Federal commissioner decries 'erosion of language rights' across Canada
Published Thursday, May 9, 2019 6:19PM EDT
Official Languages Commissioner Raymond Theberge responds to a question during a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday, May 9, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS / Adrian Wyld)
OTTAWA -- Canada's official languages commissioner received 21 per cent more language complaints in 2018-2019 than the previous year, and the uproar over Premier Doug Ford's cuts to French-language services in Ontario could be partly to blame, commissioner Raymond Theberge said Thursday.
"Across the country, there has been an erosion of language rights for a number of years. I think the situation in Ontario has focused attention on this issue," Theberge said as he tabled his annual report in Ottawa.
Almost half of the 1,087 complaints lodged last year came from the National Capital Region of Ottawa and Gatineau, where many federal government offices are located.
Surveys of public sector workers by the commissioner's office showed that the satisfaction rate for francophone workers is "much lower" than that of English-speakers when it comes to the language of work, Theberge said.
He believes Canadians are "much more aware of their language rights, and are much more ready to say so."
"It's a reflection, I would say, of the events of the past year. It's also a reflection of a situation that is not improving, but that, in my opinion, is getting worse," he said.
The report tabled Thursday recommends that bilingual greetings such as "Hello! Bonjour!" should be the standard at airports, border crossings and Service Canada counters, and that full service should be available in both English and French.
Theberge noted the Official Languages Act already obliges federal institutions to offer service in both languages, but the rules are applied inconsistently. Theberge suggested new regulations should be brought in to clarify the expectations.
The report concluded that when Canadians are greeted in both languages, they respond in the language of their choice 80 per cent of the time -- a number that drops significantly if only one language is used.
In order to fix what he called "systemic" problems, Theberge called for the Official Languages Act to be fully modernized by 2021 in order to make it more "current, dynamic and robust." In particular, the revamped legislation should have greater powers to impose sanctions when the rules aren't respected, he said.
Official Languages Minister Melanie Joly has already announced that a series of consultations will be held aimed at updating the law. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer have also both committed to move ahead with modernizing the Act, Theberge said.
Joly said Thursday that revamping language legislation has been partly motivated by fears over the decline of French communities outside Quebec.
"The danger of assimilation is real, it is present, and it's what motivates us to be sure we can modernize the Official Languages Act, because while the population is increasing, the proportion of French speakers is decreasing," she said.
Bloc Quebecois MP Mario Beaulieu, however, said merely updating the law wouldn't suffice. He instead suggested fully changing the legislation, as well as allocating more resources to areas where there's currently a "critical mass" of francophones.