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STANDING COMMITTEE ON TRANSPORT

LE COMITÉ PERMANENT DES TRANSPORTS

EVIDENCE

[Recorded by Electronic Apparatus]

Tuesday, November 2, 1999

• 1802

[English]

The Chair (Mr. Stan Keyes (Hamilton West, Lib.)): Good evening, colleagues. Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), this is a study on the future of the airline industry in Canada.

We welcome this evening our witnesses from the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. Dyane Adam is the commissioner, Gérard Finn is the director general of the policy branch, Michel Robichaud is the director general of the investigations branch, and Richard Tardif is the senior legal counsel and director of legal services.

Welcome to the Standing Committee on Transport. We look forward to your presentation of between 10 and 12 minutes so that we can ask questions.

Mr. Bill Casey (Cumberland—Colchester, PC): I have a point of order, Mr. Chair. We discussed the motion I presented, and you suggested I bring it up at the very first of this meeting.

The Chair: Or at the conclusion. Our witnesses are here, so maybe we could hear the witnesses first, do our questions, and then deal with that.

Mr. Bill Casey: Will we have time, though, with the vote and everything?

The Chair: Well...

Mr. Bill Casey: Can we just deal with it now? It's just a simple—

The Chair: With the witnesses here, I'd like to proceed with the witnesses first, and then we can come to that.

Mr. Bill Casey: Okay.

The Chair: Thanks, Mr. Casey.

Ms. Adam.

[Translation]

Ms. Dyane Adam (Commissioner of Official Languages): Honourable members, I would like to thank the Chair and the Members of the Standing Committee on Transport for welcoming me here today in the context of its study on the future of the air industry in Canada.

It was very important to me to appear before you today, largely because my mandate requires me to make every effort to ensure recognition of the equal status of our official languages and to ensure that the spirit and the letter of the law are respected.

The Official Languages Act applies not only to the daily operations of federal institutions, but also relates to the role these institutions play in promoting English and French in Canadian society. The Act's fundamental objectives are to promote the equality of status of English and French and to provide service in the language of their choice to all members of the public, wherever there is a significant demand.

While your committee's mandate relates primarily to economic issues, one cannot ignore the impact the restructuring of Canada's transport industry will have on the values and social and linguistic interests of our fellow citizens. In fact, the decisions you make will have a major impact on them and on their sense of belonging.

• 1805

[English]

Being already very concerned by the negative effects of recent government changes on maintaining and respecting linguistic rights in Canada, my office conducted a study on this matter in 1997. A year after, in 1998, a further study, this one at the request of the Treasury Board, confirmed our observations—namely, that the approach adopted by federal authorities has contributed to a subtle but cumulative erosion of linguistic rights.

On October 26, 1999, the Minister of Transport, the Honourable David Collenette, tabled before this committee a policy framework for restructuring the airline industry in Canada. This policy clearly states the importance of Air Canada to our national identity, both symbolically and in concrete terms. To quote this report:

    Fundamental to the identity of Canada is its linguistic duality. It is a reflection of Canada's unique culture and values that Canadians be able to rely on the national air carrier for service in either official language.

The policy also stipulates that the government will ensure that the Official Languages Act will continue to apply to Air Canada or any future dominant carrier, and in addition that the act will be enforced. We were of course very pleased to hear this statement. We have already had discussions with the minister on this issue, and the media have also reported my views on this subject.

[Translation]

You will recall that in 1988, section 10 of the Air Canada Public Participation Act also provided for the full implementation of the Official Languages Act. At that time, the corporation believed that respecting linguistic rights went hand-in-hand with good business.

Specifically, Air Canada has maintained and still maintains that its regional carriers, which are wholly owned subsidiaries of Air Canada, are not subject to the Act and, moreover, do not represent it. Air Canada also maintains that regional carriers are not required to offer services to the public in both official languages. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to amiably resolve this dispute with the corporation, we filed a request in 1997 to have the matter referred to the Federal Court.

