Welcome to the 74th
meeting of the Standing Committee on Official Languages on this Tuesday, April 16, 2013.
Pursuant to the Order of Reference of Wednesday, February 27, 2013, we are here to study Bill .
Over the next hour, we will be hearing from Mr. Fraser and Ms. Tremblay from Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Also in front of us today are Madame Charlebois and Monsieur Giguère of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages in Ottawa.
Welcome to all four witnesses.
Before I begin with an opening statement from Mr. Fraser, I understand that Monsieur Godin has a point of order to raise.
Go ahead, Mr. Godin.
Mr. Chair, ladies and gentlemen, and honourable members of the Standing Committee on Official Languages, I'd like to express my thanks for your having me here today and allowing me to speak by video conference. As the Chair said, I'm currently in Winnipeg meeting with Manitoba's francophone community and visiting the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
I appreciate the steps you are taking to adapt our democratic processes to new technologies, especially when those technologies better serve the needs of federal institutions and result in cost savings for Canadian taxpayers.
I am here with Johane Tremblay, General Counsel. Ghislaine Charlebois, Assistant Commissioner, Compliance Assurance, and Sylvain Giguère, Assistant Commissioner, Policy and Communications, are there with you in Ottawa.
I am addressing you today not only as Commissioner of Official Languages, but also as an agent of Parliament.
Bill , which was put forward by the New Democratic , is to the point and unequivocal. Its purpose is to ensure that persons whose appointment requires the approval by resolution of the Senate, House of Commons, or both Houses of Parliament, can understand and express themselves clearly in both official languages without the aid of an interpreter from the moment they are appointed.
It is an important bill for the future of Canada's Iinguistic duality. I therefore support it unconditionally.
Everyone to whom this bill applies—with the exception of two individuals—is an agent of Parliament. If I may, I will use the expression "agents of Parliament" to refer to the 10 persons covered by the bill to keep things simple.
As you are aware, the controversy surrounding the high-profile appointment of a unilingual anglophone to the position of Auditor General of Canada resonated strongly both with a segment of Canadian public opinion and with the parliamentary committees responsible for reviewing it. Following the appointment, my office received 43 complaints and has conducted an investigation.
I determined that the Privy Council Office had not met its obligations under part VII of the Official Languages Act with respect to the Auditor General's appointment process because it failed to take into account the language requirements under subsection 24(3) of the act, the spirit of parts IV, V, and VII of the act and the specific nature of the roles of agents of Parliament.
Agents of Parliament exert national and sometimes even international influence. They are responsible for monitoring how federal institutions are living up to the obligations that parliamentarians have imposed on them to ensure the integrity of our democratic system. Several of them serve as ombudsmen for the public and as independent and impartial critics of government action for both parliamentarians and the public.
Their job is to provide timely notification of any actual or perceived infringements of the values and rights they are required to protect on behalf of all Canadians. They must report the findings of their work not only to parliamentarians, by publicly tabling their reports and appearing before parliamentary committees, but also to the public through news conferences and media interviews.
Consequently, their office and their public presence have become more visible in recent years. Their interventions thus have a greater impact.
The role played by agents of Parliament is changing. The requirements for independence associated with our positions enable us to carry out the social mission entrusted to us with all the credibility and authority that Canadians expect. As incumbents of these positions, we must demonstrate a high degree of leadership, influence, visibility, and transparency. As Madame Latendresse said in the House of Commons, the presence of unilingual elected MPs in the House is perfectly normal, and just as the government must adapt to the needs of Canadians, Parliament must adapt to the needs of elected MPs, regardless of which official language they use.
Members of Parliament expect—and rightly so—to be able to engage in private conversations with agents of Parliament, and to be understood. These agents must understand and express themselves clearly in both official languages without the aid of a translator or interpreter. Proficiency in French and English is therefore an essential appointment criterion.
This bill is consistent with my own recommendations to the Privy Council Office. The latter must state loudly and clearly that linguistic qualifications deemed to be essential for candidates should not be seen merely as assets.
Accordingly, candidates will be able to take steps to learn their second language in advance. This will also encourage universities to do more in terms of offering second-language programs to students. Indeed, I made a recommendation to the government along those lines in my 2011-12 annual report.
All Canadians—anglophones and francophones—expect senior officials who have to communicate with parliamentarians and Canadians across the country to be bilingual. That was also the position taken by several English-Ianguage dailies during the public debate following the Auditor General's appointment.
During my term of office, I have often said that proficiency in French and English is an essential leadership criteria. The ability of federal institutions to operate efficiently, fulfill their obligations with regard to their employees and the public, and to reflect contemporary Canadian values across the country and abroad depends in good part on the language skills of their leaders.
