Are language complaints in the NWT being appropriately handled?
A francophone Yellowknifer who has filed five complaints with the Office of the Languages Commissioner believes the commissioner doesn’t understand the laws she is supposed to watch over.
Most of Xavier Lord-Giroux’s complaints are about difficulties he has experienced accessing services in French, despite the language being one of the NWT’s 11 official languages.
The languages commissioner, Shannon Gullberg, declined to speak with Cabin Radio. Gullberg did, however, earlier speak with francophone newspaper L’Aquilon, which first reported Lord-Giroux’s complaints.
In a short email, Gullberg said she “tried to use processes that better address systemic issues” over her term in office, which expires in October. She did not elaborate on those processes when asked.
“It’s just heartbreaking because in that particular position, the language commissioner is supposed to be the watchdog of our linguistic rights,” said Lord-Giroux. “She is the person who is responsible to supervise our rights, and she isn’t even able to protect us in that way.”
Between April 2019 and March 2020, Lord-Giroux filed five complaints with the office, known as the OLC.
One had to do with him receiving an English-only voter information card for the territorial election in the mail.
“The OLC investigation confirmed that Elections NWT mailed out voter information cards in English only. It also found that a French version was only available upon request and could only be sent via email,” Lord-Giroux wrote in a public letter.
Translating Gullberg’s French report, he said the OLC found no violation of the Official Languages Act – and the office argued the service was in fact faster and better, because francophone residents had only to check their email and not their mailbox.
“It completely overlooks the fact that all registered voters in the NWT are sent voter information cards by mail, whether they ask for it or not,” Lord-Giroux said in his letter.
“Proactively mailing out English-only cards, while passively waiting for minorities to seek a copy in their official language, is in no way compliant with the Official Languages Act.”
The first part of the act states “the official languages of the territories have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all government institutions.”
Lord-Giroux argues that, because email addresses can’t be added to the voter registry under section 54 of the the NWT’s Elections and Plebiscites Act, “the next elections will feel like Groundhog Day for minorities: they’ll once again get English-only cards in the mail, and they’ll once again have to go out of their way to request a card in the official language of their choice.”
Lord-Giroux also raised concerns about availability of healthcare signage and forms in all official languages, and how minister’s statements in the Legislative Assembly are not translated into French.
“At the federal level, they translate every declaration and you don’t have a hard time finding it,” said Lord-Giroux. He says he was told by the OLC that, at the territorial level, ministers’ statements are not supposed to be translated.
“But for [Gullberg], that was contrary to the law,” he said. “I believe that if [her recommendations] were to be challenged in front of a judge, they would be overruled.”
New commissioner this fall
Lord-Giroux expressed concern that the languages commissioner shared his personal contact information with a department about which he had made a complaint.
“Not only is this unacceptable for the protection of privacy, but it actively deters citizens who are perhaps less assertive than me to file complaints,” he said.
While Gullberg declined to discuss how she handles complaints and confidentiality, Lord-Giroux wrote in his public letter that he had been informed disclosing the identity of complainants is required to ensure a fair process – a claim he disputes, saying his identity has been protected in other jurisdictions.
“When asked why the OLC did not follow the same degree of procedural fairness, the commissioner answered that she was ‘not bound by the practice of other offices,’” he quoted.
The commissioner is appointed by the Legislative Assembly.
When Cabin Radio approached the Legislative Assembly to discuss how the commissioner has handled complaints such as these, spokesperson Katie Weaver wrote: “We won’t respond to this one – questions about how their office deals with complaints can be directed to the Office of the Languages Commissioner.”
Weaver said a new commissioner will be appointed in the October sitting of the legislature as Gullberg’s term ends.