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December 10th 2018 - Study on Canadians’ views about modernizing the Official Languages Act - Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages

Senator Poirier: One of the major issues in modernizing the Official Languages Act is its implementation. A number of witnesses have told us, as you did, that the direction and the leadership must be clear. However, this summer, the government decided to make the choices a little less clear by removing the official languages portfolio from the Minister of Canadian Heritage.

In your opinion, how can we amend the act in order to avoid a similar situation and to provide clearly defined direction and leadership?

Mr. Théberge: With the governance of the Official Languages Act, it is important to establish principles that could be reflected in the text of the act. When you talk about the direction and the leadership, you have to talk about who is responsible. In other words, who is in charge of implementing the act? Starting in 2003, a minister was responsible for official languages and there was a committee of ministers with responsibility for official languages. Previously, we also had a committee of deputy ministers responsible for official languages. Now, we have a committee of assistant deputy ministers of official languages, divided between Canadian Heritage for part VII and the Treasury Board for parts IV, V and VI.

It is important to establish governance that is much more horizontal and that has an entry point. Which point? I do not know. The studies and the consultations we have conducted suggest a central organization, perhaps the Privy Council. I do not know, but it must be very clear who is responsible for official languages. It is also important to make sure that official languages are key priorities when departments plan their work.

First and foremost, our challenge today is knowing who is responsible for official languages. Saying that everyone is responsible implies that no one is responsible.

Senator Poirier: My second question deals with your analysis of the amendments proposed to the regulations. We all agree that this is a step in the right direction and that the existence of a school is an indicator of the need to provide bilingual services. You point out the difficulty that the general public continues to have in knowing where and how to obtain services in the official language of their choice. Why would it be difficult for Canadians to know where and how they can obtain services in the official language of their choice? Can you be specific about the complexity of the regulations and what makes them so complex?

Mr. Théberge: First, the proposed amendments to the regulations contain some positive features. The definition is much more inclusive. However, there are shortcomings in three areas, in our opinion. First, schools are used as the indicators of a community’s vitality.

Currently, schools are often found in more developed areas, and we know very well that it is difficult to set up new schools in new areas where none exists. A community’s vitality is not simply determined by the presence of a school. There might be a cultural centre, an economic development organization, or francophone media. We should broaden the concept of vitality to include qualitative factors as well as quantitative ones. We should never define access to services by the ratio of francophones to the majority.

In the long term, given the demographic changes—accepting that, in the regulations you are proposing, there is a provision on vested rights in rural areas—this does not account for what is happening in major centres. We know that there is a movement towards major centres, so the target of 5% of the population will not be reached. In our opinion, an absolute number would be much better.

Finally, the complexity is in the mathematical calculations. The formula is very complicated. For example, the travelling public may be eligible for bilingual services on one flight, but on another flight, even on the same route, that is no longer the case. We must define where the services are available. When we talk about the language of work and the regulations, the regions designated bilingual reflect the reality of 1977. There is no correlation between the offices designated bilingual and the places where public servants have to work.

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Senator Poirier: You said you only had the power to make recommendations. Who do you direct your recommendations to when they concern an organization? Does it have an obligation to respond to your recommendations?

Mr. Théberge: Generally speaking, we address our recommendations to the institution’s general administration. In the majority of cases, the obligations are met. It’s only in some cases that our recommendations are questioned. The problem is that the recommendations are respected but the behaviours don’t seem to change. Ms. Saikaley has much more experience than I do with recommendations and their implementation, but I think she would agree that they are respected, but that very often —

Senator Poirier: They are forgotten.

Mr. Théberge: Yes.

Ghislaine Saikaley, Assistant Commissioner, Compliance Assurance Branch, Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages: We always follow up on our recommendations. We always allow some time for institutions to implement our recommendations. Usually, after some time, we follow up to see whether the recommendations have been implemented, and write a new report. If they have not been implemented, at that time, the Commissioner sends a new report indicating that the recommendations have not been implemented.

Senator Poirier: If not, does the report remain on the shelf?

Ms. Saikaley: It can, indeed, happen that they aren’t implemented, but as Mr. Théberge mentioned, it is very rare. We see that most federal institutions have implemented the recommendations. Then, the Commissioner can use another of his tools, he can do an audit and plan other interventions. He could even go to court if appropriate.

Senator Poirier: Okay. So you put pressure with regard to your recommendations, and that’s a good thing.

Ms. Saikaley: Yes.

Mr. Théberge: Yes.

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