We also made applications to this same court with regard to the ground services offered by Air Canada at Toronto's Lester B. Pearson International Airport and at Halifax International Airport.

[English]

I would remind you that over the last five years, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages has received more than 900 complaints against Air Canada and its regional carriers, which represents about 15% of our annual number of complaints. These complaints bear eloquent witness to the degree of importance the Canadian public attaches to receiving service in the official language of their choice.

It is hard for average citizens to understand why, after buying an Air Canada ticket to fly from Halifax to North Bay, they have the right to use their preferred official language at the Halifax airport, but not on the flight run by Air Nova—a wholly owned Air Canada subsidiary—between Halifax and Montreal. At Dorval Airport they can again exercise their right to use the official language of their choice, but only until they reach Toronto. When they leave Lester B. Pearson airport via Air Ontario—also a wholly owned Air Canada subsidiary—their linguistic rights vanish into thin air. With any luck, they can be claimed again in North Bay with their luggage.

• 1810

We are convinced that after the current restructuring process, citizens may witness an even greater erosion of their linguistic rights in the airline industry. Based on the information currently available, we can only speculate on the future of the airline industry.

[Translation]

What shall we do?

We recommend that the Government of Canada ensure, in the context of the restructuring of the airline industry, that the law stipulates that:

    a) the Official Languages Act will continue to apply in its entirety to Air Canada regardless of its structure or to a future "dominant carrier" and

    b) that the regional affiliates and other subsidiaries be subject to Part IV (Communications with and services to the public), Part IX (Commissioner of Official Languages) and Part X (Court Remedy) of this same Act.

Here, for example, is a draft of a new provision that could be included in the new Act:

    The Official Languages Act applies to the new corporation (such name to be specified in the Act).

    Without restricting the generality of the preceding, with regard to communications with and services to the public, where there is a significant demand, the provisions of Parts IV, IX and X of the Official Languages Act apply to the Corporation's regional carriers and other subsidiaries (such as Air Canada Vacations) as well as to carriers under contract to this corporation, both in their offices and in transit.

Specifically, that would mean that the provisions previously applying to Air Canada would remain unchanged and would be wholly assumed by any new owner.

[English]

The obligations of regional carriers affiliated with the dominant carrier would essentially involve bilingual services, which would be provided for under the act. If an individual felt his rights had been infringed upon, he would be entitled to file a complaint with the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages and potentially seek court remedy, with assistance from the commissioner if necessary. This provision would create an incentive for these carriers to do better. As stated, these carriers must serve the public in both official languages in all airports where there is a significant demand, such as Halifax, Dorval, and Vancouver. There are 10 of these.

A great statesman once said, “Creating a law without enforcing it is tantamount to allowing the very thing that was supposed to be prohibited.” We were very pleased to hear the government intends to ensure the effective implementation of the Official Languages Act. We truly hope these good intentions become reality, in particular through specific and effective accountability mechanisms that will be defined in this new legislation.

[Translation]

In any initiative to restructure the Canadian airline industry, one must balance considerations relating to competition and profitability with conditions intended to protect the public, whether that means services to small communities or services in both official languages. These concepts are in fact often interrelated. In reviewing the proposals submitted, the members of this committee have the specific responsibility of ensuring continuity and promoting the fundamental aspects of Canadian identity. Our recommendation, in our view, simply recognizes the undeniable linguistic reality that has enriched Canada for over two centuries and that will be one of its greatest assets in the next millennium.

Thank you for your interest in my comments.

• 1815

[English]

The Chair: Thank you very much, Ms. Adam, for your presentation to our committee. It must be heartening for the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages to have support from all quarters for the implementation of the Official Languages Act.

We'll go to questions, and we'll start with split time for Val Meredith and Roy Bailey. Val.

Ms. Val Meredith (South Surrey—White Rock—Langley, Ref.): Thank you.

