Mr. Graham Fraser (Commissioner of Official Languages, Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages):
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
Members of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, bonjour. It's a great pleasure for me to appear before you to explain my role. Before beginning my statement, I just wanted to stress how our office is available to parliamentarians who seek more information about official languages. If you wish to avail yourselves of our technical expertise, don't hesitate.
Thank you very much for inviting me to talk to you about the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages and to explain to you my mandate as an officer of Parliament.
Joining me today are Catherine Scott, acting director general, policy and communications branch; and Dominique Lemieux, director general, compliance assurance branch.
The past few decades have witnessed the creation of a series of specialized agencies to support Parliament in its role of overseer of public administration. I'd like to commend you for examining the role of agents, also often called officers of Parliament.
In his recent book, The People's House of Commons, the political scientist David E. Smith notes that there has been little study of our role. “Officers of Parliament either singly or as a collective are largely unexplored phenomena”, he writes. He points out that there are two broad features that we share. I quote:
||“first, independence from the executive, and second, accountability--this last itself manifested in contrasting ways: officers are accountable through their reports to Parliament, and government's accountability to Parliament is heightened as a result of the officers' activities.
In addition, as Smith underscores, I also have the role of “ensuring that language equality remains a defining principle of the constitutional architecture of Canada, its Parliament and its government”.
The institution of ombudsman has, out of necessity, grown since its creation. The factors that have led to the further development of the institution of ombudsman are well known. Within the last generation or two, the size and complexity of government have increased considerably, as much in quality as in quantity.
Parliament appoints officers of Parliament to work that is crucial to ensuring the integrity of our democratic system. The Canadian parliamentary agencies led by these officers are the guardians of the fundamental values of our society. Parliament has assigned the Commissioner of Official Languages the role of ombudsman to allow the fulfilment of its mission of protecting language rights and promoting linguistic duality within Canadian society. So that this mission could be fully carried out, Parliament granted the commissioner the status of officer of Parliament and set out the necessary conditions to ensure independence from the government, namely regarding the appointment process and compensation.
As stated in the Official Languages Act, the Commissioner of Official Languages is appointed for seven years by the Governor in Council, by commission under the Great Seal after approval by a resolution of the Senate and House of Commons. The nomination can be revoked by the Governor in Council. The commissioner has the rank and powers of a deputy head of a department, and benefits from the same protections and benefits as a Federal Court judge.
While the independent status of an officer of Parliament should also be reflected in the budget process and the accountability process, officers of Parliament currently do not experience this kind of independence. The budget approval process puts officers of Parliament in the position of having to request funding from the government, the very entity whose performance they are supposed to be reviewing. This situation, which we believe weakens the independent status of officers of Parliament, has led a number of us, including the Auditor General, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Privacy Commissioner and myself, to propose the creation of a Parliament panel. This advisory group of parliamentarians, which is currently a pilot project, would be responsible for reviewing our budget applications and how we are carrying out our mandate and managing public funds.
The other aspect of the officer of Parliament role that we believe should be reviewed from the perspective of independence is current staffing mechanisms and processes, which are governed and regulated by the Public Service Commission, meaning the Treasury Board has a certain degree of control over the approval of resource allocation.
As you can see, the conditions of independence related to officer of Parliament status raise complex issues and should be clarified and defined in terms of the ultimate goal, which is to enable officers of Parliament to carry out their social mission with all the credibility and authority that Canadians expect of them.
As officers of Parliament, we are working with Treasury Board Secretariat to develop guidelines that define our relationship. I foresee a productive relationship and hope that this pilot project will become a permanent instrument of Parliament.
As set out in subsection 56(1) of the Official Languages Act, it is my responsibility to take all actions and measures within my authority with a view to ensuring recognition of the status of each of the official languages and compliance with the spirit and intent of this act in the administration of the affairs of federal institutions, including any of their activities relating to the advancement of English and French in Canadian society. Our organization has over 175 employees spread throughout four branches and five regional offices. Our annual budget is approximately $19 million.
As Commissioner of Official Languages, I see my role as that of a bridge builder between the various actors. Linguistic duality is an essential component of our national identity. I therefore approach my mandate with the objective of encouraging dialogue and creating synergies between francophone and anglophone Canadians, citizens of all origins, and federal institutions.
