Welcome to meeting number 23 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.
This is the last meeting on this study.
To ensure an orderly meeting, I would like to outline a few rules to follow.
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 the Speaker of the House has determined.
Members and witnesses may speak in the official language of their choice. Interpretation services are available for this meeting. You have the choice at the bottom of your screen of either the floor, English or French.
I remind everyone that all comments should be addressed through the chair.
Please speak slowly and clearly.
Unless there are exceptional circumstances, the use of headsets with a boom microphone is mandatory for everyone participating remotely.
Should any challenges arise, please advise the Chair or the clerk. We need to ensure that all members are able to participate fully.
Since no one is in the room, I can now welcome our witnesses. First of all, they have my thanks for accepting our invitation.
You will have seven and a half minutes in which to give your presentations. May I ask you to glance at me from time to time, because I will signal to you when you have a minute left. I will use my red card to tell you that your time is up.
My dear members, given that we will have two opening statements of seven and a half minutes each, and given our start time, the final five-minute round of questions will not be possible. If you wish to share your time with others, please feel free to do so.
It is my great pleasure to welcome the officials from the Canada Border Services Agency. We have with us Denis Vinette, Vice-President, Travellers Branch, and Louise Youdale, Vice-President, Human Resources Branch.
From Ombudsman Ontario, we have with us Kelly Burke, French Language Services Commissioner of Ontario, and Carl Bouchard, Director of Operations, French Language Services Unit.
We will start with the Canada Border Services Agency.
Mr. Vinette, the floor is yours.
Members of the committee, good afternoon. I am pleased to be with you today.
I am Denis Vinette, Vice-President of Travellers Branch. I am responsible, amongst other things, for the Agency’s Border Services Officers. I am here with Louise Youdale, Vice-President of the Human Resources Branch at the Canada Border Services Agency, who oversees the Official Language programme of the Agency.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to share with you all that has been done by our Agency to provide services and information in both official languages, despite the ongoing pandemic and in respect of Canada’s Official Languages Act.
The CBSA takes its Official Languages obligations seriously—whether dealing with external clients or with its own employees. The most frequent ways we interact with the public are: in person at a point of entry, by telephone on our Border Information Service Line, and with visits to our website and on our social media channels.
As you all know, the pandemic required the Agency to implement a number of public health measures at the border, in a dynamic environment. It was, and still is, an evolving situation. However, I assure you that we have not compromised on providing services in both official languages. In fact, not only have we continued to embrace linguistic duality during the pandemic, but we have prioritized it to ensure that essential public health measures were well understood by Canadians and travellers alike.
The CBSA is committed to offering travellers services of equal quality in the official language of their choice at all ports of entry designated as bilingual. At our ports of entry, services, signage and information material are provided according to the Official Languages rules for that region and where there is a significant demand from the official language minority communities.
Should a situation arise where a language barrier exists, the CBSA officer handling the situation will either switch languages, ask another officer who speaks the language to engage, or contact an interpreter. In fact, in a 2020 public opinion research study by Ipsos, 98 percent of respondents who had interactions with a border services officer said it took place in the official language of their choice.
The CBSA considers that it has consistently provided service of equal quality when travellers arrive at a bilingual port of entry. Every traveller is greeted in the official language of their choice. Every traveller is served by an officer with the required language skills. Every traveller receives all documentation in the official language of their choice.
The CBSA's shift scheduling system includes the ability to identify the linguistic profile of employees in order to prioritize the scheduling of bilingual officers at a port of entry when required. The technology in use at ports of entry is available in both official languages. Our primary inspection kiosk can be used by travellers in either English or French.
People seeking information from the CBSA are also welcome to contact us by phone. Our business information service line provides information on CBSA programs, services and initiatives. There's an automated telephone service that provides recorded information in both French and English. In addition, live agents are available during business hours to answer questions in either official language.
Even before the pandemic started, visits to our websites were trending up to become the main way that information is shared with the public. Our statistics tell us that we had more than a million visits to our web pages between June and December 2020. We ensure that all information is available in both official languages at the same time and that the linguistic quality of our text is of the highest standards.
