Mr. Graham Fraser (Commissioner of Official Languages, Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages):
Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Chairman, members of Parliament, mesdames et messieurs, I am very pleased to meet with you today to discuss my very first annual report, which was tabled on May 15, and to present its highlights to you.
Before I start, allow me to congratulate you as a committee for having taken the initiative of visiting official language minority communities and reporting on their vitality. The report you published gives us a valuable record of their thoughts and concerns.
The foreword of the annual report summarizes my vision of the importance of our two official languages in Canadian society and the role of the Commissioner of Official Languages.
I start from the premise that our two official languages, English and French, belong to all Canadians. We live in a country where people speak 150 languages, some in existence well before the Europeans arrived. Nevertheless, the national conversation takes place in English and French. I believe that our two official languages belong to all Canadian citizens and are powerful tools for building bridges between us. This notion is based on respect--respect for unilingual citizens, for official language communities, for members of the public who are served by the federal government, and for employees who work for it.
Most Canadians wholeheartedly support the official languages policy, although they may not fully understand its application. The education and promotion roles of my mandate are therefore essential. It should not be forgotten that these two key activities complement my responsibilities to defend language rights and to assess the government's performance.
Since the current administration took office, it sent positive signals with regard to Canada's linguistic duality. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who frequently starts his speeches in French, sets an eloquent example in his public appearances in Canada and abroad. Furthermore, the Minister for La Francophonie and Official Languages, Josée Verner, has stated on several occasions, including where I'm sitting now, that the government has no intention of doing anything less than what's set out in the action plan for official languages.
While these are positive messages, they are marred by actions that significantly diminish their impact. In fact, I've noted a considerable gap between the government's words and actions. I'd like to discuss with you certain government actions taken over the course of the last year.
The budget cuts announced last September triggered an avalanche of complaints to my office from people who thought that some of the measures would have a negative impact on official language communities. The termination of funding for the court challenges program in particular delivered a serious blow to the ability of minority communities to defend their language rights. The elimination of the innovation fund is another prime example of the worrying measures taken last September.
I'm sure you've heard about the scope of our draft preliminary investigative report on the court challenges program. As you may have noted, we found that the government did not assess the impact of this program cut on official language communities. We will be taking into account comments received from the complainants and the institutions in question in the preparation of our final report.
In addition, we are still awaiting news on how the current government intends to follow up on the Action Plan for Official Languages, which forecasted investments of $787 million over five years in several sectors that are key in promoting linguistic duality. As the Action Plan will come to an end next March 31, there is growing concern among stakeholders. The recent announcement of $30 million of funding over two years to support official language communities can hardly replace a plan that resulted in major action in several strategic areas.
Unless the government acts quickly, I feel that the momentum created for official languages in 2003 will be lost.
That is why I recommend that the Minister for Official Languages, in cooperation with the communities, provinces and territories, develop an initiative, over the coming year, that will succeed the Action Plan for Official Languages and consolidate what has been gained. During the design process, the federal government must carefully consider expanding the scope of the Action Plan to include, in particular, arts and culture, youth initiatives and new measures for promoting linguistic duality.
The federal government has made significant changes to the official languages governance structure. In February 2006, two different roles were assigned to the Minister for Official Languages, namely the coordination of all federal institutions' activities related to official languages and the management of Canadian Heritage's official language support programs.
Another important change was the transfer of the Official Languages Secretariat from the Privy Council Office to the Department of Canadian Heritage.
Finally, the Committee of Deputy Ministers on Official Languages was disbanded. This committee supported the Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet in his leadership role within the federal administration of giving concrete expression to the objectives of Canada's language policy.
I am afraid that these changes will weaken horizontal governance.
I therefore recommend that the Minister for Official Languages review the Official Languages Accountability and Coordination Framework, taking into account the changes made to official language governance and the new obligations of federal institutions following the legislative amendments of November 2005.
The government's actions, and in some cases its inaction, raise doubts about whether it is truly committed to implementing the amended Part VII of the Official Languages Act. And yet we ail remember that the legislation received broad support from the political party that now heads the government.
In December 2005, the Clerk of the Privy Council wrote to federal institutions to encourage them to examine the extent to which they met their mandates regarding the amended Part VII and to make the necessary improvements. Since then, Canadian Heritage has conducted an awareness tour and published a guide that aims "to orient federal government institutions in the performance of their responsibilities concerning the implementation of the government's commitment stated in section 41 of the Act." I congratulate the Clerk of the Privy Council and Canadian Heritage for taking these steps and encourage them to go further by setting out clear goals for institutions and implementing my recommendations.
