To ensure an orderly meeting, I would like to outline a few rules to follow.
This is intended for those participating virtually.
I would like to take this opportunity to remind all participants to this meeting that screenshots or taking photos of your screen is not permitted, as was mentioned by Speaker Rota on September 29, 2020.
Members and witnesses may speak in the language of their choice. Interpretation services are available for this meeting. You have the choice, at the bottom of your screen, of either floor, English or French.
Before speaking, click on the microphone icon to activate your mike. When you are done speaking, please put your mike on mute to minimize any interference.
A reminder that all comments by members should be addressed through the Chair.
When speaking, please speak slowly and clearly.
Unless there are exceptional circumstances, the use of headsets with a boom is mandatory for everyone participating remotely.
Should any technical challenges arise, please advise the chair. Please note we may need to suspend for a few minutes as we need to ensure all members are able to participate fully.
I would now like to welcome our witnesses.
In the first part, we will start off with Mr. Yvon Barrière, Executive Vice-President, Quebec Region, of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
Mr. Barrière, you will have seven and a half minutes to make your presentation, which will be followed by questions from members of the committee.
I would like to inform all witnesses and members of the committee that I will tell you when you have one minute of speaking time remaining. If you see the red card, your time is over, and you must wrap up in the following 5 to 10 seconds.
With that, ladies and gentlemen, I will invite Mr. Barrière to take the floor.
Mr. Chair, members of the Standing Committee on Official Languages, first I want to thank you for inviting me to talk about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the government's ability to deliver information in both official languages.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada, or PSAC, represents more than 200,000 workers across the country and around the world. Our members work in federal departments and agencies, Crown corporations, security businesses,universities, casinos, community service agencies, indigenous communities and airports. In addition to its head office in Ottawa, PSAC has 23 regional offices. We represent nearly 50% of federal public servants.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought its share of challenges for our members. Overnight, many of them had to start working from home, and their interactions were reduced to virtual ones only. Our members went above and beyond to provide emergency services to Canadians in a very short period of time. A specific example of this is the Canada emergency response benefit, which has helped thousands of people and was developed quickly thanks in part to our members' hard work.
From the outset, it is important to recognize that all federal public servants have the right to speak and work in the official language of their choice. While this may be true on paper, inequality between English and French persists in our institutions, and the pandemic has exacerbated the many existing problems. I would even go so far as to say that systemic discrimination is deeply rooted in the federal government. It is taken for granted that English comes first and French second.
As you know, in his most recent report, the Commissioner of Official Languages, Raymond Théberge, found that there are gaps in the government's French-language communications during emergencies, as is currently the case with the COVID-19 pandemic. He stressed the need to modernize the Official Languages Act, which turned 50 last year, and to thoroughly review it. Otherwise, we will continue to face the same problems.
PSAC fully agrees with Commissioner Théberge: we must absolutely modernize the Official Languages Act.
The pandemic has made these gaps even wider. Most people, who now work from home and interact only online, have complained that managers often do not send important information to employees in both official languages. I have seen this myself. The pandemic has also made it harder for our members to work in French. A glaring example is that Zoom and Teams meetings are often held in English, and, unfortunately, simultaneous interpretation services are seldom available.
Without face-to-face meetings to break the ice, language barriers are hindering effective communication now more than ever before. Often, francophones feel like they must speak in their second language so that their colleagues do not fall behind, either because the interpretation is not available or not delivered quickly enough. Conversely, anglophones do not feel comfortable enough to speak in French for fear of being judged. There are two important points here: first, the lack of information offered in both languages to employees and, second, the absence of tools and dialogue spaces to facilitate the use of both languages, especially since people are working from home.
If we want a dynamic, diverse and bilingual federal public service, we must create an environment where employees are both able and encouraged to work in the language of their choice. The fact that people are working from home should galvanize the government into taking action and improving bilingualism in the federal public service, thereby enabling us to provide better services to the public and ensure that everyone feels comfortable working in the language of their choice.