In fact, all content produced for our social media, our websites and applications is always available in both of Canada's official languages from the moment it is made public. During the pandemic, signage at our ports of entry has been bilingual from the start. All brochures shared with the travelling public have also been available in both official languages from the onset of the pandemic.
I know I have focused so far on the services we provide to our clients, but rest assured that our internal practices are equally as important. All internal correspondence to our employees is available in both English and French. Our intranet, messages and bulletins are available in both languages—again, at the same time.
That said, we can always improve our external and internal practices, and more can be done in support of Canada's official languages.
We know the concerns of the Commissioner of Official Languages with regard to the CBSA in his 2019 audit report. The commissioner mentioned recruitment, mechanisms to assess bilingual service delivery, and challenges in building and maintaining relationships with official-language minority communities.
To respond, the CBSA has developed a comprehensive action plan to increase bilingual capacity. By September 2021, tools and reference documents will be developed for managers, and workshops will be provided on bilingual meetings. By February 2022, we will have updated our active-offer training and relaunched it online so that CBSA officers can proactively offer quality service to the public in both official languages. We also expect to establish a national advisory committee for official languages composed of regional and branch ambassadors.
Finally, I want to assure you that all allegations or complaints regarding official languages are always taken very seriously and are thoroughly investigated and acted upon accordingly.
In closing, let me assure you again that the Canada Border Services Agency is fully committed to the Official Languages Act.
We would be happy to provide more details and answer the committee's questions.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.
I am accompanied by Carl Bouchard, my Director of Operations in the Ombudsman's Office.
My sincere thanks for this invitation to share with you my experience as French Language Services Commissioner of Ontario, with reference to my monitoring of the French language services that the Government of Ontario has provided since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Ontario is the economic heart of the country and has the largest francophone population of any province in Canada outside Quebec. The province therefore plays an essential role in Canada's Francophonie and in our Canadian identity. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to re-examine our work methods, our operational structures and our personal lives. Now that vaccination has begun, questions arise. How are language rights to be guaranteed in a completely changing world?
Regardless of the changes that may occur, official languages must remain a priority. The changes must strengthen and improve the delivery of services in both official languages. Most provinces and territories have laws or policies dealing with the official languages and, often, with French-language services. Their experience varies but their concerns are often similar. So I thank you for your interest in Ontario’s experience as you continue your deliberations.
On December 10, 2020, the Office of the Ombudsman published the 2019-2020 report of the French Language Services Commissioner of Ontario. I issued eight recommendations as a result of the cases we dealt with. Here is what I would like you to take from my comments today: for the delivery of services in French as an official language to be successful, governments must make the language a priority, by strategically planning in advance, by evaluating the results of their strategies, and by learning from their experiences, in order not to do the minimum, but to achieve excellence.
In a conversation I had with the Premier of Ontario in April 2020, we both agreed that francophones in Ontario have the rights to receive communications in French equivalent to those provided in English, and that it is even more appropriate in this time of crisis. Good intentions aside, however, the need is also for effective strategies. So today, I bring you solutions.
Seventy-three per cent of the cases we dealt with in preparing our annual report dealt with written, in person and online communications. This is a trend that continues to this day and that is apparent elsewhere in the country. Let me give you some examples of the cases we dealt with in Ontario.
We received many complaints about the Premier of Ontario’s daily press briefings. When the crisis began, they were wholly in English. I heard complainants tell us that their elderly Franco-Ontarian parents, who do not know English well, had to find their information about COVID-19 in Quebec or at federal level. Of course, the instructions to the public from the neighbouring province and from the federal government were not the same as those being sent to Ontarians by their own provincial government. Confusion arose as a result. Our response helped to have simultaneous interpretation provided for the press briefings. I have recommended to the government that the practice become permanent.
We received a number of complaints about the government’s websites that went online during the pandemic, either because they were first launched in English, with the French version following after a significant delay, sometimes of several days, or because the sites were only partially translated.
We received many complaints about the government plans that were developed during the pandemic, such as the one entitled Keeping Ontarians Safe: Preparing for Future Waves of COVID-19. It was published in English first and in French 24 hours later.
We also received complaints about local public health units, over which the government has little authority and to which the French Language Services Act does not apply.
