Mr. Graham Fraser (Commissioner of Official Languages, Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages):
Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
First, I want to offer you my congratulations. This is the first time I have seen you since the election. That may seem a while ago for you, but I congratulate you all the same.
It's always a pleasure to be here before the committee.
I would also like to thank the Chairman for introducing my team, particularly since it has been renewed.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to meet with you at the beginning of the new parliamentary session, and of course to congratulate all of you on the new mandate. Your committee, along with the Senate committee, is a vital link between my office and Parliament. Your reports and interventions contribute a great deal to the advancement of Canada's language rights.
It's a particularly inspiring time for me to be here because 2009 marks the 40th anniversary of the Official Languages Act. The right to use English or French in public institutions is one of the first language rights to have been guaranteed to Canadians, and as such I thought this was an ideal place to undertake a balanced assessment of the official language successes, challenges, and opportunities in Canada 40 years after the act was adopted.
Significant advancements have been made in terms of official languages. They include the work accomplished by the language groups themselves, particularly within official language communities, Quebec's French-speaking population and the French-as-a-second-language movement. Other advancements are the direct result of the actions taken by parliamentarians. Lastly, court rulings have brought about changes, particularly those made by the Supreme Court of Canada. In fact, the Supreme Court just handed down a very important ruling in the CALDECH case—or Desrochers, to use its formal name on—for which I served as co-appellant. I am delighted with this ruling because it is a victory for official language communities. This case helped clarify the scope of federal institutions' obligations to deliver bilingual services.
More specifically, the Court found it important to clearly establish that a broad view must be adopted when looking at linguistic equality, and that the Government must consider the nature and purpose of the service in question to take into account the specific needs of the official language communities. In some cases, identical treatment is therefore not appropriate to achieve linguistic equality in service delivery.
I'd like to give a few examples of the gains made over the past 40 years: the increase in the bilingual capacity of the public service, although it is still not perfect; the remarkable vitality of official language communities, which this Committee has studied closely; and the slow but steady increase in the number of bilingual Canadians, both among anglophones and francophones. These advancements have benefited the country as a whole, contributing not only to its prosperity in a variety of ways, but also to the well-being of its citizens.
What are the most important challenges now? Full implementation of Part VII of the Official Languages Act remains a key priority; significant importance will be placed on implementation in the performance report cards of several federal institutions that will be published with my annual report in May. While some federal institutions have taken positive measures to support the development of official language communities and promote linguistic duality, others are still wondering about their obligations. I took note of the work done by Canadian Heritage, which issued guidelines for the application of Part VII throughout the public service.
Federal institutions must take Part VII into account when delivering their programs, particularly in applying components of the Roadmap for Canada's Linguistic Duality, announced by the government in June 2008. Obviously, I am eagerly waiting for the government to share with the public the details of the investments announced and the initiatives to follow. In my view, the silence in the recent budget on this topic was a missed opportunity. If the government truly believes that linguistic equality is a Canadian value, it must be reflected in its actions. If commitments are not clearly established or if there are delays in implementing them, setbacks are often the result. This is why the current delay concerns me. For departments and their community partners, the new fiscal year starts in 34 days. I would think that this should prompt the Government to act quickly.
I see that many of you have shown interest in how the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games will reflect Canada's linguistic duality. I share your interest. This global event presents a unique opportunity to show the world that linguistic duality is one of Canada's fundamental values, and to celebrate the cultural richness of its English- and French-speaking communities.
In a report I released on December 2 in Vancouver, I mentioned that the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games demonstrated some interest in bilingualism, but work remains to be done in various areas. Special consideration should be given to communications with the general public, the media, and athletes, three groups that have a key role in ensuring successful games.
My report contains 18 recommendations on such things as simultaneous interpretation, bilingual volunteer recruitment, signage, sponsor participation, the role of the games secretariat, and resources allocated to the organization's official languages unit. The report was well received by VANOC, and we are monitoring the progress.
It seems to me that translation is one aspect that poses significant problems. In fact, the budget appears totally inadequate, given the work to be done, and I'm afraid that VANOC is waiting too long to correct the situation.
In addition to this study, we've undertaken an awareness campaign among the federal institutions whose contribution is vital to the success of the games. This involves the 20 or so institutions working on, for example, security, transportation, and direct service to the public. It's important that these institutions understand that people from Canada and abroad coming to the games will expect to interact with Canadian officials in both English and French. The Canadian Olympic experience will begin as soon as visitors arrive in Canada, not simply when they arrive on the Olympic site.
