Like many, federal institutions are facing the capital challenge of managing COVID-19 and ensuring compliance with a number of legal requirements, including those under the Official Languages Act (the “OLA”). The COVID-19 pandemic is causing stress on both financial and human resources of federal institutions. In such circumstances, federal Institutions are making difficult choices on where to allocate their resources, especially during emergency situations where the health, safety or security of their employees or of the public are at stake. Recently, the Commissioner of Official Languages (the “Commissioner”) published a statement on how COVID-19 is impacting federal institutions, namely as employers and service providers to the public.
A matter of respect and safety
In his statement, the Commissioner issued a stern warning to federal institutions who would disregard the importance of compliance with the OLA and its regulations. The Commissioner expressed that he was “preoccupied with the current situation” as “Canadians throughout the country, regardless of their official language, must be able to understand messages directed to them from all federal institutions, particularly in the current context”. In his concluding remarks, the Commissioner stated, “Beyond the Official Languages Act, it is a matter of respect and safety for all Canadians.”
The Commissioner also indicated that the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages (the “OCOL”) had recently received complaints related to federal government communications during the pandemic. The OCOL is currently analyzing the facts relating to these complaints and are in touch with certain federal institutions on an as needed-basis. Although it remains unclear what the outcome of the OCOL’s investigation of these complaints will be, the Commissioner’s comments indicates that the OCOL does not intend to excuse any violations of the OLA on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In these difficult times, federal institutions would be wise to remember that the importance of their official language obligations is not diminished during the COVID-19 world health crisis. In fact, for federal institutions providing services to, or communicating with, the public on matters relating to the health, safety or security of the public, ensuring compliance with the OLA and its regulations is paramount.
As Canadians and the rest of the world face unprecedented and unforeseen challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, they will look to federal institutions for guidance. Federal institutions who fail to comply with their obligations under the OLA risk not only endangering the health, safety and security of the public and their employees, but also the prospect of complaints to the Commissioner and possible court sanctions.
We will keep you updated as new information is published in this regard.