Those who contacted us were concerned. Some were afraid for their safety or the safety of their loved ones. A number considered that the lack of services in French showed the government's lack of respect to francophones.
These examples, these and many other accounts, have led me to make the following observation: it is essential to plan the delivery of services in both official languages from the outset and in a strategic manner.
This means that recruitment and the professional environment must be conducive to attracting bilingual professionals into key positions and to keeping them in the organization. The capacity for translation and simultaneous interpretation must also be strengthened in order to provide the accommodation that is often both necessary and justifiable. Finally, the legislation must be consistent in allowing for the uninterrupted delivery of services, particularly when the health of Canadians is at stake.
In addition, my recommendation to the Government of Ontario is to ensure that each department submit a French language services plan to the Executive Council by April 1, 2022, that those plans be made public, and that annual updates be made available to the public.
Governments must work together and assist each other in finding solutions and in ensuring that both official languages truly enjoy the same status.
This is even more critical in emergency situations, when the minority language unfortunately tends to become a second priority.
Thank you for your attention this afternoon. I am available to answer your questions.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I am going to try to share my time with my colleague Mr. Godin, if he is ready to take over.
First, I want to welcome our two groups of witnesses.
Mr. Vinette, as the virus got in by crossing the border, unfortunately, you were on the front line.
You said that you had reacted to the comments of the Commissioner of Official Languages. It must be said that he mentioned receiving many complaints about the Canada Border Services Agency. In the course of our studies, we have seen how important it is to be served in one's own language, especially in an emergency situation with the pandemic.
You began to explain how you were in the process of making improvements within the agency. You even mentioned September as a deadline.
Could you tell us what steps you are presently taking to respond to the recommendations from the Commissioner of Official Languages?
With pleasure. I will ask my colleague from the Human Resources Branch to add to my comments, if necessary.
One of our major concerns for a number of years has been to make sure that we have measures, policies and practices in place for our officers, in order to ensure that service is always offered and is available at all times. That obligation has no exceptions.
We must therefore make sure that we have an internal action plan that responds, not only to the commissioner's observations, but also to our own internal observations, in two aspects. First, we must always be in a position of having the staff we need to provide service to the public. Then, internally, we have to make sure that we uphold the rights of our employees everywhere in the country, in Quebec or elsewhere, in all regions, that we have guiding service principles, and that they are able to provide bilingual service to Canadians at all times.
Our action plan has several themes. I will ask my colleague Ms. Youdale to take over and talk about them.
As Denis mentioned, there are various facets to our annual plan and, really, they're really grounded in, first, strategic planning and governance, as well as training and development and general people management. As I talk about our themes, I'll try to make reference to the findings that we learned as a result of the report by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.
First, one of the key actions is that we have made the responsibility for establishing an appropriate culture that gives due attention to both official languages in the workplace a mandatory commitment in performance agreements of our leaders within the organization.
Secondly, we have looked at the actual designation of positions, and we've ensured that, when opportunities present themselves, we are continuously reviewing the bilingual designation of positions and elevating them where there are opportunities. Here I'd like to make reference to one of the findings of the report where the commissioner was satisfied with the work that we had done to increase the number of superintendents, and as a result we partially met the recommendation. It was partial because the commissioner was disappointed that we had increased the gap in terms of the number of employees who did not meet the linguistic profile. We are happy to report that we further elevated the number of bilingual superintendent positions, which are now at 214, and 99.1% of the incumbents meet the linguistic profile of their positions.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. I want to thank both of our delegations for coming to see us today on this important topic.
My questions are for our friends from the CBSA. First, let me just thank you for all your hard work, as Mr. Blaney said, on the front lines. We know that the pandemic has been challenging for all of us. We've had to be flexible. Public measures have been changing rapidly, as you know, and undoubtedly will change again, particularly as we ease our way out of this pandemic.
I'm very interested in some of the additional measures that you put in place during the pandemic when some of these measures were introduced by the federal government, particularly the closing of the border, just in terms of staff complements and beefing up the complement of bilingual officers. This won't be the last pandemic we have, by the way. I'm certainly told by public health officials that more are on their way.
As a bit of a corollary to that question, my understanding is that there is a shortage of bilingual officers. Can you give me a little more detail about your plan, targets and dates by which you will fulfill the conditions of your plan?
