Mr. Graham Fraser:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages.
I am pleased to stand before you for the first time as Commissioner of Official Languages.
Thank you for the opportunity to come speak to you about Bill C-29, An Act to amend the Air Canada Public Participation Act.
The Air Canada situation generated a great deal of interest among many Canadians, including my predecessors, and more specifically, Ms. Adam. During the review of Bill C-47, Ms. Adam raised concerns about the effects that Air Canada's latest restructuring would have on the language rights of the travelling public and of the airline's employees. As you know, that bill died on the Order Paper.
Today, the new Bill C-29 is the issue at hand. I am pleased to see that Bill C-29 restates the context of Bill C-47 and improves on certain elements, taking into account many of the recommendations made by your committee and by Commissioner Adam.
However, I am worried about how it will affect the linguistic rights of the travelling public and the right of employees of Air Canada to work in their language within the new entities of the Air Canada family. Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon told you that this bill would require Air Canada's former internal divisions, which fall under federal jurisdiction, to once again comply with the official languages obligations to which they were subject prior to restructuring.
Despite this clarification, I am concerned because I wonder whether or not the travelling public and Air Canada employees will truly continue to enjoy the same rights that they had before the company restructured.
As you know, Air Canada has undergone major changes since privatizing in 1988. Also, it acquired the Canadian Airlines Corporation and undertook a vast restructuring of that company. The government then amended the Air Canada Public Participation Act to clarify Air Canada's obligations with respect to the travelling public.
In the fall of 2004, the company underwent another restructuring. New corporate entities, such as Air Canada Ground Handling Services, Air Canada Technical Services, Air Canada Cargo, and Air Canada Online were created. These entities were not subject to the Air Canada Public Participation Act or the Official Languages Act. Bill C-47 was tabled in 2005 to fill this regulatory gap.
During the review of Bill C-47, Commissioner Adam went before the Standing Committee on Transport to draw attention to the importance of protecting the right of Canadians to be served in both official languages by Air Canada and its new entities. Her main concern was the remaining uncertainty about the application of the Official Languages Act to Air Canada's former divisions, which were not clearly named in the bill.
We are now reviewing Bill C-29, which attempts to clear up the ambiguity of Bill C-47. To some extent, the government has followed my predecessor's recommendation.
Bill C-29 does not explicitly state which entities would be subject to the Official Languages Act, with the exception of Jazz; however, it gives the governor in council the authority to designate, by regulation, the entities that will be subject to the Official Languages Act. This will allow a great deal of flexibility.
However, we have no guarantee that such a regulation would be passed with the coming into force of the new act, since Bill C-29 does not specify a timeline in that regard. This shortcoming needs to be addressed because without a regulation, the ambiguity regarding the application of the Official Languages Act to the new ACE entities would remain unresolved.
In my view, the Air Canada group entities that should be designated by regulation pursuant to proposed new subsection 10.2(2), based on Air Canada's current structure, are Ground Handling Services, Technical Services, Cargo, and Air Canada Online.
At his appearance on November 2, 2006, Minister Lawrence Cannon stated that in his opinion Air Canada Online did not fall within the legislative authority of Parliament. I do not share that view. Air Canada Online essentially sells tickets to travellers wishing to use the services of Air Canada or Jazz. Like Ground Handling Services' activities, which consist of registering passengers and their luggage, ticket vending is essential to the operations of both air carriers. For that reason, I believe that Air Canada Online falls within the legislative authority of Parliament with regard to aeronautics and must be designated in the regulations as an entity subject to the Official Languages Act.
To emphasize the effect of Bill C-29, I refer you to the table enclosed with my speech. We used an organizational chart developed by Air Canada as part of its restructuring in 2004 and included the possible effects of the bill. The colour coding indicates the entities that are clearly subject to the Official Languages Act, or parts of it, and those that could be.
With respect to Jazz, the bill clearly states that the company will only be subject to part IV of the Official Languages Act. It will, therefore, be required to uphold the linguistic rights of the travelling public.
