Language of work a 'weak link,' commissioner says

New Brunswick's official languages commissioner says public servants in the province should have the right to work in the official language of their choice.

Public servants should have the right to work in official language of their choice

New Brunswick's official languages commissioner says public servants in the province should have the right to work in the official language of their choice.

It is one of several amendments to the Official Languages Act proposed by Michel Carrier in his 2011-12 annual report, which was released on Thursday.

The report, entitled From Words to Actions, calls on Premier David Alward's government once again to improve the act to better achieve linguistic equality in the province.

Carrier notes he is still waiting for the provincial government to implement some of the recommendations from his report last year, including developing guidelines to ensure its immigration practices benefit both linguistic communities equally.

"The government told me that such a policy was being developed. I'm eager to see it," Carrier said in a statement.

Other proposals in his 52-page annual report include linguistic obligations for professional associations, and better protection of language rights in public-private partnerships.

A legislative committee is currently reviewing the Official Languages Act behind closed doors — a controversial decision that Carrier has previously declined to comment on, saying it is up to the committee to decide how to run the hearings.

"This revision must propel us forward, not maintain the status quo," he said on Thursday.

Bilingual work culture 'essential'

Carrier describes language of work within the provincial public service as "the weak link."

He contends additional measures need to be taken to create a work culture that would ensure equal usage of both English and French within government.

He suggests senior positions should not be held by unilingual employees.

"From our conversations with officials from four departments, it has become quite clear that having unilingual employees in senior positions is not likely to help create a bilingual work environment," he said.

As it stands, the provincial government uses the so-called team approach to apply the Official Languages Act, with each team made up of unilingual and bilingual employees, said Carrier.

Under this approach, all public servants do not have to speak both languages, he said.

"However, this approach must be consistent with the right of government employees to work and be supervised in the official language of their choice," Carrier said.

"The team approach must promote bilingualism within the senior public service, not hinder it," he said, noting that he has never met a senior public servant who speaks only French.

"Language of work is a complex matter that may cause concern for some. But it is above all a matter of equality and respect."

The Government Plan on Official Languages: Official Bilingualism — A Strength should help the government better meet its linguistic obligations in terms of delivering bilingual services to the public, said Carrier.

But it "contains few innovative measures for creating a true bilingual work environment within the public service," he said.

Creating a bilingual work culture is "essential," not only to respect the right of public servants to work in the official language of their choice, but also because the quality of government services in both languages is closely linked to their use in the daily activities of public servants, said Carrier.

It is also important for the vitality of the French language in the province, he said.

Carrier also urges the provincial government to show "rigour" in order to achieve its goals of increasing bilingualism among public servants.

"The equality of status of our two linguistic communities is not just symbolic," he said.

"The government actually has a constitutional obligation to protect and promote this status and equal rights.

"The revision of the Official Languages Act provides an opportunity to comply fully with the letter and spirit of this constitutional commitment, in short to go from words to actions."

In 2011-2012, the commissioner's office handled 203 complaints. The majority of them dealt with a lack of French-language services, Carrier said.

As well, 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of the entrenchment in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms of the equal status of the two official linguistic communities in New Brunswick.

The Select Committee on the Revision of the Official Languages Act, which is made up of Progressive Conservative and Liberal MLAs, has agreed to hold the meetings in secret.

The Official Languages Act, which was passed in 2002, requires a review every 10 years.