FRANCOPRESSE – Press conferences only in English, French press releases and unilingual labeling of certain health products: these are some of the failures of the COVID-19 crisis noted by the Commissioner of Official Languages. In a report tabled on October 29, Raymond Théberge underlines that the emergency situations that occurred between 2010 and 2020 led to several breaches of the Official Languages Act.
Bruno Cournoyer Paquin – Francopresse
For François Larocque, professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa, the report gives “a good overview of what has been raised in the press and on social media about communication problems in both official languages. since the start of the pandemic ”.
In this report entitled A matter of respect and safety: the impact of emergency situations on official languages, the Commissioner of Official Languages, Raymond Théberge, notes that he has received 100 complaints concerning official languages since the start of the pandemic, 72 of which were admissible.
“These complaints concerned both the lack of communications or the provision of services in both official languages by the Government of Canada and the language of work rights of federal public servants in designated bilingual regions,” indicates The report.
“Changes must take place within the federal government so that official languages are no longer a second-rate consideration during emergency situations, but become an integral part of crisis management”, we can still say. read.
Éric Forgues, Director of the Canadian Institute for Research on Linguistic Minorities (ICRML) of the Université de Moncton, specifies that in the case of the COVID-19 crisis, “communication [dans les deux langues officielles] is essential: we aim to inform in order to promote behaviors that will limit the spread of the virus. So it is not only a question of law, but also of public health. ”
Routine failures exacerbated by emergencies
“What we see is that in federal institutions which are, directly or indirectly, linked to these situations [d’urgence], we have not formally integrated the ability to communicate in both official languages simultaneously. Since we are not ready, we often find ourselves repeating the same situations, ”explains Commissioner Raymond Théberge in an interview with Francopresse.
For Professor Matthieu LeBlanc, from the Translation and Languages Department at the Université de Moncton, these slippages in the area of official languages in the federal public service are nothing new.
“But I think from what we see in the context of a pandemic, it has become exacerbated. We notice that there is the whole question of time, of urgency, and I think that highlights the problems that already existed within the public service, ”he adds.
“One of the big problems, according to Raymond Théberge, is that official languages are not formally integrated into institutions. Too often, it’s informal. ”
Some individuals adopt excellent official languages practices, but these are rarely formally codified in organizational procedures.
“French is not just a language of translation, it is important to better integrate French into workplaces,” adds the Commissioner. An initiative that must be supported by senior leaders of federal organizations.
The Official Languages Act is not a law like any other, because it implements the federal government’s linguistic obligations under the Charter of rights and freedoms, explains Professor François Larocque.
“Bilingualism should be part of the DNA of the federal machinery. Essentially, there is nothing, nothing, that should not be done in the federal government if it is not in both languages. There is not a communication, there is not a tweet, there is not a speech which should come out of a federal institution, and especially of a federal central administration, without it being in the two languages!” he exclaims.
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Three recommendations: “systemic” solutions
“The only point is that when we talk about emergency situations, what we see is that these are systemic behaviors. So we have to find systemic solutions and not on a case-by-case basis, ”says Commissioner Théberge.
He points out that federal institutions often use the lack of access to an efficient translation service to explain their breaches of the Law.
Consequently, the report’s first recommendation is to set up “an accelerated translation service for emergency or crisis situations”.
The second recommendation of the report suggests that official languages be integrated into the design and implementation of federal emergency plans, and that officials responsible for emergency communications have the skills “to apply the plans and guidelines for emergency communications in both official languages ”.
Third, the Commissioner of Official Languages also observes that emergency situations often involve different levels of government. In the case of COVID-19, in particular, health services fall under provincial jurisdiction, while the federal government has a role to play in relation to public health.
In cases where emergency situations involve several jurisdictions, recommends Commissioner Théberge, the federal government should be able to support all actors to ensure that messages are disseminated in both official languages at the national level.
A recommendation that “makes a lot of sense”, according to Professor Larocque, because “the federal government has a leadership role to play with the provinces and municipalities.”
“For provinces that are not used to working in a bilingual environment, the slope is steep here. But it is important to have a frank discussion between the different levels of government on how to achieve this, because the federal government cannot do everything on its own; there are provincial jurisdictions to respect, ”he adds.
Professor Larocque, however, criticizes this report: “An opportunity that seems to me completely missed here is to bridge the gap between COVID-19 and the modernization of the Official Languages Act. ”
“I am a little surprised not to see a recommendation related to modernization, and to seize this opportunity to incorporate in the Official Languages Act obligations in terms of a state of emergency, ”concludes François Larocque.