I recommend that the Minister for Official Languages ensure Canadian Heritage review its accountability mechanisms for the implementation of sections 41 and 42 of the Act in order to put more emphasis on results.
I also recommend that the Minister for Official Languages ensure Canadian Heritage take a more transparent approach in the implementation of section 41 of the Act when determining the institutions that have the most significant impact on communities and the promotion of linguistic duality.
As regards service to the public, I am deeply worried about a less rigorous implementation of the Official Languages Act in the federal public service. Without sustained leadership from officials, setbacks are imminent.
In this context, I can only find cause for concern in the data presented in the Annual Report on service to the public and language of work. I fear that we will fall behind even faster if, in addition to losing the tools required to provide high quality service, the public service has doubts about the government's commitment to official languages.
I therefore recommend that deputy heads in federal institutions ensure that front-line employees and all agents who respond to client enquiries actively offer services in both official languages at first contact, in order to encourage members of the public to use their official language of choice.
I ask the government to review these five recommendations, which would allow it to demonstrate clear leadership and focus its activities on initiatives that deliver results.
My mandate as commissioner in the Official Languages Act is to ensure recognition and compliance with the spirit and intent of the act, to protect the language rights of Canadians, and to promote linguistic duality and bilingualism across Canada.
In my role as ombudsman during 2006-07 I reviewed close to 1,000 complaints and initiated investigations of the 774 admissible ones. During the same period we also conducted audits and published reports, including the audit report on the implementation of part VII of the act at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
My office also commissioned several research projects. Last January we published a study on public perceptions of French culture and learning French as a second language in Saskatchewan.
Over the coming year, among other things, I plan to focus on the role that post-secondary institutions play in second language learning, community vitality indicators, and the place of official languages in public service renewal.
We act as a watchdog when we participate in the drafting of laws, regulations, and policies. Our involvement over the past year focused mainly on the Air Canada Public Participation Act and the Federal Accountability Act. With regard to the court system, my office participated in several appeals last year; among them was the Fédération Franco-ténoise case.
Now that the Federal Accountability Act has received royal assent, my office must rise to new challenges. To respond to one of them, I appeared last March before the advisory panel on the funding of officers of Parliament, better known as the panel, to request additional resources to prepare and implement two major government initiatives: access to information and internal auditing. I have good reason to believe that my request for additional funding will be approved. In the medium term, the office of the commissioner will have to respond to new issues, which will in turn lead us to rethink our normal administrative needs.
The beginning of my mandate is an ideal opportunity to review how the commissioner plays the ombudsman role and to study how effectively this assists in attaining the act's objectives. My office must continue to ensure compliance with the Official Languages Act. To make sure that subsection 41(2) of the act is respected, we will have to monitor the level of government commitment to linguistic duality and community participation in drafting government policy.
We must also be watchful as to how the government meets its mandate to implement part VII and develop a new action plan. Above all, we will have to emphasize the promotion of linguistic duality in official language majority communities.
Thank you for your attention.
I would be happy to answer any questions.
Ms. Raymonde Folco (Laval—Les Îles, Lib.):
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Commissioner, I would like to welcome you and the persons with you to our committee.
First of all, I want to congratulate you on this first report. You have just taken up your duties and you have nevertheless clarified and put the emphasis on most, if not all, of the concerns that we have in the House, particularly in this committee.
Two things have been of great concern to us: the first you mentioned in detail, that is the end of the Court Challenges Program, and the second, concerning the action plan that was established by Mr. Dion five years ago, when he was the federal government's Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs.
I would like to ask you some questions on that action plan. We know it will be expiring very soon. I myself have introduced a motion in committee that will be discussed after this meeting, to invite the ministers responsible to tell us where they stand. However, having regard to the recommendations you have made in your report, could you tell us what the remaining challenges in Canada are, whether it be in French, the minority language, or in English, the minority language in Quebec, that might lead you and the ministers to continue the action plan and even to increase its budget and objectives?
Again in relation to linguistic duality, I know that you have travelled across the country since you were appointed. In your opinion, what are the types of resistance that there may be to bilingualism, to the development of the official language minority communities in Canada, among both Francophones and Anglophones? How could an extension and improvement of the action plan counter those pockets of resistance in the country?
So the idea is to focus on the action plan and on the possibility that it may lead us to something specific and concrete, if ever the Conservative government decided to extend it, which, as we speak, I don't think is a foregone conclusion.
