Language-rights groups have hit a snag in their campaign to revive the mandatory long-form census.
Canada’s commissioner of official languages has issued a preliminary ruling saying he does not have the power to reverse a decision made by politicians, and can only look at how departments implement policy.
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Graham Fraser nevertheless slaps the federal cabinet on the wrist, warning that it could be held accountable if its decision to eliminate the mandatory long-form questionnaire winds up hurting francophones living outside Quebec or anglophones living within Quebec.
“The commissioner remains concerned about the possible impact this decision could have on the vitality of official language minority communities and on the application of the Official Languages Act,” says the interim ruling issued recently to complainants.
The five-page document was obtained by The Canadian Press.
Mr. Fraser launched an investigation into the implications of the census decision in the summer, two weeks after the government quietly announced its decision to abolish the long-form census and replace it with a voluntary household survey.
He then combined his investigation with work stemming from 20 formal complaints from groups saying the voluntary survey would undermine the government’s ability to support linguistic minorities, as required under the Official Languages Act.
In his response to the complainants, Mr. Fraser says he looked at the role of federal departments in consulting and advising government on the decision to eliminate the long census. He concluded that the departments didn’t do anything wrong because they weren’t involved in the decision-making process.
But the report points out that the federal departments refused to tell him what kind of advice they gave the federal cabinet. It also chastises the government for failing to consult with any linguistic minority groups before eliminating the mandatory questionnaire.
Only one department, Canadian Heritage, answered his questions about the impact of the census decision. The department said it would find other ways to develop and deliver programs to support linguistic minorities.
That answer didn’t sit well with Mr. Fraser.
“The office of the commissioner does not know of the basis for this statement, nor does it have any evidence that the decision will not have a negative impact on the vitality of official language communities,” the ruling says.
Mr. Fraser has probably gone as far as he can to oppose the Conservative census decision, says Sylvia Martin-Laforge, director-general of the Quebec Community Groups Network, one of the complainants.
“What can he do to the prime minister, if the prime minister makes the decision?” she asked rhetorically.
Linguistic minority groups now have their hopes pinned solely on the Federal Court, she said.
The court is considering the case made by the Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities that eliminating the mandatory long census was illegal. A decision is expected within days.
“The commissioner has done pretty much what he can do. The court case is what it’s riding on,” said Martin-Laforge.
A huge list of provincial governments, municipal governments, researchers, academics, interest groups and minority-rights groups has vehemently opposed the federal census decision.
They argue that a voluntary survey will not deliver reliable information on low-income Canadians or on minority groups, nor will it be able to accurately depict small subdivisions of Canadian society.
In August, Ottawa made a concession, adding three questions on official languages to the mandatory short-form census.
But for many linguistic minority groups, the concession did not go far enough, since the mandatory questions don’t probe the needs of linguistic minorities.
Under the Official Languages Act, the federal government is required to offer services in both official languages in areas where a minority population meets the criteria for significant demand.
In the past, data from the long-form census was used to measure demand for bilingual services in each community.
Language groups hit snag in census battle – The Globe and MailIn Canada on October 5, 2010 at 17:50