Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Issue 1 - Evidence - Meeting of December 3, 2007
OTTAWA, Monday, December 3, 2007
The Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages met this day at 5:35 p. m. to study and to report from time to time on the application of the Official Languages Act and of the regulations and directives made under it, within those institutions subject to the Act.
The Honourable Maria Chaput (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: My name is Maria Chaput, chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Official Languages. Allow me to introduce the members of the committee: to my far left, is the vice-chair of the committee, Senator Champagne, then Senator Comeau; and Senator Murray; and to my right are Senator Losier-Cool and Senator Tardif.
Today we welcome the Commissioner of Official Languages, Mr. Graham Fraser, as well as his staff, whom he will introduce very shortly.
Mr. Fraser has held the office of Commissioner of Official Languages since October 17, 2006. He is the sixth person to hold this office. During the first year of his term, he published his first annual report, a report on language rights and three special studies on subjects related to official languages, and two audit reports. He has appeared twice before this committee, the first time in 2006 and the second in June 2007. This time he is appearing to sum up the first year of his term.
Commissioner, welcome to the committee; the floor is yours.
Graham Fraser, Commissioner of Official Languages, Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages: Thank you, Madam Chair. Accompanying me today are Ms. Johane Tremblay, Director of the Legal Affairs Branch, Catherine Scott, Director General of the Policy and Communications Branch, and Dominique Lemieux, Director General of the Compliance Assurance Branch.
Madam Chair, I am very pleased to be meeting with you today. My first year as Commissioner of Official Languages has been an intense learning experience for me. I have had the opportunity to develop a greater understanding of the vitality of official language communities across the country and experience first-hand their energy and determination to make their pressing needs known to all levels of government.
Furthermore, I visited a number of these communities across the country to see this for myself.
Since I became commissioner, I have appeared before various parliamentary committees to explain my first annual report as well as my perspective on such issues as the 2010 Olympic Games, the relocation of head offices, the regulations of the Official Languages Act, the Air Canada Public Participation Act, the mandate of the CBC, the functional approach adopted by the Canadian Forces, and the suggested modifications to the Criminal Code to guarantee the language rights of the accused. I have also had the opportunity to share my vision of linguistic duality through, among other things, the many interviews and speeches that I have given in the past year.
Over the past year, I have realized the importance of parliamentary committee work on official languages. I am thinking in particular of the study carried out by the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages on the consideration given to official languages in the organization of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games that will be held in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C. I am aware of the fact that the committee has met with most of the partners involved and that the result of its work has allowed it to make 10 well-founded recommendations to Canadian Heritage and the federal government.
Immediately upon taking office, I was faced with a considerable challenge, the major task of examining the many complaints that were filed after the budget cuts made by the federal government in September 2006. For the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, this involved a preliminary examination based on an analysis of the application of Part VII of the Official Languages Act since it was amended in November 2005. As you know, I completed my final report on this subject last October 9.
After taking into account the comments made by the government and the complainants in response to my preliminary report, I concluded that the 2006 expenditure review was not consistent with the Government of Canada's commitment as it is expressed in Part VII of the Official Languages Act or with the obligations of the federal institutions involved, which must take positive measures to implement this commitment.
Recently, I decided to intervene in the court proceedings initiated by the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne to oppose the government's decision to abolish the Court Challenges Program. I decided to request intervener status because the questions brought before the court are of national interest. This legal recourse will allow the courts to clarify, for the first time, the scope of the language obligations set forth in Part VII of the Official Languages Act, which was amended in 2005.
The recourse and its aftermath will have a major impact on all federal institutions and official language communities.
This past summer, the Office of the Commissioner published an audit of the health services offered to certain groups, such as veterans, Aboriginals, inmates and RCMP cadets. Clearly, the general shortage of available health care workers makes it difficult to hire bilingual staff.
But the fact remains that all these groups are entitled to receive services in the official language of their choice.
I therefore recommend that the government act as quickly as possible to ensure the act is fully respected.
The Office of the Commissioner also carried out several research projects. In particular, we published three studies on community vitality in Halifax, Sudbury and Winnipeg, a follow-up study on international relations and a study on development of official language minority communities that depend increasingly on provincial and territorial measures in education, health and immigration.
I was pleased to hear the francophone Affairs ministers declare last September that they strongly supported the renewal of the Action Plan for Official Languages. Provincial government representatives are anxiously awaiting a response.
Most recently, in its Speech from the Throne, the Government of Canada informed Canadians that it will develop a second phase to follow up on the Action Plan, which comes to an end in March 2008.
This is a much-anticipated initiative that demonstrates the government's leadership in linguistic duality.
Furthermore, I was happy to learn today that Bernard Lord, former Prime Minister of New Brunswick, was appointed Special Advisor for the consultations on linguistic duality and official languages. In my opinion, his experience and his passion for both official languages make him an ideal candidate for the position. I will keep a close eye on developments.
One year after being appointed commissioner, I have a better understanding of the mechanics of the official language policies in the federal government. I can now confidently say that official languages cannot advance within the Canadian public service without strong leadership from its managers. Without strong leadership, the values associated with linguistic duality become a burden for federal public servants.
