With me today are Mary Donaghy, assistant commissioner, policy and communications branch; Ghislaine Saikaley, assistant commissioner, compliance assurance branch; and Pascale Giguère, director and general counsel, legal affairs branch.
Honourable members of the committee, good afternoon.
I am pleased to be here today to provide an overview of my tenth and final annual report, which I tabled in Parliament on May 19.
This annual report covers a range of issues that have emerged or been dealt with over the past year. Some issues reveal the progress, or lack thereof, over the 10 years that I've been commissioner. These include immigration, equality of service, early childhood development, and the significance of bilingualism at major national events, to name a few, but two issues in particular stand out.
First, it is clear that there is an ongoing problem in the area of access to justice in both official languages. Canadians who seek to be heard in the official language of their choice in our courts face barriers that are sometimes impossible to overcome. Lawyers often feel they have to warn their clients that if they insist on exercising their right to be heard in their preferred official language, the legal proceedings will take longer and will cost more.
One reason for this is that the bilingual capacity of the superior court judiciary remains a challenge in a number of provinces and territories. Those who apply for judgeships and self-identify as bilingual do not have their language skills tested. Once they are on the bench, they often discover they are unable to preside over a trial in their second language.
The previous federal government resisted taking any action to implement the recommendations I made in the 2013 study on access to justice in both official languages that I produced jointly with my provincial counterparts in Ontario and New Brunswick. And so the first recommendation in my annual report calls on the current government and, in particular, the , to address this matter.
The second issue is one that was raised by former senator Maria Chaput, as well as by numerous community leaders. It's now been taken up by Senator Claudette Tardif in the form of Bill . For decades, federal services have been delivered in both official languages in different parts of the country where there is significant demand for services in the language of the minority.
A minority community can be thriving and growing, but if the majority grows faster, services are lost. This is simply unfair. A community's vitality should also be taken into account, not simply the rate at which the majority community is growing. Bill provides a way of addressing this injustice, as would a revision of the official languages regulations.
In three years we will mark the 50th anniversary of the act, and planning should start now to conduct a review of how part IV of the act, which deals with communications with and services to the public, is applied. The second recommendation of my annual report calls on the government to make this a priority.
Meanwhile, in the federal workplace in 2015-16, complaints under section 91 of the Official Languages Act about the language requirements for public service positions increased by 13% compared with the previous year. One of the reasons for this is a long-standing disagreement between the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages and the Treasury Board Secretariat.
The Secretariat advises institutions that a·BBB linguistic profile is appropriate for most supervisory positions, while I continue to insist that CBC is the minimum level to ensure clear and effective communications with employees in regions that are designated as bilingual for language-of-work purposes.
Along with the tabling of my annual report before Parliament on May 19, I issued new report cards that rate 33 federal institutions on their compliance with the Official Languages Act. I also released a report on my role before the courts over the past decade. Yesterday, June 7, I tabled a special report to Parliament that proposes options that should be examined by the federal government to ensure that Air Canada effectively meets its official languages obligations. I will present this report to you later on today, and will answer any questions you might have at that time.
During the course of my 10 years in office, I've delivered 528 speeches and intervened in 23 court cases, including nine before the Supreme Court of Canada. My office has processed 7,156 complaints.
As I look ahead, though, one thing worries me. Sometimes I get the impression that the attitude toward language policy is “it goes without saying”. And so we do not talk about it. But we have to talk about it. For if it goes without saying, it remains unsaid—and what is unsaid is often neglected or forgotten.
In that context, I would be remiss if I did not say how pleased I am that Royal Military College Saint-Jean is to regain its status as a university. For more than two decades, Canada's armed forces have suffered from the absence of a French-language military university, and this corrects a serious problem.
This year, I will present my eighth annual award of excellence to the organization Canadian Parents for French for its outstanding contribution to the promotion of linguistic duality. I congratulate the organization for its exceptional work and for respecting French as an integral part of Canada.
The Canada 2017 celebrations also offer a unique opportunity to showcase linguistic duality. Numerous groups throughout the country are hard at work organizing events to mark our sesquicentennial anniversary. Linguistic duality must be a key component in all these efforts.
I commend the honourable members of this esteemed committee for their continuing efforts to promote and protect our official languages.
I thank you for your attention and would be pleased to answer any questions that you have.
I want to say hello to Mr. Fraser and his team. It's always an honour to speak with you.
First, thank you for all your excellent work on official languages.
