Last fall, the Commissioner of Official Languages, Raymond Théberge, had already sounded the alarm: the pandemic had relegated bilingualism to the background in the public service.
But COVID-19 only exposed a systemic problem within the federal apparatus, he said today.
The pandemic was a time when we saw that the capacity within the federal system was not there to meet the official languages needs of Canadians. And very often, it is in this kind of situation where we see the robustness or the weakness of our systems. […] What we noticed was that it was too late, in the sense that we did not have the capacity in place, that is to say the personnel, the tools, the structures, the procedures., underlines Mr. Théberge, in an interview with Radio-Canada.
In recent months, the Office of the Commissioner has focused on the staffing of designated bilingual positions, noting, in a special report published in November, that very often these positions are not filled by people with adequate language skills.
As a result, federally recruited staff are often unable to serve or communicate with clients. […] nor to supervise his subordinates in the official language of their choice, can we read in the document.
Last January, a survey conducted by the federal institution in March 2019, among nearly 11,000 public servants, also revealed the uneasiness of many of them in expressing themselves in the official language of their choice.
Ultimately, it is the linguistic duality of our country that cannot be expressed or flourished in the public service, which undeniably has an effect on the quality of service offered to the public.
Complaints have more than tripled in 10 years
And these problems are, according to Mr. Théberge, one of the reasons that explain the many shortcomings observed in terms of respect for bilingualism for several years.
We have received the same type of complaints for several years. The problem is that it is not to solve on a case-by-case basis, but to solve a problem that is federal-wide., underlines the commissioner.
In 10 years, complaints to the Office of the Commissioner have more than tripled. In the last year, they increased by 37.4%.
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The majority of these 1,870 admissible complaints come from the National Capital Region which, by adding the two sides of the Ottawa River, alone accounts for 62.9% of complaints.
Many complaints about language of work and section 91 [sur les exigences linguistiques] come from the National Capital Region. […] It still shows that […] too often French is a second language in the public service, analyzes the commissioner.
Language requirements of positions come first, with 968 complaints, followed by communications with the public and government service delivery, with 693 complaints. A slightly lower number than last year, but which could be explained by travel restrictions, with borders and airports often being singled out.
However, the Office of the Commissioner specifies that 806 of the 968 complaints made concerning the language requirements of positions were not investigated.
because it was determined that they were not made in good faith.
Excluding these complaints, the number of complaints [portant sur cet aspect] rather experienced a decrease, going from 420 to 162, is it stated in the report.
Still, the general upward trend is confirmed, admits Commissioner Théberge.
And very often, it’s for a lack of service in French, he admits.
To help federal institutions better assess their strengths and weaknesses, the Office of the Commissioner implemented the Official Languages Maturity Model a little over a year ago.
But to see structural changes in the longer term, the Commissioner reiterates the urgency of modernizing the Official Languages Act.
in depth and as soon as possible, he wrote in his report.
I now wish to see the government turn from good intentions to action and submit without further delay a bill that makes the law [sur les langues officielles] current, dynamic and robust.
Commissioner Théberge invites all political parties to work together for the rapid adoption of a bill in 2021.
It also calls on the government to examine the security and official languages issues raised in its report, A question of respect and safety : the impact of emergency situations on official languages, and to draw up a roadmap for the next six months.
Finally, he would like the Clerk of the Privy Council to tackle the problems relating to language of work in the public service, raised in several of his reports.
We can repeat, repeat and repeat our surveys, but if we do not change the behavior of federal institutions, in the end, we will not change the results., insists Mr. Théberge.