Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Active Conscience or Administrative Vanguard?: The Commissioner of Official Languages as an Agent of Change

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Active Conscience or Administrative Vanguard?: The Commissioner of Official Languages as an Agent of Change

Article excerpt

The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages forms a distinctive institution, different from the other officers of Parliament, in that it assumes a greater role as an independent agent for the advancement of public policy than do its institutional counterparts. The various commissioners have vigorously embraced an advocacy role considerably beyond that required of standard ombudsman-like responsibilities. In this article, I examine the scope of those responsibilities, and discuss their expansion beyond federal constitutional boundaries. My purpose here is not to evaluate the performance of the incumbents themselves, but to highlight issues regarding the interpretation of those responsibilities. Twenty-five years ago, an early assessment of the office had concluded that it was of more symbolic than substantive significance and that it would be more effective if folded into a Human Rights Commission. (1) The discussion which follows will demonstrate that the office is of considerable substantive significance, and that its responsibilities have blurred the constitutional division of labour over language as a result of evolving federal language policy and constitutional interpretation.

The Office of Commissioner of Official Languages was proposed in 1967 by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism as a means to protect the language rights of Canadian citizens in their dealings with government and federal public servants in their capacity as employees in regard to the language of work. As the B&B Commission opined, the commissioner "should play a dual role. In the first place he will be ... the protector of the Canadian public where the official languages are concerned"; beyond that he "will also offer criticisms of the manner in which the federal Official Languages Act is implemented." (2) The commissioner would serve as an independent advocate in support of the principles of official bilingualism. Beyond that, the commission envisioned a further role as an adviser to cabinet on the subsequent articulation of language policy. (3) Clearly, the institution as proposed was to fulfill multi-faceted roles and responsibilities. The significance of this institution to the operation of language policy is implied by the fact that over one-third (fourteen of thirty-nine) of the clauses of the 1969 act concern the powers, duties, and responsibilities of the commissioner.

An obvious starting point is the specification of the status of the office regarding both its independence and its accountability. (4) There are five structural characteristics which determine the relationship between a parliamentary agency and political institutions: the nature of its mandate; the processes for appointment, tenure and removal of the officer; control over budgets and staffing for the agency; its capacity to act independently upon issues and to obtain information; and the reporting requirements for the agency. In most of these areas, the commissioner enjoys considerable independence and has relatively well-established accountability arrangements.

The responsibilities of the Commissioner of Official Languages are specified in Part ix of the Official Languages Act of 1988. They include the duties to take action "to ensur[e] recognition of the status of each of the official languages and compliance with the spirit and intent of this Act in the administration of the affairs of federal institutions including any of their activities relating to the advancement of English and French in Canadian society" (section 55). To these ends, the commissioner may initiate reviews of directives and regulations made under this Act or of "any other regulations and directives which affect or may affect the status or use of the official languages" and comment on his or her findings in reports to Parliament (section 57).

The independence of the commissioner

These responsibilities require a significant degree of independence. …

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