Certainly, Mr. Chair. That's an excellent question.
In my 29 years—and this is all I've done, as I started as an officer on the front lines and have been with the organization ever since—I've never seen the type of escalation of border measures that we have in the last 12 months. In order to be successful in responding to both the pandemic and the government directions, we established within the CBSA a few task forces. I'm responsible for the CBSA's COVID border task force, which has been implementing the measures right from the get-go. One of the immediate measures in establishing that task force, which is a subgroup of experts, was bringing in some dedicated translation services so that as we needed to develop bulletins, procedures and work with our regions, we had the ability in our own in-house translation services as things came into effect—and oftentimes decisions were made and orders in council signed late in the day that required implementation one minute after midnight—to have the products ready to go.
From a communications perspective, we've also established an internal task force and a strategic policy task force. The three task forces work together. Our strategic policy task force encompasses our communications directorate. Again, we ensured that we had dedicated translation services so that as we started our information campaigns, including on our social media and web pages, we were able to do so in both official languages. Certainly we did that successfully.
Maybe I'll pass it over to my colleague, but I would thank the chair for the recognition of our men and women on the front lines and the work they've been doing and what we've asked of them. It has not been an easy task, and I appreciate the recognition.
In addition to the measures that Mr. Vinette spoke to, we also ensured that we were continuing to supply bilingual candidates to the front line. The agency has its own school of 16 instructors. During the pandemic we switched to a virtual classroom to be able to continue to provide that French language training. We will be graduating 736 participants from that training.
In terms of goals that we're hoping to achieve, currently when we look at the front line, 96.8% of individuals in those bilingual positions meet the requirements of their position and, of course, we would like to elevate that to the same number that we are seeing with our superintendents now, which is approximately 99.1%.
In addition to the training, we are continuing to develop our recruitment program. We have a frontline officer recruitment program that has been informed as a result of our engagement with the official languages minority communities across the country. Once we establish the new national advisory committee on official languages that was previously referenced, we will continue to learn from that engagement and inform that national officer recruitment program.
I'm always a little concerned when there is a major difference between the reality and what is presented to us.
If I understand correctly, the Canada Border Services Agency, CBSA, says that it has always provided service of equal quality when travellers arrive at a bilingual port of entry, and that each traveller is greeted in the language of their choice. However, in 2015, the Commissioner of Official Languages published a report and made recommendations. Four years later, he looked into the matter again and concluded that the agency was not moving forward and that work remained to be done. He said that there are major systemic obstacles it comes to comes to providing service in French at the border and the nub of the problem is the inadequate bilingual capacity among border services officers.
Between 2015 and 2017, for example, no improvement was observed in the hiring of bilingual officers. It was even said that the number of bilingual superintendents had decreased, going from 80 to 76 in 2017. I would like to know exactly how many there are today.
Moreover, the Commissioner of Official Languages said that it is impossible to assess the bilingual services, because there is no oversight mechanism for officers and no monitoring of the traffic through the airports to allow bilingual service to be provided. In his report in 2020, he again noted the lack of bilingual services provided by the Canada Border Services Agency in COVID-19 matters, either in international airports or at land borders.
How do we explain this discrepancy between what we have been told and what seems to be the reality, according to the Commissioner of Official Languages?
My thanks to the member for his question.
For us, it is a constant effort. As you know, at the moment, during the pandemic, all incoming flights are limited to four airports. By moving staff to new positions, we have made sure that we have the people we need to carry out the border controls, including the new health controls, and that we have an adequate complement of bilingual employees. We are always looking to increase the number of bilingual officers in the organization, including by providing internal training, as my colleague mentioned. This training is provided by a school created inside the agency itself and that therefore always reports to it.
We have also continued our recruiting efforts. For example, in Ottawa, where I am at the moment, we go to career fairs at the University of Ottawa and the Cité collégiale. We focus on francophone environments, but the RCMP, the municipal police services and the correctional services, for example, are also looking for bilingual people. It's a little difficult therefore to find people who are already bilingual.