I have been on the committee before, and I have noticed that the same issues often come up. Not much has changed, since we are still talking about them.
I want to know one thing. It's often said that our federal institutions must take the lead in promoting bilingualism across the country.
Your report states that CBC/Radio-Canada must address some deficiencies in terms of the response time for French emails, which is twice as long as it is for English emails.
I think federal institutions should have started submitting reports to us a long time ago. I believe this issue has been discussed for a number of years.
As you suggested in your report on Air Canada, do you think penalties should be imposed to send a message to people and institutions?
Let's go back to our evaluations of the 33 institutions. Some improved, while others experienced setbacks. Only one institution performed poorly in our view. No institution stood out, but there was a slight improvement.
Yesterday, I attended an event. An employee of a federal institution told me how much she appreciated the B rating her institution had received. She said that 10 years ago, her institution was rated E, and that it was now rated B and had worked very hard for that rating.
I again realized that public servants, official languages champions, and official languages coordinators take their responsibilities very seriously. The key is leadership. It means that someone in charge of an institution is sending the right message. That's the case at Public Works and Government Services Canada. When I started my first term, the department was performing poorly. At the time, the minister and deputy minister both considered the evaluation unacceptable. They took measures and implemented an action plan, and progress was made.
You said that you have returned to the committee after taking some time away. Your impression is that the same issues keep coming up and that things are going nowhere. My response is that the work must be ongoing. As I wrote in my annual report, the majority, almost by definition, are not aware of the needs of the minority. That's the reality. It may be unfortunate, but it must be faced. That's why, even in federal institutions, the work is still very important.
Hello, Mr. Fraser. I'm always pleased to see you and, of course, your team. We appreciate the opportunity, especially since this is likely your last official appearance as Commissioner of Official Languages. Ten years is phenomenal.
I have three very quick questions. However, before I ask the first question, I want to go back to the word “leadership”, which you said earlier. I think a leader is considered good when the situation on the ground when they leave is better than when they arrived. It's easy to determine when no progress has been made. I think, in some cases, as you said, the leader in question did not adequately fulfill their duty to improve the situation.
As I now have little time remaining to ask my three short questions, I'll ask them and we'll take a quick look at all of them.
The first concerns the challenge of immigration, as you mentioned in your report.
The second concerns Bill .
The third concerns the active offer of services.
Regarding immigration, you said, outside Quebec, fewer than 2% of immigrants speak French. How do you think the situation can be improved? You have one minute to respond, if that works for you.
I thank you very much, Mr. Fraser, and your team, for being here.
I also want to join you in congratulating Canadian Parents for French for the good work that they are doing. I met with them also, and I know that they are passionate about French immersion. It was really interesting to see that.
I would like to talk about justice. You know me and you know that I have a passion for access to justice in both official languages.
When the President of the Treasury Board, , appeared before the committee, I asked him how the review of the horizontal governance of official languages policy was coming along. He told me that he was not in charge of that file, which was the responsibility of Canadian Heritage.
What role did you play in the review of the horizontal governance of official languages policy, which began in 2014 and is ongoing, as far as I understand? What kind of participation have you had? What has been your experience? How is the review currently going? You talk a bit about governance in your report, but you do not mention that study, and I am wondering about its role.
As an officer of Parliament, I keep a certain distance between the government and myself regarding the development of this kind of a study. So I cannot talk to you about it in detail.
As for the governance issue, nine years ago, the government placed on the Treasury Board the responsibility of ensuring that federal institutions and departments are respecting official languages. In fact, the idea was to limit the number of activities centralized in the Privy Council. So there was a tendency to assign those responsibilities to the departments. I was somewhat concerned, as I worried that the importance given to the official languages issue would be reduced.
At the same time, the committee of deputy ministers on official languages, where members could not be replaced, was superseded by a committee of assistant deputy ministers, whose members can be replaced.
So I was concerned about those two changes.
That issue is a concern for the anglophone minority, in part because that minority has already suffered from asymmetry in the Constitution.
In section 23 of the charter, which concerns minority language educational rights, paragraph 23(1)(a) stipulates that anyone “whose first language learned and still understood is that of the English or French linguistic minority population” has the right to have their children receive instruction in that language. However, further on, in section 59, it is stated that paragraph 23(1)(a) shall come into force after a resolution of the National Assembly. That's an element of the Constitution. Anglophones who have not been educated in English in Canada don't have access to English schools in Quebec in the same way that francophones who settle elsewhere in Canada can have access to French schools.
