Commissionaires at provincial offices should be bilingual, report says
Languages commissioner Katherine d'Entremont says existing practices do not ensure equal service
New Brunswick's official languages commissioner is calling on the provincial government to require that all commissionaires who deal with the public be bilingual.
Katherine d'Entremont has issued a report on her investigation of security services at government buildings, which are handled by the Canadian Corps of Commissionaires under a third-party contract.
The commissionaires' existing practice is similar to that in many government offices, known as a "team approach." If the front-line employee isn't bilingual, they are supposed to find someone who is who can deal with a member of the public wanting service in the other language.
But d'Entremont said that doesn't amount to equal service, because the front-line commissionaire must deal with all members of the public, sometimes in emergencies.
"The institution cannot hope to meet its linguistic obligations by offering immediate, in-person services to anglophone clients, while clients wishing to receive services in French must be content to wait" for someone else with different responsibilities, she writes.
In other cases, if a commissionaire is working alone as a "team of one" and there's no way to call in a bilingual colleague, she said in an interview. "The team approach does not apply because they are usually alone. You can't wait for somebody else to come."
The investigation began after d'Entremont encountered a unilingual commissionaire last May at Chancery Place, a government office building. The commissionaire, Wayne Grant, was reassigned and lost some work hours after the investigation began.
D'Entremont widened the probe to look at security services in general, citing multiple complaints to her office dating back to 2003.
They include incidents at the Legislature and the lieutenant governor's residence.
"We don't recall the last time we went to a government office that had a receptionist that wasn't fluently bilingual," she said. "So when government chooses to use security officers to perform that function in addition to a security function, those people have to be bilingual."
D'Entremont points out the bilingualism requirements of the Official Languages Act extends to third-party contractors such as the Canadian Corps of Commissionaires. .
But she said her investigation was "revealing" because it found the contract for commissionaires doesn't include a clause saying that.
Needs to be fixed
She said that needed to be fixed.
"Instructions do not have the same legitimacy as a contract provision," she writes in her report. "Without specific provisions set out in a contract and imposed by the institution, it is unrealistic to assume the language obligations will be met by the third party."
She cites a 2006 memo from then-premier Bernard Lord to all government departments telling all ministers and deputy ministers to include the requirement in all contracts for security services. Lord asked that "you ensure that this be done in all future contracts for such services."
She told CBC she doesn't know why Lord's directive was not implemented.
"In 2015 and 2016, the two years we're talking about, it's almost unbelievable that that is not already in place in government office buildings in the only province in Canada that's officially bilingual."
D'Entremont only has the power to recommend changes. She is not able to enforce her recommendations.
Last November, Peter Kramers, the chief executive officer of the Canadian Corps of Commissionaires, told CBC that "we met the requirements of the province" by using the team approach, arranging for a bilingual commissionaire to be available if someone approached Grant needing service in French.
Grant himself said he had planned to go get the other person but d'Entremont switched to English so he assumed she was not insisting on service in French.
Some would lose jobs
In a statement, cabinet minister Donald Arseneault said bilingualism is important to the government "regardless of how services are delivered to the public" and that it will review the recommendations.
Grant told CBC News Wednesday that, if implemented, d'Entremont's recommendations would mean several unilingual commissionaires he knows of would lose their jobs.
"I know of two or three others who are not bilingual and who do not speak French," he said.
In his experience, Grant said, most francophones speak enough English to not require service in French.
"They don't require bilingual service, they prefer it," he said. "They can speak English as well as I can, but they don't want to. They would prefer to have their conversations done in French, and that's entirely up to them, but it's going to put a lot of anglophones out of jobs."
Grant also said the Corps of Commissionaires has had a hard time finding enough bilingual employees, but D'Entremont told CBC News that the province has other options.
"The government has obligations here, and they can go about it in different ways," she said. "If the current service provider is not able to provide the human resources that the government requires to do this, they can go with another service provider, or they could provide the service through their own employees."
Peoples' Alliance leader Kris Austin called the recommendation "one size fits all" and said it's not practical.
"If I have to make a stop in Caraquet for a government service I expect to have a short wait to receive service in my language," he said in a press release. "I have absolutely no problem with that. Ultimately, I expect to be served in a timely manner."