'Hello, bonjour': It's difficult to cross the Canadian border in French

In 2015, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages issued a report with eight recommendations to the Canada Border Services Agency regarding obligations under the Official Languages Act.

Four years later, the Commissioner is still not impressed, saying that despite repeated criticism, the CBSA is slow to respond — and complaints are piling up in the meantime. 

"The situation is worrying," said a report monitoring the progress made on the 2015 recommendations. "The agency still has work to do."

According to the Commissioner, there are "significant systemic barriers" to getting service in French at the border, some stemming from the "inadequate bilingual capacity" of border service officers.

From 2015 to 2017, the number of bilingual officers decreased, from 80 to 76.

Impossible to evaluate

There is no mechanism to evaluate officers to confirm their compliance with the Official Languages Act or to ensure they provide quality service, said the Commissioner. The agency also does not monitor airport ridership to ensure bilingual service is provided where demand is high — despite committing to do so in 2015.

One of the only methods to indicate a lack of service in French is through complaints submitted to the Commissioner. There were 65 complaints submitted in 2018.

Chris Helgren/Reuters

The CBSA said they are "constantly working" to increase bilingual capacity and that it gives capacity to bilingual regions. 

Travellers say improvements slow to be seen

Hugues Tremblay travels frequently for work and submitted five complaints in just one year. 

"It's something we shouldn't have to do," said Tremblay. He moved from Alberta to Ontario — his complaints were about service at the Calgary aiport. 

"It's really frustrating to have to [submit complaints] to enforce our rights."

Tremblay said despite his complaints, he hasn't seen the situation getting better..

"All the time, when the traveler answers in French, the agent continues in English," said Tremblay.

For Adeline Jerome, when she spoke French to the CBSA officer, the officer responded in English. She continued in French — and while she thinks the officer understood her, they continued to speak in English. 

"It annoys me," said Jerome. "He didn't even make an effort."


No questions asked

Mathieu Otis returned to Ontario from Portugal in 2018 and asked for service in French at the Toronto airport, so he could declare food products he was bringing into the country. 

According to Otis, an officer pointed him to the exit without asking any questions — and it wasn't the first time that had happened to him. 

"I did not make a complaint," said Otis, adding that he did ultimately receive service in French, but feels he was discriminated against because he asked for service in French. 

The Commissioner's office wouldn't comment on specific cases, but said they recognize investigations into complaints don't always produce results.

This story has been translated from French and modified from the Radio-Canada original file. The story in French can be found here.