Given that asymmetry, it's a matter of once bitten twice shy. On the one hand, there is considerable nervousness over the idea that there is no need to provide the anglophone minority with the same rights as those reserved for the francophone minority. On the other hand, if we broadly define what constitutes a minority community in Bill , bilingual francophones may end up being considered as members of the minority community, when that is not really the case.
We sort of find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. I think that what's important is having a system that takes into account the community's real needs.
The mirror effect should in fact apply in some situations, and asymmetry may be more appropriate in others. I don't think we need to have a hard and fast rule that dictates how this should work, as the needs are so different in the country's minority communities.
At the Treasury Board, we have a generic job description where we recommend a B level for supervisor positions, even for positions designated bilingual.
According to our experience, B level is not sufficient for managing people or conducting performance assessments.
You talked about the mirror effect. I was wondering whether there's not a difference between a francophone with a B level and an anglophone with a B level who both work in an environment where English is the language of the majority. For the anglophone, that would probably mean they passed their test, but that they do not use French. In that case, their French declines naturally after the test. However, for a francophone with a B level in the same situation, they probably speak English often, but poorly. Therefore, the mistakes become entrenched. It is difficult to pass the test even if that individual is fairly comfortable in English, since they repeat the same mistakes.
I think there is an injustice....
I would say there are a number of challenges.
Immigration is one of those challenges. When I say immigration, I often cite the example of Manitoba, where there is close cooperation between Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the province, and the Société franco-manitobaine. With the creation of the organization Accueil francophone, we have seen very good results in receiving and assisting francophone immigrants and refugees. The Université de Saint-Boniface played an important role, as did the other organizations I mentioned.
I have discussed this with the . He is very much aware of the importance of immigration for minority communities.
Social media and technology are another challenge. We are in a transition now. The old communication technologies are becoming outdated. We are entering a new era of communication technologies.
In the letter I have prepared for my successor, which I included in my annual report, I referred to the distinction between a linguistic network and a linguistic space. It is very important for communities to have access to spaces where language is visible, audible and used. The networks are also important, but they benefit individuals. Being able to use French to submit a passport or pension application, to reserve airline tickets, or to get a boarding pass at the airport counter is great for individuals, but it doesn't do much for the community.
I think the challenge is the following. First of all, how can we ensure that minority community institutions have access to the new technologies in order to make this transition while at the same time supporting the community? Equally, how can we use these technologies to support the community and not just individuals?
Yesterday morning I submitted my special report, “Air Canada: On the road to increased compliance through an effective enforcement regime”, to the offices of the Speakers of the Houses of Commons and the Senate. The report describes the means used by me and my predecessors to ensure that Air Canada fully complies with its language obligations under the Official Languages Act.
It also contains options for Parliament to modernize the enforcement scheme for Air Canada. I reiterate that certain legal voids must be filled that have persisted since Air Canada was restructured in 2003-2004.
Finally, the report contains a single recommendation to Parliament, that this report be referred to one of the two standing committees on official languages for study.
Created by Parliament in 1937, Air Canada has always been a symbol of Canadian identity because it was built with public funds and because it has Canada in its name and the maple leaf on its logo.
Air Canada has been subject to the entire Official Languages Act for nearly 50 years, first as a crown corporation under the 1969 Official Languages Act and then under section 10 of the Air Canada Public Participation Act after the airline was privatized in 1988.
Since its privatization, Air Canada has gone through many financial and commercial transformations. However, as a national airline that was built with public funds, Air Canada must reflect the bilingual nature of the country and continue to meet its official languages obligations.
After 10 years as Commissioner, I believe it is important to provide an overview to Parliament of the ongoing problem regarding Air Canada's compliance with the Official Languages Act.
Of all the institutions subject to the act, Air Canada is, and has always been, among those that generate the largest number of complaints processed every year by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. With respect to the public, a number of investigations showed that in-flight and ground services are not always of equal quality in both official languages at all points of service and on all bilingual routes.
Despite the passing years and repeated interventions by successive commissioners of official languages, the situation has not changed much. Some of those infractions involve routes where providing bilingual services would seem to be obvious, like Montreal-Bathurst or Toronto-Quebec City.
After hundreds of investigations and recommendations, after an in-depth audit and after two court cases—including one that went to the Supreme Court of Canada—the fact remains that my numerous interventions, like those of my predecessors, have not produced the desired results.
