OTTAWA — Whether travelling by plane, train or automobile, francophone travellers are struggling to access services in their language, Canada's official languages commissioner said Tuesday.
Raymond Théberge said it's an ongoing struggle that has gotten worse in the last decade, especially as people begin travelling again.
"After more than two years of the (COVID-19) pandemic, Canadians have finally been able to return to a certain degree of normalcy and resume activities that were put on hold due to pandemic-related health restrictions," Théberge told reporters Tuesday after presenting his annual report.
"This normalcy, however, has highlighted official language issues that I've repeatedly raised in the past, but are still very much present."
His 2022-23 report shows Air Canada received the most complaints. But airport authorities in major cities and the Canada Border Services Agency are also at fault of violating the Official Languages Act by not providing full services in people's official language of choice, said Théberge.
The complaints are generally around a lack of bilingual services and staff, but his report also highlighted a lack of signage in English and French, and not having multilingual reservation systems.
Some 495 complaints were lodged against federally regulated travel institutions between April 2022 and the end of March, with 276 of those complaints singling out Air Canada, said Théberge.
The complaints against Air Canada are at a 10-year high, even if you exclude the significant number of complaints the company got in 2021-22 after its CEO delivered an English-only speech in Quebec, said the report.
A spokesperson for Air Canada said the company is reviewing the findings and will take every opportunity to improve, because it takes every complaint brought forward seriously.
"We are one of the few Canadian companies, and the only airline, to be subject to the Official Languages Act. We have maintained our commitment toward the act for the past 50 years, in an industry governed by complex rules, while serving our customers in more than 20 languages in 51 countries in addition to Canada," the spokesperson said in a statement.
The commissioner said he's hoping that legislation to modernize official languages law will bring companies into better compliance.
Bill C-13, which is being studied in the Senate, would grant the commissioner new powers and allow companies to be fined up to $25,000 for every breach of the act — but Théberge said he doesn't necessarily believe it will make companies like Air Canada shake in their boots.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra acknowledged there needs to be an overall culture change within the travel industry.
"We need to work together at further enhancing the culture, reminding organizations in the transport sector how important it is that they meet those obligations. Canadians expect to be served in the (official) language of their choice and we need to ensure that transport sector meets that obligation," Alghabra said Tuesday.
The commissioner's report noted that airport authorities spoke about their challenges in recruiting bilingual staff, while some look to automated multilingual systems to address shortcomings.
The commissioner has tasked the government with developing tools and guidelines that can be shared with airport authorities. He is also requiring federal officials to submit a plan on how official language obligations will be met.
"We'll continue to do everything we can to ensure that those (language) rights are protected," Alghabra said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 30, 2023.
Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press