As my mission is to take every measure necessary to achieve the objectives of the act, I am taking specific actions in three clearly defined areas: protection, promotion, and prevention.
Under the protection component, I conduct audits and monitor the advancement of English and French. I receive complaints and, as needed, conduct investigations and intervene before the courts.
Under promotion, I inform Canadians of their language rights, and I conduct research and publish studies. I make the public aware of the benefits of linguistic duality, and I work with federal, provincial, and territorial governments. I work closely with official language minority communities, and I ensure that government takes appropriate measures in support of their development.
Under prevention, I develop strategic approaches to finding sustainable solutions.
Our mandate is to see to the full implementation of the act while considering in particular the major amendment to part VII of the act adopted by Parliament in 2005. All federal institutions are now required to take positive measures to support the development of official language minority communities and promote linguistic duality.
As ombudsman, I receive close to 1,000 complaints per year. I review them and conduct investigations where warranted.
For example, the administrative changes to Status of Women Canada announced in 2006 as part of the expenditure review resulted in a significant increase in complaints to the office of the commissioner by citizens concerned about the impact of budget cuts on agencies that support women in official language minority communities.
The Office of the Commissioner has for many years readily adhered to basic principles such as transparency and accountability to Parliament. An excellent example of our practices is our annual report to Parliament. This report discusses the status of the implementation of the Official Languages Act as well as compliance by the government and institutions subject to the act. The report also contains recommendations to the government.
Regarding internal audits, we have developed our own internal audit policy and we are now subject to the Access to Information Act.
In the mid-term, the Office of the Commissioner will face new challenges that will lead us to revisit our ongoing operational needs. I am currently reviewing how the commissioner plays the ombudsman role in contributing to attaining the act's objectives.
To ensure that section 41(2) of the Official Languages Act is respected, we will have to monitor the level of government commitment to linguistic duality and community participation in drafting government policy. It will therefore be important to call on official language majority communities for participation.
As an officer of Parliament, like the other commissioners before me—and I'm the sixth—I fully respect the principles of government policies aimed at ensuring good practices in the management of public funds. I'm also determined to ensure that the office of the commissioner retains its independence from government and continues to be accountable to Parliament.
I'd be pleased to answer any questions.
Mr. Graham Fraser:
It's a challenge. I sometimes have a hard time balancing that myself.
In terms of the evolution of how it started, next year will be the 40th anniversary of the act, and I've found myself asking precisely that question of how we got from there to here. So one of the things I've asked that we do is to do a study internally of precisely that. We're now going through a renewal stage, because a number of people, some senior people, are retiring this year. There will be new people arriving--and I've been in this job for only a year and a half--and I thought it would be very useful for me and for them to know precisely what the stages of evolution were through the five previous commissioners.
My sense from talking to Keith Spicer was that he started with half a dozen people, and Keith will be quite cheerful in saying--and he recounts it in his memoirs--how there were elements of it that he made up as he went along. It became more formal as years went by. There was the creation of regional offices, for example, which both do the promotion work and also receive complaints. We have five regional offices plus smaller one-person offices. There's an office in Sudbury that reports through Toronto. There's an office in Regina that reports through Winnipeg. There's an office in Vancouver that reports through Edmonton.
In terms of our reporting to Parliament, we meet the same budgetary cycle as everybody else does. We do a report on plans and priorities, as everybody else does. When Treasury Board comes down with various requirements, we meet those requirements. When the government decided that there should be an internal audit process for every department, we were the first of the agents of Parliament to set in place an internal audit procedure. We are audited by the Auditor General. We've had five successive clean bills of health. We have fairly intense budgetary discussions in terms of how we're going to allocate the money that comes forward. When it was clear that there were obligations from the government that it was going to cost more, we were able to go to the parliamentary panel and lay out the case, saying this is the money that we need to meet these new obligations.
My own view is that independence carries responsibilities, that the more independent we are from the financial institutions of government that we are also monitoring, the greater our responsibility is to be transparent and responsible in our handling of taxpayers' dollars. We try to be as rigorous as we can in ensuring that we're transparent. My travel and hospitality expenses are posted on the Internet. Our budgeting procedures are made very clear in the reports on plans and priorities, and as I say, we've had five consecutive clean bills of health from the Auditor General.