The fact that Jazz has no linguistic obligations to its employees is also of concern to me.
The restructuring of Air Canada has considerably changed the airline landscape. From now on, Jazz will service a growing number of routes that used to be operated by Air Canada, which has closed points of service in many cities, such as Moncton, Fredericton, Saint John and Quebec. A substantial number of Air Canada employees now work for Jazz, which enables the company to offer the new routes. It is important to point out that the linguistic rights of Jazz employees are no longer protected.
Indeed, Bill C-29 does not impose any obligations on Jazz with regard to language of work. This aspect of Bill C-29 must be reviewed carefully. You will recall that the aim of the bill is to maintain the linguistic rights of Air Canada employees. That goal is met in part by the fact that the Ground Handling Services, Technical Services and Cargo will be subject to the Official Languages Act in its entirety. Bill C-29 should not allow Air Canada to sidestep its linguistic obligations to employees by permitting Jazz to operate an increasing number of its routes.
One way to remedy the problem would be to subject Jazz to Part IV and V of the Official Languages Act.
I'd like to make a final point in closing. During his appearance three weeks ago, Minister Cannon made reference to a low number of complaints against Air Canada. I believe that the rights of travellers are very important and should not be minimized by figures. The number of complaints lodged creates a false impression that things are obviously improving. It may simply be that Canadians, after many failed attempts, are not making as many formal complaints as before.
However, the number of complaints filed cannot be used to justify non-compliance with the law. Francophones across the country are entitled to respect when they conduct business with Air Canada, its subsidiaries, and its entities. A restructuring, even a major one, should not deprive the public and employees of their rights.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am now prepared to answer your questions.
Mr. Jean-Claude D'Amours (Madawaska—Restigouche, Lib.):
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Fraser, thank you for coming here.
We are pleased to welcome you here once again, but today we do so in a more official manner.
I would also like to thank you for your comments. My comments will focus on two aspects of the Air Canada situation. These are matters that I raised with Minister Cannon when he appeared before us. I am sure that you have read the comments made on that day.
Mr. Commissioner, I told the minister that it appeared contradictory, in my view, to come forward with legislation, which is nonetheless necessary, when in fact the government advertising appearing in the October 2006 edition of enRoute, Air Canada's in-flight magazine, is not bilingual.
Everything that Air Canada publishes within this magazine is bilingual, and here I refer to the articles and everything else. It is incredible. This publication demonstrates tremendous respect for linguistic duality. But on page 87, much to our great surprise, the Government of Canada has some unilingual English advertising in the same magazine. This is contradictory. I would like to hear your comments on the matter.
It is somewhat of a contradiction to tell Air Canada that the government will be implementing certain mechanisms to ensure that the company provides French services to francophones, and then the francophone traveller who flips through the enRoute magazine finds government advertising where the only bilingual aspect is the wording Gouvernement du Canada, printed beside Government of Canada.
I would like to hear your views on the matter. I have a second question that I would like to ask you later.
Mr. Jean-Claude D'Amours:
Thank you. I'm really pleased to hear your comments. In my opinion, it was extremely ironic to see that the magazine was published the very month where we began reviewing a bill about Air Canada and official languages. It was quite ironic. The government is delivering a very confusing message. On the one hand, it is trying to deliver a certain message and, on the other hand, it doesn't apply its own guidelines.
Essentially, I'm wondering what the government is trying to say. It could be: "Do as we say but not as we do". With this government, this is a real problem in the country.
That being said, I would like to focus on Air Canada's online services, another matter that I raised. I am pleased to hear that you do not share the minister's view. I do not share his view either, and perhaps he needs to gain greater insight into the reality that exists in certain regions of the country.
I come from northern New Brunswick, where there are airports but they are not served by Air Canada. Some of these airports are served by Air Canada Jazz. If I need to travel, there is service in Bathurst, and, further away, in Moncton.