The federal government has a duty to provide the tools to do so. The Canadian public service should be an employer of choice that encourages bilingualism. We must never forget that there are French speakers and bilingual people in every province and territory of Canada, not only in Quebec.
These people have the right to work in the language of their choice, and the public has the right to receive services in English and French. It is crucial that federal employees have access to communications and documents in English and French. That applies equally to Canadians who receive services. The pandemic makes this a health and safety issue.
Improving bilingualism must absolutely be a priority for the federal government. One of the most concrete examples of the government's inaction on official languages in the public service is the bilingualism bonus. Bilingual positions today pay a bonus of $800 per year, an amount that has not been reviewed since the 1990s. We have pressure the government to review this policy many times, but it has always refused to budge. Worse yet, in 2019, the government even suggested eliminating the bilingualism bonus, adding insult to injury.
Bilingual public servants who receive this ridiculous bonus are increasingly inclined to reject it as a result of the extra work it entails. I repeat: we are talking about 25 cents an hour here, after tax. Bilingualism should be recognized as a superior-quality skill, and there are solutions for improving French's standing in the public service. The bilingualism bonus must be increased in order to recognize the value of working in both official languages.
PSAC is also asking the government to create a bonus to recognize and compensate employees who speak or write in an indigenous language for work purposes. Since Parliament has already taken legislative action to further the recognition of indigenous languages, the federal government, in its capacity as an employer, should lead by example and formally recognize the contribution of its employees who use indigenous languages for work purposes by offering them a bilingualism bonus.
There is also a need for more language training to encourage English-and French-speaking workers to develop their second language.
In addition, Treasury Board must stop outsourcing language training and focus on creating its own training program made up of public servants who focus on the specific requirements of the federal public service.
The government must also acknowledge that the pandemic has made it tremendously difficult to access information in both official languages and should work on correcting the situation immediately.
In closing, I would like to say that I have high hopes for Minister 's bill, which is a step in the right direction. That being said, much work remains to be done to introduce legislation and a system that are solidly established and well respected.
Thank you for listening. I will be pleased to answer your questions.
Thank you for your question, Mr. Blaney.
I remember very clearly that, in another life, you were a federal public servant on the south shore facing Quebec City. I have heard about you. Don't worry though; it was relatively positive.
I can definitely cite some examples of discrimination. There are a lot of situations in the federal public service. I mentioned at the outset that we very often feel that the federal public service focuses first and foremost on anglophones and then on minorities.
The current situation is definitely unfair for francophone public servants. I'm not just talking about those living in Quebec, but also those in the national capital region and New Brunswick, and about two persons from the community of Saint-Boniface, near Winnipeg, Manitoba. There are several situations in which francophone public servants undeniably feel they're at a disadvantage.
Staffing is just one of many examples. If you look at staffing notices, you'll see many bilingual and unilingual anglophone senior management positions but no unilingual francophone positions. Many examples of that kind are indicative of what francophone federal employees experience day after day. They always feel they have to force themselves to speak English either to avoid slowing the work down or to make themselves clearly understood. Their constant concern is for efficiency, not their language, which they would like to be able to speak.
If I understand you correctly, francophone federal employees are like second-class employees, since senior management positions, as you just said, are English-only or bilingual.
Mr. Chair, I found our witness's testimony very interesting. I wonder whether it might assist us in our ongoing study of the situation of French in Canada. I'm bringing that to your attention. We can discuss it later.
Thank you, Mr. Barrière. I want to return the favour. I have the greatest esteem for the federal public service and its representatives, particularly its francophone representatives.
Today I learned that Jean-Yves Duclos, President of the Treasury Board and member for Quebec City, had suffered a pulmonary embolism. If he is listening to us, I would like to tell him that we wish him a quick recovery and that the thoughts of all parliamentarians are with him.
I'm often mistaken for him when I go cross-country skiing because we may have a similar physique.
Mr. Barrière, when we had Mr. Duclos here in committee, he told us he had tried to correct these deficiencies during the pandemic. You said these gaps or this discrimination have been worsened by the pandemic.