We are not only targeting the Vancouver airport facilities, but also the facilities in Toronto. Lester B. Pearson International Airport will act as the gateway to nearly half of the travellers from abroad who will be going to Vancouver. We have been in regular contact with the airport's administrators for the past several months and I recognize the immensity of the challenge in providing bilingual services during an exceptionally busy period.
Air Canada will have to take up a similar challenge. The airline's performance will be evaluated as part of its performance report card in my annual report, as will the performance of some major Canadian airports.
I am taking this opportunity to remind you that the government promised to introduce a bill during the 38th session of Parliament to maintain the language rights of the travelling public and Air Canada employees. Three bills to this effect have been introduced since Air Canada was restructured in 2004, including two from the current government, but all of them died on the order paper. The situation is critical because Air Canada's corporate structure is constantly changing, and the passage of time may make it impossible for the government to fulfil its commitment. I am therefore asking the government to introduce a new bill to fill this legislative gap as soon as possible.
Over the next few months, I will also be paying attention to changes in the federal government. We are currently witnessing the gradual departure of one generation of public servants and the arrival of another. As I mentioned earlier, I feel that public service renewal is an excellent opportunity to enhance the bilingual capacity of public servants and improve service to the public. However, if recruitment and training of new employees is carried out without taking bilingualism needs fully into account, the situation could become a source of concern.
A major change has just been made to official languages governance. Some of the duties of the Canada Public Service Agency will now be assumed by the Treasury Board. We still do not know what place official language issues will have in the future in this organization. I hope we will see changes that aim to improve the federal government's performance with regard to its language obligations as well as stronger leadership from the Treasury Board in this area.
I would now like to talk briefly about the Canadian Forces and linguistic equality, first because our discussions on this topic have always been extensive and constructive, but also to let you know that the comprehensive review of training offered by the forces is well under way. My employees have gone to several training locations over recent months. You should receive a report from me some time in the next year.
I was informed last month that the families of a number of French-speaking soldiers at the Edmonton base complained about the lack of French-language services offered by the family support centre. My regional representative has been looking into this problem for some time, and I've asked my staff to work on this with the military bases in Alberta and the franco-Albertan community. Our soldiers who are abroad for long periods should not have to wonder whether their families have access to the support services they are entitled to in their language. I believe this could have serious operational implications, and I plan to follow this issue closely.
In conclusion, I will not hide the fact that I fear that during these difficult economic times, governments will reduce investments in programs supporting the development of official language communities and language instruction. This is what happened in the mid-1990s, and the setbacks caused by that decision have barely been overcome to this day.
In a context of global trade, linguistic duality is an important asset we need to preserve. The federal government has very important responsibilities when it comes to official languages. There have always been setbacks during periods of unsteady leadership in Ottawa. Progress, on the other hand, has resulted from strong leadership. During this time of economic uncertainty it is especially important to maintain a strong hand at the helm and not jeopardize the gains made over the past 40 years.
We are obviously ensuring that the public funds used by my office are prudently managed. For example, our new internal audit committee, which I spoke to you about during our last meeting, has already contributed significantly to the sound management of our organization. At our request, the Office of the Auditor General continues to audit our financial statements each year and has given us an unreserved opinion for the fifth year in a row. All of the managers and executives working for my office are extremely proud of this mark of excellence and we intend to continue along this path.
Our work with the various federal institutions subject to the Official Languages Act is being done with the same concern for efficiency and results. During the last few months we have established new ways of dealing with complaints from the public and of being proactive in order to prevent and address situations that could lead to complaints.
Thank you for your attention.
We'll be happy to answer questions and to hear your comments.
Mr. Jean-Claude D'Amours (Madawaska—Restigouche, Lib.):
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you, Mr. Commissioner. Thanks as well to the members of your team.
Mr. Commissioner, as I remember, you have previously taken an interest in certain situations at the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, the port of entry at the airports. I must tell you that it's extremely frustrating, from a security standpoint, for a francophone to go into a designated bilingual Canadian airport.