As for our services, one complaint is always one complaint too many. We certainly have measures in place to ensure that the officers offer and provide bilingual services at all times, which may mean calling on a colleague or an interpreter. So when someone wants service in the language of their choice, we make sure they get it.
So we will keep making these efforts, guided by our action plan, which is designed to respond to the commissioner's observations.
I can assure you that there is an ongoing commitment.
As a francophone and someone who has worked for the agency for 29 years, I certainly appreciate the importance of having all the necessary measures in place. Our president is also committed to ensuring bilingual services are delivered in accordance with the Official Languages Act.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, some 97 million travellers, on average, crossed the border, and we received 31 complaints about the services provided to the public. That is 31 too many, of course, but we are working hard to make sure the tens of millions of people crossing the border can be served in the language of their choice, and those efforts will continue.
My questions are for the French Language Services Commissioner of Ontario, Ms. Burke, whom we are honoured to have with us today.
Ms. Burke, whether in New Brunswick, Manitoba or Acadian areas in the Atlantic provinces, you have witnessed the trend on the ground—the French language is receiving second-rate treatment—and the pandemic has only exacerbated that feeling among people. That was my understanding when you were describing the complaints you had received.
Between 2009 and 2010, the H1N1 influenza pandemic hit. Your predecessor wrote a report and recommended that clear services be provided in French during an emergency.
Let's turn the clock back to April 2020, when you met with Premier Ford. In connection with the H1N1 pandemic, the then commissioner said in his report that, in an emergency, being able to deliver high-quality communications to the public in both official languages is essential. When you met with Mr. Ford, you both agreed doing so was essential in this pandemic as well. That was in 2020. What has happened since? Where do things stand today, after your meeting with Premier Ford?
Thank you for your question.
One thing is for sure: between the two pandemics, there was a lack of planning. The planning should have happened immediately, in the wake of former commissioner Boileau's recommendation. I have been asking myself why that never happened since January of last year, when I took on the role of commissioner. I realized very quickly, just eight weeks before the pandemic hit, that the government was not adequately prepared for such situations. Of course, I am referring to not just the Ford government, but also the provincial government overall, which had not put forward plans to ensure the delivery of French-language services in a crisis.
My understanding was that the government was prepared to help the province's French speakers receive the services they were entitled to. As French Language Services Commissioner, I was adamant that that happen, in accordance with the French Language Services Act. I received a message from the government indicating that it was able to put the necessary technology in place, and that's what was done.
Since April, there has been a commitment to post information online, especially from the ministries of health and francophone affairs. The Ministry of Francophone Affairs has been working around the clock, since April of last year, to make sure the service is available to Ontario's French-speaking community.
Thank you, that is all the time we have for this panel of witnesses. It is already 4:37 p.m.
On behalf of all the committee members, on my own behalf and on behalf of the committee staff, I would like to thank you for your participation. Please do not hesitate to send us any complementary information or your briefs. I know that we received briefs from Mr. Vinette and Ms. Burke.
I would like to begin by thanking Kelly Burke, French Language Services Commissioner of Ontario, and Carl Bouchard, Director of Operations, French Language Services Unit. From the Canada Border Services Agency, I would like to thank Denis Vinette, Vice–President, Travellers Branch, and Louise Youdale, Vice–President, Human Resources Branch.
Thank you for your participation.
We will suspend the meeting for one or two minutes while we welcome our next witnesses.
I call the meeting back to order.
Today, 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.
I am now speaking to the witnesses. Before you take the floor, make sure to unmute your microphone. If a question is addressed to you, you don't have to wait for me to give you the floor. You can go ahead right away.
I remind everyone that all comments should be addressed through the chair.
You have access to interpretation services, and you can choose between the floor, English or French.
I also ask that you speak slowly and clearly. When you are not speaking, your microphone should be on mute.
So I officially welcome you to the standing committee on official languages. Each group will have seven and a half minutes for its opening remarks, which will be followed by a period of questions by members. I will let you know when you have a minute left and when your time is up.
Let's give a warm welcome this afternoon to Alex Silas, Regional Executive Vice–President, National Capital Region, and Chantal Fortin, Alternate Regional Executive Vice–President, National Capital Region, both from the Public Service Alliance of Canada, and Louise Imbeault, President of the Société nationale de l'Acadie.