Have you felt that government authorities, the Treasury Board in particular, have tried to rectify matters? Or have their efforts merely been in vain?
I'd like to hear what you have to say about that. I mustn't have a lot of speaking time left, but we have an indulgent chair.
You're very well informed, because no one really knows about that project. I congratulate you. You've got good intel, as they say.
Yes, together with the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec, we propose to conduct a survey of our colleagues in the national capital region to confirm what we're currently hearing.
To be quite honest with you, before I appeared here today, we conducted a short survey, and we will definitely be working with a firm like Léger to develop it further.
We have no particular intentions, but we will ask questions related to the problem of French and official languages to determine whether the act is being complied with in respondents' workplaces so we can explore the matter further.
Quite honestly, based on the survey results, I will volunteer to go and knock on 's door and deliver those results to her.
I've been a federal public servant for a little more than 25 years, slightly longer than Mr. Blaney. I was really surprised to see we were still receiving directives and regulations in English. There was always a brief note, not too badly written, informing us that the translation would be available soon. Sometimes it took a few days, sometimes a few weeks. However, some things did startle me. To answer your questions regarding discrimination, I also sat on the National Health and Safety Committee for a long time.
So you'll understand where my remarks and the introduction to the speech I made earlier come from. I sat on the National Health and Safety Committee, of which representatives of the employer and the union were also members. Three unions were represented there: the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, UCCO-SACC-CSN and PSAC.
We represented employers and employees. We discussed safety issues as they pertained to our members. At one point, I went around the table and noticed that the three union representatives were coincidentally francophones from Quebec. In fact, I have to say that, for two of those individuals, including me, the level of bilingualism was quite average. The chair and two directors representing the employer were perfectly bilingual or came from Quebec or the national capital region. Their French was impeccable. There was also a unilingual anglophone from Winnipeg. All committee meetings were conducted in English and translated from English into French.
At one point, I raised my hand and asked whether we could hold the meeting in French because 11 out of a total of 12 members spoke French. However, by default, we always began every meeting in English. Even the chair, a francophone who spoke very good English, always began the meetings in English. It was a well-established, very practical procedure and culture. Everything took place in English by default. However, we did have access to interpretation.
Getting back to the pandemic, I recently inquired about this, and the meetings of that same department's health and safety committee are now held by videoconference. They're conducted in English without interpretation.
Despite the way the committee has evolved, I can assure you that, if one francophone member speaks in French, the unilingual anglophone members don't understand what's being said. That's why those representing the union in Quebec and eastern Canada feel compelled to speak English.
That's a very good question, Mr. Beaulieu.
The $800 figure was introduced in the 1990s. As I said earlier, we've often requested an increase, but it's always been denied. There was even a push in 2019 to do away the bonus completely in exchange perhaps for a little more training. It's definitely a problem now. The $800 figure brings an additional workload with it.
For example, during the pandemic, colleagues still ask those who get the $800 bonus to translate what's just been said. So they wind up taking on a second role, that of translator, which shouldn't be the case.
I'm thinking, for example, of people who work in call centres. They have two lines, an English one and a French one. They have a heavy workload since they have to interact in English most of the time, given the number of calls.
I'm also thinking of parole officers at the Correctional Service of Canada, who have what's commonly called a “certain work volume.” When they get the $800 bonus, their work volume… Out of 25 inmates incarcerated in Quebec penitentiaries, 17 or 18 are anglophones from western Canada or Ontario. That means extra work for those officers because they have to communicate and write in English in order to respond adequately to official language requests.
Mr. Barrière, welcome to the Standing Committee on Official Languages. I'm very pleased to be hearing you this evening. Your testimony is invaluable and will help us as we continue our study.
Obviously, I immediately want to add my voice to those wishing Minister Duclos a quick recovery. That's important. I wanted to say that because we are all colleagues here, but also because I didn't want anyone to think I was insensitive to his situation.