Furthermore, at the beginning of 2013, my office launched a study to determine how the Privy Council Office establishes the language qualifications for positions whose incumbents are appointed by the Governor in Council. I would be delighted to share the findings with you once the study has been completed.
As Madame Latendresse said, agents of Parliament “have a clear mandate: to uphold, promote and monitor integrity. They have the right to know everything, to ask anything and to understand everything that is happening within their jurisdictions.”
It is critical that we, as agents of Parliament, have the language skills to understand and express ourselves in both official languages without the aid of a translator or interpreter.
Agents of Parliament must demonstrate exemplary leadership. The time when elected MPs had to adapt to the unilingualism of Parliament without citizens questioning the credibility of their government is long gone.
Thank you for your attention. I would now like to use the remaining time to answer your questions.
I want to thank Mr. Fraser for attending our meeting, along with Ms. Tremblay, Ms. Charlebois and Mr. Giguère, all from the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.
First of all, Mr. Fraser, I am pleased to hear your comments on the bill concerning agents of Parliament and of the Senate, that is the 10 persons cited in the bill, and the way in which you describe the responsibilities of those people. You said that every parliamentarian should be able to engage in private conversations with those individuals. They are agents of Parliament and of the Senate, not of the government. That also reflects the Official Languages Act.
Unfortunately, we know what has happened. We now have a bill, and the government publicly told us that it would support it. However, rumour had it that there would be amendments. I believe that was clear in committee. For example, they would like to strike the preamble.
The preamble to the bill reads as follows:
|| the Constitution provides that English and French are the official languages of Canada;
||Whereas English and French have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of Parliament;
||Whereas members of the Senate and the House of Commons have the right to use English or French during parliamentary debates and proceedings;
||And whereas persons appointed with the approval by resolution of the Senate, the House of Commons or both Houses of Parliament must be able to communicate with members of those Houses in both official languages;
||Now, therefore, Her Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and House of Commons of Canada, enacts as follows:
That is the preamble. Do you not think it is normal for a bill to have a preamble to assist in interpreting the bill and to indicate where it comes from? It clearly states that these individuals are appointed with the approval by resolution of the Senate or the House of Commons and that parliamentarians have a right to use English or French during debates. We are talking about people who have to deal with Parliament. The 10 individuals are people who have to deal with Parliament and who represent it. They are agents of Parliament.
By striking the preamble, we open the door to the possibility that anyone could be included. The government could appoint up to 500 people. They could be presidents of crown corporations. They could be anyone. With the preamble in place, it is clear that we are not talking about them. We are really talking about the 10 individuals who deal with Parliament and the Senate. That is clear; that is why there is a preamble. It is normal for a bill to have a preamble. It conveys an idea and an interpretation of the bill by citing the reasons why it is there.
I would like to hear your comments on that point, Mr. Fraser.
Clause 2 refers to the ability to speak and understand both official languages. That goes without saying. However, it states that one must be able to do so without the aid of an interpreter.
This week, or late last week, the committee received a letter from the Canadian Association of the Deaf, which represents 3.5 million Canadians. That organization sent us a letter saying that it had some reservations about the word "interpreter". If one of the agents of Parliament had an accident or a health problem that caused him or her hearing problems, sometimes that person might not understand certain words.
You can be bilingual and understand both official languages, but you have to think of all the synonyms in the French language. Sometimes you may need an interpreter to explain the synonym so that you can be sure your correctly understand the meaning of a sentence. Those people have to make major decisions.
Could the fact that they never use the services of an interpreter undermine the understanding and even the decisions of those people?
Thanks to Mr. Fraser and all his associates.
I would like to return to the issue of potential amendments.
I entirely agree with you that deleting the preamble would strip the bill of an explanation that could be useful in interpreting the act, if it ever had to be interpreted, particularly before the courts.
I would like to try something. It will probably not go very far, but I am going to try it all the same. Perhaps we could do the opposite of what Mr. Gourde suggested and amend clause 4 to read "the individuals occupying the positions referred to in this Act shall be able to communicate with parliamentarians."
Why should we be so timid if we believe in bilingualism. Why not leave the door open to reinforcing bilingualism and making it more difficult to weaken bilingualism? That would also make it possible to amend clause 3 by providing that the Governor in Council may add offices but that it must go before Parliament if it wants to remove any. I think that is one way to show that this committee believes in bilingualism.
