Emergency alerts must be in both languages: languages commissioner

Graham Fraser says obligations to communicate in both French and English apply even in situations such as Parliament Hill shooting

Official Languages commissioner Graham Fraser. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Official Languages commissioner Graham Fraser. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

OTTAWA – Canada’s official languages commissioner says Ottawa has the obligation to communicate in French and English even in emergency situations such as the shooting on Parliament Hill last year.

That’s the conclusion of a preliminary report obtained by The Canadian Press.

The investigation focused on the reaction of the Public Safety Department to the events of last October when the first email sent out amid the chaos was written only in English.

NDP language critic Yvon Godin later filed a complaint with Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser.

Fraser has recommended the Public Safety Department prepare templates in both official languages for use in case of emergency situations.

He says he will conduct a follow-up this June.

“Public Safety Canada…failed to meet its obligation to promote Canada’s linguistic duality and recognize the daily use of both official languages in federal institutions, even in a crisis,” Fraser wrote.

“In addition, sending out an initial English-only email could result in severe consequences, impede understanding of directives or cause serious issues to arise in a stressful or panic-inducing situation.”

Fraser said it is “essential, especially during critical and exceptional situations, that communication be clear, effective and available in both official languages simultaneously.”

The email in question was sent out about 30 minutes after Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot Cpl. Nathan Cirillo outside Parliament and then burst inside.

At that point, the police still had not ruled out the possibility of the shooter having accomplices.

Public Safety spokesman Jean Paul Duval said the email was written by the Government Operations Centre and that the unit does not engage directly with citizens or individual federal employees.

He said it deals rather with organizations such as other operations centres as well as with departmental security officers (DSOs).

Fraser rejected that argument, saying “DSOs are federal employees and, in turn, are entitled to receive service in both official languages.”

Godin welcomed Fraser’s comments.

“It doesn’t make any sense that everything is in English during an emergency situation and that francophones are told to wait for the translation,” he said in an interview.

“That, more than ever, is when it should be in both official languages.”

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