I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 13 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages.
The committee is meeting on its study of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the government’s ability to deliver information in both official languages.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have some information to give you to ensure the meeting runs smoothly.
It is 4:10 p.m. I must inform you that the hon. Jean-Yves Duclos can only prolong his presence with us until 4:45 p.m. Then, we will begin the second part.
I have a few details to give you very quickly.
Today's meeting is taking place in a hybrid format. Members may have remarked that the entry to the meeting was much quicker and that they immediately entered as an active participant. However, this wasn't necessarily the case today because of technical problems.
I would like to take this opportunity to remind all participants at this meeting that screenshots or taking photos of your screen is not permitted. This fact was mentioned by Speaker Rota on September 29, 2020.
Members and witnesses may speak in the official language of their choice.
I also ask that members and witnesses speak slowly to facilitate interpretation. Before speaking, don't forget to click on the microphone icon. Since we have witnesses, I have the list of people who will speak.
Should any technical challenges arise, please advise the chair. Please note that we may need to suspend a few minutes, as we need to ensure that all members are able to participate fully.
If you wish to speak, you need to click on the “raise hand” button.
Without further ado, I extend a most cordial welcome to our witnesses. First of all, we welcome the hon. Jean-Yves Duclos, the President of the Treasury Board.
Mr. Duclos, you have 10 minutes for your presentation. Afterwards, committee members will be able to ask you questions.
I would also like to welcome Roger Ermuth, assistant comptroller general of the Financial Management Sector at the Office of the Comptroller General, Carsten Quell, the executive director at the Official Languages Centre of Excellence, and Tolga Yalkin, assistant deputy minister at Workplace Policies and Services.
Go ahead, please, Mr. Duclos.
I'll take less than 10 minutes because I'm going to shorten my speech a bit to leave more time for discussion and questions. I'll also try to speak slowly even if it's not really my tendency.
First of all, I'd like to thank the members of the committee for their invitation. This is an opportunity for me and for us to talk about the importance of official languages, an important issue for our government, and one that is close to my heart as the member of Parliament for Quebec City, the riding that is essentially the capital of French North America, but also as a francophone, a proud Quebecker and a proud Canadian.
As you said, I am fortunate to be accompanied by Tolga Yalkin, Carsten Quell and Roger Ermuth, whom you have already introduced and who will be able to provide any clarification you may require.
As you know, bilingualism is at the heart of both the history and the identity of our great and beautiful country. In fact, it's thanks to the union of the two founding peoples, French and English, that Canada came into being a long time ago, in association with the indigenous peoples and with respect—which we want to increase, of course—for them.
Very early on in the history of this Confederation, Montreal patron of the arts David Stewart recognized this equality in a quotation that presents us with the advantages that this dual identity, this bilingualism, grants to Canadians: “Canada is the heir to the two great traditional civilizations of Western Europe. It is its responsibility to develop them, and it should be proud of it.”
Indeed, we have reason to be proud of it. In fact, more than 50 years ago, with the adoption of the Official Languages Act, we took another step forward in affirming, protecting and promoting the bilingual character of Canada. Today, millions of Canadians across the country can flourish and contribute to our collective success in the language of their choice. Canadians understand that official bilingualism is an asset for them and for us in many ways.
For example, in addition to being at the heart of our culture, our history and our collective identity, the French language and the presence of millions of francophones and francophiles from coast to coast to coast are an undeniable added value for our country on the international scene. This richness allows us to participate actively in the debates and the mission of the International Organisation of La Francophonie and to maintain privileged relations with all French-speaking countries around the world.
In 2021, we also understand that, in an increasingly globalized society, bilingualism is an important competitive advantage for Canada. In fact, Jean Johnson, president of the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, clearly emphasized this in a recent article in the Toronto Star. According to Mr. Johnson, at a time when intolerance is unfortunately on the rise, it is important to reaffirm that our two official languages, our commitment to reconciliation with indigenous peoples and our diversity are part of what has made us successful over the years.