At some point, we have to ask ourselves whether people take us seriously—parliamentarians and the government—when we tell them that the act has to be enforced. It's all well and good to post a notice stating that service is offered in English and in French—you can also put up a plastic plaque, like the one I'm showing you, with “bilingual” written above the machine used to do the checking—but if you don't enforce that policy... I think that the failure to obey that rule stems simply from the organization's cavalier attitude. They should simply remove the notice, and we at least wouldn't expect to receive service in our language.
I have two examples of experiences I have had at two airports that I'm going to name: Ottawa International Airport and Winnipeg Airport. In Ottawa, I was asked for my “boarding pass”. All right, I'm from New Brunswick, and I know what a boarding pass is, and I can speak English. However, I decided to speak French. But the person continued to speak to me in English. Then I spoke French again, but that person continued to speak to me in English. I saw that I was understood because the person was able to answer me, but not in my language.
So I asked to speak to a supervisor. The supervisor enquired as to whether I had in fact asked to be served in French. Did I have to fax the Ottawa Airport in advance to tell them that I was coming, that I was going to go through security and that I wanted to be served in French? These kinds of situations are not normal.
He asked whether I had asked to be served in French! I didn't know what more I could tell him. That's the first example.
The second example—and my colleague opposite is from the Winnipeg region—occurred at Winnipeg Airport. There are various gates for the security checks. I step up, and I'm one of the lucky people they ask to search...
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
Mr. Jean-Claude D'Amours: With my clothes on; let's get that straight. But when you read the little folder on searches, it states that I'm one of the lucky ones to be selected as part of a normal rotation. But there too, there was a little plaque stating that they offered bilingual service. I spoke in French, and they answered me in English. I understood that they understood me, but they were unable to speak to me in my language.
When the search issue arose, I wondered what was going on. That was the first time it happened to me. They spoke to me in English, and I said I wanted to be served in French. I wanted to be sure I understood what they were going to tell me, because, at that stage, I didn't know why they were making me undergo the search. Ultimately, they found a nice man on staff, the only one able to speak a little French. He asked me if I wanted a massage.
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
Mr. Jean-Claude D'Amours: Mr. Commissioner, I understand that, at times, it can be difficult to translate certain words. I nevertheless understood, and the gentleman made an effort. But can you imagine the situation? The man then left. Once again I had to face another unilingual anglophone. My wife, who was ahead of me, then told me we were going to miss our plane. We were with our older daughter, who was three years old at the time. Imagine! The process required us to follow the line and to move forward.
Those are two examples of abnormal situations. It makes you wonder. At Winnipeg Airport, I asked them to provide me with documents so I could file a complaint. Do you know what they gave me? An information guide for travellers! I asked for the name of the person in charge that day, and they refused to give me his surname. That person, who said he was in charge—and I have his contact information—refused to inform me. How do you know if two people have the same name? So I don't have any evidence. I was denied that.
As Canadian citizens, we have rights when we enter bilingual airports. I don't use designated bilingual airports every day, but, at some point, the situation becomes frustrating, and you say to yourself it may be better to speak English since, one way or another, you'll never win. Let them remove the plaques or let them respect us!
Perhaps you don't have much time left, but I've described to you some situations that occur every day.
It's like the Air Canada story I was telling, where the sign on the washroom door said: “Don't smoke the toilet.” I imagine the interpreters will be able to give a good rendering of that image. These examples make us wonder about federal institutions. Why do we encounter these kinds of problems when we are supposed to be respected?
Mr. Graham Fraser:
Mr. Chairman, I want to thank the member for her question.
I believe that's very important for the vitality of the communities. There are three important factors involved in ensuring that the arrival and integration of francophone immigrants in the minority communities works well: federal government support, provincial government support and the relationship with the community in question.
I'm going to give you some good and bad examples. In Manitoba, real efforts are being made and are producing positive results. Citizenship and Immigration Canada is working closely with that province and with the Société Franco-Manitobaine and the RDÉE. People from the RDÉE alternately meet immigrants and refugees who arrive at the airport. In addition, when a francophone immigrant or refugee winds up in temporary accommodation, a transportation system is organized so that the children can go to a francophone school, even before permanent accommodation is established.
In other provinces, immigrants are not told that there is a minority francophone community. The people responsible for accommodation and support don't direct immigrants whose mother tongue is other than English or French to French-language services, but rather those whose first official language is French. If their first language is Wolof, the language of Senegal, support services in English are organized for them.
