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OPINION
Celebrate 50 years of the Official Languages Act by vowing to do better: Senator Cormier and Senator Poirier
June 25, 2019
image René Cormier
René Cormier
ISG - (New Brunswick)
image Rose-May Poirier
Rose-May Poirier
C - (New Brunswick - Saint-Louis-de-Kent)

It’s time to modernize the Official Languages Act and give it teeth.

To do so, the federal government must centralize the application of the act, clarify who is responsible for implementing it, create an administrative tribunal and restructure the role of the Commissioner of Official Languages.

The act is crucial to the promotion of linguistic duality and bilingualism in Canada. In 50 years, it has only received one major update — and that was in 1988. It is time now for the government to update the act to reflect the reality: the legislation, in its current form, isn’t working.

During the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages’ extensive review of the act, we read briefs and heard from Canadians across the country. We reached them by holding public hearings in three regions of the country and ensuring a more active presence in social media.

People living in minority settings told us they feel almost invisible in their communities because federal services are sometimes only offered in their second language. Those services are not recognized as drivers of official language minority communities’ vitality. Our committee is asking for clarification of this principle in the act.

Other people struggled to understand important court documents — like divorce and child custody settlements, and criminal matters — that are not automatically rendered in their language. A francophone British Columbia man had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to earn the right to be tried in his own language. Last year, the Supreme Court confirmed the right to equal access to justice in the official language of one’s choice in another case. To ensure that respect for language rights does not depend on the courts, our committee suggests amendments to the act.

Young people explained they were unable to study in the language of their choice. They said they lost what language skills they’d gained at an early age because opportunities to use their chosen language weren’t present in the greater community or in postsecondary programs offered in their region. Our committee recommends that the act provide a broad definition of institutional vitality that includes all elements of the education continuum and encourage interest in and support for bilingualism in Canadian society.

Witnesses’ testimony and briefs have shown the inconsistency of the act’s application. They called for clarity and for a central agency to be in charge of its implementation. Our committee is recommending the Treasury Board be given that role because of its position at the core of the government, its significant powers and its overall vision of the challenges to be met.

We heard again and again that the Commissioner of Official Languages could face too great a challenge if tasked with both the promotion of both official languages and the policing of the application of the act’s provisions. We suggest a tribunal be created to decide proceedings brought under the act, issue penalties and grant remedies so the Commissioner can focus on the mandate of promoting language rights. The act would therefore focus on the Commissioner’s ombudsman role and let him or her intervene with federal institutions in a more proactive and targeted manner.

These are among 20 recommendations in our final report Modernizing the Official Languages Act: The Views of Federal Institutions and Recommendations.

Other recommendations made by our committee include the following:

  • creating an advisory board to advise the federal government on measures to enhance the vitality of official language minority communities and to support their development;
  • recognizing federal-provincial and federal-territorial agreements in the Act;
  • applying an “official language lens” to policies, programs, initiatives and services implemented by federal institutions;
  • making new regulations allowing for a broad and liberal interpretation of the act;
  • reviewing the act’s enforcement principles applying to the federal public service and establishing the Translation Bureau’s role in the implementation of the act; and
  • requiring Supreme Court judges to be bilingual at the time of their appointment.

We also recommend reviewing the act and its regulations every 10 years so we won’t have to face the challenging monumental overhaul that’s needed now.

We all benefit when we have truly equal access to both official languages — making services available in French and English promotes the vitality of our official language minority communities, enhance linguistic duality which is at the heart of Canada’s social contract, and strengthens relationships among all Canadians.

By protecting language rights and promoting substantive equality of both official languages, we can work to create a more inclusive Canada.

With our conclusions in hand, the federal government now has everything it needs to update the act. Let us come together to make this project a tangible reality.

 

Senator René Cormier is chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages. Senator Rose-May Poirier is deputy chair of the committee. They represent New Brunswick.

Read the report, Modernizing the Official Languages Act: The Views of Federal Institutions and Recommendations and learn more about the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages.

A version of this article appeared in the June 18, 2019, edition of Le Droit (available in French only).