I have also come to the conclusion that linguistic duality is in fact an essential leadership skill for public service managers. How can you become a leader if you do not understand those you are leading? How can you respect members of the public if you are not aware of their language rights and culture? How can you really understand a country like Canada if you do not speak the two main languages?
I am convinced more than ever that English and French are Canadian languages that belong to all of the citizens of this country. Nationally, bilingualism is essential in several areas of activity for those who must demonstrate leadership.
Education is therefore paramount, and as a result, I will continue my efforts to ensure post-secondary institutions recognize the value of educating bilingual students.
To fulfill this objective, I will be conducting a study in cooperation with the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada on second-language learning opportunities in Canadian universities.
As you know, my mandate is based on two separate but complementary functions: promotion and protection.
The events that marked the first year of my mandate have led me to reflect on my role as ombudsman and how it relates to the fundamental need to advance the culture of federal institutions and make people understand that a strong language policy brings added value to the federal government. Investigations, audits and performance report cards remain important tools. However, we would like to expand our field of activity and are therefore considering other options. My role as language ombudsman involves ensuring that the government and federal public service abide, in a proactive way, by the Official Languages Act.
In a spirit of supporting federal institutions and the implementation of their obligations, and in order to ensure that the language rights of citizens, employees and communities are fully respected, I am reviewing other methods that could be added to the investigation, audit and report card tools that we already have. I plan on expanding this role through intervention mechanisms that are based on a more effective dispute resolution process and the prevention of problems that cause these disputes.
It is in the spirit of cooperation and prevention that I am closely monitoring the planning for the 2010 Olympic Games. This will be an exciting time for Canada, a time when the entire world will be watching.
We are proud to live in a country that recognizes the importance of its linguistic duality, and that is why Canada's bilingual image must be unequivocal, whether at international entry points like the Vancouver and Toronto airports, on VIA Rail or at U.S. border crossings.
There is still time for us to prepare, and together with different partners, including the francophone community, we must get to work.
This is why the Office of the Commissioner is getting ready to study the preparatory work of the organizing committee of the 2010 Olympics from the point of view of linguistic duality. I would like to take the findings and recommendations of your recent report as a starting point. We intend to publish the results of this study in the fall of 2008, which will give the Organizing Committee time to make adjustments, if necessary.
My hope is that this major event will be a source of national pride, rather than a source of criticism.
In addition, I am following up on a recommendation you made in your May 2007 report on the relocation of head offices of federal institutions, in which the Office of the Commissioner was asked to carry out a study on the horizontal coordination of the government's official languages policies. We have asked Donald Savoie, a well-known expert in public administration and horizontal management, to help us conduct this study. It would be my pleasure to share these results with you in a few months.
Also in 2008, the Office of the Commissioner will review all of the training offered by the Canadian Forces to determine the extent to which training opportunities are offered in both official languages. Obviously, we are working closely with the ombudsman at National Defence, Yves Côté, to ensure our processes are complementary.
We will also continue reviewing official language community vitality in order to recommend tools that will help them better focus their efforts with federal institutions to implement Part VII of the act as effectively as possible.
This is an opportunity for federal institutions to reaffirm the role they must play in implementing Part VII.
I will also continue communicating to members of the public service my vision of leadership in terms of official languages. At present, a less thorough, even minimalist application of the Official Languages Act appears to be taking place within the federal public service, particularly in terms of "active offer''. Without sustained leadership from managers, backsliding is imminent.
The Clerk of the Privy Council launched an initiative to renew the public service; clearly, linguistic duality must find its place in all parts of this initiative.
This is another issue I am monitoring closely.
On the same topic, the data I presented in my annual report on service to the public and language of work continues to be of concern. I am worried that these shortcomings will only grow if the public service senses a lack of commitment to official languages by the federal government. While Canadian society may consist of many cultural identities, English and French remain its two official languages. Our official languages and multiculturalism policies should work together to promote respect and equality of opportunity.
I have begun to explore the relationship between linguistic duality and cultural diversity, in particular through a forum in Toronto last month. I intend to continue my work in this area in order to better understand how Canadians of diverse origins view their relationship with the two official languages and to take this into account in our work and in our recommendations to the government.
I have shared some of my priorities with you for the second year of my mandate. Obviously, the Commissioner of Official Languages is not solely responsible for Canadian linguistic duality, as the government has an important role to play. As such, I expect to see results from the government over the course of the next year in three specific areas. The government must absolutely move into action and develop and implement the next phase of the Action Plan for Official Languages. It must also show strong leadership in order to improve the active offer of service to the Canadian public. Finally, it must consider the knowledge of both official languages as a leadership skill during the renewal process for the public service.
I hope that you as well, as members of this committee, will examine these issues, which I consider among the most pressing.
I would be happy to answer any questions.
The Chair: Thank you very much, Commissioner. My first question is a rather general one. Before taking up your current position, you had the vantage point of a journalist as you followed the issues in the area of official languages. Has your perspective changed now that you are in your new position?