Strengthening our official languages, which fosters openness but also respect for differences, is as much a matter of the past as it is of the present and future of Canada. That is why the government is committed to modernizing the Official Languages Regulations under Part IV of the Official Languages Act. These regulations are very important because they cover the language obligations of more than 10,000 federal points of service across the country, and were last updated almost 30 years ago.
Last year, the government also marked the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act and made significant changes to the Official Languages Regulations. As a result of these changes, Canadians now have better access to federal services in both official languages than ever before.
Allow me to give you a few examples. These amendments allow for the designation of some 700 points of service across the country as bilingual points of service. Close to 145,000 Canadians living outside major urban centres will now have access to a Service Canada office in the official language of their choice. More than 60,000 others will have access to RCMP public safety services in the official language of their choice. In addition, services will now be provided in English and French at airports and train stations in all provincial capitals.
As this committee is aware, official language minority communities were very concerned that the previous method of calculating demand for services did not include enough people who spoke the minority official language, including members of bilingual families or immigrants. Our new, more inclusive method of calculation takes into account all of these people, and the next census will therefore be more representative of the realities experienced by francophones outside Quebec and anglophones in Quebec.
I would like to re-emphasize that respect for official languages is both a priority and an obligation for the Government of Canada. Every day, federal public servants provide services to Canadians and communicate with them in the official language of their choice. When it comes to creating an environment conducive to the use of both official languages, such as holding bilingual meetings today, the Public Service Employee Survey shows that most employees feel that their managers are succeeding in doing so. That said, we know very well that it is not a perfect system. We can and must always do better. The same survey also shows that there is still a lot of work to be done.
For an organization the size of the public service, making changes and improvements can obviously be complex and difficult, especially in the midst of a pandemic. For example, at the onset of the current health crisis, hundreds of thousands of public servants moved from their desks to makeshift desks in their living rooms, bedrooms or kitchens in a matter of days.
It was a massive shift. I'm sure many of my honourable colleagues will sympathize, given our own experiences and our own challenges that we faced with virtual House sittings and committee hearings.
As these public servants managed to adapt to work remotely during a time of great uncertainty, they also rolled out critical and complex programs and services to Canadians in record time.
We recognize there may have been times when managers did not address employees in their preferred language during a video meeting or other communications.
This is an unfortunate situation and should simply be corrected, and no excuses should be made. As soon as this situation was brought to our attention, we reminded all departments and agencies of their official languages obligations through the Human Resources Branch.
I have also made it my personal duty to remind all my colleagues in the council of ministers of these same obligations. I can also assure you that we are working closely with the Commissioner of Official Languages to ensure that the rights and needs of all Canadians, including those of public service employees, are respected, even in this time of pandemic.
Finally, I would like to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring that the work environment in federal departments, agencies and organizations is not only favourable, but also conducive to bilingualism so that all government employees, wherever they are, can work in the official language of their choice.
We are committed to a Canada where everyone should—
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. I will try to share my time.
First, I would like to welcome Minister Duclos to the Standing Committee on Official Languages and to remind him that the purpose of his being here today is about the Canadian government's lack of response in terms of official languages during the pandemic.
Mr. Minister, I'm not sure who prepared you for your presentation, but I wish you could have arrived in solution mode. All the witnesses we have heard so far have told us that the federal response to the pandemic in terms of official languages is a mess, and the Commissioner has reminded us that it is a safety issue.
Take, for example, my sister, who lives in Ontario. It is important for her to have access to information in French in an emergency situation, since it is her first language.
Mr. Minister, do you recognize that Canadian bilingualism is a safety issue and that it is even more important in a crisis situation such as the one we are experiencing?
Thank you, Mr. Minister.
We want to prepare a report with recommendations. For our analysts, could you provide us with more information on the adjustments and tell us what the response was?
You mentioned that you have taken action, but it would be helpful to have more data. In any case, if it is possible, in order for us to produce a detailed report, could you share with the committee the measures taken by the Government of Canada?
