October 16, 2012
Civil servants fretting over budget cuts, language rights: Watchdog
By Jessica Murphy, Parliamentary Bureau
OTTAWA — Some French-speaking civil servants are fretting federal budget cuts will infringe on their language rights, Canada's bilingualism watchdog says.
Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser broke from speaking about his annual report Tuesday to raise a red flag over what he said is a chilling effect the cuts have on the ability of bureaucrats to use French at work.
His office began receiving complaints — especially from regional offices — when pink slips began being handed out last spring.
"We're still receiving complaints and hearing from some employees who feel hampered in their rights — are even hesitating to use French — and feeling even more hesitant to lodge a complaint. We're starting to hear the voices of people who feel in a difficult situation," he said.
Fraser gave the example of a New Brunswick civil servant whose office was centralized and so he no longer works with a bilingual supervisor. Others said they are afraid to exercise their right to work in their preferred language for fear they will be singled out during layoffs.
In Quebec, New Brunswick and Ontario, government workers have the right to be supervised in their language of choice.
Still, the watchdog wouldn't reveal how many grievances his office has received so far.
The office labels 25 complaints or more on one issue as an incident of note. In the 2011-12 fiscal year the office dealt with a total of 518 complaints on a range of issues.
The federal public service employs about 450,000 people, including military and RCMP staff.
Each year, the federal government spends $1.5 billion on bilingualism, according to the Fraser Institute, a right-leaning think-tank. The Conservative government is looking to trim about $4 billion a year from the deficit and has announced a series of layoffs.
A spokeswoman for the Treasury Board — the federal department responsible for trimming the budget — said language training for public servants will be available to those who need it and that the "government remains committed to Canada's official languages."
Meanwhile, Fraser rapped the knuckles of Air Canada, Parks Canada, Elections Canada and Industry Canada for their respective shortcomings in offering a full range of services in both official languages.
The language commissioner also urged the federal government to double the number of Canadians who take part in school language exchanges.