I just have a very quick question, and I ask this in all sincerity. I know you're concerned with the two official languages in this country, but I must ask this question because I saw this happen on a flight recently. Do you feel language should come before the safety of the travelling public and of the airline industry?

Ms. Dyane Adam: I think it's not a question of which one. They're not mutually exclusive. Often language is a question of safety by itself when a person becomes sick or whatever on the airplane. There are also security issues. People need to know what are the instructions being given for security purposes in an airplane.

Ms. Val Meredith: The reason I ask that is because in the incident I referred to there was an individual who was neither French nor English, and the flight attendant tried to communicate with that individual in both of our official languages but was not understood. It was only because a passenger spoke Chinese that they were able to intercede. This individual was up walking around when the plane was taking off. I think we have to look at our country, and it's not a question of two official languages but many languages that are spoken. In this case the security of that plane and the passengers was threatened not because of no English or French but because of the lack of ability to speak a language that is very widely used in parts of our country.

Ms. Dyane Adam: What I can say to the members of the committee here is that when French and English are used in Canada, you are reaching out to 98% of our population, so 98% of our population will understand. There may be cases, such as you cite, for the other 2%. In fact, you show the importance of being able to communicate with the passengers in both languages and even more.

Ms. Val Meredith: Thank you.

The Chair: Mr. Bailey, please.

Mr. Roy Bailey (Souris—Moose Mountain, Ref.): We just came out of a committee hearing. We've had several, as you know.

I certainly have no problem with the duality of the languages. Within my constituency it is of interest that I have nine ports of entry from the United States. I don't think any other constituency has that many. Of course, both languages are supposed to be available. Infrequently, somebody who is on that outpost isn't able to speak both languages, but the availability of that particular person is made by phone. So you can always look after that. That serves us well.

We talk about this procedure known as cabotage and whether that will ever become a reality in Canada. There's the possibility of a plane that originates state-side landing in Winnipeg and being allowed to take a flight from Winnipeg to Vancouver and then back to the home base. I'm wondering how we could make the Official Languages Act applicable to that particular air carrier.

Ms. Dyane Adam: I don't want to go into every imaginable case—

Mr. Roy Bailey: No.

Ms. Dyane Adam: —but there are already regulations that more or less see to these different situations. You will see that in the document we mentioned, if the demand is there, and this in fact covers the situation you are referring to.

Mr. Roy Bailey: Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you, Mr. Bailey.

Mr. Dromisky, please.

Mr. Stan Dromisky (Thunder Bay—Atikokan, Lib.): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Thanks, Madam Adam. I'm going to quote you: “Language is a question of safety”. I have to agree with you. It's extremely important that the people who are being communicated with understand what is being said while they're sitting in that plane.

In northwestern Ontario we have over 60 small airports, and the vast majority of them have people who don't understand English and French. But the major carriers that go in there have tape recordings, and they put the tape recording on. The first language that comes on is Oji-Cree, a blend of those two dialects because most of the passengers understand that language. Then comes English, and then comes French. In light of the statement you made, does it make any difference to you which comes first, second, third, or fourth?

• 1820

Ms. Dyane Adam: You know that in the Official Languages Act two languages are recognized. There are regulations set by this government as to which one should come first. We need to respect what you and Parliament have voted.

Mr. Stan Dromisky: So what you're really saying to me is that it doesn't really matter as long as both languages are covered in the message regarding safety measures in that airplane.

Ms. Dyane Adam: No, I said that in the regulations concerning services in both official languages the Treasury Board does say that there has to be French first in Quebec, where French is the language of the majority, and English first in provinces where English is the language of the majority. This is already in the regulations.