We know that the health representative was speaking only in English; it was a mess and there was some labelling. A series of measures have led to minority language citizens being treated as second-class citizens.
Mr. Minister, before giving the floor to my colleague, I want to come back to public servants. An investigation by the Commissioner of Official Languages, to which you referred, also points to a major problem:
French first- and second-language linguistic insecurity was a significant challenge in all regions studied: primarily when it came to speaking but also for writing and for asking to be supervised in that language.
You are the one responsible, the official languages champion in the government. Do you recognize that francophone public servants suffer from a systemic problem, Mr. Minister?
I'll be sharing my time with my colleague, Ms. Martinez Ferrada.
Minister Duclos, thank you so much for being with us today. It was a great privilege to serve as your parliamentary secretary when you were our families minister, introducing transformational programs like the Canada child benefit and the national housing strategy.
Minister Duclos, in your new ministry, the Treasury Board, you play an important role in official languages, as we've heard. We're happy to have you with us as we study the impacts of the pandemic on linguistic minority communities across the country.
Can you expand on some of the proactive measures you have introduced as minister on the file since you became President of the Treasury Board, particularly over the last difficult year? Perhaps highlight some of the adjustments you've had to make during the public health crisis we've been facing.
As you know, I'm a Manitoban. Perhaps talk a little bit about French language services outside Quebec, which have been very challenged during this difficult time.
I will very briefly mention that we did work together, you and I, to put into place a number of agreements on early learning and child care. These recognized for the first time ever the importance of child care services in the language of minority communities in Canada, including in Manitoba, New Brunswick, Ontario and many other places where children now have the ability—and that's officially recognized in these bilateral agreements—to start their early learning in French, or in English in Quebec.
The second thing is about what we have done.
Obviously, there's been a real sense of challenge and gratitude for the public service that has served and delivered benefits to approximately 14.4 million Canadians who, in the last year, have received some form of income support during the pandemic. That has obviously generated a lot of contacts. I will recall, briefly, the impact of the new policy that we have been implementing, in which 145,000 additional Canadians, outside of large centres, will now have access to services in their official language from Service Canada.
We now resume the session.
Before I introduce the witnesses, I would like to make some comments.
Colleagues, it is already 4:53 p.m. A number of us have other obligations, including myself. Other meetings will be starting immediately after ours. So I am going to have to adjust the time accordingly.
There will be interpretation. Our guests are used to appearing before the committee. In order to fully benefit from their presence, let us begin immediately.
First, I would like to welcome Jean Johnson, the President of the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, and Alain Dupuis, its Director General.
Mr. Johnson, I will give you a signal when you are approaching the end of your ten minutes.
The floor is yours. Once again, welcome
Mr. Chair, members of the committee, may I thank you for inviting the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, the FCFA, to appear today. We have much to tell you about the subject you are studying. The COVID-19 crisis is having a major impact on francophone and Acadian communities. It is shaking our Francophonie to its very foundations and it will be felt for years. I will address two aspects of the impact in the time I have been given.
First of all, let us talk about the effect on the Francophonie's networking and affiliation. Last fall, the FCFA conducted a survey in which 247 francophone organizations and institutions across the country participated. After that survey, we conducted 25 interviews with respondents. Let me quickly provide you with some preliminary data that emerged from the study.
First, only 57% of the responding organizations have been able to maintain their services to the public. In fact, 78% of them have lost some or all of their volunteers. While 60% have lost some income, one organization in three has lost between 11% and 30% of its income. Actually, local organizations providing direct services to energize the Francophonie have seen the greatest losses. The result has been that 18% of them have had to lay off staff.
So what access do those organizations now have to government assistance? The encouraging news is that, of the 53% that applied, 91% have received support. However, not all the organizations received assistance that met their needs. More specifically, small organizations with few employees or little in the way of operational expenses have had to cancel their activities and plans and were unable to receive assistance.
So what are their prospects for recovery? Ten per cent of the responding organizations stated that their future is uncertain or that they face imminent closure. That number is particularly high in New Brunswick, Alberta and British Columbia, and among youth and media organizations and ethnocultural groups.