When he recently came to speak with us, he told us that no compromises were acceptable on official languages. Considering everything you've told us, however, I see there have been compromises during the pandemic, and perhaps even more than usual. Meetings are held where no interpretation is provided, and people sometimes speak to us in English when there's a majority of francophones around the table, as you just pointed out.
I'd like you to tell us about two things.
First, have documents written in English only been sent?
And, second, I'd like to hear your comments on the quality of translation done by subcontractors.
While preparing, I contacted a number of representatives of several departments and asked them always to check the facts. To answer your first question, our employees never receive the French versions of documents within a reasonable timeframe. That's a point we've often raised and that I myself raised when I was at the department.
However, we see that departments have two ways of viewing the matter and two ways of acting. When some of them complete a study or have just reviewed directives, they say they'll wait for the translation before they send documents to everyone. I congratulate them for doing so. However, other departments initially send out documents in English, and then employees are forced to issue a reminder a few days or weeks later saying they haven't received the documents in French. They don't really feel like paying to have them translated.
As you know, English takes precedence over French in collective agreements, directives and regulations. However, if we want to offer Canadians service in both languages, our francophone employees must be well informed and know exactly what the situation is. This is all the more important in the context of the pandemic because the information often concerns health and safety.
Now, as to whether the translations are always well done, I can't give you an answer since I haven't been able to verify the two models. However, when unilingual anglophone managers addressed a mixed group of anglophones and francophones, I was told that the boss said, “Bonjour, comment ça va?” and then continued in English, as though he had ticked his French-participation box and could now move on to something else.
In many instances as well, administrative assistants are bilingual and translate news releases attached to emails and memoranda. Otherwise, as I said at the outset, people sometimes notice that the translation is somewhat awkward. You know as well as I do that applications like Google Translate don't always produce good results, and that can cause confusion in many instances.
First of all, I'd like to thank you for the effort you're making to speak in French. You could simply have spoken English and relied on the interpretation. I admire people who make the effort.
Yes, some communities and towns near Vancouver are experiencing language problems. I heard there's a struggle under way to establish or maintain French-language schools in your beautiful province. I see that Ms. Lalonde doesn't entirely agree.
I mentioned discrimination. I think it's more a given in the west, in British Columbia. Everything's done in English. If someone raised his or her hand and wanted to speak French at a committee meeting or conference, I don't think that person would even be considered. In eastern Canada, when a department wants to hire someone to represent it on a particular issue, it very often selects a bilingual employee because that person will have to participate in a study committee or a committee organized to improve certain practices, for example.
In your case, we know that the majority of people whose mother tongue is French also speak English. That's a very well-established way of doing things in the west. Everything is unfailingly done in English. People have no opportunity to use their French, unless they sit on a national committee and occasionally speak with people from the national capital region, Quebec or New Brunswick.
Although I don't have a lot of time at my disposal, I'm going to take a few seconds to acknowledge , my colleague from the Quebec City region. Some people serve our Parliament in a manner that goes beyond partisanship. I'm thinking good thoughts for Mr. Duclos, who is a gentleman, and I wish him a speedy recovery.
Mr. Barrière, you mentioned systemic discrimination. That's a shocking expression, but one that probably reflects the actual situation. You discussed the bilingualism bonus. As I see it, it doesn't work and hasn't been raised for many years.
Could we not address the problem the other way around, by requiring that senior authorities be subject to an obligation of result, failing which their salary, compensation or bonus might potentially be reduced?
Earlier you talked about people who start off a conference by saying, “Bonjour et bienvenue.” They feel that's enough and immediately switch to English.
Doesn't the fact that a bonus is offered diminish the importance of francophones? Shouldn't we look at the problem the other way round by requiring senior authorities to produce results and imposing compliance obligations?
Mr. Barrière, thank you for being with us this evening.
I too would like to acknowledge my colleague Mr. Duclos and his entire family. I hope he recovers quickly and comes back to us soon, perhaps even to this committee. Why not?
