Fraser treads on dangerous turf

By defending the court challenges program, the languages commissioner could get caught in nasty political battle

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The Gazette, Monday, May 21, 2007

Two days after the 2006 election, on being invited to form a government, Stephen Harper met the media in the foyer of the House of Commons.

He began his opening statement in French. About five minutes later, when he began repeating it in English, it was clear he had read the entire statement in French first.

Standing on the edge of Harper's scrum, I turned to Graham Fraser, a close friend and colleague of many years. "Did we just hear what I think we just heard?" I asked him.

"Yes," replied Fraser, who knows the flashpoints and sensibilities of the language issue better than anyone in Canada.

We agreed it was an important moment, in symbolic as well as substantive terms. A new prime minister, born and raised in Ontario and elected from Alberta, was setting an example of respect for Canada's other official language.

He would continue to do so, wherever he went, and in every circumstance, including the East Room of the White House, in the company of the president of the United States.

As it happened, Fraser was then finishing up a new book on the language issue, Sorry I Don't Speak French. This was against the advice of some of his friends, including me, who warned him that no one would buy it. But it was well reviewed, and read by the right people, apparently including the new prime minister.

In a rather inspired appointment, Harper named Fraser commissioner of official languages, a position that Fraser describes in his first annual report to Parliament as "part cheerleader, part nag."

Referring to the PM's "exemplary" policy of reading opening statements in French first, Fraser writes Harper has "fully respected the use of both official languages in his own public statements whether in Canada or abroad, whether he is making announcements in southern Ontario, travelling to foreign countries or participating in G8 meetings."

Yes, but. After the yes, comes the but: "However, there have been disturbing signs," Fraser continues, "that other members of government do not take official languages as seriously as the prime minister does."

Specifically, Fraser targets program cuts last fall, notably the Court Challenges Program, about which his office has received more than 100 complaints alleging the cancellation conflicts with the government's obligation to provide "positive measures" to promote official languages.

The timing of Fraser's report coincided with an unseemly ruckus at the Official Languages Committee, which the opposition has paralyzed in an attempt to force the Conservatives to reinstate the Court Challenges Program.

The CCP cost only $2.6 million a year, and more money than that falls off the table before breakfast every day in Ottawa. But it has proven to be expensive money for Harper and the Conservatives, as interest groups and their lawyers have mobilized to have it restored.

Quite uniquely under the CCP, Ottawa was paying interest groups to go to court against the government. Originally set up to fund language challenges in the 1970s, it became a funding source for all kinds of grievances, from same-sex marriage to prisoner rights, after the equality rights provisions of the Charter came into effect in 1985.

At the official languages committee, the opposition parties have been using the case of the Montfort hospital, where franco- Ontarians successfully challenged the Harris government's decision to shut down eastern Ontario's only French-language hospital. The preposterous suggestion is that without the CCP, the francophones of greater Ottawa - well organized and well financed - couldn't have fought and won the case on their own.

It doesn't matter. The Liberals are winning and the Conservatives are getting killed. The Liberals are the party of official languages, the party of minorities, the party of the Charter. The Conservatives are the party of les anglais, cold-hearted, uncaring and unilingual. That's the spin.

Fraser runs a serious risk of being captured by his officials. So what if there are 100 complaints on his desk? That's a bureaucratic response. Welcome to the world of interest-group politics. If he is not careful, he will also get caught up in a nasty political battle that is none of his business. The government has the absolute right to determine program spending, including whether it is obliged to feed the hand that bites it.

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