I must inform you that, during this hour of discussion, we may stop if the bells ring to indicate that it is time to vote.
I would ask the representatives of the Public Service Alliance of Canada to make their presentation.
Go ahead for seven and a half minutes.
Mr. Chair, members of the Standing Committee on Official Languages, thank you for inviting us to testify about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the government's ability to provide information in both official languages.
My name is Alex Silas, and I am the Regional Executive Vice-President of the Public Service Alliance of Canada for the National Capital Region. With me is my union sister Chantal Fortin, Alternate Regional Executive Vice-President of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, PSAC.
I was born in Moncton, New Brunswick. My family moved to Ottawa when I was younger. I am a proud Acadian, a French-speaking and bilingual people willing to stand up and defend our rights.
PSAC represents more than 48,000 members in the National Capital Region. A little over a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic entered our lives. As weeks turned into months, our members rolled up their sleeves and continued to provide essential public services to Canadians to support them throughout the pandemic.
Even before the pandemic, the truth is that problems had been noted with bilingualism in the federal public service. Lacking measures to protect bilingualism, the right to work in the official language of our choice and our ability to communicate with the public in both official languages, our response to the pandemic has been affected.
If bilingualism were a priority for the Treasury Board, it would put concrete practices in place to support French in the workplace instead of simply sending out memos to encourage its use. The pandemic has made the situation worse.
To talk about what we see in workplaces, I would like to yield the floor to my union sister, Chantal Fortin.
Apologies, I was on the telephone with the technician to try to resolve my video issues.
Thank you very much for this welcome.
My name is Chantal Fortin, and I am the Alternate Regional Executive Vice-President of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, National Capital Region. I am a proud Franco-Ontarian who was born here in Ottawa. I am comfortable speaking in both English and French, having lived my whole life in the National Capital Region. Although I am bilingual, my mother tongue is French, and I was educated in French. So it requires more time and effort for me to work in my second language—time and effort that, at work, would otherwise be devoted to my main duties. I have been working for the Government of Canada for 19 years, and I am very concerned about the ability of workers like me to use the official language in which they are most comfortable.
The following is what we hear from PSAC members. Important information is not always sent by managers in both official languages. When documents are sent only in English, management tells us that [Technical difficulty—Editor] French translation. Often, Francophones have the impression that they have to use their second language—
I will make sure to speak a bit more slowly.
I have been working for the Government of Canada for 19 years, and I am very concerned about the ability of workers like me to use the official language in which they are most comfortable.
I would like to share with you some testimony from our members.
Important information is not always sent by managers in both official languages, and when documents are sent only in English, management tells us it will take more time to get a French translation.
Often, francophones have the impression that they have to use their second language so as not to be left behind by their co-workers, because the translation is either not available or not ready on time.
Francophones sometimes have trouble understanding what is said in English during meetings and, owing to virtual work, they no longer have easy access to their co-workers to ask questions and get a better understanding of what was said during the meeting. Conversely, anglophones feel uncomfortable speaking French in a formal meeting context where everything is being done in English.
Bilingual workers are sometimes expected to step in and translate during meetings in place of organized translation services. This means that bilingual people have a double duty: to carry out their regular work and to provide backup translation services. I hope you agree with me that this is unacceptable.
We also hear that, in client contact centres, more unilingual anglophones are hired than unilingual francophones and are then offered private training to improve their French, but the same opportunities are far fewer for unilingual francophone applicants. This is a disadvantage and inequity for francophones and immigrants from francophone countries.
Francophone members must fight to gain access to work tools in French, such as software, documentation, programs and applications. This is unacceptable.
The Government of Canada regularly stresses its pride in having a competent, diverse, dynamic and bilingual public service. However, to maintain and improve its capacity, the necessary support systems and tools to support the use of French in the workplace must be put in place.
I would like to name a few solutions that could help improve bilingualism in the federal workplace. The bilingualism bonus has remained at $800 per year for 30 years. We have pushed the government several times to review its policy, but it refuses to budge.
The bilingualism bonus must be increased to recognize the value of working in both official languages. More language training must also be provided to encourage anglophone and francophone employees to improve their second language.
