Mr. Chairman, committee members, good afternoon.
In the past few years, it has been my pleasure, as Commissioner of Official Languages, to take part in a number of round tables and conferences concerning the role and nature of the various officers of Parliament. If any consensus has emerged from those debates, it is that there are notable differences among these parliamentary organizations in their history, mandate and size, that make any generalization a difficult proposition. I would nevertheless venture to say that, of all those officers, it is the Commissioner of Official Languages who, under the act governing his or her actions, has the broadest range of tools to enforce full compliance with the objects of the legislation for which he/she is responsible, the Official Languages Act. Like Mr. Williams did, I will be presenting to you, in broad outline, the role and major characteristics of the Commissioner of Official Languages.
As most of you know, in passing the OLA in 1969, Parliament created the Office of Commissioner of Official Languages. As the Co-Chairs of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism wished, the various commissioner have acted as the “active conscience” of the Canadian public in language matters, since, when the first act was passed, language rights were more an ideal than a reality.
As the Official Languages Act, which was revised in 1988, expanded the scope of the Commissioner's mandate to include development of the official language communities and the advancement of English and French in Canadian society, the role of the Commissioner went beyond being an “active conscience” to become that of an agent of change. In my view, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982, which made the Official Languages Act a quasi-constitutional statute, since it refers to language rights, also reinforces this agent of change concept. It refers to advancing “the equality of status and use of English and French”.
But coming back to the OLA, section 56 of the Act is central to the mandate of the Commissioner of Official Languages, and it is appropriate to cite it in full:
56.(1) It is the duty of the Commissioner to take all actions and measures within the authority of the Commissioner with a view to ensuring recognition of the status of each of the official languages and compliance with the spirit and intent of this Act in the administration of the affairs of federal institutions, including any of their activities relating to the advancement of English and French in Canadian society.
Three main points emerge from this section. First, the general nature of its wording gives the Commissioner broad leeway in determining the scope of his/her mandate. Second, the expression, “it is the duty of the Commissioner to,” has a character than an expression such as “the Commissioner may or is entitled to...” would not have. Third, this clause sets out the Commissioner's twofold role, to protect and promote the language rights of Canadians. I feel this dual role is specific to the mandate of the Commissioner of Official Languages as compared with those of the more conventional officers of the Parliament of Canada.
The Commissioner has a certain number of powers with which to carry out his/her mandate. To ensure compliance with the Act, the Commissioner conducts investigations into complaints received from citizens and employees and recommendations where those complaints are founded. The Commissioner may also conduct investigations of his/her own initiative, often in the form of more general audits or evaluations. The Commissioner has the power to conduct follow-up to the implementation of his/her recommendations, to report to the Governor in Council if any problems persist and to table a special report in Parliament where he/she believes any matter requires its immediate attention. The Commissioner is required to table an annual report in Parliament on his/her activities.
With a complainant's consent, the Commissioner may also file court remedy proceedings in Federal Court, if other measures have not corrected departures from the Official Languages Act. Commissioners have done so repeatedly during the history of the Commissioner's Office.
Under subsection 78(3) of the OLA, the Commissioner may also appear as a party to any court proceedings concerning the status or use of English and French. The Commissioner has accordingly intervened in the cases involving Montfort Hospital in Ontario, municipal mergers in the Montreal region and the bilingual status of Canada's capital. In some instances, this has led some to say, wrongly, that the Commissioner intervenes in areas that are not under federal jurisdiction. However, the Commissioner does so based on his/her mission, which includes the development of official languages communities and the advancement of English and French in Canadian society. As already noted, that mission is not based solely on the OLA, but also on subsection 16(3) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which refers to the role of Parliament and the legislatures in advancing “the equality of status or use of English and French”. These instruments thus establish Canada's supreme statutory framework for language rights.
Whether it be through these court appearances, research work on various language issues or educational and media activities, all successive commissioners have promoted this fundamental value that is Canada's linguistic duality. In so doing, they have promoted, in particular, minority language education rights, the learning of English and French as second languages by young Canadians and exchanges between language communities. In a way, they have sought to create the conditions for advancement toward equality, not only in federal institutions, but in Canadian society as a whole.
Lastly, one final power that establishes the Commissioner's role as an agent of change and promoter in language matters is his/her authority to review any regulations or directives made under the OLA or any other policy that affects or may affect the status or use of the official languages. This is an innovative role that enables the Commissioner to act upstream of legislative changes so as to ensure that proposed legislation that may have a significant impact on language rights takes the principles of the OLA into account.
During my term, I exercised this monitoring function in a number of areas, in particular immigration, air transport and sport. Also during my term, I recommended that the government clarify the scope of Part VII of the OLA, which the Parliament of Canada ultimately did by passing the bill introduced by Senator Jean-Robert Gauthier. In so doing, the Commissioner exercises his/her mandate proactively to assist the government and Parliament in putting in place legislation and policies that comply as fully as possible with the spirit and letter of the OLA.
In my view, this approach is more constructive than criticizing after the fact. The Commissioner of Official Languages has an obligation to take all measures, in the context of his/her mandate, to overcome difficulties and roadblocks before the rights of citizens and the official language communities fall victim to planning or administrative errors.
In closing, I want to emphasize that, as an officer of Parliament, the Commissioner must display a high degree of rigour and responsibility in all his/her work, in both monitoring and promotion. Since the Commissioner's various reports support and contribute to the work of parliamentarians, the latter must have assurances that the research and analyses underlying the Commissioner's actions and recommendations are sound. The credibility of the position and of the institution itself are at stake.
Thank you for your attention. I will be happy to take your questions.