From 2005 to 2011, four successive bills were introduced to resolve the application issues caused by Air Canada's restructuring in 2003-04. Unfortunately, all of them died on the Order Paper.
This is only the second time in the history of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages that a commissioner has submitted a special report to Parliament. I believe that this issue is important enough to be considered independently of my annual report, and I wanted to provide parliamentarians with a full account of our persistent efforts over many years. This is not a single-year issue. I also had many other matters to address in my annual report, including two important recommendations to government.
I think it is now no longer enough to make recommendations following investigations or audits, nor is it enough to report on Air Canada's compliance in annual reports to Parliament. This special report is the last tool I have at my disposal, which is why I submitted it to Parliament today. It's now up to Parliament to make the necessary legislative changes. The status quo is not working.
I therefore recommend that Parliament refer this special report for study on a priority basis to one of the two standing committees on official languages. In the report, I propose different options to modernize the enforcement scheme for Air Canada in order to help guide official languages parliamentary committees in their examination of this report.
In particular, the Air Canada Public Participation Act must be amended in order to uphold the language rights of the travelling public and Air Canada employees in the airline's current structure, and enforcement of the Official Languages Act must be strengthened in order to improve Air Canada's compliance.
Air Canada says that its obligations under the Official Languages Act put it at a disadvantage compared to its competitors. Air Canada believes that the solution is to make the act applicable to all airlines.
In my view, a better indicator of success would be a more effective enforcement scheme for the act that is better adapted to Air Canada's reality. However, despite our disagreements, Air Canada and I are in agreement on one thing: the government should act.
As I near the end of my time in office, I think it is important to bring this issue to Parliament's attention and to propose possible solutions. It is now up to parliamentarians to address the issue.
This special report clearly demonstrates that despite the interventions of the commissioners of official languages since 1969, the problems persist.
Therefore, I ask that the government make this a high priority in order to protect the language rights of the travelling public and Air Canada employees.
I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.
I'm always hesitant to use the number of complaints as the sole performance indicator.
There is something else that struck me. In 2010, we conducted an audit of the services Air Canada offered to travellers in both official languages. In 2015, we followed up on the recommendations made further to that audit and found that just one of our twelve recommendations had been implemented.
I can't speak for Air Canada, but I can tell you what I observed.
First of all, a considerable investment and a real effort were made to provide in-flight services in both official languages on all Air Canada flights to Vancouver during the Olympic Games, regardless of travellers' departure point. I had hoped this investment and effort would greatly improve service. Our audit showed, however, that employees thought this rule applied during the Olympic Games only and that they didn't have to apply it after the Olympic Games. When I raised this with the board of directors, they told me that they had never said that. Yet this was the message that employees understood. I think this points to a lack of communication.
Sometimes those requesting service in French are greeted with disdain, contempt or a lack of respect, and it is often this lack of respect that triggers a complaint. Most people will shrug their shoulders and say, that's the way it is, and nothing will change. When they are unfairly treated though, they react.
The Air Canada communiqué refers to a survey showing that 94% of customers surveyed were satisfied with the level of bilingual services. As I said, I am hesitant to rely on percentages. Air Canada did however want to use these percentages. Of a total of 42 million passengers, 6% means that 2.5 million passengers were not satisfied. It does not indicate whether francophones or bilingual passengers were surveyed. It does not say. According to Air Canada's own figures, a considerable number of passengers are not satisfied with the level of bilingualism.
Thank you very much for your explanations. Based on what you said about the Olympic Games, Air Canada must have been happy that Quebec would not be hosting the Winter Olympics. People at Air Canada must have secretly been delighted.
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
Ms. Linda Lapointe: What offends me is that the headquarters is in Montreal, a bilingual city. It is primarily in Quebec that French is spoken. I am shocked that, since 1969, the recommendations that you and your predecessors have made have not been taken more seriously. You said earlier that, in 2014-2015, you found that only one of your twelve recommendations had been taken seriously. That is really disappointing.
I am a client of Air Canada and I make a point of being served in French, but I always leave from Montreal so it is not a problem.
Other than a slap on the wrists, what are the consequences of not considering the French fact?
Mr. Fraser, I really must congratulate you on the Air Canada report. Not only have you produced an extremely well-developed report, but you also propose concrete solutions for legislators. Thank you very much for that report, which is really very well written.
In your statement to the media you mentioned that your work could be compared to “trying to run up the down escalator”: if you stop for a minute, you lose ground and start to come back down. The same goes for Air Canada.