Mr. Graham Fraser:
Thank you very much, madam. You've asked a good number of questions. I could take much more than the allotted time to answer them.
First, I want to thank you for your congratulations. My predecessor, Dyane Adam, left me with a very strong team that has helped me enormously in understanding the issues.
With regard to the action plan, I've been impressed by the French-language health networks that have been created or reinforced outside Quebec. I've also been struck by the fact that, thanks to the action plan, 4,000 employees of the health services network in Quebec have been able to take specialized courses, developed by McGill University, so that they can offer services in English to the Anglophone minority. Those services are still in the initial stages, and are therefore not quite established. I think it's important to ensure this progress is not lost.
In education, the objective of ensuring that 50% of high school graduates are bilingual was quite ambitious. That requires a form of coordination between the federal government and the provinces. In addition, when I mentioned in my statement that I was going to take a close look at the postsecondary education issue, I noted that there were very few incentives in that area to encourage high school students to continue studying their second language. I believe that we should focus on selecting incentives in order to encourage them.
Last fall, the present government announced a program to promote Francophone immigration to minority communities. In visiting the minority communities across the country, I observed the extent to which immigration was still crucial to their vitality. One can understand that observation, and there is a welcoming attitude, an energy and a vitality in those communities that impressed me. People are ready, but there has to be follow-up to those announcements, so that the will to increase Francophone immigration in the minority communities is maintained.
As for early childhood, one of the challenges is to ensure that those who have the right to send their children to minority schools exercise that right. Early childhood is an important entry into minority schools, particularly in the case of exogamous families. Some parents have that right, but have lost their language. For some of those people, the language used in the home is not the language of the minority. Studies have shown—and the experience of the Government of Ontario, which has carried out certain pilot projects, is particularly significant—that early childhood is a very important factor.
In addition, at a meeting between all our employees and representatives of the minority community, someone from the Quebec community groups networks raised the question of the importance of the employability of minority Anglophones in Quebec. I believe the situation is the same in the minority communities.
Mr. Yvon Godin (Acadie—Bathurst, NDP):
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I want to thank Commissioner Fraser for being here, as well as his team and all the people who work at the Commissioner's office in various places in Canada and try to be the watchdogs of our two official languages. In fact, you are the representatives of Parliament, not of the Government of Canada, and you are here to report to us. You also have the power to go to court.
Let's go back to the Court Challenges Program. It's a tool that has given the communities a chance to survive today. I don't want to say anything bad, but a report can only be a report. If the Prime Minister of Canada doesn't intend to follow its recommendations, it will go nowhere.
On a number of occasions, rights have been won in court, and the government has been forced to do things. One need only think of the schools in Prince Edward Island and Montfort Hospital in Ottawa. We can name a number, but I won't spend my seven minutes doing that.
It is quite clear in your report that you think the government had an obligation to conduct a study. Last weekend, Ms. Verner decided that she wanted to do a national tour to go and meet Francophones, the minorities. Instead she should read our report. We've already made that trip, and we submitted a report to her, which she has completely ignored until now. If she had inquired with the media, she would know that a lot of people in Canada are angry because of what the government has done, particularly as regards the Court Challenges Program.
Here's the question I'm asking you, Mr. Fraser. First, you say in your report, and I quote:
||The Commissioner is currently investigating this situation. He requested a moratorium on the cancellation of the Court Challenges Program, but the request was denied.
That means that the government isn't interested.
The Office of the Commissioner, that is you yourself, have the power to go to court. Why do you let the community go to court without any money? Why do you let the people of New Brunswick, for example, who don't have any money, go to court? They don't have any money from the Court Challenges Program; the tool has been taken away from them. Why wouldn't the Office of the Commissioner go to court?
Hon. Michael Chong (Wellington—Halton Hills, CPC):
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you for being here today, Mr. Fraser. Thanks as well to the members of your office.
In your report, you say, and I quote:
||During the design process, the federal government must carefully consider expanding the scope of the Action Plan to include, in particular, arts and culture, youth initiatives and new measures for promoting linguistic duality.
As many of those topics were addressed in the study on the vitality of the official language minority communities and those topics have an excellent chance of being among our future concerns in the context of our work as the government, could you give us more details on your vision for that expansion? For example, what do you think of a trilinguilism policy?
On replacement for the government's action plan on official languages, you mentioned that there should be consideration to enlarge it. What do you think about the federal government using its spending power to get the provinces to adopt a policy of trilingualism? Each high school student, each CÉGEP student--each graduate from those institutions--would be required to know three languages, two of which would be Canada's official languages, of course, and the third would be
You would create a situation that exists largely in western Europe today.
