Mr. Graham Fraser (Commissioner, Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages):
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
It's a pleasure to be here for my first appearance before the committee since the election. I've congratulated each of you personally, but let me do so here today.
I've enjoyed working with the committee during the first five years of my mandate, and I'm looking forward to working with you in the two years that remain.
On Tuesday, my 2010-11 annual report, entitled “Leadership, Action, Results”, was tabled in the House of Commons. Before summarizing it, let me make a couple of observations.
As you know, language issues can still be emotional and often divisive. We saw this with the Federal Court decision in Thibodeau v. Air Canada. There was also the outcry in the media following our call for tenders to make observations to evaluate the bilingualism situation in the capital.
I think this is a good thing. It is normal for linguistic duality to be at the heart of our social debates. It lets us define ourselves as a society and better serve the Canadian population. It is always useful to set the record straight on the application of the Official Languages Act.
With this new session of Parliament, one concern is front and centre in the public service: the strategic and operational review, also known as the deficit reduction action plan. Departments are being asked to find ways to reduce their expenditures by 5% or 10%. Some departments are making significant cuts outside of the strategic review.
The government's financial restructuring could have repercussions for the ability of institutions to fulfill their official languages obligations. Organizations and volunteers whose work is to promote linguistic duality throughout Canada are also worried about possible repercussions. I share their concerns.
I am not claiming that official languages are being targeted specifically, or that they should be exempted, but there is a risk that they will be unduly affected. The government--in particular, Treasury Board ministers, who will make the final evaluation--must ensure that the decisions made during each department's budget review take into account potential consequences for official language communities.
It must also limit the negative repercussions. If each institution independently makes cuts to official languages programs, the cumulative effect will be much greater than 5% or 10%.
My annual report examines the support provided for the development of English-speaking communities in Quebec and French-speaking communities in the rest of Canada. Part VII of the Official Languages Act sets forth federal institutions' obligation to support this development, as well as the promotion of linguistic duality in Canadian society.
This part of the act is one of the primary tools for ensuring that linguistic duality remains of value and is a characteristic that strengthens our country's unity. It contributes to our economic, cultural, and social development, and it is partly responsible for our international reputation.
Five years after this part of the act was strengthened, the Government of Canada still has not affirmed loudly and clearly that full and proactive compliance with the act is a priority.
This omission is worrying. The government has adopted a narrow interpretation of its responsibilities under Part VII. For example, the decision to eliminate the mandatory long-form census questionnaire was made without taking into account its impact on official language communities. Last month, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research cancelled their official language minority community research initiative. The CIHR was the subject of a report card in this year's annual report, and the initiative that has just been cancelled is what enabled them to achieve an A for Part VII.
For an institution to decide to abolish this kind of program without consulting or evaluating the potential impact on official language communities is a serious problem in terms of the Official Languages Act. It's a source of concern in itself, but it is also a troubling signal at a time when all federal institutions are preparing budget cuts. The impact on official language communities must be examined in every case.
Budget restructuring can also have other effects. For example, my office is currently examining two complaints following the federal government's decision to close the Canadian Coast Guard search and rescue centres in Quebec City and St. John's, and to transfer them to the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Trenton and Halifax.
Canadians across the country are living different linguistic realities, but we all have shared concerns about economic development, access to health care, strengthening the school system, developing and promoting our culture, effectively integrating newcomers, and building bridges between official language communities and the majority communities.
Our society is based on the principles of linguistic duality and equality. Canada is stronger, both economically and socially, when linguistic majorities and minorities support each other and contribute to the advancement of Canadian society.
Fulfilling the obligations of Part VII helps consolidate Canadian identity: we must give both of our official languages the respect that they deserve. The ability to do business in more than one language is no longer just an asset. It is now a necessity for many Canadian companies. This makes investing in linguistic duality and the development of official language communities across the country a lever for Canada's economic growth.
The federal government has an important role to play. However, it still has not announced its intentions on the renewal of the road map for Canada's linguistic duality, which expires in 2013. This key initiative is leading to tangible results for official language communities and the Canadian public. I know that the committee is taking a close look at the road map, and I'm looking forward to contributing to your reflections.
Compliance with the Act requires new approaches and new ways of doing things. Federal institutions must take positive measures by undertaking concrete initiatives. I continue to believe that our government's strong leadership has enabled federal institutions to better understand their obligations under the Act.
Part VII was amended as the result of a private member's bill that demonstrated the will of parliamentarians, not necessarily that of the government. But it is the government that is responsible for applying it.
Canadian Heritage, which is in charge of coordinating the implementation of part VII, has produced a very useful guide to help institutions fulfill their responsibilities under this part of the act.
But the fact remains that no central agency has the authority under the act to develop policies or guidelines for promoting English and French. This is a significant shortcoming. Federal institutions are all interpreting their part VII obligations differently. I believe the time has come to amend the Official Languages Act to give Treasury Board the legal authority to monitor the application of part VII through policies and directives and, if needed, regulations.
This will greatly help federal institutions take a comprehensive approach to applying the Act, rather than a fragmented one. I await the government's response in this regard. I should also reiterate that all federal institutions, without exception, have the duty to promote English and French by consulting official language communities.
My annual report also presents an analysis of selected federal institutions' compliance with the act. This year we evaluated institutions that provide significant funds to Canadians and volunteer organizations: Canadian Heritage and the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat were evaluated in this capacity, not as institutions with specific responsibilities under the Official Languages Act.