If I am a unilingual francophone and I cannot read, write, or understand English and I'm leaving from the International Airport of Greater Moncton, I have to purchase my ticket in advance. With the changes made to the reservation service, this is not so easy anymore. We used to be able to purchase tickets through travel agencies. By implementing certain changes, Air Canada encouraged its clients to purchase their tickets online rather than go through an agency.
Online services are all well and good; however, if one day this becomes the only way for someone in my neck of the woods to purchase a ticket, and this person is not able to understand or read English, we have a serious problem.
Mrs. Vivian Barbot (Papineau, BQ):
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Good morning, and thank you for coming here.
This is the first opportunity I've had to welcome you in your capacity as the Commissioner of Official Languages. This is no doubt the first of many meetings of this nature.
Your presentation has the advantage of being very clear and it really answers the questions that we have been asking ourselves regarding the real impact of this legislation, if it is adopted as it is drafted.
We talk about the fact that the francophone client should be served in French wherever he goes. Unfortunately, there are so many holes in the system that this is not happening. He can't buy his tickets in French if he lives in a province where there are few francophones. In my opinion, we have to go back to the meaning of the act.
Given the difficulty in accepting this particularity, do you not think that it's about time that we had legislation that all air carriers were subject to with respect to official languages? Given how important this aspect is for Canadians and francophones—the ability to travel has become essential—would this not be one way to deal with this?
Air Canada told our committee that bilingualism is too expensive, that it is prepared to do what is necessary, but that the competition is much too strong and that it can't make ends meet. Basically, this is one of the reasons they give us for these shortcomings.
Since we are drafting a bill to protect francophones and ensure that they are provided with adequate services, would this not be the time to make this apply to the entire industry?
Mr. Graham Fraser:
It must be said that there are very specific reasons for the obligations imposed on Air Canada. This was a national airline company created by the government with taxpayers' money.
So, on the one hand, we have a national symbol, with all that that entails. On the other hand, we have an airline industry that is becoming increasingly more diversified. Moreover, I do not think that we can impose all of these obligations regarding the right to work in French on an airline company based in Calgary, for example.
In my opinion, imposing each and every aspect of this legislation on all carriers would have a significant impact going well beyond the intent to protect the rights of the travelling public and Air Canada employees.
I do have some concerns with respect to the transactions and transfers of employees from Air Canada to Air Canada Jazz. These are employees, in Montreal, Moncton and in Saint John, who work in francophone communities. Consequently, I don't see how I could say to other companies, which have other traditions with respect to their workers...
I think that we have to deal with the reality of the company and the rights of its workers.
Ms. Paule Brunelle:
I'll tell you what bothers me a little bit. We met people from Air Canada and we note that, in the name of profitability, everything seems to be getting smaller in the planes, even leg space. I bless my parents for making me small. The food portions are getting smaller, and if we want to drink something, we have to pay. All of the money is being used to purchase gas for the planes, and there certainly isn't very much left over for anything else.
We are also noticing that the space for French is shrinking, unfortunately. This is worrisome to us. We were told that the mergers and the acquisition of Canadian Airlines by Air Canada had made it difficult to hire bilingual employees, that as a result people had to be transferred from one region to the other, which was not something that people wanted. Moreover, we were told not to ask for so much French, because this would result in poor people losing their jobs. In actual fact, we were not told this, but that is what I was able to deduce from this.
I wonder what you think about this. Are these difficulties truly real? These people also told us that, as a result of the numerous difficulties they had to ask for government subsidies for assistance. That surprised me somewhat.
Mr. Yvon Godin:
All right, that is what I wanted to know. Thank you. Now we can begin.
First of all, I would like to welcome you. I hope that I did not cause some confusion at the start by my point of order. I am confused and I believe that some of my colleagues are as well.
I will explain what happened. The minister's report states that he will be sending the bill to committee. I am not interested in reviewing a report saying that the minister will send us a bill. If he sends us a bill, I will want to study the bill. That is why I am confused.