Many people might say this is not feasible, but my ancestry is half European; my mother was European. After the Second World War--only 50 years ago--there wasn't a person who could speak another language other than their native tongue. Today in western Europe it's almost impossible not to speak English. People speak to you in English if they hear your accent. They've done it over there.
It would be a great way to address the challenges of national unity and compliance with the Official Languages Act. It would be great for diversity. Let's say you're an aboriginal Canadian; it would be a great way to preserve some of those languages. If you're a Canadian of Chinese descent, it would be a great way to preserve your language. If you're a Canadian of Italian or Hispanic descent, it would be the same.
And it's good for international commerce. We talk about being a trading nation--the Phoenicians of the modern world--yet we are remarkably unilingual compared to many other countries.
The reason I ask this question is because we are often myopic on this committee. We focus on very specific things. We often don't take a step back, as you do, to take a look at the broader picture and to ask these questions. I often wonder whether something like this, while ambitious, might not be something to be considered.
Have you thought about this and the potential costs and challenges of implementing something like this?
Mr. Brian Murphy (Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, Lib.):
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you, Mr. Fraser, and your team, for being with us today.
I'm originally from Acadia, and I of course think that the issues we have discussed are very important. We are concerned by a few matters, the Court Challenges Program, among others, which, I repeat, is very important for us.
However, you emphasized something in your report and your presentation. You started by applauding the positions' of Mr. Harper and Ms. Verner, but you said this:
||While these are positive messages, they are marred by actions that significantly diminish their impact.
I count six important points that are not positive with regard to the action plan or the act. They are related to cuts in some cases, but two points are of great interest to me. Perhaps you'll have the time to give me an explanation so that I can clearly understand what is going on. They are the fifth and sixth points. You say this:
||Another important change was the transfer of the Official Languages Secretariat from the Privy Council Office to the Department of Canadian Heritage.
In what way is that negative with regard to the plan and the acts? I ask myself the same question with regard to the following sentence:
||Finally, the Committee of Deputy Ministers on Official Languages was disbanded.
Furthermore, we see on page 41 that, according to the performance report cards, the service to the public results are not good. I have children, and that's a concern for me. They say that's the main purpose of the acts. I wonder why management gets higher marks than those for service to the public.
Lastly, I see on page 65 that, back home in New Brunswick, more than 24% or 25% of complaints concern language of work. That's 14% more than the national average. I wonder why complaints concerning language of work are more frequent in New Brunswick and here in Ottawa than in the rest of the country.
Hon. Michael Chong:
I'm talking in terms of the two official languages, not in terms of allophones and other Canadians whose first language is something other than those two official languages. The view in the country in terms of the two official languages and the broad trends is that French is in decline and English is on the rise.
That's been the broad trend over the last 100 years, and it is still going on. The number--optimistically, and giving us cause for hope--of bilingual speakers is also on the rise. However, we have a big, broad problem here, which is that the federal government, its institutions, its agencies, its crown corporations, its areas of direct administration are officially bilingual, but the reality on the ground in the country is that the vast majority of Canadians are not bilingual.
So there's a gap between the country's national institutions, which employ over 400,000 people, and the education system, which is not requiring students to be bilingual. So we're really creating a system of elites in this country who have access to bilingual education and who can speak the two languages, and a system for everybody else who can't speak the other official language. It's a huge problem in the long run, I think.
It's creating a situation that if you want to access the upper echelons of the public service, the crown corporations and the like, you can't, and that's the reality. I think we have a structural problem within our society that we, in the long run, have to address. In my view, the best way to address this is with the education system.
I believe in the preservation of the French fact in Canada. However, in my view, there is a big gap between the education system, which doesn't require students to know the other official language in order to obtain their diploma, and the country's national institutions. I don't understand why there isn't more of a consensus to address this gap.
If the education system were graduating students who couldn't read or write or who couldn't do mathematics or who the business community felt were not up to par, you'd hear a hue and cry from the business community that the country's universities and its high schools were simply not up to standard and we needed to improve this. But you don't hear the same hue and cry about the country's largest employer requiring someone to know both official languages to move up or to participate, and the fact that we're simply not doing that with our public education systems I think is a huge structural problem.
I'd be interested to hear if your office in the past or present has done any work on what it would cost, what it would take, to use the federal spending power to encourage provinces to require that both official languages be known as a requirement for graduation, and I think to accommodate the increasing diversity of this country, to do what the Europeans do, which is one plus two.