People working in community services have told me that, six months or a year after they arrive, immigrants who spoke French had accidentally discovered French-language clinics, schools or services. No one had told them about them. Some organizations even directed those people to anglophone service points or schools. In that kind of case, one year after they arrive, their children are already enrolled in English-language schools. Then it becomes difficult for them to use existing services.
I won't say what example this is because there are probably other versions of the story, but I know that some francophone communities suffer from the fact that there is no coordination. However, I'm very much impressed by the cooperation in Manitoba, not only between governments, but within the community itself.
Mr. Yvon Godin:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
We can see that time is passing quickly and we have a lot of questions. It's taken 40 years to get where we are; it will take time to ask all our questions.
Let's go back to the subject of the Vancouver Olympic Games. The Olympic Games will be taking place in nearly one year, and French Canadians are not yet assured that they will be able to get them in their own language. A number of them will, but there are still places where some won't be able to. That's one thing. The CRTC made a statement on the subject not long ago with regard to Radio-Canada. However, CTV and Rogers are also responsible for programming. I'd like to hear what you have to say on the subject, that is where we stand on this matter and what could be done.
As regards the services provided by third parties, I'm a bit disappointed in your recommendation that Canadian Heritage increase obligations in the next agreements. Why not increase them immediately? Why wait for the next agreements? I'd say it's a bit insulting to see that announcements made by third parties on the Internet concerning the Olympic Games, that is by a British Columbia advertising agency, have been translated into other languages from English, but not into French.
An hon. member: That makes no sense.
Mr. Yvon Godin: I personally filed a complaint with your office on that matter.
If your recommendation is that Canadian Heritage should increase obligations in the next agreements, does that mean that my complaint is worthless and that the act hasn't been violated? It's completely nonsensical to see that VANOC came here to tell us how hard it's working and that it's also hiring an agency to advertise in various languages except an official language of our country, French.
Aren't we inviting France to come here? What's going on? Aren't we inviting Switzerland and francophones from Africa? What message are we sending other countries, when Canada has a chance to speak out on the global stage and an invitation isn't being sent out in one of its official languages?
Mr. Graham Fraser:
The Public Service Agency had certain responsibilities with regard to training. The Agency is currently disappearing, and those functions will fall to the Treasury Board, which, in the past, has had responsibilities concerning linguistic duality.
One thing has struck me. I'm going to respond to you in a more detailed manner, but first in a more general way. For three years now, there have been changes in responsibility within the government with respect to languages. Prior to early 2006, progress monitoring was conducted by the Privy Council. That responsibility has been transferred to the Department of Canadian Heritage, which, at the same time, has responsibility for monitoring compliance with the act within the other departments, as well as direct responsibility for official languages. The decision was made to assign that to two different branches, and that's a bit of a concern for us.
For you, I've previously noted that that raised some concerns over the fact that this monitoring obligation was no longer the task of the Privy Council. The analogy that I draw is that, in an office, when a directive comes from above, it is complied with more quickly than if it comes from the office next door.
A study was commissioned from Professor Donald Savoie. It contains a chapter on horizontality. It was a quite subtle study on the question. I'm not going to repeat to you what it was about; there's a chapter in the last annual report. What I see is that institutional changes are destabilizing in terms of compliance with linguistic obligations. Every time there is a change, people have to get used to obligations and responsibilities. No one is entirely sure of his or her new responsibilities. Priorities can change. So every transfer of responsibilities of this kind concerns me a little.
You have to be more vigilant to ensure that a transfer doesn't mean a lower priority is attached to the question. I'm not necessarily saying it's a bad thing in itself that there has been a transfer from the Agency to the Treasury Board, but I'm going to make an extra effort to monitor the matter, to ensure that priority is not lost.
Mr. Daniel Petit (Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, CPC):
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Good morning, Mr. Fraser, and welcome back. Greetings as well to your team.
On a number of occasions, we have had the opportunity to receive and talk to you about your various reports, which are always very interesting. Naturally, we see that there are improvements and sometimes ups, sometimes downs. You have a very good grasp of the dynamic of the Official Languages Act as a whole.
Since you are an officer of Parliament, I have a question for you. There are what can be called frontal attacks on the Official Languages Act, such as Bill C-307, which was introduced on February 10 and is entitled, An Act to amend the Official Languages Act (Charter of the French Language) and to make consequential amendments to other Acts. It was introduced by Mr. Paquette, who is a member of the Bloc Québécois.