First, I'd like to comment briefly on systemic discrimination. I would prefer instead to discuss an organizational culture in which we should really develop reflexive responses to the English and French question. Those responses probably don't exist at the present time. The notion of systemic discrimination raises several questions. I'm going to make a comment on the subject that, I honestly admit, makes me somewhat uncomfortable.
Mr. Barrière, many union organizations, including the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, as well as the Public Service Commission, recommend better language training in the second official language. You discussed this matter at length, but I'd nevertheless like to go back to it because I'm convinced that, if we want to promote linguistic duality in the public service, we need to conduct a language review that is based on a new second-language training framework.
What do you think of the idea of establishing a new second-language training framework?
The committee is meeting today to discuss Challenges of the Parliamentary Interpretation Service in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic.
I would like to make a few comments for the benefit of the witnesses.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name, and when you are ready to speak, you can click on the microphone icon to activate your mike.
A reminder that all comments should be addressed through the chair.
Interpretation in this video conference will work very much as it does in a regular committee meeting. You have the choice, at the bottom of your screen, of either floor, English or French.
When speaking, please speak slowly and clearly.
When you are not speaking, your mike should be on mute.
I would now like to welcome our witnesses for this second part of our meeting.
You will have seven and a half minutes to make your opening remarks, followed by a round of questions from members of the committee.
Mr. Beaulieu has a point of order.
I would like to welcome our witnesses.
We have Pam Aung‑Thin, Acting Assistant Deputy Minister for Communications and Public Affairs, from the Department of Health.
We also have Manon Bombardier, Acting Assistant Deputy Minister for the Health Products and Food Branch.
The members may share their speaking time. The last five-minute round will be eliminated so that we can adopt the budget for our next study.
Ms. Aung‑Thin and Ms. Bombardier, I will indicate to you when you have one minute left. The red card means that your speaking time is over.
Ms. Aung‑Thin, you have the floor for seven and a half minutes.
Thank you for inviting me to appear before the Committee today.
I appreciate this opportunity to describe how Health Canada has been meeting the requirements of the Official Languages Act as we keep Canadians informed as we fight the COVID‑19 pandemic.
My name is Pamela Aung‑Thin and, as you mentioned, I am the acting assistant deputy minister of the communications and public affairs branch, which provides services to both Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Accompanying me today is Manon Bombardier, acting associate assistant deputy minister of Health Canada's health products and food branch.
Our branches play an important part in the government's overall response to the COVID‑19 outbreak in Canada.
I want to begin by saying that communicating with Canadians in the official language of their choice is more than just a legal or policy requirement for us—it is a core communications practice.
During a crisis, clear, effective communication takes on even greater importance because being misunderstood can put the health and safety of Canadians at risk. We take this responsibility seriously and it shapes how we do business every day.
The expectations regarding the use of official languages in government communications are quite clear. Under the Official Languages Act, federal institutions are required to communicate and offer services to the public in both official languages.
The Government of Canada's policy on communications and federal identity provides further guidance. It requires that government departments provide information in both official languages in accordance with the act, and that they consider the needs of official language minority communities in Canada in their communications.
We, in the health portfolio, strive to meet these requirements in all our communications. For example, every news release, statement or written product we issue is released in both English and French at the same time. Information published on our website is also posted simultaneously in both English and French.
During the pandemic, we are also making key information about COVID‑19 and the government's efforts to reduce the spread of the disease available in many other languages, including several indigenous languages.
When we host media availabilities and technical briefings, there are always experts available from Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada to speak in both official languages.
Finally, within the department and the agency, communication with employees takes place in both official languages and employees are encouraged to work in the language of their choice.
Employees and managers are assessed at mid-year and year-end on performance objectives related to language requirements in their performance agreement.
These are standard communication practices in the Government of Canada—practices that we endeavour to follow at all times. The COVID‑19 pandemic has not changed this. While this unprecedented crisis has presented some additional challenges, we always respect official languages.
