Higgs hints he could ax language commissioner post
Premier Blaine Higgs is hinting that his government will eliminate the position of official languages commissioner when it updates the province’s language legislation next spring.
Higgs told reporters it’s possible another government entity, such as a proposed official languages secretariat under his authority, would do a better job of promoting bilingualism than the commissioner.
« It’s a very negative office, usually finding fault with one person or another, and you wonder how much of that has provided a meaningful way forward? » Higgs spoke about the role of the commissioner, which has existed since 2003.
The mandate of the Independent Watchdog is to receive complaints from New Brunswickers who believe they have not received government services in the official language of their choice, as required by the Official Languages Act.
The position has no enforcement powers. Governments are free to ignore the recommendations of a commissioner.
The role also includes promoting awareness of the merits of bilingualism in the province.
Higgs said some of the commissioner’s duties could be transferred to a new entity, such as a secretariat within government.
“What can we do in a secretariat that would perhaps be what the Commissioner of Official Languages should or could do within the framework of his mandate? I am talking about marketing, promotion and awareness.
The president of the Société acadienne du Nouveau-Brunswick, Alexandre Cédric Doucet, said the comments are alarming to francophones who look to the commissioner to monitor the government’s compliance with the law.
« It’s pretty clear from our understanding that he wants to abolish the office, » he said. “He must reassure the Acadian and francophone community that he will not do it.
Late Wednesday, Higgs released a statement saying his comments referred to the commissioner’s role in investigating complaints, « which can often be perceived as negative. »
His statement also said he was referring to recommendations from an independent review of the Languages Act last year, « which did not include the abolition of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. »
But nothing in the Prime Minister’s statement explicitly says that the commissioner’s office would continue to exist.
Social Development Minister Dororthy Shephard said Wednesday there are ‘negative connotations and positive connotations’ to the commissioner’s role, but ‘we need to hear what she or he has to say at all times’ .
« I support the Office of the Languages Commissioner and hear what they have to say, and those comments should always be validated and valued as long as the information we get is validated and valued, » Shephard added.
She sits on an ad hoc committee of Progressive Conservative ministers and MPs who are meeting behind closed doors to draft the government’s response to a December 2021 review of the language law.
PC Cabinet Minister Kris Austin, who sits on the committee with Shephard, said on Saturday there are other « avenues … where people have independent methods of bringing complaints and having them investigated. We have an ombud who does a great job with that. »
As leader of the People’s Alliance, Austin advocated the elimination of the post of commissioner.
Last year’s Independent Review report did not recommend abolishing the Commissioner’s role, but it did say the position was seen primarily as a watchdog position and recommended that it be « much more balanced » in putting more emphasis on promotion.
He also suggested requiring the prime minister and other officials to respond to the commissioner’s investigations within a specified time frame.
In his comments Tuesday, Higgs questioned whether the commissioner’s oversight role « achieves what was intended in the Official Languages Act. »
In an emailed statement, MacLean said the language law gave him « a clear mandate » to investigate, report and make recommendations on government compliance with the law.
She said her role is similar to that of the ombud, auditor general and other independent legislative officers.
« In my case, I am here to ensure the protection of the language rights of the English-speaking and French-speaking communities of the province and I believe strongly in the importance of the work that we do, » she said.
MacLean criticized the Higgs government last year for not communicating effectively in both official languages about COVID-19.
Higgs promised that the government’s response to the language law review would be published before Christmas, and that any changes to the legislation would be made next spring.
Cabinet Minister Daniel Allain said on Saturday that « all is not lost [and] we’re actually going to strengthen that law. »
Meanwhile, Higgs continues to face criticism for choosing Austin to be part of the ad hoc group crafting the response.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the six federal Liberal MPs from New Brunswick and the provincial NDP criticized this choice.
In a Facebook post, Austin replied that « our bobble-headed premier is more concerned about me sitting on a committee than inflation, record gas prices, housing, or any other issue that really matters to Canadians. »
He accused Trudeau of hypocrisy, pointing out how the prime minister wore a black face in a 2001 photograph that surfaced during the 2019 federal election.
On Wednesday, Dieppe Mayor Yvon Lapierre released an open letter on behalf of the city asking Higgs to remove Austin from the committee.