Treatment of the French language in Parliament | New alarm bells are ringing

(Ottawa) New alarm bells are ringing on Parliament Hill about the treatment reserved for the French language. On the one hand, the Privy Council Office maintains that it has no obligation to ensure that federal government documents requested by a House of Commons committee are in both official languages. On the other hand, an association of interpreters is struggling to conceal its concern that the House of Commons is planning to call on uncertified workers to interpret parliamentary proceedings remotely.

Posted at 12:19 a.m.

Joel-Denis Bellavance

Joel-Denis Bellavance
The Press

Melanie Marquis

Melanie Marquis
The Press

At a time when Statistics Canada confirms a further decline in the weight of French in Quebec and across the country, many are worried about the sometimes contradictory signals sent by the Trudeau government on respect for both official languages.

The Privy Council Office (PCO), which is the Prime Minister’s department in Ottawa, maintains that it has no official languages ​​obligation when a committee requests documents from it.

According to the PCO, this responsibility rests with the law clerk of the House of Commons, who must review the content of documents before their distribution to ensure that the information does not infringe privacy and national security, among other things.

This is the position defended by the PCO during the investigation conducted by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages ​​following a complaint by Conservative MP Alain Rayes on this issue last year.


Alain Rayes, Conservative MP for the riding of Richmond—Arthabaska in the House of Commons of Canada

Mr. Rayes filed the complaint after the PCO handed over hundreds of thousands of pages of English-only documents to the Standing Committee on Health, which decided to look into the Trudeau government’s handling of the pandemic in November 2020.

According to Mr. Rayes, the PCO violated the spirit and the letter of the Official Languages ​​Act and disregarded its linguistic obligations by doing so.

In a preliminary investigation report obtained by The Pressthe Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages ​​agrees with the PCO because it gave the documents in question to the Law Clerk, and not to the Clerk of the House of Commons.

PCO argues that according to the wording of the order, it was the law clerk, not PCO, who was required to formally table the documents in the House of Commons. According to the PCO, the law clerk filed all documents in both official languages ​​in the House of Commons.

Excerpt from the preliminary investigation report of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages

In its defence, the BCP claimed to have played “a coordination role” with the departments affected by the order to produce documents related to the management of the pandemic.

Asked about this, MP Alain Rayes denounced the position of the BCP, stressing that it is responsible for the federal bureaucracy and must show leadership.

“It is for a technical reason that the commissioner did not uphold the complaint. But that does not eliminate the absurdity of the situation. This further demonstrates the Trudeau government’s inconsistency in ensuring respect for the two official languages ​​in the country,” said Mr. Rayes.

He recalled that the Trudeau government appointed a governor general, Mary Simon, who does not speak French and also entrusted the post of lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick, the only bilingual province in the country, to a unilingual English-speaking person.

Disruptions for interpretation

French also risks being tarnished in parliamentary debates, warns the International Association of Conference Interpreters in Canada (AIIC Canada) in light of the results of a survey carried out among several dozen interpreters certified by the government.

The sounding was carried out while the House of Commons is engaged in a pilot project which would allow the recruitment of interpreters who are not qualified according to the standards of the Translation Bureau, and who must be subject to an evaluation next fall.

An overwhelming majority of respondents, 97%, warn that this is “an unfortunate initiative that will undermine the quality of service”, a situation that will be exacerbated by the retirement, within five years, of 49% of survey participants, is it written in the document released to the media on Wednesday.

And make no mistake: it is not the English language that would suffer from a decline in the quality of interpretation services on Parliament Hill, says Nicole Gagnon, spokesperson for AIIC Canada.

“Of course, it’s always French that suffers, because the majority is English-speaking. I don’t see how it could be otherwise. So one of two things: either the country will become unilingual, or the country will be entitled to interpretation that is bad or not faithful,” argues Gagnon.