Good morning. Although we’re meeting today on a virtual platform, I would like to acknowledge that I’m addressing you from Treaty 1 territory, the traditional territory of Anishinabe, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota and Dene peoples, and the homeland of the Métis nation. I’m pleased to be connecting with you today in your various territories and communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed so many aspects of our work and the way we interact with each other. I hope to be able to meet with you all in person in the not-too-distant future.
I see many familiar faces on the committee, as well as some new members. I’d like to recognize all the hard work this committee has done in the past and underscore the importance of your work at what is, now more than ever, a critical time for official languages in Canadian society.
I’m appearing before your committee to present my 2019-20 annual report, discuss our upcoming projects and share the highlights of the 2020-21 main estimates for my office. Joining me today are my three assistant commissioners—Ghislaine Saikaley, Pierre Leduc and Éric Trépanier—and my general counsel, Pascale Giguère.
As Commissioner of Official Languages, I'm responsible for representing official language minority communities in Canada. It has been my honour to carry out this role for nearly three years now.
My mandate thus far hasn't been uneventful. We've celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act. Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a worrying trend of erosion of support for official language minority communities across Canada.
Decisions that governments at all levels make with respect to official languages have a real impact on the daily lives of Canadians. I continue to hear their stories through the complaints that I receive and when I speak with the various associations across the country.
In 2020, Canadians are undeniably facing some real challenges in exercising their fundamental rights. These include the right to receive safety-related information, the right to receive services from the federal government and the right to vote in their preferred official language. Canadians are taking notice. In the past year alone, complaints to the Office of the Commissioner have risen by 25%.
In my 2019–20 annual report, which I tabled in September, I presented three main reasons why Canadians’ language rights are not being respected: the Official Languages Act is outdated; the federal institutions are not complying with the Official Languages Act; and the government is not doing enough to promote both official languages across Canada.
I issued three recommendations to the Prime Minister to address these problems. In one of those recommendations, I reiterated the essential need for the Official Languages Act to be modernized so it is relevant to today’s society, so it can adapt in step with change, and so it provides proper enforcement tools.
Official language minority communities, parliamentarians, the Office of the Commissioner and the federal government have made significant efforts to consult Canadians on the modernization of the act. Expectations are high.
I expect the federal government to pay proper attention to the 18 recommendations that I made last year. These recommendations are based on the results of the consultations with Canadians and on the Office of the Commissioner's experience in overseeing the enforcement of the act for over 50 years now. Modernizing the Official Languages Act in a meaningful way is about respecting the fundamental language rights of Canadians now and in the future.
In my annual report, I also recommended that the Prime Minister address systemic issues in federal institutions that limit the ability of Canadians to exercise their language rights and that he step up efforts to promote the importance of both English and French in Canada for all Canadians.
The COVID-19 pandemic has merely amplified ongoing problems, both within the public service and more widely in Canadian society. My recent report on official languages in emergencies sheds light on the existing shortcomings in respecting Canadians' language rights and ensuring their safety during crisis situations.
One of the most striking examples is with the dissemination of alert messages in English only. If a person is not able to understand the information that is being passed on to them, how can they ensure their safety? I believe that Canadians should receive alert messages in both official languages at the same time, anytime and anywhere, in order to protect their safety.
Press conferences taking place in only one language, information materials shared in only one language, alert emails sent to public servants in only one language—unfortunately, there are too many examples. One thing is clear: Not only does this show a complete lack of respect, but these shortcomings are also completely unacceptable, because they endanger the population's health and safety in an emergency situation.
There will certainly be other emergency situations, but the problems we have witnessed must not be repeated. In my report, I propose solutions to the federal government to address recurring problems of communicating with the public in both official languages in crisis situations.
This fall, the Office of the Commissioner is taking a closer look at the public service. It's specifically looking at problems with the linguistic designation of positions and at the issue of linguistic insecurity among public servants. In an effort to respond to these issues, the Office of the Commissioner has already undertaken work in this area. I'll be presenting two new reports, along with some new resources and tools based on the findings.
Early in my mandate, I set out some long-term priorities for making progress on official languages in Canada. I call these priorities “Vision 2025”. They focus on ensuring that the Official Languages Act is modernized; that the action plan for official languages achieves its expected outcomes; and that federal institutions meet the objectives of the act.
I'm pleased to say that progress has been made on all fronts. The modernization of the act has been and will continue to be a priority for the Office of the Commissioner. The implementation of the action plan for official languages has progressed over the past year, as a result of an ongoing collaboration with federal partners and institutions.
The Office of the Commissioner created and launched a new and innovative tool called the official languages maturity model. This tool shows institutions exactly how their current policies and procedures facilitate or hinder compliance with their official languages obligations. Approximately 40 federal institutions are participating in the exercise. In addition, 65 federal institutions and other organizations have requested access to the online tool.
The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages is also paying close attention to other key issues that significantly affect official language minority communities. It's looking in particular at how these communities are affected by immigration and how they're represented in the media. I plan to discuss these topics further with you in the coming months.
I'd now like to speak about my office's finances.
We have a budget of $21.5 million to carry out our mandate during the 2020-21 fiscal year. This amount includes $15.1 million in salaries, which is nearly 70% of the main estimates. An additional $4.3 million for operating expenses accounts for almost 20% of the main estimates. The remaining $2.2 million, or just over 10% of our main estimates, represents statutory expenditures related to employer contributions to employee benefit plans.
These funds are in support of my office's mandate, which is carried out through our three core responsibilities.
The first is the protection of rights related to official languages, which includes investigations, audits and other compliance activities, as well as legal services. Planned spending in 2021 for this program is $7.5 million, which represents 35% of the total budget.
Planned spending for the advancement of French and English in Canadian society in 2021 is $7.1 million, which represents 33% of our total budget.
Planned spending for the internal services sector in 2019-20 is $6.9 million, which represents 32% of our total budget.
OCOL's funding does not generally fluctuate greatly from one fiscal year to the next. There was a slight decrease of $0.2 million to the 2021 main estimates compared to last year. This variance is attributable to increased funding received in 2019-20 for the renewal of collective agreements and the use of frozen allotments created over the last years for these collective agreements.
Although OCOL has not received additional funding as part of Canada's COVID-19 emergency response measures, our 2020-21 budget has been impacted by COVID-19. That is, following parliamentary delays related to COVID-19, OCOL, like all other government organizations, has only received 75% of its full supply. We expect to receive full supply for the 2020-21 main estimates in December 2020.
As you know, new funding isn't provided for ongoing programs. However, one of the major challenges that we continue to face as an organization concerns the number of complaints received. Complaints have been on the rise since 2012. We've gone from about 400 to 500 complaints to over 1,300. This affects our ability to conduct audits and studies, to follow up on our investigation recommendations, and to liaise with communities and departments.
As a result, and because we're committed to using public funds with the utmost integrity, we've developed a culture of continuous improvement. Some measures have already been put in place, such as continued investment in information technology management to optimize business processes. These investments have helped us maintain business continuity throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
That said, if our budget were increased, we would certainly be able to conduct more research, studies and audits. These activities are often set aside, especially if we need to allocate our resources towards addressing complaints and conducting follow-ups to complaint investigations.
Thank you for your attention. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them in the official language of your choice, and I'll be happy to answer them.