ARCHIVED - IV Linguistic Duality on the Front Line: Language of Service Issues

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Linguistic duality begins with bilingual service. We visited 11 embassies and consulates to explore the issues raised elsewhere in this report. These visits provided an opportunity to assess each mission’s respect for its obligation to provide services in both official languages.17 Given that our findings are not based on a comprehensive audit, we restrict our observations to three areas of particular concern: consular services, mission publications and security services.

Canadians living or travelling abroad often turn to our embassies and consulates when emergency situations arise. Consular officials in each mission are responsible for dealing with a multitude of problems, ranging from lost passports and injuries to deaths and imprisonment. Their clients may be in serious distress and confused by the unfamiliarity of processes and procedures. Service availability in both official languages takes on enhanced importance in these types of situations.

At most locations visited, we found heightened sensitivity among front-line consular officials to the linguistic needs and rights of their clients. Excellent bilingual capacity among consular staff was the norm. However, at one embassy the sole bilingual consular affairs officer had been temporarily replaced for several months by a person who did not speak French.

The other situation of note was at the Chicago consulate general, where the consular affairs section had had no bilingual capacity for many years.18 We were advised that service in French was available “on request,” although no active offer signs were visible. Not surprisingly, the mission reported little demand for French-language service. The fact that the situation in Chicago has been allowed to exist for years is disquieting and underscores the need for better monitoring mechanisms.

The Commissioner therefore recommends that:

16. a) the Department of Foreign Affairs take immediate steps to ensure bilingual capability and active offer within the consular affairs sections of all diplomatic missions; and

16. b) establish, by December 31, 2004, an effective mechanism for regularly monitoring bilingual service availability and capacity within these sections.

Noting our generally positive assessment of the linguistic situation of consular services, the Government of Canada replied that the two parts of the recommendation “appear to be based on a couple of isolated situations, rather than the norm within Consular Sections abroad.”

The Government of Canada added: “Management of missions abroad, including adherence to departmental and government-wide policies, is the responsibility of Heads of Mission. They are held responsible for their implementation through the Performance Management Agreement (PMA) process and audit and evaluations carried out by the Office of the Inspector General.

“Recommendations, and deadlines attached to them, will be monitored by audits of the Inspector General to ensure they are implemented. It should be noted that the Human Resource Audit Guide for Missions has recently been updated to ensure a more thorough review of the administration of Official Languages at Missions. The audit guide includes steps to ensure that the Consular Program has the capacity to meet its obligation to provide services in both official languages, that active offers are made, appropriate signage and availability of forms/hand-outs in public areas and language training is provided to [locally engaged] staff as required.”

DFAIT’s official languages policy establishes different language requirements for publications based on the targeted population. Departmental publications intended for the general public must be issued in both official languages. However, a publication for a “limited unilingual public,” using only one of Canada’s official languages, may appear in that language only. In the latter case, the policy cites the example of publications prepared by an embassy or consulate and designed for the local public.19

All headquarters material identified during our study was in both official languages, except for several brochures intended for an American audience. The availability of mission publications, such as speeches, press releases and cultural calendars, in English and French varied from mission to mission.

The Internet sites of Canada’s Washington embassy and the New York consulate general are notable for the degree to which information is offered in English only.20 At a given point in our study, 18 of 35 speeches on the Washington embassy site were available in English only. The New York site also offered considerable material in English only, including a speech that was delivered in Canada.

Officials at our embassy in Paris explained that they aim to place all information in both languages on the embassy’s Internet site. The embassy makes considerable use of available tools and services, such as the federal government’s Translation Bureau, although we were advised that information is sometimes posted in one language pending translation. Translation delays would account for the fact that a list of events and speeches on the Internet site at the time of our study was more up to date in French than was the list on the English site.

Most missions where the host country’s language is neither English nor French include material in the local language on their Internet sites. Canada’s embassy in Mexico City ensures that major speeches are available in English and French as well as in Spanish on its Internet site, but the calendar of events is in Spanish only. Several other missions also issue their cultural calendars only in the host country’s language, often citing translation costs as a factor. The Budapest embassy issues press releases in English and French as well as in Hungarian, while distributing weekly newsletters to government officials in Hungarian only.