Our top priority is protecting the health and safety of Canadians. Since the beginning of the pandemic that has meant doing everything possible to control the spread of COVID‑19. This includes facilitating access to products needed to slow the spread of the disease.
With the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, there was unprecedented demand for products to limit the spread of COVID‑19, including hand sanitizers and disinfectants, household and workplace cleaners, and hand and body soaps. For these products, labels are a key source of information for Canadians about how to use these products. Normally, every product sold in Canada requires a bilingual label.
At the beginning of the pandemic, demand had increased exponentially, to the point where it was often very difficult to find many of these products on store shelves or through online retailers.
Foreign suppliers of hand sanitizers and hard surface disinfectants indicated that they were producing these products with a global English-only label, and that they would ship only to countries accepting English-only labelling.
Due to the unprecedented demand, and to ensure that Canadians would continue to have access to these products to prevent the spread of COVID‑19, Health Canada implemented interim policies in March and April 2020 to facilitate access, on a temporary and emergency basis, to certain products labelled in only one official language. To note, hand sanitizers manufactured in Canada with unilingual labels could only be sold in unilingual regions, based on the language of that region.
Health Canada closely monitored the supply of hand sanitizers and disinfectants. As supply began to stabilize, a return to bilingual labelling was proactively initiated on May 9, 2020, with a transition period permitted until June 8, 2020 for existing products. Health Canada required importers to provide information at the point of sale directing consumers to bilingual label information online.
Our interim measures helped address the high demand for health products necessary to help slow the spread of COVID‑19.
In addition, the interim measures for products manufactured in Canada supported the tremendous mobilization of the Canadian business community to support the fight against COVID‑19. All across the country, we witnessed remarkable collaboration from companies and industries that stepped up and offered their support, expertise, and resources to address critical supply needs.
To conclude, the COVID‑19 pandemic has changed so much for Canadians over the past year. However, it has not changed the health portfolio's commitment to communicating and serving Canadians in the official language of their choice.
Despite the exceptional circumstances, I am confident that the health portfolio has continued to meet its obligations under the Official Languages Act throughout this prolonged crisis.
We are now happy to answer any questions you may have.
I'd like to welcome the deputy minister of health to our committee.
I'd like to begin by congratulating you for your management of so many aspects of the pandemic. You have shown a great deal of flexibility.
Two companies in my riding also helped out during the pandemic. These were Plastiques Moore, which provided equipment to help distribute the vaccines, and Distillerie des Appalaches, which switched from making gin to producing disinfectant. It was easy for them to obtain an authorization number. There was a great deal of flexibility.
Where I feel that you failed was in official languages. I was disappointed in your testimony, Ms. Aung‑Thin. I had expected more transparency.
The Commissioner of Official Languages was highly critical. He said that: “In times of crisis, it is all the more critical for the federal government to ensure that all Canadians have access at all times to essential information in the official language of their choice, regardless of where in the country they live.”
Given that the initial health information was released only in English, and that in your presentation you acknowledged that language is a safety issue, you're more or less confirming that the Commissioner of Official Languages was right when he said that in times of crisis official languages go out the window. I would have expected more transparency.
Why not acknowledge that you might have done better, for example, by communicating to a greater extent in French during this critical period? You might then be able to respond more efficiently in any future emergencies.
I'll answer first, and then hand over to my colleague.
Communication in both official languages is always a priority for us at Health Canada. At the beginning of the COVID‑19 pandemic, we found ourselves in a new situation, and it was definitely a challenge to answer all the requests for documents.
We have nevertheless worked hard to increase capacity to make sure that we can continue to communicate in both official languages at all times. We've added more translation services within the department. We also have purchase orders with several translation companies for additional services. We are continuing to look into all possible ways of facilitating communication with the public in both official languages.
I would also like to mention that when we publish documents or send out news releases for the public, whether online or elsewhere, they are always published in both official languages at the same time.
I will now give the floor to my colleague.
Thank you, deputy minister.
