Trudeau government to update federal rules for service in English, French

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government will take the first step Thursday toward modernizing the rules that govern how the government provides services in English and French, CBC News has learned.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison and Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly will announce the launch of a process to bring the Official Language Regulations, which deal with communicating to the public, up to date.

Under the Official Languages Act, federal government institutions are obliged to provide services to the public in both English and French in the National Capital Region, as well as across the country “where there is significant demand for communications.”

But if an English community in Quebec (or a French-speaking community elsewhere in Canada) is too small to qualify, federal government institutions — from Service Canada to the local post office — aren’t obliged to offer services in the dominant language.

The government uses census results to determine what constitutes significant demand and the regulations spell out how many people have to list a minority language as their mother tongue for an area to qualify for bilingual service.

Minority language groups, however, have at times complained that the regulations are too restrictive and don’t always take into account everyone who would like to be served in a minority language.

The 2011 census found there were an estimated 647,655 Quebecers whose mother tongue was English and a million people living outside Quebec whose mother tongue was French.

Languages Report 20160607

In his final report, Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser recommended last May that the government revise its regulations on providing bilingual services. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In his final report as Official Languages Commissioner last May, Graham Fraser listed providing government services in minority official languages as a priority.

He recommended that the Treasury Board do an evaluation of “the effectiveness and efficiency of its policies and directives” for implementing the rules governing communications and services to the public.

“A minority community can be thriving and growing, but if the majority grows faster, services are lost. This is simply unfair,” Fraser said at the time. “Bill S-209 provides a way of addressing the injustice, as would a revision of the Official Language Regulations.”

Official Languages Act ‘outdated’

Bill S-209, tabled by Senator Maria Chaput before she retired, would update that section of the Official Languages Act to determine which areas are entitled to bilingual services according to the number of people who know an official language and a community’s vitality — rather than according to mother tongue.

“Official language minority communities have changed a lot over the past 20 years, but the regulation governing provision of services to those communities dates back to 1991,” Chaput told the Senate last February.

“The government’s methods for calculating the size of official language communities are outdated, and those communities, and Canada’s linguistic duality, suffer as a result,” she said, calling the matter “urgent.”

“Reducing services because of incorrect and outdated definitions leads to assimilation and flies in the face of the Official Languages Act.”

Chaput’s bill is currently at the second reading stage in the Senate.

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