Perhaps not everyone is confused, but I must admit that I am. Indeed, we are discussing a bill now, and that does not bother me. However, the bill hasn't been sent to us yet, and we are not authorized to discuss it until it has gone through second reading. The bill has not yet been sent to the committee. I hate having to use my seven minutes to explain all of this to the audience and to the committee, but I find this unfortunate.
Let's go back to Air Canada Jazz. Yes, it's true. The problem with Air Canada Jazz is that, when Air Canada purchased this company, which used to be called Air Nova, it withdrew from certain regions in Canada and stopped serving locations such as Moncton. Now it has to be fully responsible for the region.
In my opinion, it would be unfortunate if the language of work were not included in the legislation, or if the equitable participation of francophones and anglophones were not included either, or the development of official language communities. It is important that the legislation reflect all of that. Air Canada cannot use the back door to do something that it is not allowed to do through the front door.
Hon. Raymond Simard (Saint Boniface, Lib.):
Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
I wish to welcome the commissioner and the members of his team.
First of all, if I've understood correctly, employees will be allowed to choose the language of work that suits them. Back home in Manitoba, when we established the first bilingual service centres, if we hadn't insisted on French as a language of work, English would have superceded French. That's normal: that's what happens in 90% of cases.
You also said earlier that Air Canada Jazz had no linguistic obligations. As a general rule, that company serves small communities. Indeed, Air Canada itself covers Montreal, Toronto and the major centres. In places like Moncton, Winnipeg and Northern Ontario, which are served by Air Canada Jazz, francophones represent 4% and in some case of the population. These people already face major challenges in obtaining French services. It's therefore very ironic that there is no obligation imposed on Air Canada Jazz when it comes to language; it should be the reverse.
In any case, if you have time, I'd like you to tell me what you think of this notion that other airlines should be subjected to the Official Languages Act.
Mr. Graham Fraser:
You raised a very good point regarding the language of work, especially in technological areas. That's always a challenge. In my opinion, it's particularly important that these employees don't lose the right to work in French in workshops or other Air Canada work places which, because of restructuring, belong to Jazz. It's important that that right be underscored and maintained.
You are indeed right. According to my understanding of the restructuring, Air Canada serves the major national and international routes, and Jazz is the link between more isolated places or communities that have more difficulty, as you said. I believe that the company has an important role to play in those communities.
With regard to other airlines, I've answered in part by telling Ms. Barbot that in some places in Canada, there was no opportunity to work in French, even within the federal government.
For example, if we were to impose all the provisions of the Official Languages Act on a company based in Calgary, that would mean that company would have significant recruitment problems. I don't think we should necessarily take for granted that by imposing rules in situations where there's no natural link with an existing community, we will necessarily contribute to respect for both official languages.
In my opinion, if we don't take into account the fact that there are unilingual communities in this country, we run the risk of having more problems than solutions.
Hon. Mauril Bélanger:
I'd like to congratulate you in person and wish you good luck.
I think I will use my four and a half minutes to make a comment. I hope that there is someone here from Air Canada. Personally, I do not feel as charitable towards Air Canada as others may.
I was minister responsible for official languages as well as President of the Standing Committee on Official Languages. At the time, we were forced to summon the President of Air Canada to appear before the committee. He did not want to come. This dance lasted a few months.
Based on my experience, Air Canada has in the past — and continues to this day — tried to evade or shirk its responsibilities, to do as little as possible, and to use every opportunity to do as little as possible. The company uses every possible excuse to do as little as possible when it comes to mergers, and by using various tricks of the trade when it comes to restructuring. That is what we're seeing today.
I'm far less charitable towards Air Canada, the supposed national carrier for a country which has linguistic duality as a cornerstone, as stated by Mr. Cannon and previous governments. The corporation which sees itself as Canada's national airline should not wait for us to twist its arm in order for it to respect linguistic duality.
