COVID-19 reveals federal gaps in bilingualism, says Commissioner

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 the commissioner, Raymond 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.

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.

A quote from:Extract from the 2020-2021 annual report of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages

An observation that did not escape Yvon Barrière, regional executive vice-president for Quebec at the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Yvon Barrière, Regional Executive Vice-President for Quebec at the Public Service Alliance of Canada (Archives)

Photo: Radio-Canada

We are aware that there are glaring linguistic problems in the federal public service. The office should be a favorite place where bilingualism is encouraged and supported. […] If we want a dynamic, diverse and bilingual public service, we must create an atmosphere where employees are both able and encouraged to work in the language of their choice., explains Mr. Barrière who says he receives a lot of comments from its members highlighting these problems across the country.

L’AFPCPublic Service Alliance of Canada calls for better recognition of bilingualism and investment in language training.

Complaints have more than tripled in 10 years

The problems raised by the Commissioner are one of the reasons that explain, according to him, the numerous shortcomings observed in terms of respect for bilingualism over the past 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., he emphasizes.

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. Last April, Radio-Canada revealed that these complaints were made by a former investigator from the Office of the Commissioner.

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.

Three recommendations

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 in order to see longer-term changes, the Commissioner is also asking the government to implement his recommendations and 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.

He once again recalls the urgency of modernizing the Official Languages ​​Act in depth and as soon as possible. A reminder hailed by the Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities (FCFA) of Canada.

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.

A quote from:Extract from the 2020-2021 annual report of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages

Commissioner Théberge invites all political parties to work together for the rapid adoption of a bill in 2021.

At the office of the Minister of Official Languages, Mélanie Joly, we say to ourselves determined to table a bill in 2021 and addressed, soon, several of the challenges identified by the commissioner.

For the official languages ​​spokesperson for the Conservative Party of Canada, Alain Rayes, the government must take action.

The commissioner made a report which is devastating, in our view. It highlights the fact that this Liberal government, which has been there for six years, has made no concrete adjustments to the two official languages. In the last two reports where he made a total of 21 recommendations, none were implemented. […] We feel that in the public service, there is no clear desire to ensure that services are offered in both official languages. […] and in our eyes, it starts at the top of that, in government.

Alain Rayes, Conservative Party of Canada spokesperson for official languages ​​(Archives)

Photo: Radio-Canada

For his counterpart in the New Democratic Party, Alexandre Boulerice, changing the law should not be the only intervention.

Whether under Conservative or Liberal governments, the problem has always existed. And to solve it, you have to have a culture change. But to have this change, you have to have a very clear directive and directions, he emphasizes. There must be legislative and regulatory changes […], but we must also have a cultural change and engage a lot more francophones who will be able to ensure that there will be a significant balance of power.

Bloc Québécois MP Mario Beaulieu, for his part, believes that the changes proposed by the government in its white paper on official languages ​​do not go far enough.

To date, the measures that are proposed, I do not see how that will change the situation. There are no big changes. What is symptomatic is that we are still talking about official languages ​​services […] but it is access to service in French that is not there everywhere in Canada. […] It must be noted.

 
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