It has been suggested before us that it would perhaps be a good idea, for example, for the president of CBC/Radio-Canada and the chair of the CRTC to be required to be bilingual. I do not believe the government would go so far as to appoint someone who is not bilingual to CBC/Radio-Canada or the CRTC, but you never know because it has previously informed us that it is capable of doing some surprising things.
If we amended the bill in that manner, we would have even greater commitment to bilingualism. What do you think, commissioner?
I have a brief question.
First of all, Ms. Latendresse, I would like to congratulate you because we support the concept you presented. Thank you for that.
Thank you for appearing before us, commissioner and Ms. Tremblay.
My question is more important for Ms. Michaud and me than for all the other committee members. I would like to talk about clause 2, more specifically about titles such as that of the Auditor General. It does not include the feminine version, "vérificatrice générale". We have previously discussed that difference. I am the mother of a 15-year-old girl, and I hope there will always be room for young women in the public service and that they will always have the opportunity to be agents of Parliament. I have heard that the choice of words in the French versions of bills is very important. In fact, a note on the Department of Justice Canada's website states that the use of gender-neutral language in French in bills is very important.
I would like to have your opinion on the subject because our country includes everyone.
We now resume our meeting, which is public.
We will proceed with clause-by-clause consideration of Bill .
On the orders of the day, you will see under the section “Clause-by-Clause Consideration”, the order in which we will consider this bill.
What we will do as a committee is begin with the consideration of clause 2, then proceed to clauses 3 and 4, then to the short title, then to the preamble, and then to the full title. Then we'll adopt three routine motions to report the bill back to the House. We'll begin with clause 2. The committee has the option with each of the clauses to carry it unamended, to negative the clause, in other words, to strike the clause, or to present an amendment, which we can then debate.
(On clause 2—Requirements)
The Chair: I understand there are a number of amendments that are going to be proposed, so I'll give the floor to Mr. Gourde for the first amendment.
Mr. Chair, we saw during debate that the people on the government side had a problem with the words "without the aid of an interpreter". Here we have an amendment in which they want to strike those words and to change clause 2. They also want to strike the words "to express himself or herself clearly". I thought they would at least leave that.
We have heard evidence from the people from the FCFA, from the QCGN, which represents Quebec's anglophone minorities, and especially from the Commissioner of Official Languages. The commissioner said that he would not want to have to be accompanied by an interpreter at a meeting.
The government people talked about the letter from the Canadian Association of the Deaf. We received it too. We also requested an interpretation, and I was pleased to see that a distinction was drawn in the response that we received between "interpreter" and "translator". Translators really deal with documents, with written texts.
I remember that, when we previously attended conventions where there were interpreters, every time we used the word "translators", they came to see us during the break and told us, not in an unkind way, that they were interpreters, not translators, that is to say that they dealt with people, not with written texts. Even the commissioner pointed out that translators worked with documents, whereas interpreters interpreted the comments made by people.
This issue was a concern for the group that sent us the letter, Mr. Chair. I do not think that changes matters, but the fact remains that it is clear. Agents of Parliament will not start travelling with interpreters. If we have this act, it will be so that officers of Parliament are definitely bilingual enough to discuss matters, speak fluently, make themselves understood and understand others.
Considering everything we have heard, I would like Mr. Gourde to explain to us what the government feels is causing a problem in this regard.
I'm looking at the Official Languages Act right now. Section 16 states:
||Every federal court, other than the Supreme Court of Canada, has the duty to ensure that
||(a) if English is the language chosen by the parties for proceedings conducted before it in any particular case, every judge or other officer who hears those proceedings is able to understand English without the assistance of an interpreter;
It goes on, and then paragraph (b) is on French.
So this already exists in the Official Languages Act. The example you're putting forward is a bit weird. I'm sorry, but very often in the English language, I will say “What is this word in English” or “What do you think”. When we're talking about legislation, the difference between “the”, “if”, “and”, and “or” is huge. The difference between “and” and “or” is huge if you are a lawyer in a court.
What you're presenting, the essence of what you're putting forward, is not interpretation in terms of understanding the language. The essence of what you're putting forward is the legal interpretation of a word.
What this covers is basically, as the commissioner agreed with when I put the example forward, that if, for one example or another, the Auditor General is in Quebec, for example, and is doing a study or work out in the field, and both anglophones and francophones are speaking to him, he or she has to have the ability to understand, not just to speak the language, but to comprehend what is being said. That is what this is covering.
I'm not really understanding where.... It's like apples and oranges that you're putting out there. I don't know if you can explain that a bit more.
I want to continue a little further in the same vein. In fact, they are seeking more flexibility in a bill that defends one of the fundamental principles of our country: bilingualism.