In general, the 13 federal institutions evaluated this year achieved fairly satisfactory results in terms of the availability of service in both official languages. However, the active offer of service in person remains problematic for several of them. Of the institutions assessed, only Canadian Heritage received an A, or “exemplary” rating, and eight received a B, or “good”.
In order to ensure that federal institutions respect the language rights of the public and their employees, my office receives complaints and conducts investigations and audits. In 2010-11 we received 1,116 complaints, of which 981 were considered admissible. This has been the trend for many years.
Three federal institutions were subject to an audit this year: Environment Canada, Service Canada and National Defence. These institutions seem determined to act on my office's findings, and I have confidence in the commitment shown by their senior managers and employees. They will be able to resolve their issues and strengthen linguistic duality in the long term. We will follow up as appropriate, to ensure that this is in fact the case.
What is being asked of federal institutions is realistic. Fulfilling official languages obligations requires leadership from senior management, knowledge and understanding of the act, willingness to plan and coordinate programs and services, and following up on them in an appropriate manner. Above all, they have to be ready to apply the act. This is nothing new. It's simply a question of putting words into action.
I have one final word. Like other agents of Parliament, I'm not obliged to meet the government's deficit reduction action plan. However, like my colleagues, I have agreed to respect the spirit and intent of the review. I have proposed to discuss our plans with the parliamentary panel on the funding and oversight of officers of Parliament, which was established so that parliamentarians could review the financial proposals of agents of Parliament in a way that would protect their independence.
However, the panel has not yet been reconstituted, and I am concerned that its mandate as a pilot project is scheduled to expire in November. I hope I can count on your support for the idea that this mechanism should become permanent.
Thank you for your attention. I would now like to take the time that is left to answer any questions you may have.
Mr. John Weston (West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country, CPC):
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Welcome, Mr. Fraser. It's a pleasure to have you with us again.
In last year's report, eight federal institutions received a failing grade, whereas this year's report includes no failing grades. Other than Canadian Heritage, which received the best rating, seven federal institutions received a good rating, 12 received a fair rating and only two received a poor rating.
My esteemed colleague, Mr. Godin, wanted rules to be introduced for Supreme Court justices. In my opinion, it's in the value associated with this, as you just mentioned, that we have been most successful.
With this marked improvement in the performance of federal institutions over the course of a year, why are you still insisting that the government produce regulations? Why would we want more regulations?
We've made a lot of progress, particularly in terms of the value of this. If there are too many regulations in place, some people will just reject this and decide that, instead of being about the two official languages, it is the government trying to force them to do something.
What do you think?
Mr. Graham Fraser:
Yes. I've been particularly impressed by what has happened in Manitoba, where the Department of Citizenship and Immigration has been working closely with the provincial government and also with the Société franco-manitobaine in working to recruit, attract, welcome, and support francophone immigrants to Manitoba.
It is a model for a number of reasons, partly because there has been an inclusion of members of the community in the Destination Canada job fairs in Paris and Brussels, and partly because there has been this close collaboration among the federal government, the provincial government and the community.
Also, there is the degree of closeness with which a group called Accueil Francophone, which is part of the Société franco-manitobaine, has been able to literally welcome francophone immigrants and refugees at the airport, place them in temporary housing, register their children in French school from the moment they arrive, and accompany them through this organization, Accueil Francophone, for the first three years.
First of all, there has been a real coming to understand that welcoming a Belgian chef who wants to open a restaurant in Saint Boniface, on the one hand, and welcoming a family that has spent five years in a refugee camp on the border of Congo and Rwanda, on the other hand, are two very different challenges and there are different problems in which the families have a whole series of different adaptation challenges. They have been able to marshal the resources and the individuals with the experience to know what those challenges are and to follow those families closely and provide them with the moral support they need to make their adjustment.
Every chance I get, I talk about that particular example of I think a successful collaboration among a federal department, a provincial government, and key people at every level who have been working together to make this happen
Mr. Yvon Godin:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Royal Galipeau was of the view that all your reports talked about horror stories. But you do see departments where things are going well. In reading your report, I see that Canadian Heritage received a C rating. That is not such a great result, when Canadian Heritage receives a C. They talk about the As and Bs, but not about the Cs, Ds and Es that are also mentioned in your report. That's fine. They are making their usual sales pitch.
And, in terms of the horror stories that are never mentioned, we may want to talk about Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Search and Rescue in Quebec. They are the only Francophone offices in Quebec that will be moved to Halifax and Trenton. They are the only ones that are to be moved. And we could also talk about Services Canada in the Atlantic region. On the administrative side, it's not bilingual. It was under this government, Mr. Fraser, that it was declared not to be bilingual. And when it comes to National Defence, have all the issues there been resolved? There are violations in 60% of cases. In terms of Borden, where all the courses were being given in English, and the same for administrative services whenever people would come to request them, can you tell us whether those problems have been resolved?
Commissioner, I suggest that the next time you make a report, you should do half-and-half—in other words, talk about both the horror stories and everything else. That way, they won't try to sweep under the carpet all the issues with respect to official languages and we won't hear the government bragging about everything being great in the last five years. It says that this isn't political and that in the last five years, everything has been great and there have been improvements across the board. Yet there are still major problems in the community.
Minister John Baird has two kinds of business cards. He has a bilingual one and a unilingual one. It has been publicly acknowledged that he has a unilingual English card that he had made to distribute when he goes abroad. That sends the wrong message. That is why your recommendation should be passed on to the Treasury Board. Part VII should fall under the responsibility of the Treasury Board of Canada. Someone should have control over official languages, and I want to commend you on that.
When do you think the Prime Minister will respond to your report?