At first, Air Canada was a Canadian government agency, and then it was later privatized. The legislator's intent was clear: Air Canada was to remain subject to the Official Languages Act, period. There was no mention made of Jazz, Tango or of any other yet to be named companies which were going to be added to this structure which was created and invented in part to avoid respecting the will of a nation. I'm not going to get into this debate today.
Ms. Vivian Barbot: The Liberals have once again pulled the cat out of the bag.
The Hon. Mauril Bélanger: I'm far less charitable than others are towards Air Canada. I must admit that when I was a minister I was advised not to lodge any complaints. I accepted that advice, which I now partly regret. I used to carry around a form addressed to the commissioner, on which I simply had to put a check mark to explain the reason for my complaint. On every trip, I could have had two or even three complaints to make, with respect to terminals, in-flight service or anything else. I even seem to recall that on one specific trip I could have filed four separate complaints. Imagine that! I'm going to get back to lodging my complaints now. That will give you an idea of the reality which is that Air Canada ought not to try to shirk its responsibilities.
I am somewhat concerned by the bill we have before us. I am not a regular member of the committee, but I miss it. I sense that Bills C-47 and C-29 are somewhat diluted. I think I detect Air Canada's involvement here and its expertise working behind the scenes to evade responsibility here and there. I fully agree with the fact that Air Canada online is part of this file, as is Aeroplan. I would encourage the committee to put forth amendments if necessary.
Air Canada will always exist. So as the company, at the very core, refuses to pride itself on linguistic duality, it will forever attempt to dodge its responsibilities. The legislation should not be enforced through an order in council. The legislation itself should state precisely what enters into force when. Otherwise, we will be continuing in the same vein. For months and years now this committee has been trying to get Air Canada to understand that as Canada's national airline, it has a moral responsibility.
Mrs. Vivian Barbot:
We were told that we could not ask any questions on the comments we heard from Air Canada. That's unfortunate, because now would have been the right time to compare your vision to what company representatives have told us. Nevertheless, I will speak in general terms.
Mr. Bélanger said that you need to have the French language coursing through your veins in order to understand what it means to be in a purportedly bilingual country and not be able to receive services in French. I think that that goes to the very heart of the issue as to Air Canada's conduct. Air Canada is acting in this way because Canada is acting in this way.
In my opinion, what happened yesterday and which you did not want to raise, is exactly that. Some people constantly get marginalized because they speak another language, because they act differently, because they are different. I find this to be particularly discouraging. Words get used to subjugate people, regardless of the efforts they may make to remain open, to define themselves and express their will. People are being told that it is not up to them to say who they are. That is exactly what is happening to francophones outside of Quebec. That is what is happening to Quebeckers, and to others.
On every front, we are being subjected to what other people want us to be, regardless of what we may do to get the government to understand that francophones have the right to be served in their own language. As a government, are you going to take the necessary means to make sure this happens? We are constantly being told it cannot be done because it's a question of money or of this, that and the other thing. But elsewhere, in international fora, we pride ourselves on being a bilingual country, while we send ministers who cannot speak French to speak on our behalf.
I do not want to embarrass you by this outburst, but do you sincerely believe it is possible for francophones throughout this country to be equal to anglophones?
Mr. Pierre Lemieux:
Thank you very much.
I'd like to follow up on the discussion we were having. Air Canada is a company and it has obligations under the Official Languages Act. I think we're all agreed on that, but Air Canada is made up of people, real people who are making an effort.
People are trying to learn their second language, they're trying to give service in their second language, and people need to know where they're succeeding and where there are problems, where they need to put in more effort. If all they hear about are the failures, it becomes an exercise in discouragement. Perhaps I'm proposing something new, perhaps I'm not, but I'm leaning toward trying to put together a positive working approach with Air Canada.
It's important to understand priorities, because as I mentioned in the first round of questions, we can't achieve our goals all at once. I don't think anyone in this room achieves all their goals in one fell swoop. We're always working toward goals, and we know what the goal here is. We all have priorities for that reason. Where are we going to focus our efforts, where will we focus our resources, how will we achieve our goals, and in what priority? It comes back to working together in a positive manner.
