New Brunswick

Languages commissioner under fire from 5 political parties

Official Languages Commissioner Katherine d'Entremont's handling of a complaint about bilingual services at a government office is now being criticized by five political parties.

Katherine d'Entremont can only be removed as the official languages commissioner by a two-thirds vote of MLAs

RAW: Donald Arseneault reacts to language

8 years ago
Duration 2:32
Featured VideoLiberal cabinet minister Donald Arseneault reacts to questions surrounding a official languages controversy

Official Languages Commissioner Katherine d'Entremont's handling of a complaint about bilingual services at a government office is now being criticized by five political parties.

The Liberals, Progressive Conservatives, Greens, People's Alliance and now the NDP have all staked out different areas of opposition to d'Entremont's involvement with the complaint over how the provincial government deals with bilingual services at its offices.

Liberal cabinet minister Donald Arseneault, the government's minister responsible for official languages, said he had a problem with the independent officer's approach.

"I'm not going to hide from the fact that if I was the commissioner, we wouldn't be dealing with this issue today," Arseneault said.

The controversy was sparked when the languages commissioner started an investigation in May into how the provincial government ensures bilingual service from commissionaires, who provide security at some government buildings.

Katherine D'Entremont, the province's Official Languages commissioner, is being criticized by five political parties for her handling of a complaint regarding bilingual services of commissionaires at government offices. (CBC)
D'Entremont visited a government office in Fredericton, where Wayne Grant was working, and did not receive bilingual services. That experience prompted a letter to the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure to ask about its policy.

Her decision to launch an investigation prompted the provincial government to cut one unilingual commissionaire's hours.

D'Entremont has been criticized for not revealing at the time that she was initiating the investigation herself after her own experience with the commissionaire.

Wayne Grant's future

Following the complaint, Grant was taken off his regular front-desk duty at the Centennial Building in Fredericton and had his shift reduced to weekends and parking lot duty every Thursday.

Commissionare Wayne Grant says his hours were cut back after the province received a language complaint. Arseneault said his hours should not have been affected until the commissioner's report was finalized. (CBC)
The four political parties have also supported Grant in returning to his previous shifts.

Arseneault said there should have been no change to Grant's status until the commissioner's report was finalized.

Green Party Leader David Coon said he believes Grant should be returned to his previous posting at the Centennial building and pointed the finger at the civil service for the commissionaire's removal.

"Someone obviously panicked in DTI out of fear of the language commissioner's investigation and Mr. Grant was victimized as a result," Coon said in an email statement.

"This was completely unacceptable. He should receive an apology for the way he was treated by DTI and reinstated to his former position."

New Brunswick NDP president Charles Doucet called for a reinstatement of Grant until the investigation of the case is done. In a statement, Doucet also said the languages commissioner should not be investigating her own complaints. 

"We expect a certain standard of professionalism and ethics from Officers of the Legislature. They should recuse themselves from investigations they have initiated and engage a third party, to ensure impartiality," said Doucet.

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said Official Languages commissioner Katherine d'Entremont was "deceptive" in how she handled a complaint in May over bilingual services offered at Chauncery Place in Fredericton. (CBC)
The Tories also issued a critical statement on Tuesday about the language commissioner's handling of the report. 

The statement, which was signed by Opposition Leader Bruce Fitch, Official Languages critic Madeleine Dubé, Human Resources critic Dorothy Shephard and Transportation and Infrastructure critic Jeff Carr, called d'Entremont's actions on the investigation "questionable."

The four Tories said Grant deserves a public apology from the government and the opposition plans to raise the issue next week when the Standing Committee on Procedure, Privileges and Legislative Officers.

"The Official Opposition will address the conduct of the language commissioner at that meeting," the statement said.

The committee is meeting in Fredericton on Nov. 12 at 1 p.m.

'Misleading letter' must be explained

Coon, who is not a member of that committee, also said he wants to see d'Entremont address the controversy at that hearing.

Green Party Leader David Coon called Official Languages Commissioner Katherine d'Entremont's letter to the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure "misleading." (CBC)
"As for the misleading letter from the language Commissioner to DTI, she is accountable to the legislature through the Committee on Procedures, Privileges and Legislative Officers," he said.

"I believe she should be asked to appear before a public meeting of the committee to explain the letter and the basis for her investigation. Both the Legislative Assembly and the public must have trust in its legislative officers so the committee meeting is needed to clear the air."

The Liberal cabinet minister said d'Entremont should have handled the file more delicately.

Arseneault drew a comparison to how the language commissioner criticized the City of Miramichi for meeting its requirements under the Official Languages Act. He said she should have congratulated the city for its progress, instead of criticizing it for its shortcomings.

"That's how we get things done," Arseneault said.

"It's not by attacking people or dealing with situations in the way we've seen recently."

The Liberal cabinet minister pointed out that d'Entremont was appointed by the former Progressive Conservative government, although he acknowledged his party was consulted.

Resignation demanded by alliance

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin is calling for d'Entremont to be dismissed for how she's handled the complaint stemming from the May over a commissionaire's ability to offer bilingual service.

Liberal cabinet Donald Arseneault said the controversy over the language commissioner's handling of a complaint that she initiated could have been avoided. (CBC)
"I think she should be dismissed. I think what she did was deceptive," Austin said on Tuesday.

"What she did was not in good faith. Did she abide by the act in terms of the ability to initiate her own investigation, sure, but did she act in good faith by deceiving the [Department of Transportation and Infrastructure] …  by putting in an anonymous complaint, she did not act in good faith in our opinion."

D'Entremont pointed out in a press release last week that the Official Languages Act gives the commissioner the power to launch an investigation "on his or her own initiative."

"For many reasons, citizens do not always file a complaint when their language rights are not respected by provincial institutions,'' d'Entremont said in an Oct. 27 statement.

The People's Alliance leader said the languages commissioner should be stripped of the power to launch an investigation on their own initiative.

Of the 46 investigations conducted by the commission in 2014-15, d'Entremont's office initiated one of them.

Independent office

Austin's call for d'Entremont to be dismissed would need the support of the other political parties in the legislature.

NDP president Charles Doucet says the language commissioner should not be investigating her own complaints. (Twitter)
In order for the independent languages commissioner to be removed from the position, it would take a two-thirds vote of the 49 MLAs.

That would mean the People's Alliance, which has never elected a MLA and has received only 2.1 per cent and 1.1 per cent of the popular vote in the last two elections, would need to convince 33 MLAs to vote to remove d'Entremont.

The Liberals have 26 seats and the Progressives Conservatives, who appointed d'Entremont to the post, have 22 seats. So no single party would have the votes required to dismiss the commissioner.

The People's Alliance leader didn't stop at calling for d'Entremont's ouster, he also demanded changes to the Official Languages Act.

The former Alward government updated the language law in 2013, following a legislative committee that held meetings behind closed doors.

Austin said those hearings should have been held in the open.
Opposition Leader Bruce Fitch said Grant deserves an apology from the provincial government. (CBC)

The Official Languages Act gives people the right to communicate with the government and receive services in their choice of English or French. It also says the government, or third-party contractors it hires, has to take "appropriate measures" to tell people they have that choice.

D'Entremont has refused interview requests about the May 6 incident. She has, however, issued public statements.