As a regulatory organization for health products, Health Canada is required to communicate on a regular basis with regulated industries and others, to inform them of some of the measures we introduced hastily to allow ready access to essential health products to combat COVID-19.
We also have to communicate quickly with consumers if, for example, any products are a health risk. We do this through our website. We also have to communicate such information to health professionals, those who administer these health products or who work in hospitals and long-term care facilities, so that they have the information they need to protect themselves and their patients.
All information is available on our website in both official languages. We also email bilingual information on new policies to the industries we regulate.
I can therefore assure you that we take our role of regulating health products in a bilingual environment seriously, and that we comply with the requirements of the Official Languages Act.
We know that you are committed to providing services to consumers and industries in both official languages, but our study is on the pandemic. In this instance, the people of Canada were your public, and they were and still are exposed to a risk. As you know, we are near the end of the second wave, and would like to avoid a third.
Now during this critical period, the person in charge of health communications had trouble expressing herself in French. I would suggest that you come up with solutions to avoid situations like this. We need to learn from the mistakes that were pointed out by the Commissioner of Official Languages. In a crisis, as you have acknowledged, people turn to words that they have in common, and their mother tongue is extremely important.
What I mean to say is that if you normally communicate in both official languages, but neglect one of those languages in a crisis, this constitutes a threat to the health and safety of some citizens. That is what we understood from the commissioner's words. We want to avoid the possibility of this situation occurring again and francophones being treated like second-class citizens in Canada.
I note that 12 minutes went by between the first and final questions from my colleague Mr. Blaney. I would like to have the same amount of speaking time, please.
Ms. Aung‑Thin, you said something at the very beginning that struck me, a francophone outside Quebec from the bilingual province of New Brunswick. At the very outset, you said that for Health Canada, communicating in both official languages was a core communications practice and not just a legal obligation.
That means a context of proactive offer, in which one does not need to be whipped, pinched or have one's knuckles rapped to fulfil one's linguistic obligations. You do so proactively even before the legal obligation is there.
To return to my colleague Mr. Blaney's comments, the Commissioner of Official Languages did in fact single out Health Canada in connection with its capacity to communicate in both official languages at the very beginning of the pandemic. However, the commissioner also said that Health Canada promptly corrected the situation and he seemed satisfied.
Nevertheless, we can ask what went wrong. How can essential products like those mentioned have been labelled in only one official language?
The products you mentioned included disinfectants, hand sanitizers, household cleaners and soap. Why was it impossible, even in a pandemic, to obtain such essential products from the usual providers who make the bilingual labels?
My question is perhaps more for Ms. Bombardier.
Yes. Thank you for that question.
I'll give you a bit more background. As my colleague mentioned, at the beginning of the crisis, there was a huge demand for these products, particularly hand sanitizers. Compared to 2019, for the same period in March, demand was seven times higher; in May and June, it was 11 times higher.
I'm sure you noticed that there were no hand sanitizers, and very few surface disinfectants, on supermarket and store shelves. At the time, foreign exporters wanted to export products like these to Canada, but they were refusing to export them with bilingual labels, because they didn't have the capacity to produce them at the time.
Concurrently, many small Canadian businesses, like distilleries and breweries, changed their business model temporarily to contribute to the cause. Most of them were small enterprises that distributed locally in their neighbourhoods. We allowed these small businesses to distribute their products in the official language of their region. For example, if they happened to be in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, they could distribute their products with French labels. If they were in a bilingual region, they had to have bilingual labels. If they were in a unilingual English region, the labels could be only in English.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you, Ms. Aung‑Thin and Ms. Bombardier, for being here with us this evening, at such a late hour.
Mr. Barrière, of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said earlier that there were problems with bilingualism and respect for French, but that it varied from one branch or department to another. He wanted to separate the wheat from the chaff.
I trust, ladies, that your department will be among the top students and not the dunces in the class. We will carefully read the Commissioner of Official Languages' report for the outcome of his evaluation of the various departments.
I'd like to come back to the labelling issue. You must have expected a lot of questions about it today, since it's been in the news.