If the government seriously wants to increase bilingualism in the federal workplace, it should enhance the bilingualism bonus and extend second-language training. This is not a case of one or the other.
The Treasury Board must also stop all subcontracting of language training and focus on bringing back a public-sector training program delivered by public service workers.
Good afternoon, everyone. I know several of you, to whom I've spoken. I'm pleased to have the chance to reiterate the message of the Société nationale de l'Acadie.
The Société nationale de l'Acadie was founded in 1881 to advocate for the interests of Acadians, in particular the interests of ancient and contemporary Acadia. We represent the four associations that advocate for Acadians in the four Atlantic provinces, along with the youth associations in these four provinces and many members from around the world, including Quebec, Ontario, Louisiana, the United States and France. Thank you for having me here today.
I want to address four points.
I'll start with an anecdote. It's now an anecdote, but it wasn't an anecdote when it happened. You'll recall that, at the start of the pandemic, the Canadian government agreed to allow drugs or products that weren't labelled in both official languages on the market. We were told that this was the result of an emergency. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
For years, the francophones in this country have been saying that the Official Languages Act isn't being complied with and implemented, or isn't always being implemented, and that, as a result, we aren't prepared to deal with emergencies. Mr. Silas and Ms. Fortin made similar points.
For the past two or three years, if not more, francophones across the country have been calling for an update of the act. They want the act to be modernized, to have more teeth, and to include penalties for people, businesses, and especially government services that don't comply with it. We've already heard this afternoon about many instances where the act wasn't complied with or enforced.
First, the pandemic resulted in the delay of the bill, and we had been waiting for this bill for a long time.
Fortunately, in February, Minister announced her overhaul plan. I must say that most of the communities that I represent were satisfied that the overhaul plan took into account the considerations that we proposed, whether these considerations concerned compliance with the act, the enhancement of certain standards, incentives, or the recognition of the language regimes of each province, particularly New Brunswick. The first impact of the pandemic on the Official Languages Act was a major delay with regard to the bill that we had all been awaiting for a long time. That said, I'm not sure whether the pandemic was responsible for this delay. It may have been a good excuse.
Second, the impact of the pandemic meant that all the development efforts abroad of the Société nationale de l'Acadie and Acadia in general were put on hold. Relationships that had been established with France, Belgium and Louisiana couldn't be maintained. Of course, the pandemic is partly responsible for this. However, we must also consider the fact that we didn't have the tools to continue these relationships. With the exception of Quebeckers, there aren't many francophones. Our ability to take action must be based on international recognition.
Third, I want to talk about the strategy for the promotion of Acadian artists on the international stage, or SPAASI. The Acadian artistic community is abundant, but the audience isn't very large. For the past 20 years or so, we've been working on promoting the artistic ability of our artists, meaning their artistic products, at the international level. This isn't only a key part of their development. It's also an economic issue. Since the markets are small, when our artists have the chance to perform on the international stage, it can triple the investments. An artist who goes on tour in France, Belgium or elsewhere will increase their very minimal income fivefold. For each dollar invested, there's a significant return.
This isn't the same as funding or subsidizing organizations such as Cirque du Soleil, where millions of dollars are generated. However, for individuals and groups, these benefits are significant. Since Canada has put a dollar sign on these foreign investments, they must generate benefits. However, we must take into consideration the fact that these benefits can vary depending on whether you're a solo artist, a small theatre company, an exhibit or a large ensemble such as the ones that we have in Canada.
Fourth, I want to draw your attention to the issue of francophone immigration. The Canadian government committed to expanding immigration opportunities and to ensuring that francophone immigration for the country as a whole reaches at least 4.4%, and an even higher rate in some provinces, such as New Brunswick. However, these targets have never been met and certainly won't be met this year either, because of the pandemic.
If you want to renew this commitment and ensure the survival of French, you must invest resources in this area. Given what has happened, you must focus on francophone immigration in the coming years. You must give it a boost so that the pandemic doesn't have a negative impact and the proportion of francophones in the country doesn't decrease any further.
These are the four points that I wanted to address. Obviously, I'm more than willing to discuss these matters further with the committee members.