Mr. Fraser: In some ways, yes. When I was a journalist, my professional life was based in central Canada: Toronto, Montreal, Quebec and Ottawa; so I rarely got a close-up view of the issues affecting minority communities, especially outside Quebec. I lived in Quebec for 10 years, so I had some sense of the problems facing the anglophone minority, but what really struck me, and I think that you yourselves also made this observation, is the vitality of the minority communities throughout the country, in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, in the Maritimes and in Ontario.
That was a discovery for me. When I talk about a year of intensive learning, I am really referring to learning about a very different context and the different reactions and priorities of the various communities.
The Chair: Is there an issue that you are specifically concerned about?
Mr. Fraser: I am closely monitoring the government's commitment to renew the Action Plan. I believe that it is important for the government to adopt a comprehensive, strategic, medium-range approach.
I have also observed that it is not always easy for a government to unquestioningly accept a program developed by a previous government. I think that it is natural that this government should call on Mr. Lord to conduct a round of consultations.
When the government made known its firm intention to hold consultations, I was initially a little fearful it would prolong the process. But I am pleased to see today that the consultative process will take place over a very short period of time. So it is my hope that the government will conserve the successful elements of the Action Plan which comes to an end in late March, that it will strengthen the areas of the Action Plan where success was less evident, and that it will explore aspects such as the cultural dimension.
Senator Goldstein: Thank you for your testimony, Mr. Fraser. You have answered my first question, that is, to what extent Mr. Lord's appointment will help you to achieve what you set out to do in the second year of your mandate.
Here is my second question: you refer to your involvement in the legal action for the reinstatement of the Court Challenges Program. You appeared before the Federal Court as an intervenor in this case.
What is happening with this legal action? Is the matter ready to go to trial or are there still preliminary procedures to deal with before this occurs?
Mr. Fraser: It is my understanding that hearings have already been announced for January 21 and 22 in Fredericton. I have already signed an affidavit before the federal court asking for intervenor status. We still have not received formal approval from the court, but given past experience, I expect permission to be given, and we are currently putting together our arguments.
Perhaps Ms. Tremblay has something to add concerning the preparation of this file.
Johane Tremblay, Director, Legal Affairs Branch, Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages: No, I do not. In fact, we are waiting for the court's decision on our request for intervenor status, and we expect to get an answer soon.
Senator Goldstein: Has the federal government challenged your request?
Ms. Tremblay: It has not opposed it. The federal government gave a response, which was more technical in nature. They are not opposed, per se, to the Commissioner intervening.
Senator Tardif: Commissioner, I would like to congratulate you on a great job in your first year and on the priorities you have set for your second year. I think that you are going to have a very busy year ahead with everything you have set out to do.
Mr. Fraser: And we have already started the ball rolling!
Senator Tardif: I would like to ask you some questions about Part VII of the Official Languages Act. As you are aware, our committee will be carrying out a study on the implementation of Part VII. I would like to get your opinion on the federal institutions we should invite to appear before our committee. Are there some which should be invited in preference to others? Should we focus on any particular sectors, in your opinion?
Mr. Fraser: One thing that struck me when I reviewed the departments' and institutions' reports was all the positive and practical measures taken by the Business Development Bank of Canada. I was somewhat dissatisfied with the reaction in the reports from certain departments. This is perhaps understandable, but there were very few concrete measures taken, despite meetings being organized and staff being advised the importance of the issue. The BDC went to great lengths to say: "This is what we are doing in the Eastern Townships for anglophone groups, and here is what we are doing in Acadian communities for minority francophone groups. . .'' I think it might be useful to hear how they went about things.
I also believe we need to remind certain institutions that they need to reflect on the importance of these new obligations. I am thinking particularly of Canada Post, Public Works and Government Services Canada, and Service Canada, which has an increasing number of one-stop shops. I am also thinking of Health Canada; this ties in to the importance given to health in the action plan. Clearly, I believe that Part VII may constitute a way of consolidating the major gains made in the area of health under the Action Plan.
Senator Tardif: You mentioned that there are still several federal institutions and departments which are having trouble understanding their obligations under Part VII, and especially their new obligations.
In your opinion, what are the main hurdles for the implementation of Part VII and these new obligations?
Mr. Fraser: The new obligations in Part VII are interesting because they open the door to a new type of collaborative relationship with the communities.
Often, in hierarchical departments, where there is a top-down approach, innovation and openness to a collaborative approach are hampered. To begin with, I do not think that the message about the new obligations has really got through to senior management in the departments. I also think that there is a lack of consistency and leadership when it comes to making sure these obligations are met.
I have frequently observed that the major success stories spring from being imaginative. As I mentioned in the annual report, someone working for Parks Canada in Jasper offered a community organization free use of its premises in exchange for French conversation workshops. That is very practical and grassroots. Let me give you another example. Mr. Côté, the CEO of VIA Rail, took his responsibilities seriously and consulted the FCFA executive and ended up, after a consultative process, becoming a sponsor of the spring summit. So, there you have a very local example and another example from the head of an organization. In both examples, this collaborative approach has led to doors opening up for communities.