I like the fact that you don't compare Air Canada to other airline companies but rather to VIA Rail, another crown corporation that has been privatized. However, that company manages very well in complying with the Official Languages Act.
In the beginning of your special report, there is a quote from former commissioner Keith Spicer: “There is hardly a technical or administrative problem in language reform that Air Canada could not solve if its attitude were different.” That was in 1976.
The committee is trying to get the president of Air Canada to appear next Monday. He does not seem to want to appear before parliamentarians. What is your reaction to that?
The case that went before the Supreme Court was about service to a Canadian passenger during an international flight. The trial court decided that the complainant should be awarded a certain amount. The Appeal Court quashed that decision.
The Montreal Convention is an international agreement on the amounts awarded to people who sue airlines, and it limits the possibility of court appeals regarding international flights. The Supreme Court ruled that that convention—and Canada is a signatory—had precedence over the Official Languages Act.
There was a minority ruling according to which, since the Official Languages Act is a quasi-constitutional piece of legislation, Canadians should not lose their language rights when they take an international flight. You will understand that that is also our position. However, the majority of Supreme Court justices did not side with our position, but with Air Canada, and stipulated that the Montreal Convention had precedence.
Ms. Giguère, would you like to correct what I've just said?
Good afternoon, Mr. Fraser.
I still find the situation at Air Canada shocking. Earlier, I told you that I returned to the House as an MP after four and a half years away, but it feels as though nothing has changed, especially in Air Canada's case. Ever since I've been on the Standing Committee on Official Languages, all we've heard about is Air Canada.
Mr. Samson, you're my new Yvon Godin, advocate for the French language.
Some hon. members: Ha, ha!
Mrs. Sylvie Boucher: I had to tell you. It's a compliment; Mr. Godin stood up staunchly for the language and his ideas.
Mr. Fraser, I'm going to share a little anecdote with you. Two weeks ago, I travelled to Vancouver for our convention. We flew from Montreal. The flight attendants on the plane spoke only English. One of my colleagues was telling me today that he asked one of them for a glass of water, only to be told, “I'm sorry, I don't understand.” That was on a flight from Montreal to Vancouver. On the way back, the situation was the exact opposite. The flight attendants on the plane from Vancouver to Ottawa spoke three languages. The flight attendant looking after my section spoke three languages.
What needs to be done to fix the problem at Air Canada? Should we change our attitude towards the air carrier and take a more proactive approach? What do you recommend we do?
Government after government, we've seen motions put forward, bills introduced, reports submitted by you, yourself—countless steps have been taken. The sense is that, whenever we talk to Air Canada about official languages, the company feels attacked. What do you think would be the best way to work proactively with the air carrier so that it finally gets the message? Enough is enough; this has been going on for 45 years. It's high time we do something to fix the problem.
Should Air Canada be forced to pay fines? Must the government and all of Parliament impose conditions on the company and order it to comply?
Actually, I'm throwing the ball back in your court. I see that, in fulfilling your duties as MPs, you travel a great deal. So you're in a position to see the situation first-hand.
Sometimes, the impact can be felt on the planning end. For instance, I attended the Canada Games in Prince George last year. Obviously, the scheduled flight from Vancouver to Prince George is not designated as a bilingual flight, since not enough francophone passengers take the flight to warrant the airline providing French-language service on board. But the people at the airline realized that a significant number of francophones would be flying to Prince George for the Canada Games, so they took steps to ensure that flights from Vancouver to Prince George had bilingual flight attendants on board.
That example, as well as that of the Olympic Games, is evidence of the fact that strategic planning leads to success. Otherwise, the planning has failed, in my view, especially when we are talking about flights from Montreal to Quebec City, Toronto to Quebec City, or Montreal to Bathurst.
The first thing I would look at is whether any strategic planning was done to make sure flights had enough bilingual flight attendants on board. Another consideration would be the training available to unilingual flight attendants. The fact of the matter is you don't need to have studied at the Sorbonne to know what “verre d'eau” means. What's more, the flight attendant should realize that the person is asking to be served in French and should know what to do—such as ask a co-worker to step in—given that they can't communicate with the passenger, themselves.
Passengers have complained that unilingual flight attendants had absolutely no idea how to deal with someone asking to be served in French. No institution subject to the Official Languages Act has ever been required to make sure its entire workforce was bilingual. What matters, though, is that the institution has a system in place to make the service available and enough staff who can step in to assist when employees aren't able to provide that service, themselves.