Higgs hints he may eliminate language commissioner position

Premier Blaine Higgs called the official languages commissioner
Premier Blaine Higgs called the official languages commissioner

Premier Blaine Higgs is hinting his government will eliminate the position of commissioner of official languages when it updates the province's language legislation next spring.

Higgs told reporters it's possible another government entity, such as a proposed official languages secretariat under his authority, would do a better job promoting bilingualism than the commissioner.

"It is a very negative office, usually finding fault with one person or another, and you wonder to what extent has it provided a meaningful way to move forward?" Higgs said of the commissioner's role, which has existed since 2003.

The mandate of the independent watchdog position is to field complaints from New Brunswickers who feel they haven't received government services in the official language of their choice, as required by the Official Languages Act.

The position has no enforcement power. Governments are free to ignore a commissioner's recommendations.

The role also includes promoting awareness of the merits of bilingualism in the province.

Ed Hunter/CBC
Ed Hunter/CBC

Higgs said some of the commissioner's tasks could be moved to a new entity, such as a secretariat within the government.

"What can we do in a secretariat that would be maybe what the official languages commissioner should be, or could be, doing as part of their mandate? I'm talking about marketing and promotion and awareness."

Acadian Society of New Brunswick president Alexandre Cédric Doucet said the comments are alarming to francophones who look to the commissioner to monitor government's compliance with the act.

"It is pretty clear from our understanding that he wants to abolish the office," he said. "He has to reassure the Acadian and francophone community that he won't do it."

Late Wednesday Higgs issued a statement saying his comments were referring to the commissioner's role investigating complaints, "which can often be perceived as negative."

His statement also said he was referring to recommendations from an independent review of the language act last year, "which did not include the abolition of the Office of the Official Languages Commissioner."

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

But nothing in the premier's statement explicitly said the commissioner's office would continue to exist.

Social Development Minister Dororthy Shephard said Wednesday there have been "negative connotations and positive connotations" to the commissioner's role, but "we need to hear what she or he has to say at all times.

"I support the office of the language commissioner and hearing what they input they have, and that input always needs to validated and valued as long as the information we're getting is validated and valued," added Shephard.

She sits on an ad hoc committee of Progressive Conservative ministers and MLAs meeting behind closed doors to draft the government's response to a December 2021 review of the language law.

PC cabinet minister Kris Austin, who sits on the committee with Shephard, said Saturday there are other "avenues … where people have independent methods to put forward complaints and have them investigated. We have an ombud which does a great job with that."

As leader of the People's Alliance, Austin advocated eliminating the commissioner's position.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

Last year's independent review report did not recommend abolishing the commissioner's role, but it said the position is perceived mainly as a watchdog position and recommended it be "much more balanced" with more focus on promotion.

It also suggested requiring the premier and other officials to respond to commissioner investigations within a fixed time period.

In his comments Tuesday, Higgs questioned whether the commissioner's oversight role "is achieving what was expected in the Official Languages Act."

In an emailed statement, MacLean said the language act gives her "a clear mandate" to investigate, report on and make recommendations about whether the government is complying with the law.

She said her role is similar to that of the ombud, the auditor general and other independent legislative officers.

"In my case, I am here to ensure the protection of the language rights of the province's anglophone and francophone communities and I believe strongly in the importance of the work we do," she said.

Shane Magee/CBC
Shane Magee/CBC

MacLean criticized the Higgs government last year for not communicating effectively in both official languages on COVID-19.

Higgs has promised that the government's response to the language act review will be released before Christmas, with any amendments to the legislation coming next spring.

Cabinet minister Daniel Allain said on Saturday that "nothing's been lost [and] we're actually going to strengthen that law."

Meanwhile, Higgs continues to face criticism for choosing Austin to be part of the ad hoc group crafting the response.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, all six of New Brunswick's federal Liberal MPs and the provincial NDP criticized the choice.

In a Facebook post, Austin responded that "our bobble head Prime Minister is more concerned with me sitting on a committee than he is with inflation, record high gas prices, housing, or any other issue that actually matters to Canadians."

He accused Trudeau of hypocrisy, pointing out how the prime minister wore blackface in a 2001 photograph that surfaced during the 2019 federal election.

On Wednesday, Dieppe mayor Yvon Lapierre released an open letter on behalf of the city asking Higgs to remove Austin from the committee.