Senator Tardif: You did not mention Canadian Heritage, which is responsible for coordinating the implementation of Part VII. Do you think that Canadian Heritage is properly fulfilling its coordination role?
Mr. Fraser: There is a conflict of interest which was raised in the first annual report, insofar as Canadian Heritage is responsible for the implementation and coordination of official languages programs. And that is why we have called on Professor Savoie to review the issue of governance, as per your suggestion in your report. Prior to the government's decision to transfer the coordination role from the Privy Council to the Department of Canadian Heritage, things were different. Obviously, when a directive was issued by the Privy Council, people often snapped to attention far more quickly than when there was a horizontal directive from a department. That is something that I observed this spring. So in order to see how the system works, in practice, we have called on Mr. Savoie to carry out a study.
Senator Champagne: Good afternoon, Commissioner. Last summer, I had plenty of time to read the newspapers and there were articles about the problems the anglophone minority was experiencing when it came to getting health care services in Quebec. Having spent almost six months in the hospital system in 2007, I am fully aware that there are problems in terms of the number of staff in hospitals across Quebec, but I was not aware that there were problems that were unique to the anglophone minority.
What have you been told? What are the deficiencies? Are there other really problematic sectors? Until recently, I was the only female Quebecker, so I took it upon myself to advocate on behalf of our minorities in Quebec. What are the criticisms that you have heard?
Mr. Fraser: Well, there are several things I have to say. To begin with, there is a demographic problem when it comes to the minority anglophone community getting government services and health care. There is a whole segment of the population that, while in the workforce, did not necessarily need to know French to get by. Now, these individuals have retired, and they are trying to get social and health care services but health care institutions often have trouble responding. And that is why Quebec signed an agreement with the federal government as part of the action plan, and the result is that 4,000 employees of Quebec's health care system have taken specialized English-language classes so that they can provide health care services in English to anglophones.
Even if this initiative was warmly received, I have been told that treating a 10-year-old child with a broken arm requires very limited knowledge of English, whereas one would need to be significantly more fluent when dealing with someone showing the first signs of Alzheimer's disease.
A resident of Granby has told me that one particular segment of the aging population suffering from age-related problems places stress on the health care system.
Jeffrey Hale Hospital is another success story. Formerly an anglophone institution, the hospital slowly transformed into a francophone institution. Transforming this institution into a clinic with more limited services, must have required a determined effort on the part of the anglophone community in Quebec. As a result, the Jeffrey Hale Clinic is now associated with St. Brigid's Home.
This approach specifically addresses the aging population, as they pose particular problem in the anglophone community. They are the least bilingual group in the anglophone community, which has evolved over several decades. Things are more difficult for people 65 or 70 years of age or older, who lived most of their lives in a different era of Quebec's history.
Senator Champagne: Another possible factor is that a lot of our hospital staff — nurses, attendants, and even doctors — are new Canadians whose first language is neither French nor English. Many speak Spanish or Arabic, as I have noticed in some of Montreal's major hospitals. If we ask these people to move to places like Granby or Sherbrooke, where there are more anglophones, the same problem would probably occur.
Mr. Fraser: That is possible, and it is an interesting example of the challenge that arises in trying to balance diversity and duality.
Senator Champagne: Do you receive complaints from the anglophone communities concerning sectors other than health care?
Mr. Fraser: In rural areas, and this is much less the case in Montreal, sometimes it is difficult to receive bilingual service; however, there are not a huge number of complaints. Perhaps Ms. Lemieux can provide details?
Dominique Lemieux, Director General, Compliance Assurance Branch, Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages: Madam Chair, I unfortunately do not have the exact number of complaints lodged by anglophones in Quebec, but I can tell you that for Canada as a whole, anglophones have filed 14 per cent of the complaints received since April 1 of last year.
Senator Champagne: That is already too high.
Senator Poulin: Given the snowstorm underway, it is rather impressive to see you and your team here. We were quite proud when you assumed office because throughout your career, you have always recognized the value of this tradition and the status of bilingualism in Canada, an asset that is recognized throughout the world. It is a rather unique and complex asset that you have always acknowledged as a source of wealth, and one that is experienced differently in all areas of the country, including Ontario. As you know, I represent northern Ontario in the Senate, and the challenges we face pertaining to official languages in this particular region are different from the official languages challenges that people living in eastern Ontario face.
You have applauded today's appointment of Bernard Lord to lead a study. I, for one, think this is a very good thing, but unfortunately, it comes too late. The news release says that regional consultations will take place during the first two weeks of December, in seven cities across the country. This will be fantastic, because a single team will be able to visit at least three cities at the same time.
Given an issue as complex as this one, in a country as complex as ours — I will employ the very same terms you used in your annual report, that is to say, minimalist — is the current government taking a minimalist approach in dealing with an issue as significant as this one currently is?
