OTTAWA - Canada's languages watchdog is raising the alarm about "a language chill" in the way government budget cuts affect the right to work — and be served — in either French or English.
Official languages commissioner Graham Fraser said Tuesday his office is receiving frequent complaints about the government's downsizing and its affect on the bilingual nature of work in the federal public service.
Some parts of government are centralizing their services in regions not designated as bilingual, curtailing public servants' right to work in the official language of their choice, Fraser said in a news conference after tabling his annual report.
Other employees don't even want to raise that right for fear of getting laid off for not being bilingual, he added.
"They don't want to be singled out in attrition exercises," he said.
The cuts and reorganizations heighten the risk that people won't be able to be served in the language of their choice, he added.
The complaints are relatively recent and have not yet been investigated or quantified.
But Fraser warned a year ago that Ottawa needed to be vigilant in its cost-cutting exercises, and says his warnings may have been ignored. So he is speaking out now, bringing up his concerns in conversations with federal ministers, in the hope of mitigating "a language chill" in the federal public service.
"At a time when linguistic debates are in the news again, it is extremely important that the government upholds its commitment towards linguistic duality," Fraser said.
The annual report on bilingualism showed that 17 per cent of Canadians are bilingual. At the same time, there is a growing demand from employers for workers who can speak both official languages, Fraser said.
The federal government should expand the pool of bilingual workers by focusing on young people, his report recommended. Specifically, Ottawa should double the number of exchange students and also encourage universities to offer programs in a second language.
Fraser said he was not about to impose anything on universities, which fall under provincial jurisdiction. Rather, he wants Ottawa to work with provinces and create incentives for universities to allow students to use their second language in a way that prepares them for the workforce.
"Our government remains committed to Canada's official languages," said Beverly Young, a spokeswoman for Treasury Board President Tony Clement.
"Canadians will continue to receive government services in the language of their choice, as they always have. Language training for public servants will continue to be provided to those who need it."
Generally, Fraser was upbeat about the state of bilingualism in Canada, despite two major controversies during the 2011-2012 fiscal year that saw the Stephen Harper government nominate unilingual anglophones to the Supreme Court and to the head of the office of the auditor general.
He received 518 complaints about bilingualism over the last year — an improvement compared with previous years.
The appointment of Michael Ferguson as auditor general drew 45 complaints and prompted an investigation, the results of which have not yet been made public.
"The controversy surrounding the appointments has shown that both English- and French-speaking Canadians have greater expectations," Fraser said. "The bar has been raised. Canadians expect senior officials across the country to be bilingual."
Fraser also urged Air Canada to quickly implement all the recommendations from a recent official-languages audit, to put an end to the stream of complains about delivery of bilingual services.
"Canada's largest air carrier needs to change its organizational culture and thoroughly review its planning for the provision of bilingual services," the annual report said. "It is important for the carrier to address all of the recommendations in the audit report as quickly as possible."
Almost half of the 518 complaints came from the area around Ottawa and adjacent Gatineau, Que., but a mystery-shopper-style survey found that bilingualism was alive and well in the national capital region, although too low-key.