I want to thank our witnesses for telling us about two realities of bilingualism and about the status of French in Canada and in the public service.
Ms. Fortin, your description of the status of French in the public service is rather alarming. I would say that this goes beyond the scope of our study on the impact of the pandemic. However, it falls in line with the reform of the Official Languages Act.
Ms. Imbeault, you touched on several important issues for our communities, including immigration. Speaking of culture and development, the program entitled En direct de l'univers celebrated the francophonie last Saturday with a beautiful musical performance by the Salebarbes group. Culture is a very good ambassador of the language.
I would like to ask a few questions. However, since the vote may cut our work short, I'll turn the floor over to my colleague, Mr. Godin. I want to thank you for your presentations, which will be of great value to this study. I also want to thank you for giving us a broader perspective of the troubling status of French in the public service, among other things.
Thank you very much for your question, Mr. Godin.
Clearly, the new version of the Official Languages Act must be passed as soon as possible. We've been waiting for it a long time.
Throughout the pandemic, it has been demonstrated that elements of the act that were not followed resulted in many people not receiving the services they were entitled to.
I heard questions earlier about the rights of people to speak in French. They didn't and they probably didn't advocate much for that during the pandemic because they were dealing with the emergency. If there's a priority, that's it.
The second would be to fund organizations and institutions, whether it be universities or groups like ours, that can accelerate the pace so that the backlogs are eliminated.
The Province of New Brunswick has defined itself as a bilingual province. Its commitment to bilingualism is enshrined in the Official Languages Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is therefore certain that this event violated the law.
However, I don't want to get ahead of myself on this subject. It is not for lack of conviction, it is simply because it is the Société de l'Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick that is driving these issues for the people of New Brunswick.
I have tried to outline the situation that concerns all Acadians in the Atlantic provinces. What happened in New Brunswick is one thing. However, in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, the situation is surely slightly different because the obligations are different.
The Canadian government, on the other hand, has an obligation across the board. Since it funds a very high percentage of health care, it should use this leverage to ensure that these services are truly recognized for each and every francophone.
I have less than a minute left, Ms. Imbeault. It is always a pleasure to hear from you.
I have one last question with respect to Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador, related to the pandemic.
We heard from the Commissioner of Official Languages, Mr. Raymond Théberge, that there is now a way to work together to be able to send, for example, notices or instructions on taking medications or providing services in both official languages.
Have you been made aware that the provinces have reached out to the government to help them with this?
Cultural diplomacy is of the utmost importance for the influence of francophones on the international scene. Canada wants to be a bilingual country on the international stage. It's not a fad, it's not something we invented; it's part of our world.
I want to take this opportunity to come back to the issue of the Internet. I don't know if you know this, but many parts of Canada still don't have access to the Internet. The major providers charge the public for cell towers for Internet services. The service is not equitable across the country.
As part of the review of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission Act, we made a submission asking that this issue be considered in certain rural and less populated areas that don't even have access to the Internet. Since the beginning of the pandemic, it's clear how important this service is.
Cultural diplomacy allows our artists to shine. However, it needs to be available to small businesses. In recent years, this has benefited large businesses with high economic coefficients, but not small businesses or individuals. New measures or a new program should be included that would be designed with the outreach of the country and the well-being of artists in mind.
Thank you very much, Mr. Boulerice.
I know the bells are ringing in the House to call the vote, but let me acknowledge the witnesses and thank them for their interventions. If they have a brief to send to us, they shouldn't hesitate to do so.
I'd like to thank both representatives from the Public Service Alliance of Canada, Alex Silas, regional executive vice-president, and Chantal Fortin, alternate regional executive vice-president, both for the national capital region. I also thank Louise Imbeault, president of the Société nationale de l'Acadie.
Dear colleagues, this is the last day of our clerk, Josée Harrison, on this committee. On behalf of all the committee members, I'd like to thank her for her work and support. I'm sure you'll join me in wishing her well in her new endeavours.
I would also like to extend a warm welcome to Nancy Vohl, who will be our new clerk. She's been doing the sound tests recently. I want to wish her success.
Lastly, I would like to thank the staff, technicians and everyone who supported us during this meeting.
On that note, ladies and gentlemen, the meeting is adjourned.