Mr. Fraser: I hope not. In my opinion, there are two ways of looking at this. Initially, when the government insisted that these consultations were necessary, my fear was that the consultations would be lengthy and cause delays. However, having consultations that are focused and swift has its advantages. It must be said that we are not lacking data with respect to renewal of the Action Plan: in June, the Sommet des communautés francophones et acadienne put forward recommendations; the House committee made 39 recommendations on the vitality of communities living in a minority situation; and this committee has made many recommendations in many reports pertaining to vitality, such as your report on Nova Scotia, for example. As such, I am convinced that these recommendations are not going to disappear; they are part and parcel of the stock that Mr. Lord can draw on when he formulates his recommendations to the government.
I would add the following: for now, in any case, I am awaiting results. If the Prime Minister wishes to appoint another commission before unveiling an overall and strategic renewal of the Action Plan, I think this is a good thing. I am not opposed to verifying the value of some of these recommendations. I understand that it is sometimes difficult for a government to admit that previous governments did good things, so I see the need to carry out additional verifications as a way of testing the waters. What is important is that concrete action be taken. The Action Plan will expire on March 30, 2008, and its replacement is what is of importance.
When the Speech from the Throne was made, I said that I was very happy to see that the government heeded my recommendation to commit to renewing the Action Plan. As I see it, the Speech from the Throne is simply a menu, and not the meal. So, somebody is going to be making further recommendations to the chef, but we are still awaiting the main course.
Senator Losier-Cool: My question pertains to the Action Plan. You seem to be optimistic that the Action Plan will be renewed. It is on the menu, but as you say, we hope the chef is preparing a good dish. Were you yourself consulted on renewal of the Action Plan?
Mr. Fraser: During the time that everyone knew the Throne Speech was being prepared, I took steps to convey the message that it is highly important that the commitment be made. We undertook analyses which we believe will be in the new report. We shared our analyses with a number of people. Given how the speech is drafted, its content remains a secret until the very last minute before delivery. I was therefore very anxious to see if one single sentence in the Throne Speech would be dedicated to this, because the first Action Plan was born from a single sentence in the Throne Speech. One of the things I kept saying was that this does not require a page, or even a paragraph, only one single sentence. So on the night of the speech, I was very happy to hear the sentence expressing the government's commitment. Jokingly, I said that the speech was made up of a single sentence with a very long introduction and a long conclusion. What was important for me was to hear the government make a commitment to renewing the Action Plan.
Senator Losier-Cool: Those were certainly the words that several minority communities throughout Canada were waiting to hear and I am sure that the president of the FCFA, Ms. Routhier, also heard them!
You took note of the many recommendations contained in the report on the FCFA's symposium. I am not questioning Mr. Lord's sincerity nor his integrity — he comes from my province. However, what will he tell the government that it does not already know? Give us some examples.
Mr. Fraser: My hope is that he will underscore the importance of this issue. Sometimes a government decides to reconsider an existing policy and to put its own stamp on it by drafting a new one. That is the context in which I look at what the government, the Prime Minister, is doing. It is deciding how it can craft its own policy, a comprehensive strategy for minority communities.
Therefore, Mr. Lord's most important job will be to underscore the importance of this issue.
Senator Losier-Cool: Ms. Lemieux, you mentioned a few complaints coming from anglophones in Quebec. For years, we have been listening to your predecessors. Amongst the complaints that we have heard, the most common have involved Air Canada.
Have you observed any progress with respect to bilingual services being offered by Air Canada?
Mr. Fraser: I still have some concerns about Air Canada. The courts had to rule on this issue and Air Canada appealed the ruling. The Court of Appeal stated that Air Canada had to show results, not intentions.
Given our concern over Air Canada's previous performance, we decided to add it to the list of institutions requiring a specific report. Last year, there were 37 such institutions and now there will be 38. Ms. Lemieux can expand on this.
Ms. Lemieux: Air Canada was added to the list of 37 institutions requiring a performance report, which will give us a basis for assessment in coming years.
The Commissioner's office is trying to focus on the progress that Air Canada must achieve. We understand that it is difficult to see the results you are expecting from one annual report tot the next. We work with the tools at our disposal and we are developing new tools to resolve situations that occur systematically, as is the case for Air Canada and for other institutions that have systematically had problems with official languages.
We will not be able to give you any further results until May. However, it is our hope that the situation will improve over the next few months.
Senator Losier-Cool: Let us come back to the Action Plan. I am pleased that you mentioned that one of the aspects missing from the Action Plan was culture. That will have to be included in the renewed Action Plan. The official languages committee expects to undertake a study on franchophone culture. We will therefore be looking closely at the content of the Action Plan with that in mind, and this will enable us to either provide positive feedback or criticize it.
Mr. Fraser: In my opinion, the cultural aspect is in fact a very important one, especially given the often precarious situation that minority communities find themselves in. Do they have access to the theatre, to the cinema, to shows? What is culture like for young people? Do they have access to French-language culture? If the only culture in their environment is that of the majority, then that in itself is an assimilating factor.
Senator Comeau: The Action Plan can take many different shapes. Sometimes it is a plan, sometimes it is a program, sometimes it is a policy and sometimes it is a strategy. How do you think we should describe it?
Mr. Fraser: I think we can describe it in any of those terms. In very specific terms, it refers to the announcement made in 2003 of a series of programs totalling $153 million over five years and focussing on the health, immigration, education and service to the public.
