Air Canada language controversy | Fines must be imposed, says Commissioner of Official Languages

(Ottawa) The Commissioner of Official Languages, Raymond Théberge, underlined the controversy caused by the unilingualism of the boss of Air Canada during a meeting with Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor. He tries to convince her to grant him more restrictive powers to enforce the law. The air carrier is one of the worst offenders when it comes to respecting the rights of francophones.

“The Air Canada case demonstrates the importance of quickly modifying and strengthening the powers of the Commissioner and reviewing the obligations of federal institutions,” reads a briefing note prepared by his team in anticipation of a meeting with the Minister of Official Languages, Ginette Petitpas Taylor, which took place on November 29.

It was a few weeks after the linguistic storm unleashed by the president and CEO of the air carrier, Michael Rousseau. He first gave a speech in English to the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, despite warnings from a member of François Legault’s cabinet in Quebec City and from the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages ​​in Ottawa. Only a few sentences in French had been added.

Mr. Rousseau then told reporters during a press scrum that he had lived in the metropolis for 14 years without having had to learn French, which was “to the credit” of the city. This statement had raised controversy since Air Canada is subject to the Official Languages ​​Act and that each year, it is the subject of an average of 85 complaints for non-respect of the rights of Francophones.

The situation this fall demonstrated to what extent the Commissioner does not have the necessary tools to do his job.

Raymond Théberge, Commissioner of Official Languages

The Commissioner of Official Languages ​​received 2,500 complaints in the wake of this controversy. They were all found to be admissible under the Official Languages ​​Act. His office is now investigating whether there was indeed a breach. Even if he determines that this is the case, Mr. Théberge will have to content himself with making recommendations.

The power at his disposal has not worked with respect to Air Canada’s breaches over the years. As proof, his predecessor had filed a report in 2016 in which he noted systemic compliance problems at the air carrier that had persisted since the law came into force in 1969.

Mr. Théberge therefore asked Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor to give him the power to impose financial penalties. “The addition of this power would give me greater flexibility in my investigations to intervene quickly and efficiently, but also allow companies like Air Canada to take the step in the right direction”, it is written in the note. briefing.

“It is important to seize the opportunity presented to us because once a law is adopted, it is not changed often,” notes Mr. Théberge. This reform of Official Languages ​​Act would be the second in over 50 years. It was changed only once, in 1988.

“We want a proactive law”

The Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities (FCFA) also wants the Commissioner to have more teeth. “We want a proactive rather than reactive law”, summarizes its director general, Alain Dupuis. The organization is also asking that the Treasury Board be the sole agency responsible for implementing the law throughout the government apparatus, that the federal government be required to include language clauses in its agreements with provinces and territories and restore the demographic weight of Francophones through immigration.

The new version of the law is expected by the beginning of February.

Discussions to strengthen it are underway between Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor and her colleagues from other departments that would be affected by this reform, such as the Treasury Board Secretariat and the Department of Immigration, one told her cabinet. .

A first version of the bill was tabled on June 15, a week before the end of parliamentary proceedings for the summer break. It already provided for increased powers for the Commissioner, such as the power to enter into compliance agreements and issue orders in certain cases, but not the power to impose fines. The bill subsequently died on the order paper after the federal election campaign began two months later.


Number of complaints received by the Commissioner in 2020-2021

Source: Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages


Number of complaints in 2020-2021 regarding communications with the public and service delivery

Source: Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages

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