As one of the witnesses said, we're all in favour of complying with the Official Languages Act, unless there is a technical glitch, a crisis or an emergency. During the pandemic crisis, you had to deal with astronomical needs for certain products. You mentioned disinfectants and personal protective equipment, I believe.
What are you planning to do to avoid putting French aside every time there's an emergency?
Thank you very much for the question.
I can assure you that we're not putting French aside.
As I explained, several considerations come into play when a new policy is being established, particularly in an emergency. There are of course health products available to prevent infection and flatten the curve. We know that the curve climbed, particularly in the first few months of the pandemic, and even continued to do so afterwards.
With respect to our regulatory role, it was important to make sure that protective products were available to Canadians, and particularly to front-line healthcare staff treating infected patients and higher-risk patients in vulnerable populations. We took supply and demand into consideration, and it was very important to do so. We also monitored everything very closely. As soon we saw that the situation had stabilized, we adjusted our policies.
We never allowed information to be given out in only one language. As of June 8, all information had to be made available in both official languages, whether for disinfectants, hand sanitizers, soap or any of the other products we've talked about.
I was disappointed and surprised by what you said earlier in your remarks, which you gave us ahead of time and which Mr. Arseneault also read. You wrote and said: “...communicating with Canadians in the official language of their choice is more than just a legal or policy requirement for us — it is a core communications practice.”
You went on to say that, “...federal institutions are required to communicate and offer services to the public in both official languages.”
And elsewhere, you added: “For example, every news release, statement or written product we issue is released in both English and French at the same time.”
This isn't what really happened.
It isn't what happened in Vancouver. I know that the francophone community found itself in difficult circumstances, because of the many immigrants who could only speak French. There was a lot of frustration, because we had to rely on the province for information. Fortunately, we have a provincial minister who speaks both languages.
In my view, Health Canada really failed to meet its obligations in this area.
First of all, ladies, I would like to thank you for all the work that was done.
I represent the riding of Orleans. I have only recently been elected at the federal level, so some of the things you were discussing are unfamiliar to me.
I'd like to return to one item in particular. You said that you had agreed to English labelling in designated unilingual regions. And yet, as my colleagues mentioned, there are francophones across Canada, even though the percentage is not always high enough for the region to be designated bilingual.
What have you learned from the situation we're discussing today in terms of health and safety? And how are we going to prepare for the future?
I'm worried about the rules you followed for providing information in unilingual regions, where there might also be francophones. It's an issue that was often raised in the region and in the riding of Orleans.
I'd like to hear what you have to say about this.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
This is after all the Standing Committee on Official Languages, and that explains our concerns about bilingualism and the provision of services in both official languages under all circumstances.
I would like to use my two and a half minutes to broach another subject.
As you know, there was a serious incident at the Joliette hospital, in which Ms. Joyce Echaquan died in tragic circumstances. There was apparently no interpreter available at the hospital at the time it occurred, even though there was supposed to be one. I know that this does not fall within your jurisdiction, but it leads to the issue of the safety of members of first nations and indigenous communities. It can sometimes be a little more difficult to communicate with these communities, and to provide them with information. During the health crisis, they have been at even greater risk because of a host of other issues, including the shortage of housing.
Has your department made special efforts in recent months with respect to indigenous languages?
We're getting to it, Mr. Beaulieu.
I'd like to inform the committee members that the witnesses for next Thursday have been confirmed. We'll be welcoming representatives from Impératif français and the Quebec Community Groups Network, as well as former senator Joyal, and lawyer and professor Érik Labelle Eastaugh.
Just a reminder as well that when we return from the break, we've assigned priority to Statistics Canada. After that, the following Thursday, we need to study the report on interpreters, before the next break.
In view of this schedule, I would like to ask the committee members whether there is unanimous consent on inviting the Minister of Official Languages, Ms. Joly at an appropriate moment. If so, it would mean that we wouldn't need a motion.
Some hon. members: Agreed.