So what, specifically, are the needs of those organizations? Let me give you three. First, they need support in order to get through the crisis and to make up for their losses in income. Then they need support for transformation because things will no longer be as they were before. This means managing the change, facilities, new equipment and training for staff and volunteers. Finally, they need flexibility from funding agencies so that amounts can be reallocated and the approach to accountability can be tailored.
Those are the measurable effects, but the crisis has a consequence whose extent is only just beginning to be sensed: the loss of vitality of the French language and the francophone presence across the country.
Our kids spent months out of school in the spring of 2020 and, at this very moment, a number of them are once more attending school remotely. Extracurricular activities have almost all been cancelled. Festivals and gatherings where the young and the not-so-young can jointly experience life in French, no longer take place.
We just have to think about the Jeux de la francophonie canadienne, or about the myriad of other activities in the youth network. Those activities play a fundamental role in building the identity of young francophones and in training the leaders of the Francophonie. I cannot stress enough the potentially disastrous consequences of the lack of opportunity for our kids to come together in French.
The closing of cultural and community centres because of the pandemic means that communities no longer have any space to come together in French. As I told you earlier, the centres and organizations that stimulate life in French in our communities have lost their volunteers and their customers. They are going to need all kinds of time to repair that loss of relationships, that loss of vitality.
The phenomenon is yet to be studied, but we are already hearing accounts from worried parents. They are actually telling us that, for six months, their children have been using English more often at home or in their online dealings with their friends. The FCFA is in the process of working with partner organizations to try to better define this problem, which we see as a major one.
Mr. Chair, members of the committee, the Francophonie is being shaken. Like other aspects of Canadian society, we will need years to recover from the impacts of the pandemic.
Let me conclude by providing you with some recommendations that stem from the observations we have just described to you. First, it is essential to maintain access to emergency funding until the pandemic ends. It has allowed groups in our communities to maintain activities and staff as well as to compensate for fundraising campaigns that the organizations have not been able to undertake. The conditions that make that emergency funding necessary will remain the same for as long as the pandemic lasts.
Second, it is important for federal institutions that support our community organizations to tailor their program criteria and their expected outcomes. Because of the circumstances, our organizations and institutions do not have the capacity to meet the same requirements as before the pandemic, or at least, certainly not in the same way.
Finally, although emergency funds are essential, they only let us keep the lights on. More will be needed in order for us to reestablish our core. The financial losses incurred by our organizations bring with them alarming damage, such as the collapse of our pool of volunteers that drive our communities forward, and the severing of the direct ties to the community that had been cultivated with patience and determination.
The vitality of the French language and presence at local level will require significant catch-up. That is why the government should establish an assistance fund for the recovery of the Francophonie. The funding would be flexible, so that specific needs can be addressed. We mentioned several of them previously: tailoring our services and activities, training volunteers and staff, and buying equipment so that services can be provided in a different form.
Thank you. I look forward to answering your questions.
Thank you for your presentations, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Dupuis. It's very useful.
When we hear you speak about the organizations and the results of your study, we understand that the situation is serious.
Let's go back to 1971, to the early days of the Official Languages Act. At that time, outside Quebec, the percentage of French spoken at home was 4.3%. In 2016, this percentage was 2.3%. Statistics Canada predicts that, by 2036, 1.8% of the population outside Quebec will be French-speaking.
Just look at the status of French in British Columbia schools. There have been Supreme Court victories. However, it's necessary to keep returning to court to get the judgments enforced. We must have a realistic picture of the situation if we want to see change. Reversing this trend will require major changes. I want to hear your views on this issue.
One factor at stake is the “where numbers warrant” principle. It's completely absurd. When the use of the French language declines in a given area, French-language services are cut back. This requires an imaginative approach to find criteria to inflate the numbers. However, when the numbers are inflated, it gives the impression that everything is fine. The “where numbers warrant” criterion should be changed so that services are available to combat the decline of French and not cut back in response to a decline.
What are your thoughts on this?