Senator Comeau: There were several programs under that action plan. It can herefore still be described in those terms.
We often hear the expression "plan renewal''. The impression given is that the plan is simply being renewed, we are starting over, we are putting in extra funds, and then the job is done.
However it is my impression that a new plan with new programs is what is being proposed.
Mr. Fraser: You are probably in a better position than I am to know what to expect. I expect to see concrete action. Meanwhile, I am throwing out a few ideas publicly.
Senator Comeau: And you are right to do that. Last summer, communities came together during a symposium and also came up with ideas. We heard a few of them. For example, the new Action Plan must include culture.
It is still my impression that a new plan with new programs is what is being proposed. Do you share that impression or is this splitting hairs?
Mr. Fraser: I have been careful not to focus on the title. I fully understand the desire of each government to put its own stamp on reality. Whether it is a plan, a program or initiative, I feel it is important that the plan include some elements of the current plan. Some programs are expiring and the funding will stop. Let's take the example of a program that will expire.
Rather than make it a new initiative, it will be included as part of the government's ongoing programs. That is one approach.
Senator Comeau: Yes.
Mr. Fraser: It is important to point out that under the previous plan, very efficient health networks were created and that represents real progress from minority communities.
I would like there to be a medium-term perspective, of less than five years, that provides for some visibility and consistency in terms of action on official languages.
Senator Comeau: I am pleased that you mentioned the success of the health network. I absolutely agree with you that it was a huge success. We should focus on what made it such a success.
Mr. Fraser: There is another point I would like to make and that is that education represents a particular challenge and I continue to feel that it is very important. The government at the time set the goal that by 2013 half of high-school graduates would be fluent in both official languages. That is an ambitious goal and in order to reach it we need to look at the successes of some provinces and the failures of others, in order to develop a strategic approach.
I feel that university should be one element of that approach. We are in an unbelievable situation, and that is that anglophone students are encouraged to drop French immersion — therefore they are going to a less difficult program — because they will get better marks because they will have already done immersion studies. Universities do not acknowledge the fact that some have students taken a difficult course of study.
I therefore feel that we need to establish a way for universities to acknowledge the importance of both official languages and that both French and English should be treated as Canadian languages and not as foreign languages.
We need to use a strategic approach, because the burden of the future of our linguistic duality cannot be shouldered by 14-year-old children. If there is no incentive coming from universities, then of course students will choose courses that will result in the best possible marks. They mustn't be criticized for that, but rather be provided with incentives.
Senator Comeau: You spoke about community vitality in your report. Senator Tardif asked some questions in that topic. I am also very interested in this. Some communities need us and require very special attention.
Part VII and the implementation of Part VII of the new legislation could be extremely useful for these communities. Many of them are looking forward to departments taking action in this area. I would like to find a way of making them move faster.
Perhaps we should invite these departments to come before us to tell us exactly what they are doing or whether they are still thinking about it. What do you think?
Mr. Fraser: I have discovered, as Commissioner of official languages, that departments, ministers and deputy ministers certainly do not like to be criticized.
Senator Comeau: Yes.
Mr. Fraser: When parliamentary committee hearings are held, there is more pressure, and everyone likes to perform well before a parliamentary committee. I have therefore discovered how important our report cards are. In fact, every spring I get calls asking me: "How come we did not get a better mark? What can we do to get a better mark?''
I think it would be very useful to have deputy ministers testify before your committee.
Senator Comeau: We know that tool is there and it's not gathering any rust. However, we would like to sharpen it somewhat in order to see if we could get more out of these departments.
In some areas of Canada, time is passing quickly and these communities need to be able to use the tool that was given to them. With your assistance, we could identify a few departments that should come for a visit.
Mr. Fraser: I would also say that in the area of official languages I have noticed two things. There is a group of individuals — official languages champions within the departments — who are very devoted and hard working but who need approval from above. I am not questioning at all the sincerity or commitment of the hundreds of public servants who truly take their duties seriously.
Before I tabled my annual report, I presented some of my findings to ministers and deputy ministers so that they would not be caught off guard. I spoke to one deputy minister, whom I will not name, about the importance of renewing the Action Plan. He asked me if what I was talking about was in my report. I said yes. He said he was very happy about that. I had the impression that he needed support and some pressure from the outside.
One must never underestimate the value of pressure; it helps our allies within the system.
Senator Comeau: Yes.
Senator Murray: If it is pressure from the outside they want, we will not disappoint them.
Mr. Fraser: I am not suggesting everyone wants that pressure, but there are allies on the inside who find it helpful.
Senator Murray: I understand that very well. Twenty-five or 27 years ago, when week after week ministers and especially deputy ministers were paraded before the Joint Committee on Official Languages to discuss the performance of their departments with regard to official languages policy and the act, I always thought it was a very salutary thing for progress.
After the members of the committee had a go at the deputy, and after the deputy himself or herself had an opportunity to explain what they were doing and how they would overcome some of the problems that had been identified, the Commissioner of Official Languages, who sat with the chairman, would speak up and summarize the afternoon's proceedings. I thought all of that was quite helpful. As I say, it is not for me to issue such an invitation, but you might consider it.
