Mr. Speaker, I move that the second report of the Standing Committee on Official Languages, presented on Wednesday, June 15, be concurred in.
I am pleased to rise today, because it gives me the opportunity to speak about a report published by the Standing Committee on Official Languages, more specifically, the one dealing with the Translation Bureau.
As committee members, we heard a number of witnesses express their concerns about the Translation Bureau and the changes that the government could make. Those witnesses voiced their concerns, as well as the Translation Bureau's concerns, in light of the government's plans to try a new approach when it comes to freelancers, namely, hiring more of the lowest bidders.
Of course, a number of witnesses appeared. Members from the Association of Translators and Interpreters appeared on a number of occasions. They made representations to our respective offices, to the opposition members, saying that it made no sense since this approach would undermine the quality of translation and interpretation in the House of Commons and in all the committees. That is why we have worked very hard to ensure that we can avoid this kind of situation. We know full well that, whether in the private sector or here in the government, if the lowest bidder is always chosen, the quality of the final product tends to suffer.
In our circumstances, it cannot all come down to money. Let us be clear: translation in the House of Commons, just like in all the committees, must be done properly. It is certainly important not to choose the lowest bidder all the time. Everyone agrees that costs inevitably become a factor, but at some point, we must ensure that we have high-quality translation and interpretation.
Members of the International Association of Conference Interpreters came and testified. They were united and spoke loud and clear to all parliamentarians to make sure that we did not take this course of action. They expressed their concerns more than once. I want to congratulate them today because they really took on this government provision, which would have had real consequences on translation quality.
It would have had a serious adverse impact on the work that parliamentarians must do here. I do not wear my earpiece while I am talking because I would hear myself, but inevitably and on a regular basis, all of us here in the House need proper and professional translation and interpretation services.
The International Association of Conference Interpreters, among others, represents people who do exceptional work. Their services are not just required in the House and in committees, they are in demand around the world when there is a need for interpreters.
Once again, the Standing Committee on Official Languages and in particular the government have official languages obligations. The government must do all in its power to ensure that official languages are respected without compromise throughout Canada and in all committees.
As a result of the excellent work done by our committee, the government was forced to reverse course, on February 9. The Minister of Public Services and Procurement confirmed that the government would step back from these changes. The committee worked accordingly and acted on behalf of all the people involved in the world of interpretation and translation. Luckily, the government has seen reason since the committee, as I was saying earlier, has had numerous meetings, even inside the caucuses, which is actually quite rare. We had the opportunity to meet with people from the International Association of Conference Interpreters who have been applying pressure. As I personally mentioned it in committee, those people did so in a very professional manner.
It was a great opportunity to show that we can work together on decisions that are important to the government and particularly to us as parliamentarians.
On February 9, the Minister of Public Services and Procurement confirmed that the government would not be going ahead with the changes it had been about to make, luckily. The committee asked the minister to meet the commitments she made publicly regarding the Translation Bureau on February 9. The report mentioned the following, among other things: “Hire a new CEO and ensure the person is in place before 31 March 2017.”
Recently, we learned that the position had been filled, but two months later. This is an example of the problems with the current government. We met last fall, the report was signed in June, when it was a progress report in February, and an appointment was supposedly imminent, but it did not materialize for another four months.
This is just one example among many. Allow me to change direction a bit and talk about the Commissioner of Official Languages. My colleague from the NDP asked the minister who the official languages commissioner is right now since the former commissioner's term ended on Friday. We have no new information on this. The minister reiterates that we will be briefed soon. In my opinion, it is a little late to say “soon”, since we are officially without an official languages commissioner, according to the terms of the six-month contract signed by the outgoing commissioner last December.
This once again demonstrates conclusively that the government is dragging its feet on all appointments, whether to the judiciary or otherwise. The official languages commissioner appointment process was an utter travesty and a complete debacle.
The government often prides itself on being open and transparent, and it did so often during the complete debacle that unfolded over a six-week period to appoint the Commissioner of Official Languages. Having a website where people can apply is all well and good, but that is not what it means to be open and transparent. The law is very clear: opposition parties must be consulted before appointments are made.
In this regard, the minister told the House on a number of occasions that she had consulted with the opposition parties. My colleague from Beauport—Côte-de-Beaupré—Île d'Orléans—Charlevoix received a call from the minister, who informed her of the Liberals' chosen candidate. Mr. Speaker, if I call you to tell you that I have chosen a candidate, I am telling you something, I am not asking you whether you think that person is a good choice. After everything that went down in this file, no one can deny it was botched from the beginning.
Now, an appointment process is under way to fill several important positions, including the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner and the Commissioner of Official Languages, although the process had to be started over in the latter case. That case was particularly tainted by the close ties between Ms. Meilleur and the Liberal Party.
When Ms. Meilleur appeared before the committee, she told us that she thought she had no longer been a member of the Liberal Party of Canada since December 2016 or January 2017. In reality, she was a member of the party up until a week before her appointment was officially approved. That was a bombshell. The candidate and the Liberal Party obviously enjoyed close ties, as Ms. Meilleur had contributed not only to the Liberal Party of Canada, but also to the Prime Minister's leadership race. One can understand how this might have the appearance of a partisan appointment.
