The commissioner who protects the NWT’s languages has told politicians her office is being “undermined” by a lack of response to any of its recommendations.
In her annual report to the legislature, languages commissioner Brenda Gauthier says recommendations made by several commissioners have been ignored by territorial politicians for years.
“The continued failure of the Legislative Assembly to respond to recommendations put forth by languages commissioners in annual reports and special reports over the years downplays the importance of the office and undermines the role of the office,” Gauthier wrote in her report, which was authored in July but only made public last week.
“It must be remembered that the only ‘power’ the languages commissioner has is to make recommendations. If recommendations are ignored, it calls into question whether the office has any real purpose.”
Gauthier requests in her report that the Legislative Assembly develop “a formal process for responding” in writing to languages commissioner recommendations, within a specific time frame.
In general, annual reports such as these – and any recommendations they contain – are subject to a laborious form of parliamentary process.
Though written in July, November (a sitting delayed by a month due to the Covid-19 pandemic) was the earliest available opportunity for the report to be tabled in the legislature by the Speaker of the House. The report is then referred to a committee of regular MLAs for review but that committee, too, only has the power to make recommendations, not act on them. If the committee makes any recommendations that are formally moved in the House, the territorial government ordinarily has around four months to respond but does not have to take any meaningful action.
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson is the new chair of the standing committee on government operations, which reviews the languages commissioner’s annual reports and recommendations they make.
In a statement, Johnson said: “The reality is that statutory officers [like the languages commissioner] make recommendations to committees, who then make recommendations to government, which are often ignored.
“This disconnect has caused frustration for many between the Assembly being in charge of passing legislation but not drafting or introducing it.
“In order to get changes made, we need the minister on board. Committee is confident that we might have the right combination to get this moving forward with a new Official Languages Commissioner, this being a priority of committee, and Minister Simpson who knows these issues well from his time in the last assembly and now as the minister responsible. Committee will push to get the Official Languages Act changed in the life of this Assembly.”
The Official Languages Act is the legislation that protects NWT languages. The last languages commissioner, Shannon Gullberg, made a series of recommendations about that act. Current commissioner Gauthier said there had so far been “little concrete response” to past recommendations.
Nicole Bonnell, a spokesperson for the Legislative Assembly, said recommendations related to the Official Languages Act were being considered by MLAs as part of a review that takes place every five years. A forthcoming report will take those recommendations into account and may, in turn, provide recommendations to the territorial government to act on them.
Meanwhile, Bonnell said, some past commissioner recommendations and points raised by former Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty regarding languages had driven the development of an action plan on language use in the legislature itself.
That action plan was presented to the legislature’s five-MLA board of management at the start of November. It includes the introduction of a language orientation program for legislature staff and measures that more strongly guarantee an MLA the right to use any NWT language while speaking in the House.
The board of management said the plan would receive “further discussion.” The plan did not directly mention the languages commissioner.
Asked if Gauthier had received any feedback on the complaint raised in her latest report, a representative of her office told Cabin Radio: “There has been no response since the annual report has been tabled.”
The Department of Education, Culture, and Employment, which holds responsibility for the NWT’s languages, said questions about the commissioner’s annual report “would be best suited for the languages commissioner’s office or the Legislative Assembly.”
“As always, the department closely reviews the annual report and its recommendations,” a spokesperson said by email.