We have seen what has come from flexibility. We have a unilingual anglophone Auditor General who currently would be unable to answer my questions. Earlier Mr. Fraser mentioned that he sometimes got help from someone to clarify a term. Yet he has not lost his position; his term has even been renewed. So I do not believe there is a major problem in that regard.
I want to mention another problem. My colleague has just read us a passage from the Official Languages Act. When I read the proposed amendment, I see it dilutes what that act provides. We are losing the continuity that we have in our way of defending and promoting bilingualism.
What act will take precedence if we wind up with another case like that of the Auditor General? In that case, we used flexibility and wound up with someone who can pronounce only every second word in his second language.
This amendment is not clear. It does not deal with the quality of skills at all. We are really diluting the objective we aim to achieve. I do not understand why we would want to leave loopholes—I am using an English word, but I hope you will not doubt the quality of my French. We are adding loopholes to the bill that could cause us more problems like the one we have experienced with the Auditor General.
So if the government really wants to promote official languages and to avoid a situation like the one we had with the Auditor General, I do not understand why we should dilute what is already clearly stated in the Official Languages Act and which already works very well.
We thought that was enough before we had a unilingual Auditor General. Here we are required to introduce a bill to solve problems that we have had. And they are trying to dilute it in a way that is not consistent with the Official Languages Act? I would like someone to explain to me the reasoning behind that because I do not understand it at all.
I have just two points of information from your chair.
The correct terminology for
CBC/Radio-Canada is "président-directeur général".
It's “president” in English.
For the CRTC, it is "président".
In English, it's “chairperson”.
My apologies: I was referring to it as the “commissioner”. That's just to be clear about the amendment in front of us.
The second point I want to make is that
if we keep the preamble, your amendment is inadmissable.
Mr. Chair, I have a comment, but the government members are not required to respond to it.
Here we are talking about striking the following words: "The Governor in Council may, by order, add offices to the list established in section 2". According to the information that was provided to me, the Governor in Council has always had that responsibility with respect to agents of Parliament in particular. That is subsequently approved by Parliament. I do not see the need to strike this clause. I believe it helps make matters clearer.
Perhaps the government people want to strike it for only one reason: that, in the event they do not form the next government, they would like to prevent individuals from being appointed to those offices without the permission of the House or the Senate, which has a Conservative majority. Perhaps they want to block the process in the event the next government wishes to appoint agents of Parliament.
Agents of Parliament are not appointed lightly. Their candidacy is subject to debate. As we have seen, there are even discussions between the Prime Minister and opposition leaders. I would like the government people to explain to me why the Governor in Council could not, by order, appoint an agent of Parliament. It has always been done that way.
Perhaps they want to paralyze the next government. That is not what the Conservatives usually try to do. They always want the government to have power, but, in this case, in the case of official languages, that is not what they are seeking. It is not as though this were nothing. They are prepared to give us, to give Parliament, power over everything, but, in the case of official languages, they want to strip the government of the power to do the things that would normally be requested by the public.
For those reasons, I cannot support the amendment to strike clause 3, that is to say the following words: "The Governor in Council may, by order, add offices to the list established in section 2." We are talking about adding them here, not removing them. We are not asking to strike what is set out in clause 2. Those in favour of the act must know that it will continue to apply. We cannot remove people, but we can add those who are bilingual. How could we prevent the government from adding to the list of bilingual people to represent Canadians when the country has been bilingual for 43 years and there are two official languages?
For those reasons, I cannot support the amendment, Mr. Chair.
As regards clause 4, Mr. Chair, I thought the matter was clear. A person who does not meet the requirements of the act cannot be appointed on an interim basis. The commissioner was clear on that point; there was no ambiguity. Others may say that the matter may proceed in such and such a manner. No, no. A lawyer cannot be replaced by someone who is not a lawyer. A person who occupies that kind of position cannot be replaced by a person who is not qualified. He was clear on that point.
The FCFA was clear: either a person is qualified or he or she is not. The representatives of the QCGN, who speak on behalf of Quebec anglophones, were clear. The question was put to them and they were very clear. There can be no half-measures: either you are qualified or you are not.
With regard to this clause, Mr. Chair, I cannot understand how the government can even dare ask to strike this condition for individuals occupying an office on an interim basis. People should not suffer from a lack of bilingualism even for a brief period of time. I cannot believe that the government, which claims to be so interested in bilingualism, requires it of the incumbents of some 10 offices but agrees to do without it for 6 months. Come on.
In those jobs, the second in command is bilingual. That is a person who...
We will end on that note, Mr. Chair, even though I am not done. We will have to come back to it on Thursday.