I'd like to know your comments on working with Air Canada to establish priorities with them, to say, listen, you know you have obligations here, how are you going to achieve your obligations, where do we think your priorities should be, and where do you think your priorities should be? That's one part of it, and I'd like to know your comments on that, working from what I would call a prioritized approach, realizing that it's very difficult to accomplish everything all at once.
Secondly, what mechanisms will you have in place to evaluate progress? By progress, I mean both successes and failures, but it's important to do both. So I'd like to know what sort of criteria you will have in place to do that.
If you could comment on both aspects of that, please....
Mr. Graham Fraser:
Sure. As Monsieur Dussault said to you earlier, we have established working relationships with Air Canada, trying to establish some proactive discussions about how some of these chronic problems can be alleviated. I'm certainly coming to realize there are some chronic areas and there is a....
You are more aware than I of the nature of the in camera discussions you had with Air Canada. I'm obviously not aware of those. Originally, when I planned this appearance, I had hoped I would have the advantage of being able to read the transcripts of the Air Canada presentation. I haven't had any conversations with Air Canada.
So let me talk on a slightly broader level of some of the ways in which this could be approached, not simply for Air Canada, but in a broader nature, in a broader way. The concept of looking at language as a key element of hospitality and of welcome is a key factor. One of the reasons Mr. Bélanger has had such...I don't want to use the word “anger”, but has had a certain frustration in his experience as a traveller is that he has not felt welcomed and he has not enjoyed the kind of hospitality that is a key part of what one can expect as a member of the travelling public.
One of the important elements of language policy is the regulatory element that's built into the law, which is part of my responsibility. When I first came and talked about the cheerleader/nag elements...these are not necessarily contradictory. There are ways in which the approach of the commission can be integrated. How can we talk about language in a different way, in a way that we're talking about identity, in a way that we're talking about welcome, in a way that we're talking about hospitality, in a way that we are talking about making all Canadians feel at home in this country? One of the key elements of this is so that unilingual Canadians can travel in this country, and one of the key ways in which they travel is on Air Canada.
Mr. Yvon Godin:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. After my comments, I will be introducing a motion.
Mr. Lemieux says that we need to be patient and to work together in order to reach our goals. I would say that 402 years is a long time to wait. Acadians celebrated their 400th anniversary two years ago. We are not talking about being nice and welcoming, pleasant and friendly: we are talking about the law. There are two groups that have been recognized and there is the Official Languages Act. How long is it going to take? The Liberals have nothing to brag about: in 60 % of cases the Department of National Defence does not respect official languages. They have nothing to brag about, because they were in power for 13 years and were unable to solve this problem nor that of Air Canada, which has yet to be solved. They really have nothing to brag about.
Commissioner, when you refer to Calgary, you should be careful. Francophones are going to Calgary because of the appeal of oil wells. At this point, far more francophones than you think are landing in Calgary. You have to think of the economic development context in Alberta, where things are changing. When a francophone's flight takes off from Bathurst he or she may speak French, but must speak English once the flight is in the air. That is unacceptable. That is what we are talking about.
We are not asking all anglophones to become francophones and we are not asking all francophones to become anglophones either, as Antonine Maillet said. We want services in both languages. If someone asks for a can of 7-UP he should not have to end up before the Supreme Court of Canada! That is where there was a lack of respect, that still exists today. Jazz replaced Air Canada. If it did, I want to know—
We cannot discuss Bill C-29, it has not yet been referred to the committee. According to me, you are going to have to reappear before this committee, as well as Air Canada. This airline has not yet been called to appear on Bill C-29; it was on the minister's report. Bill C-29 will be sent to the Standing Committee on official languages.
With respect to online services and Jazz, I want to know what you have to suggest. I know that you discussed it at the beginning of your presentation but I want you to repeat this just to be sure.