--- Stakeholders expect Official Languages Act update to be tabled in Parliament by end of 2020
Geoffrey Chambers, President of the Quebec Community Groups Network, expects legislation to update the Official Languages Act will be tabled in Parliament by the end of 2020. The Act, which was first passed in 1969 and updated in 1988, has received growing criticism for its lack of enforcement and transparency across provincial jurisdictions.
The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages says that many Canadians think the Act has compliance and governance issues, according to an online public survey conducted in the spring of 2018. The 4,200 respondents in the survey also wrote that the Act should be modernized as soon as possible.
Chambers says the problem with the legislation is that it remains aspirational as opposed to enforceable. According to its last iteration from 1988, all federal institutions, federally regulated businesses and crown corporations should make services available in both official languages across Canada. However, there are no penalties if an institution decides not to fulfill the language obligations from the Act, according to Chambers. “In that interim period [since 1988] a lot of litigation has gone through the courts, and has demonstrated the Act’s weaknesses and has shown that it’s aspirational in many cases,” he said.
The Commissioner’s office says the Act needs to be easy for federal institutions to understand and apply. It should also have a clear structure and mechanisms in place, so that minority French and English communities understand their rights and can navigate its enforcement framework.
Chambers says the Act should give one senior central agency, either the Treasury Board of Canada or the Privy Council Office, a supervisory role over other federal departments to ensure compliance with the Act’s rules. Chambers says the Act should also be made enforceable in the courts, so that when the rules of the Act are violated, the judiciary system has the tools to award penalties.
Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages Mélanie Joly (Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Que.) announced on March 11, 2019, an official review of the Act and toured several parts of the country to hear from Canadians about its weaknesses. As a result, the House of Commons Committee on Official Languages drafted a final report in June of 2019 entitled: The Modernization of the Official Languages Act. Among other things, the report recommended that the Commissioner be given more powers to issue monetary sanctions when the Act is not followed.
When asked whether this legislative update should be prioritized, given that Parliament remains focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, Chambers says he remains realistic. “We recognize there is going to be a lot of competition for parliamentary agenda time, but that’s not really an argument for not tabling it and having it there,” he said.
The Parliament of Canada is set to return for a new parliamentary session on September 23, 2020, with the Speech from the Throne.