both in Canada and abroad, is exemplary. He frequently addresses the public in French, and even starts his press conferences in his second language. He sets an example that should be followed. Furthermore, the Minister for La Francophonie and Official Languages, Josée Verner, announced at her first appearance before the House of Commons Committee on Official Languages that the government has no intention of providing less than is set out in the Action Plan for Official Languages. In addition, a few months before the election that brought them into power, Conservative MPs supported an amendment to the Official Languages Act that strengthened the federal government’s commitment to the development of official language communities and promotion of linguistic duality.

The government’s message has been very positive. Unfortunately, the actions this government has taken in the past year do not reflect this message.

The budget cuts announced in September caused an avalanche of 117 complaints to my office from people who thought the measures would have a negative impact on Quebec’s Anglophone community and on Francophone communities throughout the country. The elimination of the Court Challenges Program in particular delivered a serious blow to Canadians’ ability to defend their language rights.

Our investigation into this issue indicates that the government did not account for the impact these cuts would have on official language communities. The complainants and the institutions in question now have 30 days to respond to the preliminary report before we begin preparing our final report.

In terms of the Action Plan for Official Languages, the government has not yet given any clear signs on what it plans to do to follow up on the initiative. Established in 2003, the Action Plan forecasted investments of $787 million over five years in key sectors such as minority language education, second language education, and language training for the public service. The current plan expires next March 31, and community leaders are concerned that the progress of recent years will be compromised if funding for Action Plan initiatives is not renewed.

The recent funding of $30 million over two years to support official language communities can hardly replace a plan that resulted in major action in several strategic areas. This is why I recommend that, over the next year, the government develop an initiative to succeed the Action Plan, in cooperation with the communities, provinces, and territories.

The elimination of the Innovation Fund and other budget cuts announced last September already weakened key elements of the Action Plan’s implementation. Unless the government acts quickly, the momentum that was achieved in 2003 will be lost.

As I mentioned before, Conservative MPs supported a strengthening of the federal government’s obligations in developing official language communities and promoting linguistic duality. All parties on the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages have endorsed a unanimous far-reaching report on the vitality of minority communities.

The changes to Part VII of the Act should lead the government to establish coherent measures for achieving concrete results and ensuring accountability.

Unfortunately, the Harper government’s actions since the election, and more importantly its inaction, raise some doubts about whether it is really committed to implementing these new legislative obligations.

I am worried that this apparent lack of will is going to undermine the application of the Official Languages Act within the federal public service. My predecessors often noted that a lack of leadership at the highest levels often results in setbacks for official languages. In this context, I find the data presented in the Annual Report on service to the public and language of work to be worrying. They seem to indicate that we are falling behind, particularly in greeting members of the public bilingually when they come into the government’s offices in person, which public administrators call "active offer." It is worth stressing that this is not just an important policy – it is spelled out as an obligation in the Act.

It is in this context that I am asking the government to show clear leadership and take concrete measures to consolidate what has been won and expand the scope of its actions. By doing this, the government will respond to the will of the vast majority of Canadians, who support the official languages policy, as many recent polls confirm.

Thank you for your attention. I will be happy to answer your questions.