These varied approaches suggest that the language of the targeted audience is not always clearly established. Moreover, material issued by headquarters and Canadian offices abroad in the local language only fails to convey Canada’s linguistic duality. The situation calls for a rethinking of DFAIT’s policy, which should provide reasonable standards and criteria consistent with projecting our official languages, such as the inclusion of bilingual summaries. Headquarters should provide missions with the resources needed to fulfil linguistic responsibilities. One official suggested that DFAIT provide missions with guidance on the issue through its Internet site.

The Commissioner therefore recommends that:

17. the Department of Foreign Affairs revise, by December 31, 2004, provisions contained in its Official Languages Policy governing the language of publications with a view to ensuring that Canada’s bilingual image is fully reflected at all times, and ensure that Canada’s diplomatic missions are provided with adequate tools and financial resources to meet the requirements.

In response, the Government of Canada stated: “While requiring that all communications for the Canadian public be available in both official languages, the Official Languages Policy document of the two departments includes provision for a limited number of documents to be available to non-Canadians in their preferred language.

“To this end, the Web sites of Canadian diplomatic missions abroad aimed at members of the local public can be available exclusively in the language(s) of the local public. Each site available for the local public must be identified as such in both English and French as well as the local language.”

The Commissioner notes that the federal government’s response reiterates existing policy and does not address the issues, concerns and suggestions raised in our study. She calls upon it to reconsider its position and take corrective action as recommended.

Members of the study team were subject, as visitors, to some form of security screening at each mission. The screening ranged from being asked to show identification to undergoing a search similar to what one experiences at an airport.

At most missions, security services were not available in both English and French at the time of our visits. Often, security guards could speak only the host country’s language or only one of our two official languages. An incident at the Washington embassy merits special mention: in response to a visitor’s greeting in French, the security guard told the visitor to “talk in English.”

Security services for Canada’s missions abroad are usually provided under contract by a local security company. Officials explained that linguistic clauses requiring companies to provide the service in both of our official languages are not realistic in many countries: the low salaries do not attract bilingual or multilingual candidates. In an effort to resolve the situation, one embassy had established - and practiced - a procedure whereby visitors are brought to a bilingual receptionist when required. At another location, embassy officials placed an active offer sign at the security desk when the matter was raised during our visit.

Unilingual security screening at Canada’s diplomatic missions is contrary to the government’s linguistic obligations and sends the wrong message about Canada’s linguistic duality. Mission security guards are at the front end of service delivery. They are the first point of contact for Canadian and foreign visitors to our diplomatic missions. Moreover, the nature of that contact can be intimidating, unexpected and imbued with a sense of restraint. Being told to “talk in English” at the front door has a direct impact on Canada’s linguistic image and can significantly affect a client’s linguistic expectations beyond that point. Despite these considerations, the language of security services at our diplomatic missions has been ignored at many locations. The situation calls for a department-wide solution.

The Commissioner therefore recommends that:

18. the Department of Foreign Affairs take steps, by December 31, 2004, to ensure that security services at all Canadian diplomatic missions are actively offered and immediately available in both official languages.

The Government of Canada responded: “Security services at missions are normally provided by a third party. As such, requirements for the security clearance of individuals providing those services will often take precedence over the official languages competence. The Department will undertake a review of processes and systems to ensure that security services are actively offered and immediately available in both official languages.”

The Commissioner is pleased to note the Department intends to conduct the necessary review. However, she finds it difficult to reconcile the federal government’s intention to implement the recommendation with its position that security clearance requirements “often take precedence” over respect of linguistic rights. This position may account for the lack of security services in both official languages at most of the missions we visited and for the particularly unacceptable incident at the Washington embassy. In reminding the Government of Canada of its legal responsibility to provide service in both languages at all diplomatic missions, the Commissioner suggests that effective communication in a client’s own language enhances security, rather than conflicts with it.


17. All of Canada’s diplomatic missions and consular posts are designated bilingual for purposes of service to the public under sub-section 10(a) of the Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations.

18. At the time of our study, we were told the situation would be addressed by hiring a bilingual assistant.

19. The policy also contains provisions for scientific, professional and technical publications.

20. Both sites identify English-only documents with the symbol of the American flag.

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