The office of N.W.T.'s languages commissioner is backed up with complaints, and she says that's due to lack of an office or staff.

Yellowknifer George Lessard filed a language complaint against the Yellowknife Housing Authority last December, asking for the organization's housing applications to be available in French.

"When I read a legal document, I'd like to have it in my mother tongue, so I can … increase my understanding," Lessard said.

Lessard says he has emailed language commissioner Snookie Catholique at least three times, inquiring about his complaint. But each time he's gotten the same type of response and says that's unacceptable.

"Sorry I couldn't get back to you on your request," Catholique wrote in an email to Lessard earlier this month. "We are currently in between offices and are not set up to continue with your complaint. I will contact you as soon as our office is ready to receive clients."

George Lessard

George Lessard filed a complaint with the languages commissioner in December 2013, when Snookie Catholique was first appointed, but it still hasn't been dealt with. (CBC)

That was Sept. 10, and Lessard says Catholique has yet to get back to him. 

Catholique says Lessard isn't the only one who's been waiting for action on a complaint. There are at least 12 other backlogged complaints she has yet to get to.

The legislative assembly appointed Catholique to her position in December 2013. Ten months into the job, she says she's only now getting a proper office.

She says she was initially set up in a tiny space that was used for storage and didn't have a phone, a computer or even a pen.

"Basically, it was a closet," Catholique said.

Part-time to full-time

According to Tim Mercer, the clerk of the legislative assembly, it's up to the assembly to provide the languages commissioner with the resources he or she needs.

But while the languages commissioner gets his or her money from the legislative assembly, Mercer says it's important that the office remain at "arm's length" from the assembly and the government.

"Essentially her [the language commissioner] role is to investigate and respond to complaints with respect to the government's handling of public services pursuant to the Officials Languages Act," Mercer said.

Mercer says Catholique's hours will go from part-time to full-time on Monday. He also says Catholique didn't have a say in her budget because she started her term in the middle of the fiscal year.

Tim Mercer

Tim Mercer, the clerk for the legislative assembly, says while the assembly provides the money for the languages commissioner's office, it's important the office remain at "arm's length" from the government and assembly. (CBC)

"For the upcoming fiscal year, she's going to have her first opportunity to really make a good, solid budget submission for her own needs," Mercer said. "But right now she's operating on a budget that she had very little role in setting."

Catholique finally moved into her current office in the YK Centre East building earlier this month, and says it's a huge step up from the first one.

"Although I did have a lot of complaints, I didn't have time to deal with them at all because we didn't even have space to have any kind of filing system."

Catholique said she hopes to deal with them as soon as possible, but she says she still needs staff to get the work done.

Betty Harnum says she’s not surprised it’s been hard to get the ball rolling with a new languages commissioner in place.

She was the very first languages commissioner for the N.W.T. between 1992 and 1996, and remembers what it was like to start from scratch.

“When I arrived there was a pencil and that was it,” Harnum said.

“We had to set up guidelines and they [the territorial government] had to recognize the authority of the languages commissioner to conduct investigations.”

The budget in 1992 was about $250,000. This year's budget is the same. Harnum says the money is used for everything from staff salaries to travelling to communities.

"You have to be careful as languages commissioner that people don't pay for your travel, because it could be seen to be a bribe," Harnum said. "And so you have to remain impartial and independent."

Office lacks authority: former language commissioner

But Harnum says it can still be hard to exercise authority in the position.

“One of the issues with the language commissioner's position is that all you can do is report findings and make recommendations," Harnum says. "You don't have the authority to insist that the recommendations are implemented."

Harnum says fewer people across the territory are speaking the aboriginal languages, and the languages commissioner needs support from the public and territorial government in order to help preserve the territory's 11 official languages. 

“Especially for the Aboriginal languages, there are very few people who are working on those languages and they are struggling so … it’s very difficult to find people to provide the services and the programs,” Harnum said.

“I think it’s very much an uphill battle all the time, and people have to be convinced … that there are people out there who, even if they do speak English, they have the right to speak their language.”