Mr. Graham Fraser:
In terms of how we handle complaints, we receive complaints by letter, by e-mail, by phone. They are received through the compliance assurance branch. There is a process of assessment of whether or not a complaint is receivable under the act, and to be receivable a complaint has to relate to a specific incident, it has to be concerning a federal institution, and it has to relate to a specific part of the act. So for example, if somebody says the post office hates French Canadians, that is not a receivable complaint. If, on the other hand, they say they went to this post office, which is in an area where it is supposed to be able to deliver services in both languages, and they were unable to receive those services. It was on July 14 at two o'clock in the afternoon and they were not able to get service in the language of their choice. That's a receivable complaint. It has to be an institution, it has to be a specific event, and it has to be a part of the act.
That filtering happens, and sometimes people will complain about something that is not a receivable complaint, but it's a reasonable concern, and I'll just write a letter to the institution saying I recognize that they don't fall under the act, but they might want to take into consideration that they have.... Sometimes we will get complaints about provincial institutions, for example, that I don't have any formal responsibility for, and sometimes it is a provincial institution that has tried to do something in both languages on a website, but you go beyond the first step and you get nothing else.
We also will deal spontaneously with things that have been raised in the media--Vimy, for example, where information was done in very poor French and it was reported in the media, and we responded quite quickly and intervened and that got changed.
In terms of the different roles of my audits and the Auditor General's audits, obviously we are asking different questions. When the Auditor General's people came to our institution, they devoted 800 hours to looking at our institution's books. That involved many more hours on the part of our staff. Our audits are not as intrusive as that, but maybe, Dominique, you might want to talk a bit more about precisely how the audits function.
Mrs. Patricia Davidson:
Thank you. I just had a couple of comments first, and then a couple of questions for the mover, please.
After you presented this motion verbally to us at the last meeting, I did some checking. This conference is not a ministerial event and the Government of Canada is not sending a delegation. This motion refers to their being part of the government's delegation, but there is no delegation. Claire Beckton is the only senior official who is going to represent the government. Because of the nature of the conference, there are probably going to be some independent entrepreneurial women there--because that's what the conference is about--but they're not attending as part of a delegation.
I personally feel very strongly that if it's an issue, and if it's a conference that there will be parliamentarians at, we need to be present. But this is not one of those. I'm told that any of the countries that would be sending any political representation would be very small countries, that comparable countries such as the U.K., the U.S., and Australia will not have political participation there. I firmly believe that we need to have political representation when in fact that is the type of conference that is being held.
I just wanted to make that comment to the mover, and then I have a couple of questions.
If this motion passes, and I expect it likely will--it looked as though there could have been concurrence on the other side--would this be an official committee trip? Maybe that's what you're referring to by the addition you put on your motion today. Would all members of the committee be attending, or just representatives? What's the rationale behind it? Why are we doing this?
As I pointed out before, did you realize when you put this forward that it wasn't a ministerial or parliamentarian conference?
I would appreciate it if the mover could clarify that for me.
Hon. Anita Neville:
I have not been part of it in any way.
I think, Madam Chair, how this has come about is that the meetings in February at the UN, for the first time in my history here, did not have political representation at them. Last year I was part of a delegation. There was one member from each party. The delegation was headed by Senator Nancy Ruth, from the Conservative Party. But there was representation, and Madame Demers was part of it as well. For us not to have political representation this year, to my mind, is unprecedented. We have a very capable coordinator—I'm not sure of Ms. Beckton's title. She is very capable, and I don't want to take anything away from her, but she is a bureaucrat. She's not part of the political direction of this country.
So I think it's very important that there be political representation. I don't know whether 12 people should go or whether it should be representation of the various groups, but my point is that there has to be representation.
As it relates to the meeting in October or November, I was going to put forward a motion—and I haven't got it drafted today—specific to that particular meeting. Canada is being reviewed in Geneva, and I have here the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Regarding what it is being reviewed on, it has submitted much of its documentation already. But many of the issues that will be dealt with there are issues we have looked at in this committee, whether it's trafficking, aboriginal women, violence against women, or poverty. So in my mind, that is of particular importance.
I don't know what the committee wants. If you want, I can put forward a notice of motion. I won't be here next week, but I want to single that one out as being an important one, for there to be representation.