Mr. Stan Dromisky: So what we're really saying is that we'll use common sense based on the regional populations and what language they speak. For instance, if we go way up north where we're going to deal with the Inuit and so forth, who have a different dialect, the carriers that operate up there would have to communicate with them in their language first before that plane gets off the ground to tell them what the safety measures must be and what they have to abide by. I don't know if they do it. I do know that in northwestern Ontario it's—

Ms. Dyane Adam: I'm not sure if you are speaking of Air Canada or the regional carriers linked to Air Canada. You may be referring to private carriers, and I don't know if they are even subjected to the OLA.

Mr. Stan Dromisky: Madam, I'm looking into the future. We have no idea what contracts are going to be signed by regional carriers with the dominant carrier. Therefore, to me it's very important that we look into the future.

I'm looking at page 6 of your proposal regarding what we should in essence support. The very last line mentions “carriers under contract to this corporation”. There could be carriers that carry only two passengers at a time that have a contract with the dominant carrier and that come to a central hub such as Thunder Bay or Winnipeg.

Ms. Dyane Adam: I see your point.

Mr. Stan Dromisky: Thanks, Mr. Chairman.

The Chair: Thanks, Mr. Dromisky.

Monsieur Guimond.

[Translation]

Mr. Michel Guimond (Beauport—Montmorency—Côte-de- Beaupré—Ile d'Orléans, BQ): Mr. Chairman, I'd like to thank Ms. Adam and the members of her staff for joining us this evening.

On September 15 or 16, I recall reading an article in La Presse in which you expressed some grave reservations about the issue now on the table, namely the merger of the two carriers. It may have been one of your first public statements following your appointment. Are you concerned more about the application by the new corporation of the provisions of the Official Languages Act, a point that Mr. Schwartz clearly emphasized this afternoon? Both groups in fact recognize that the new entity should be called Air Canada.

I'd like to hear more about your concerns or reservations and I wonder if they relate specifically to regional carriers.

Ms. Dyane Adam: The reservations I expressed and the concerns I continue to harbour relate primarily to the need to impress up decision-makers, namely yourselves, the importance of spelling out clearly in the new legislation the obligations of the new carrier from a linguistic standpoint, if that carrier is to be called Air Canada.

The same applies to regional or other carriers acting as third parties for this corporation. Many of the complaints that the Commissioner's office receives involve Air Canada and its refusal to recognize that its regional carriers or wholly owned subsidiaries are subject to the legislation's provisions. We are currently challenging this position.

• 1825

The whole issue could be resolved quite frankly if the members and the people who will be making decisions about the new act move to include the provision that we have recommended.

Mr. Michel Guimond: This brings me to my next question. In April—I don't believe you had been appointed yet—Air Alliance, which is headquartered in Quebec City, and Air Nova, which is headquartered in Halifax, agreed to merge. I've met on several occasions with Mr. Joe Randall, the Chairman of Air Nova/Air Alliance, who is currently the Acting Chairman of Air Ontario. He is scheduled to give testimony before our committee. Mr. Randall assured me that 99 per cent of his flight attendants were functionally bilingual. I pointed out to him that there was a difference between being functionally bilingual and capable of giving instructions in the event of an emergency landing, and being able to recite to passengers the little speech about the location of the emergency exits and the washrooms. Any kindergarten child or first grader is capable of learning that speech. One needn't be a rocket scientist. I have nothing against children, but one doesn't need to be an adult to recite that particular speech.

However, in the event of an emergency landing where passengers need to be instructed to remove their shoes along with any dentures and adopt a fetal position, then that's a little more complicated.

Could you possibly forward to the clerk the list of complaints made against Air Nova since the merger of Air Alliance and Air Nova in April? I would image that information is readily available.

Ms. Dyane Adam: We already have some data on the number of complaints filed against regional carriers. For your information, during 1998—unfortunately I don't have any figures for later than September—42 per cent of the complaints filed against regional carriers involved Air Nova and 48.5 per cent, Air Ontario. The majority of complaints filed today involve these two regional carriers.