Like me, you know that, under that bill, the Charter of the French Language and Bill 101 as a whole would have to apply entirely to all the federal institutions referred to earlier: Canada Post, Air Canada, customs, the armed forces, public service, the coast guard and so on. They're tabling a bill because they want it passed. If it were passed, you would no longer have a job. We would have a problem.
Furthermore, and this concerns me the most, there are francophones from New Brunswick and Manitoba around this table. My children are Franco-Albertans. Consequently, if we implemented Bill 101 in all federal institutions, which would mean that it would henceforth be francophone wall to wall, that would mean that, in the other provinces apart from New Brunswick, which has something different in its Charter, the two million francophones living outside Quebec would no longer be able to receive services in the second language. The major principle is the application of both languages.
You've read the bill. This frontal attack is a direct threat to your job. I'm telling you: if this bill is passed, you will no longer have a job tomorrow morning. If you read the bill, you'll see that it's very specific, wall to wall, and it concerns everything that is in Quebec, federal institutions, including the banks. I would like to hear what you have to say on that subject.
Mr. Richard Nadeau:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Simply to reassure Mr. Petit, I emphasize that that bill was introduced by Ms. Pauline Picard in 2007. She was the member for Drummond at the time. We met with Mr. Fraser concerning the bill in question. Mr. Fraser need not be concerned for his future.
Mr. Petit, you yourself voted in favour of recognizing the Quebec nation. The Bloc Québécois will be putting some flesh on the bone. This is a bill that states, among other things, that the Charter of the French Language must take precedence over any other act, even the Official Languages Act, in Quebec. If you respect the Quebec nation, that's the purpose of the bill.
Earlier, Mrs. Glover, who is parliamentary secretary, spoke about the a Roadmap. Mr. Fraser, in your introduction, you said that you were still waiting for news about the Roadmap.
So, Mrs. Glover, if we don't yet have the Roadmap, we can't really talk about it.
That said, the VIA Rail file is one among many, someone will say. With regard to that mode of transportation, we know that there is a designated area where English and French are the languages of work, between Montreal and Alexandria, in Ontario. A citizen who works at VIA Rail, Mr. Chevalier, filed a complaint because his employer—this was caught on a sound recording—ordered him to speak to him in English when he responded that he would prefer to speak French because that was his language of work.
Where do we stand with regard to VIA Rail? Are there any other circumstances in which VIA Rail did not respect the fact that employees wishing to work in French must be able to do so?
Mr. Graham Fraser:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I appreciate the question very much, because I think it is absolutely critical. The only way the federal government can meet its obligations and ensure there is not a backslide with the departure of a generation and the hiring of a new one is to ensure that universities step up to the plate.
To answer your first question very briefly, we're not on track. Canada is not on track to reach that goal of 50%; in fact there has been a slight slippage.
Why is that? I think that's because the federal government has not figured out how to target secondary education. There are some very clear links to post-secondary education. But the provinces are quite jealous of their responsibility for primary and secondary education. Despite the fact that there are federal-provincial agreements concerning financing of second language education, I've expressed my concern in the past that there is not the same kind of follow-through to ensure that there are results for the federal funding that goes into those agreements.
In terms of post-secondary education, I share the member's belief in the importance of this. One of the things we have done, which I think is very complementary to the work you are about to undertake in looking at post-secondary education, is a study with the AUCC, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, of what is now available in universities to provide students with second language learning opportunities, courses that are given in the other language, and exchange possibilities--what is being done now.
We are now at the second phase of this. We've compiled data from universities and colleges across the country. We've now embarked on a series of focus groups with students and professors in I think it's 18 institutions across the country, and over the next few months we will be coming out with this. It's a very preliminary step, so that at least people will have a single reference as to what's being done now. I think that would be very useful for your committee as a basis for questioning. When you bring people in, you can say, “We see you are doing these programs. How come there is not better connection?”
One of the things we discovered is that there are all kinds of universities that have junior years abroad and semesters in second-language universities outside the country, but it is extremely difficult to have interchange between English-language and French-language post-secondary institutions. It's very hard for someone at the University of Calgary to spend a semester or a year at Laval, because there has not been the kind of effort to make that possible.