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November 14th 2016

Commissioner of Official Languages’ Role Explained

Commentary by Katherine d’Entremont
Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick


In 2002, Members of the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick unanimously adopted a new Official Languages Act. This Act created the position of Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick, and confers on me as Commissioner a dual mandate. First, I must investigate, report on, and make recommendations with regard to compliance with the Act. Second, I must promote the advancement of both official languages in the province.

This text provides a summary of how the Office of the Commissioner carries out this dual mandate. It also seeks to follow up on the 2013 Report of the Select Committee on the Revision of the Official Languages Act in which the Committee expressed hope that “the Commissioner would make greater efforts to improve public awareness of [her] role.”

Compliance with the Act 

Many people describe the Commissioner of Official Languages as the guardian of language rights. They are right. I must report to the Legislative Assembly on the extent to which provincial institutions are living up to their obligations under the Official Languages Act.

The investigations we conduct are our primary means of ensuring that the language rights of New Brunswickers are upheld. Indeed, they enable us to identify the causes of situations of non-compliance with the Act and to recommend measures to avoid their recurrence.

Most investigations are undertaken as a result of public complaints. Last year, about one-third of admissible complaints pertained to a lack of services in English and two-thirds, to a lack of services in French.

We always conduct our investigations in a spirit of collaboration, and as a general rule, institutions cooperate with us and respond positively to our recommendations. However, there are exceptions. Institutions sometimes allow complaints to accumulate or delay in taking corrective action to comply with the Act. That is why, in 2013, MLAs amended the Act to give the Commissioner the authority to publish investigation reports, thereby shining a light on recurring situations of non-compliance with the Act.    

Principle of equality: at the heart of our recommendations

Our investigation reports often include recommendations. It should be noted here that the recommendations we make are always realistic and pragmatic to ensure they can be implemented by institutions. Recommendations made by the Commissioner’s office are aimed at guaranteeing that all citizens are able to receive public services in the official language of their choice. This is the promise of the Official Languages Act, a promise also set out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Charter includes a number of provisions specific to New Brunswick. One such provision is the principle of the equality of New Brunswick’s two official languages and two official linguistic communities.

This principle of equality is fundamental. It means that public services must be of equal quality in English and in French. In other words, it is unacceptable to provide members of one of the province’s official linguistic communities with a service of lesser quality.   

All recommendations made by the Commissioner’s office are therefore intended to ensure compliance with the fundamental principle of equality as outlined in the Charter.   

The other key element of our mandate: promotion

As Commissioner, I must “promote the advancement of both official languages.” Advancing towards what? Towards the equality of our two official languages. It should be noted that the Charter affirms “the authority of the Legislature and Government of New Brunswick to advance the status, rights and privileges” of our two languages.  

My promotional mandate therefore falls within the context of advancing towards real equality between our two languages and our two official linguistic communities.

Since becoming Commissioner in 2013, we have carried out many promotional activities. Among other initiatives, we have:

• informed New Brunswickers of their language rights and encouraged them to exercise those rights by producing six fact sheets on language rights;

• shed light on the benefits and economic potential of bilingualism in New Brunswick by publishing the first ever study on this topic: Two Languages: It’s Good for Business;

• highlighted inspiring practices by provincial employees in the delivery of bilingual services in each of our last three annual reports;

• informed political leaders and the public about the status of bilingualism in the province by publishing a study on the evolution of bilingualism in New Brunswick;

• informed the public about official bilingualism by publishing one of the first texts intended to dispel the myths surrounding official languages in all of the province’s daily newspapers;

• given a number of speeches at various pan-Canadian events in order to promote the unique character of New Brunswick as the only officially bilingual province.

Promoting the advancement of our two official languages is something I feel very strongly about. Naturally, our promotional activities are constrained by the financial resources available to us. 

Accountability

As with other officers of the Legislative Assembly, the position I hold is independent of the government. However, I am held accountable for my work. Every year, I must prepare and submit to the Legislative Assembly, a report on the activities of the Commissioner’s office. Also, over the past few years, I have appeared several times before committees of the Legislative Assembly.

A few months ago, I asked to present our office’s 2015-2016 annual report to an open meeting of the legislative committee charged with reviewing the work of legislative officers. That request was granted, and on June 21, 2016, I had the opportunity to discuss a number of issues pertaining to my mandate and respond to questions posed by MLAs from the three political parties. During my appearance at the June meeting, I stated that I wished to have regular meetings with this committee in order to report on my work.