ARCHIVED - Ombudsman Raises Serious Concerns Regarding the Treatment of Francophone Recruits at CFB Borden

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January 8, 2007

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


Dear General Hillier:

I am writing to you in order to bring to your attention some issues which came to light during my recent visit to CFB Borden, and which concern me greatly.

During my visit, I had the opportunity to meet with three groups of 12 to 20 francophone recruits. Most were unilingual, or had an extremely limited understanding of English. With each group, the discussion rapidly turned to the problems and difficulties they felt they were facing from a linguistic point of view.

I have decided to bring this matter to your attention now for the following three reasons: (i) the matter is urgent; (ii) I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the comments I heard from the recruits; and (iii) the military leadership at the base has recognized that they are facing challenges in their ability to offer services in French to unilingual francophone recruits.

Generally speaking, the recruits who spoke to me expressed serious difficulties and frustrations flowing from the fact that the chain of command and the instructional staff often operate and deal with them, individually or as members of groups, in a way that ignores their reality: the one official language they speak and understand is French, and not English.

More specifically, here are some examples of the problems they told me they encounter:

  • Two of the groups advised me that when they are addressed as groups most of the instructions and commands they receive are issued in English only.
  • One group mentioned to me that it was not rare for them to receive course assignments in English only, which they often misunderstand or don’t understand. (This prompted one recruit to say to me that, as a result, francophones looked incompetent when their assignments were marked. As he said to me, « On fait de notre mieux. Mais, quand on n’a pas compris ce qu’on doit faire, il est difficile de répondre aux attentes. »)
  • The day before my visit, a career manager spoke in English only to a group of unilingual anglophone and unilingual francophone recruits, except for the following, which he said to conclude his remarks,
    « Pour les francophones, c’est la même chose. »)
  • Recruits being trained in vehicle maintenance advised me that they had been told that a certain manual, which they will be required to use soon and which is only available in English, would not be translated into French, apparently on account of cost considerations. Quite clearly, they had received no assurances that their needs would be considered.
  • When I asked the recruits whether they asked for instructions in French when they had difficulties, they said to me that the climate was generally not very receptive to their making that type of request, especially when in large groups.
  • The recruits indicated that some of the instructors whose duty it is to interact with unilingual francophone recruits do not appear to have the ability to express themselves in French.
  • When asked if they had access to second-language training, many indicated that they were extremely interested in learning English and that most of them, since they are awaiting the start of their formal training courses, would have plenty of time to dedicate to this endeavour. They advised me that they were told that such training could not and would not be offered.
  • There were also cases of language problems beyond instruction. Even basic communication about administrative issues between students and staff at CFB Borden could be a challenge, such as submitting a request for leave.

It became very clear to me that, for many of the recruits I spoke to, this created an overall atmosphere where they did not feel respected or appreciated. The situation is only aggravated by the sense of isolation they feel being far away from their families in a predominantly unilingual Anglophone area of Ontario.

As indicated above, I raised these matters with the military leadership at CFB Borden. They acknowledged that the ability of staff to function in French was limited, although efforts were being made to address the issue.

In my view, this situation is not acceptable, especially when one considers that it affects recruits, i.e., new members of the Canadian Forces who often are less aware of their rights, and who are less assertive.

Each and every recruit in the Canadian Forces should be treated that same way. At an absolute minimum, when unilingual, they should be addressed in the official language they understand, and it should be made clear to them that they have the absolute right to express themselves, to be understood and to received answers to their questions in that language.

The onus should not be on recruits to understand a language with which they are unfamiliar, but on the institution to ensure that recruits are fully able to communicate in the official language they understand.

My Office has made some informal inquiries into these matters. We understand that the Director Official Languages (DOL) has received complaints from CFB Borden and other CF training schools. For example, DOL has found situations at Borden where students were being encouraged to change trades if the courses they require are not offered in French. DOL has advised us that it is investigating the situation at training facilities and will produce a report addressing language issues within the next two to three months.

While I appreciate that DOL is looking at the general issue of language availability at training facilities, I would like your commitment that the concerns brought to my attention will be addressed on a priority basis. In particular, I would like to have your views on the following specific points:

  • What has been or will be done to inform recruits, in particular at CFB Borden, of their linguistic rights, and how will the CF ensure those rights are fully respected?
  • What steps will be taken (i) to ensure that recruits understand how they should proceed when they face language problems of the type described above, and (ii) to ensure that they can raise such issues in a climate of openness and without fear of reprisal?
  • What steps will be taken, and when, to improve the capacity of the staff to work in both official languages, especially as recruiting ramps up and as more and more recruits are sent to CFB Borden?
  • What steps will be taken to allow recruits awaiting training (i.e., not undergoing any other type of training), at CFB Borden to improve their ability to communicate in the other official language?
  • In the short term, what steps have been or will be taken to assist recruits who are currently facing language-related difficulties at CFB Borden?
  • What steps will be taken to monitor the situation and to assess progress?

I realize that the CF has made commitments to address these issues as described in its recently published Official Language Transformation Model. However, in my view, more immediate steps need to be taken to address the issues I have raised above. For that reason, I would appreciate a response from you on this matter by March 1st, 2007.

I would expect to post on our website both this letter to you and your answer to me, once I have received your reply.

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

Sincerely yours,

Yves Côté, Q.C.

cc :
The Honourable Gordon O’Connor, Minister of National Defence
RAdm T.W.H. Pile, Chief Military Personnel

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