Part VII of the act is what concerns me at the moment. I think I know what we have to do. What is bothering me is when we should start doing it. It is clear to me from what I read in your report that Canadian Heritage must be brought in here. We have to satisfy ourselves as to the adequacy of the guidelines that they have sent out to the departments and agencies of government and satisfy ourselves as to the adequacy of the accountability mechanism, if any. What is it? Is it for real or just something on paper? We have to keep bringing that department back here — the minister, the deputy minister, the senior officials — until they come up with a plan that you, in particular, and we are satisfied will achieve the desired result. Perhaps only then would it be sensible to start inviting individual departments to appear before this committee. We could start with the 30-odd designated institutions, so called, as to their performance. I am looking for advice as to what is sensible and fair to do in terms of us riding herd on, first, the Department of Canadian Heritage in its coordinating and directional capacity, and then the departments and their execution of the policy. Do you have a view on those suggestions?
Mr. Fraser: I think it would be also be useful for you to hear from the Department of Justice. One of my concerns is that the initial response of some of the advice given by Department of Justice lawyers was to be as minimalist as possible.
Senator Murray: That is exactly the word that was going through my mind when Senator Losier-Cool was speaking because, apparently from what she said, the advice of the Department of Justice lawyers was to be careful.
Mr. Fraser: That is their job. When I raised my concern with the minister, I had an exchange with the deputy minister, who said, "You must recognize that your lawyers and our lawyers have different roles, and we will not necessarily be in agreement all the time.'' I understand that position.
Senator Murray: A generous interpretation is needed.
Mr. Fraser: That is one reason we decided to take the opportunity to demand the status of interveners in the FCFA case — Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne — before the courts. This is the first time that the courts will be called upon to examine the scope. The government has taken the interpretation that they were not obliged to take this into account — or, if they were, they did — without clarifying to us and to our satisfaction how they did that. It is our interpretation that they did not. This will be the first serious opportunity for the courts to take a first cut at deciding the scope of this amendment.
Certainly, my view was and continues to be that when parliamentarians decided in 2005 to pass what was then Bill S-3, it was because they wanted to strengthen, give teeth to and ensure that this amendment had real meaning.
Senator Murray: Some of us dealt with that bill three times, I think, before it received Royal Assent. It went through three times because we took it seriously. We thought it would make a difference. Some of these departments must be and will be told that we do not appreciate them trying to narrow the scope of it. We think it is appropriate to take a more generous interpretation of what we had in mind.
Mr. Fraser: One interesting thing about this amendment is that, unlike the 1988 amendment to the legislation, the 2005 amendment has been driven entirely by parliamentarians.
Senator Murray: I was involved in the drafting of the 1988 act, and I brought it through the Senate. I remember having to explain why we were not making Part VII justiciable. I had to defend that position and did. In the light of experience, it was obvious to Jean-Robert Gauthier and the rest of us that the time had come to put more meat on the bone.
Mr. Fraser: Because it had its origin in the Senate and because it was driven by parliamentarians, it is all the more appropriate that you take this issue and call ministers and deputy ministers to account in terms of how they respond.
Senator Murray: What is sensible, though? We will bring Canadian Heritage officials before this committee fairly soon, I think. Are they resisting?
The Chair: They were not available in December. We will take this up again at the end of January.
Senator Murray: We can have them in here and keep them here until we see a satisfactory explanation. When do you think it is fair and sensible to start having individual departments in and putting their feet to the fire? When would we accomplish something by doing that?
Mr. Fraser: My feeling is that it has been two years, almost day for day, although I have not actually checked the date. Two years is long enough for an initial progress report, and it would be fair to see what people have done.
Senator Murray: We want to know what the plan is and how concrete it is.
Mr. Fraser: Yes, and how they are moving forward.
As I said earlier, some institutions are very concrete in what they have done, and for others it is much more a process. Some might say, "We have had the following meetings with our employees, and we have sent a message to all employees,'' so it tends to be more process driven. I am more interested in what has been done in concrete terms.
Senator Murray: That is good. Thank you.
The Chair: We will begin a second round of questions. We have very little time left. I would therefore ask you to be brief. Senator Tardif has the floor, followed by Senator Poulin.
Senator Tardif: Commissioner, in your opening remarks you spoke about the importance of leadership. I absolutely agree with you that political leadership is essential if we want to advance the cause of linguistic duality in Canada as well as the cause of education. I was intrigued by one of the priorities for 2008, which is to undertake a study on second-language learning opportunities in Canadian universities.
Could you give us further details on this study that you hope to undertake?
Mr. Fraser: This is something very dear to my heart. I have already spoken with the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. I will ask Ms. Scott to expand on the mandate of this study.
Ms. Scott: We would like to start this study in early 2008. The first phase will involve conducting a survey throughout Canadian universities in order to better understand what already exists in terms of teaching French as a second language, and also in terms what exists in English-language universities to encourage students to learn a second language during their university studies or to maintain their second language throughout their studies.
