ARCHIVED - Ombudsman Urges Quick Resolution of Official Languages Issues

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January 30, 2008

General R.J. Hillier, C.M.M., M.S.C., C.D
Chief of the Defence Staff
National Defence Headquarters
MGen George R. Pearkes Building
13th Floor, South Tower
101 Colonel By Drive
Ottawa, ON
K1A 0K2
 

Official Languages Concerns – CFB Gagetown, St-Jean Garrison and CFB Borden

Dear General Hillier:

During a November 2006 outreach trip to Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Borden, the former Ombudsman, Yves Côté, received numerous complaints from Francophone students indicating that they experienced significant difficulties working, training, and accessing essential services (such as medical care) in French. These matters were initially brought to your attention on January 8, 2007 and immediate action was requested. Subsequently, the Ombudsman’s Office was advised by Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces (DND/CF) that steps had been taken to address the concerns. In June 2007, Ombudsman investigators returned to CFB Borden, to evaluate whether or not the steps that had been taken by DND/CF had in fact alleviated the concerns. At that time, Ombudsman investigators determined that no concrete steps had in fact been taken, and that the situation was far worse and more widespread than previously understood.

Mr. Côté sought the intervention of the former Minister of National Defence, the Honourable Gordon O’Connor, on July 25, 2007. As a result of Minister O’Connor’s intervention, the Chief of Military Personnel (CMP) reviewed the matter, and has recently advised this Office that steps had been taken and that changes are underway to deal with the problems faced by Francophone recruits at CFB Borden. In order to assure ourselves that the problems have been addressed, this Office will send investigators to CFB Borden within the next month.

In November 2007, the former Ombudsman posted the correspondence concerning the matters raised by Francophone students at CFB Borden on the Office’s website. As a result, CF personnel from CFB Gagetown and from St-Jean Garrison contacted the Ombudsman’s Office with similar concerns about the lack of services in both official languages. Due to the seriousness of the matters raised, Ombudsman investigators were dispatched to CFB Gagetown and St-Jean Garrison to conduct an assessment to determine if this was a more widespread problem.

St-Jean Garrison & CFB Gagetown

Ombudsman investigators were asked to collect information regarding the experience of Anglophone students at St-Jean Garrison and Francophone students at CFB Gagetown with respect to working, training and receiving services in their first official language.

Ombudsman investigators met with students, family members, and service providers (which included medical staff, social workers and padres). Data was collected through confidential surveys and discussions in an open forum. Over 500 confidential surveys were administered to students of the Canadian Forces Leadership and Recruit School and the Canadian Forces Language School at St-Jean Garrison and to students of five of the Army schools located at CFB Gagetown. The survey, an expanded version of the one used at CFB Borden, asked the respondents to express their knowledge of their linguistic rights and their assessment of the level of assistance available to them. Ombudsman investigators made it clear that all viewpoints were being sought, and that details regarding success stories or failures would be welcomed. Respondents were asked to provide yes or no answers and were also given the opportunity to elaborate on those answers if required. A few individuals handed in blank surveys. Care was taken to administer the surveys in such a way as to permit anonymity, elicit truthfulness and ensure appropriate representation of the student population.

Through the surveys, investigators evaluated whether or not respondents felt they were treated fairly regarding their ability to receive training, and services in the official language of their choice.

After the administration of the surveys, an open forum discussion was held. In addition, two town hall sessions were held at each site to provide a venue for family members to voice their concerns regarding official languages.

Common Concerns to CFB Gagetown and St-Jean Garrison

Six common concerns, similar to those noted at CFB Borden, were identified:

  • Awareness: 50% (85/170) of respondents surveyed at CFB Gagetown and 28% (104/379) of respondents surveyed at St-Jean Garrison reported being unaware of their linguistic rights. In addition, 52% (89/170) and 38% (143/379), respectively, reported not knowing how to obtain assistance in ensuring that their rights were respected. 
  • Health Services: Respondents reported problems in accessing health care service in their first official language. Some reported that they encountered difficulty in communicating symptoms and understanding diagnoses and treatment options, even when dealing with medical staff members who were designated bilingual. Others raised concerns about privacy when communication problems required the intervention of a third party as an interpreter. 
  • Access to Language Training: Personnel awaiting training indicated that there were few opportunities for second language training from which they could benefit during this interim period. 
  • Instructor Cadre: Bilingual instructors complained that they are unfairly required to work longer hours than the unilingual instructors. They must teach Anglophone and Francophone classes. They state that the onus to edit and translate the course material is also placed on them. 
  • Translation: Defence Administrative Orders and Directives (DAODs) clearly articulate the requirement for documentation to be made available in both languages simultaneously when needed for training, health, or security of personnel. However, students reported that translated material is not always available, and that many of the translations that are available are of poor quality. Instructors and administrators reported problems accessing translation services, and also expressed concerns about the quality of the translations. 
  • Mutual Respect: Investigators were told (at St-Jean), “We need to find a way to bridge the gap between French speaking recruits and Anglophones. There is known bitterness between the two groups.” Numerous comments from members of the minority language groups at both locations reflected this feeling of exclusion or isolation. 