The 338 members of the House, especially those on the government side, have a duty to find candidates whose neutrality is beyond reproach, as this is a very important element of democracy.
I would like to remind the current government that, when it was in opposition, it never wasted an opportunity to lambaste the government of the day over its appointment; even in the absence of any kind of ties, it still tried to say we made the wrong choice.
Now that these members are in government, they are doing even worse than what others have done in the past. There must be a significant distance between the government and those who would assume such crucial roles in our democracy as Commissioner of Official Languages or Ethics Commissioner. These people must be far removed from all decision-making bodies, as they are the ones who ensure government policy stays on track. They are the ones who must ensure compliance with the spirit of official languages or ethics legislation, for instance.
The report on the Translation Bureau contained several other points, including ensuring that a CEO be appointed. It appears that this was done, but it took four months. The report also called for the creation of a chief quality officer position that would be filled by a language professional that reports directly to the CEO. The idea, then, is to create a new position tasked with ensuring employees' language skills are of the highest quality. I think it should be noted that they are not to compete with external suppliers. In order to survive in a very competitive industry, they must be able to compete with the agents of the associations that serve the government every day.
The report also recommended setting up a service line that federal institutions can call to obtain advice on linguistic services. These are things that the Minister of Public Services and Procurement has committed to doing. It was also expected that the Translation Bureau would hire at least 50 students a year over the next 50 years to ensure succession. That is another very important point.
All these issues came up during testimony. We have also asked that initiatives be implemented to increase the number of interpreter graduates from recognized universities to support additional hiring by the Translation Bureau and the language industry.
The purpose of all this was to ensure the quality of the French language and the number of men and women we need to do the job. We also wanted to ensure the Translation Bureau would restore the co-op program. That program was scrapped by the former government. I must say that we made tough choices at times, and that was one of them. Unfortunately, the consequences, although limited, were still felt.
We also wanted to ensure the Translation Bureau would continue to operate its network of regional offices and that it would work closely with the Canada School of Public Service. We hope that the courses offered to new public servants include training on the Government of Canada's language obligations, including in translation, as of the spring of 2017.
This brings me to the use of French in the public service. I witnessed this first-hand last week when, after the heritage minister appeared before our committee, my assistant gave me an email that we had just received from the office of the Minister of Environment. It was in English only.
Let me quote the catchphrase of the Prime Minister who said that we had to appoint a gender-balanced cabinet “because it is 2015”.
Now it is 2017, and it is about time for the government to ensure that each of us receives communications from all parliamentarians, particularly from ministers' offices, in both official languages.
The minister mainly dropped by to tell us, as she did once more today in the House, that official languages are important and they are doing everything they can, but, clearly, they are not doing enough. The simple truth is that they could not care less.
The minister responsible for a major department had sent me a message with some news about my constituency. That is great, but perhaps the minister could have thought to send it in both official languages.
I do not understand how there are still ministers strutting around saying that official languages are important and that they are doing all they can to improve official languages on Parliament Hill, while, as recently as last week, a report from the interim official languages commissioner decried an unbelievable lack of respect for official languages on the Hill.
Whenever 10 government employees, all public servants here in Ottawa, gather in a room together, you can bet they will all switch to English if even just one of them is an English speaker. It is not that people are not bilingual, it is because they feel obliged to speak English when one person does not speak their language.
Inevitably, there remains a lot to be done here on Parliament Hill to ensure the respect of both official languages, starting with the ministers’ offices that must ensure communication in both languages with all Canadians, especially by e-mail.
I think that the government still has a lot of work to do. It is certainly guilty of dragging its feet. The Minister of Canadian Heritage may still be patting herself on the back and saying that she is doing all she can, it clearly is not enough.
There were also other recommendations in this report, such as making sure that, following the decision to cancel the request for standing offer, the bureau develops a new approach for awarding contracts based on areas of expertise and further consultations with representatives across the interpretation industry.
Again, the government has come to a decision without bothering to consult. It normally never stops consulting, but in this case it never bothered to consult. It reached a unilateral decision and decreed that this is how things were going to happen. It is no surprise, then, that their solution does not meet the needs of the industry or of this institution which is the House of Commons.
In closing, the committee wanted to thank the translators for their extraordinary contribution. They have been extremely professional. When they appeared before the committee, I told them they deserved our thanks because they had proven that there is indeed a way to change things when we do not agree with a government's decision or approach, and that we can do so respectfully of institutions and individuals alike. When things are done professionally and respectfully, it is easier for people to accept what is being asked of them. That is why the government came to change its mind in light of the committee’s work. I think that was a good thing.
Among other official languages issues that have come up over the past year, the committee several times raised that of the appointment of the Commissioner of Official Languages. This appointment was an absolute debacle. I sincerely hope that the government will acknowledge it for what it was and will make sure to consult next time it embarks upon a so-called open and transparent exercise. It is not just a matter of entering one's name on a website. That is not how we want things to happen. We want to be consulted. Consulting means coming to see us and deciding together whether a chosen candidate is a good fit for the job. In matters of official languages, the commissioner must be totally politically neutral in order to act as a watchdog for all Canadians.