We also know that the Association des universités de la francophonie canadienne offers a series of programs throughout the country. They will also obviously be part of this study. We want to see what other universities are doing in terms of exchange programs and in terms of how French-as-a-second-language courses are being offered within public administration and law faculties, for example. During the first phase, therefore, we will be looking at what universities are currently doing.
Senator Tardif: I hope that you will also look at whether or not a second language is required as an admission criterion. I think it is unfortunate that many universities do not require this.
Ms. Scott: Yes, in our survey we will look at admission criteria as well as graduation criteria.
Senator Poulin: I would like to pick up on the issue of governance that we only brief discussed. You mentioned that Bernard Lord will need to underscore the importance of official languages in this country. As you stated in your report, many Canadian men and women were disappointed with the government's decision to move the official languages secretariat from the government's central agency — the Privy Council — to a department. You therefore decided to invite Mr. Savoie to conduct a study on this issue of governance. I believe there is no date set for the tabling of Mr. Savoie's report. Might this report be ready soon enough to provide to Mr. Lord, who will be tabling his report in mid-January? You stated that it is Mr. Lord's responsibility to highlight the importance of this issue.
Mr. Fraser: With the greatest of respect for Mr. Savoie's work, I do not think that such an academic study can be done in so little time, but once again, I will ask Ms. Scott to comment on the timeline.
Ms. Scott: Mr. Savoie began his work in November. In December or the beginning of January, he expects to conduct interviews with a number of senior officials and people who helped set up the official languages secretariat. We hope the study will be concluded in the spring.
Senator Poulin: When the report is concluded, to whom will you refer the matter of governance if Mr. Lord's special study is already completed? To whom will you submit the report?
Mr. Fraser: Once it is completed, it will be made public. However, a distinction needs to be made. My understanding of Mr. Lord's mandate is that it is part of the renewal of the Action Plan. So the question of governance is, in my view, external to the renewal process.
Senator Poulin: I am considering the governance issue as it relates to the implementation of the Action Plan.
Mr. Fraser: I should have thought about conducting a study on governance a year ago, but I had just taken up my position and I do not learn things that fast!
Senator Losier-Cool: I would simply like to follow up on the comments made by Senator Murray when he spoke about Bill S-3. I remember one time when we were considering Bill S-3, and the Department of Justice came out against the bill. I clearly recall having asked the departmental officials why they alone opposed the bill. They said that it would be too onerous to administer. That is why it would be important for us to find out if they have learned to administer it over the past two years.
Have you identified shortcomings at our embassies with regard to both official languages? We have received complaints by parliamentarians who travel abroad.
Mr. Fraser: Yes. We have just published a follow-up report with regard to foreign affairs and Canada's representation abroad. The original report dates back to 2004, and there were indeed recommendations. A number of problems remain. In my experience, our ambassadors are professional diplomats who are in many cases exceedingly fluent in both official languages, but there also Privy Council and Governor-in-Council appointments that are exempted from that requirement, and that is somewhat problematic.
More and more, embassies are required to hire local personnel, and people are complaining that it is difficult to find people who speak one of the two official languages. However, our recommendation highlights the importance of having people who can provide the public with health services. We are also concerned by the cutbacks in the area of public diplomacy. I firmly believe that the face of Canada abroad absolutely must respect our linguistic duality.
Senator Losier-Cool: Those are concerns we are also hearing.
The Chair: On that note, Commissioner, Ms. Lemieux, Ms. Scott and Ms. Tremblay, I would like to thank you very much for having braved the inclement weather and appearing before the committee.
Commissioner Fraser, if we had to grade you on your first year in office, I believe the committee would agree with me when I say that you have done excellent work. Next year, I am sure you will do as well, if not better! Thank you very much.
Mr. Fraser: I thank you, Madam Chair.
The Chair: Honourable senators, we have just handed out the summary of expenditures and income for this committee's work, which includes the activities that we discussed at our first meeting. It is a $140,720 budget and it includes a trip to the Olympic Games in Vancouver. We will also be travelling for cultural studies, but this is not included in the current budget, which only goes to the end of the fiscal year.
Have you any questions? Senator Losier-Cool is moving the motion. Are you ready for the question?
Some senators: Yes.
The Chair: The motion is carried.
We also distributed the request made by Senator Dallaire, who will appear before us next week. You have it in English and in French. I recommend that you read it in preparation for his appearance. Next week, we will be hearing from representatives of Statistics Canada, who will tell us about statistics concerning minorities in the last census. Afterward, during the second hour, we will hear Senator Dallaire's presentation.
Senator Tardif: Have you set the dates for the trip to Vancouver? I see the end of March when the Senate will be taking a break.
The Chair: For now, it is scheduled for the week when the Senate will be taking a break, but we have not made any final decision.
Senator Tardif: It may be useful to see what commitments have already been made, because that is the Easter break. I will be out of the country at that time.
Senator Goldstein: Is there not a break during the very last week of March?
Senator Murray: It is also Easter, is it not?
Senator Tardif: Easter falls on March 22.
The Chair: Honourable senators, I must announce that it is now 7 p.m. and we must adjourn the meeting. We will discuss this again at our next meeting.
Meeting is adjourned.