Concerns Specific to CFB Gagetown

In addition to the shared concerns voiced at both bases, Ombudsman investigators identified six additional concerns specific to CFB Gagetown:

  • Some students reported an inability to understand English commands, creating the potential for serious range safety risks. 
  • The Base Coordinator of Official Languages lacks both visibility and resources to fulfill important tasks. These tasks include working to ensure unit and base compliance with the Official Languages Act, promoting the importance of language rights, responsibilities and obligations and site visits to various schools and units to identify and address official language problems. 
  • Francophone members expressed concerns over delays in accessing trades training in their first official language. The waiting time for their courses is significantly longer than that of the Anglophone students. They have also complained that some career courses are offered only in English. This is resulting in delayed career progression while students wait. 
  • Investigators were told that there is a lack of bilingual instructors, specifically at the Armour School, the Infantry Schools, and on the Officer Combat Engineer and the Electrical Distribution courses. The concerns expressed regarding inequitable workload at all three bases are particularly acute in these three schools. 
  • There is a limited ability to welcome and orient new students in French. While bilingual joining instructions are available via the Internet to students prior to their arrival at CFB Gagetown, students are not always aware of these instructions. In addition, their first point of contact at the base is usually the Accommodations Section where only four of the 38 Commissionaires on duty are functionally bilingual. 
  • Students are directed to submit documentation in English, a language that some of them state that they barely understand, or risk facing extended waiting times for replies.

In terms of successes, some students indicated that the Supply Clothing Stores and Military Personnel Support Services were successful in the delivery of client services in both official languages. Each of these sections viewed the challenge of staffing bilingual positions with a positive “can-do” attitude.

Concerns Specific to St-Jean Garrison

Ombudsman investigators identified four additional concerns specific to St-Jean Garrison:

  • Individual safety concerns: 
    • Unilingual Anglophones with food allergies could not communicate these to unilingual Francophone kitchen and mess hall personnel. 
    • Fire drills are conducted in French only.
  • Anglophone students expressed concerns about the fact that their medical records were maintained in French, and the implications that this would have if a unilingual Anglophone had to consult those records in the future. 
  • The Official Language Coordinator appears to lack the resources and positional stability necessary to promote awareness of official language issues. 
  • Unilingual e-mails, meetings, and directives often lead to miscommunication, isolation and underlying frustration for students and staff. The Area Support Unit, designated as a French language unit, directly provides French-only correspondence to bilingual Area units and their members.

A number of positive initiatives were observed such as the Working Group established between the base, the Military Family Resource Centre (MFRC) and the city. The intention to introduce bilingual signage and to hire two additional translators at the Canadian Forces Leadership and Recruit School are positive initiatives.

Family members of military personnel also raised important concerns at St-Jean Garrison. They advised Ombudsman investigators that the Personnel Support Program offered limited services in both official languages, including some basic services such as the base newspaper, which had mostly French content. The lack of English daycare and medical care, in addition to limited assistance provided to spouses in their search for employment, is also impeding the ability of families to make a relatively smooth transition into a new linguistic environment.

Next Steps: Leadership Action Required

Ombudsman investigators briefed senior leadership at CFB Gagetown, who indicated that they would initiate some immediate changes, including the appointment of a Base Official Languages Champion and the creation of an Official Languages website. On December 20, 2007, Ombudsman investigators also briefed the Chief of the Land Staff personnel and individuals working on behalf of the Chief Military Personnel, including the Director of Official Languages, regarding their findings.

Given their seriousness, we are seeking your commitment that the concerns raised by CF personnel at CFB Gagetown and St-Jean Garrison, will be addressed on a priority basis. Specifically, we request that you take steps to:

  • Guarantee the safety of all individuals working and training on Defence establishments (specifically with regard to the communication of food allergies, conducting fire drills, and commands provided on the ranges). 
  • Ensure that an appropriate number of health care personnel are available to provide effective services to members in their first official language. 
  • Ensure that the appropriate steps are taken to strengthen and support the visibility of the Official Language Coordinator at both locations. 
  • Inform all students and staff of their linguistic rights and the mechanisms in place to assist them in exercising those rights. 
  • Ensure balanced wait times for training for Francophone and Anglophone students. 
  • Assign an equitable number of bilingual staff members (military and civilian) to course instructor cadre. 
  • Ensure the provision of adequate translation services. 
  • Reinforce to senior leadership their obligation to foster a culture of inclusiveness by ensuring that briefings, correspondence, and orders/directives are communicated in the language(s) commensurate with the audience.

It is important that these issues be addressed quickly, in order to ensure fair treatment of the students, and equitable workloads for instructors and other staff. It will also benefit the Canadian Forces as a whole, as the current perception of certain locations as unwelcoming environments for minority linguistic groups does not contribute to a cohesive military family. For this reason, I would ask that you provide an update to our Office, within thirty days, regarding the actions that have been taken or are being planned to address these very important issues.

As stated above, Ombudsman investigators will be returning to CFB Borden to assess the progress that has been made in addressing the issues identified there. We will also continue our cooperative efforts with the Commissioner of Official Languages, who is currently planning an audit of some Canadian Forces training establishments in the coming months.

As you also are aware, Mr. Côté testified in front of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages on November 20, 2007 concerning the treatment of Francophone students at CFB Borden. At that time, Mr. Côté committed to appearing in front of the Committee again in early 2008 to discuss progress observed at CFB Borden. Committee members also raised questions as to whether or not similar conditions existed at other training bases in the Canadian Forces. As we will be honouring his commitment, we intend to provide the Committee with the above observations from CFB Gagetown and St Jean Garrison, as well as provide an update our observations after visiting CFB Borden.

In closing, I wish to express my appreciation to the leadership and staff at both locations. Both investigative teams were well received and supported by senior leadership and the base personnel.

If you have any questions on this subject, I will be happy to discuss them with you.

Sincerely,
 

Mary McFadyen
Interim Ombudsman

c.c.:
The Honourable Peter G. MacKay, P.C., Q.C., M.P., Minister of National Defence
Mr. Robert Fonberg, Deputy Minister of National Defence
Major-General W. Semianiw, Chief Military Personnel

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