Mr. Michel Guimond: Were you aware that a Canadian Regional Foooker F-28—I have to be watch how I pronounce this because the chair has already corrected me—traveling from Toronto to Quebec City had to make an emergency landing? A light on the dash indicated to the pilot that the aircraft's landing gear had failed to deploy. However, the flight attendant was unable to give passengers instructions. Were you aware of that situation?

On Air Ontario or Air BC flights, attendants have passengers listen to a tape of instructions. I have to wonder if these airlines have a whole series of tapes to cover every eventuality: the landing gear hasn't deployed, there's a fire in the washrooms, and so forth.

The Chairman: Michel.

Mr. Michel Guimond: The Canadian Regional flight attendant had the passenger in seat 1C translate the instructions on safety measures. Fortunately, I wasn't that passenger in seat 1C, otherwise I wouldn't have provided that translation. Imagine the stress a request like this must put on a passenger who is already frightened by the prospect of an emergency landing! Would you care to respond to this?

Ms. Dyane Adam: You don't really expect me to respond to these comments. Did you have a particular question you wanted to ask me?

Mr. Michel Guimond: My question was...

Ms. Dyane Adam: Was I aware of this particular incident?

Mr. Michel Guimond: Are you aware that such incidents occur, despite the fact that we have an Official Languages Act?

Ms. Dyane Adam: Yes, but as you know, Canadian is not required at the present time to comply with the provisions of the Act. I'd simply like to respond by saying that for safety reasons, language is important. Your example is a clear illustration of this fact. It's not just a question of language rights, but also a question of safety. A person who speaks both languages is able to communicate with 98 per cent of the population. That's important.

[English]

The Chair: Thank you very much.

Thank you, Mr. Guimond, for your effervescent question.

• 1830

I have no one else on my question list, so I will thank the witnesses for appearing before us. Thank you very much for your presentation. If we have any further questions, we would like to be able to call you.

Colleagues, we will just let the witnesses go. We have to deal with a motion by Mr. Casey. Mr. Casey.

Mr. Bill Casey: Yes, I would just ask for unanimous consent so that we can ask the clerk to contact Air Canada and Canadian Airlines for a complete set of the documents that were tabled in the Quebec court case. We have most of the ones from Onex, but we don't have anything from Air Canada. We'd just like to see all the records that were tabled there.

The Chair: Okay. You have a notice of motion before the committee now?

Mr. Bill Casey: I do.

The Chair: On a notice of motion, of course, we require 48 hours before we deal with it.

Mr. Bill Casey: I just thought we might have unanimous consent—

The Chair: Do we have unanimous consent to proceed?

Some hon. members: Yes.

Mr. Stan Dromisky: No.

The Chair: No, we don't, so 48 hours will bring it up, Mr. Casey. It will be on the notice paper.

Ms. Bev Desjarlais (Churchill, NDP): We're in the same situation as we were the other day when Mr. Sekora—

The Chair: No. I'm sticking to the rules, Bev. I'm going to stick to the rules, and the rules are that if there is unanimous consent to proceed, we can. If there isn't unanimous consent, we can't, Bev. That's the way this rule works.

Ms. Bev Desjarlais: The other day, when Mr. Sekora asked for something—if I'm wrong here, that's fine—everybody was trying to get agreement except—

The Chair: But he gave unanimous consent at the end of the day.

An hon. member: But after a little—

Ms. Bev Desjarlais: But after a little bit of—

An hon. member: Stan, what were you—

Ms. Bev Desjarlais: Because we said the majority of the people were here—

The Chair: Wait—with both of you talking, I can't hear you both.

Mr. Bill Casey: Why didn't you give us unanimous consent, Stan, like Lou did?

The Chair: I'm not going to get into a discussion on why there is or isn't unanimous consent. There isn't unanimous consent, colleagues. Order, please.

There is no unanimous consent. There is 48 hours' notice for the motion. I'm not entertaining the change, Mr. Casey.

Is there any other business?

We'll see you tomorrow at 3:30, colleagues. Thank you.