Mark Rendell

Bad Language: ECE Ignored Expensive Recommendations, Says Report

A scathing report adds to the government’s ongoing language woes during Aboriginal Languages Month

In 2008 and 2009, the legislative assembly’s committee in charge of reviewing the Official Languages Act crossed the NWT, meeting with elders, community language groups and frontline workers. After holding multiple public hearings and sifting through mountains of documents, they issued a 220-page review, containing over 90 recommendations for improving legislation and the management of language programs. The whole thing “spanned two years and involved extensive travel, consultation and expense,” according to a report issued last Wednesday.

Since then, that 2009 review has been almost completely ignored.

It’s not unusual for the GNWT to wrack up bills producing a report that’s quickly relegated to the dusty depths of a filing cabinet. But it’s unusual to have this called out so publicly by MLAs, and with such pointed language.

Casting aside usual political niceties, the Standing Committee on Government Operations lamented in Wednesday’s report, “the attitude of disregard displayed by the department [of Education, Culture and Employment],” and said comments from ECE reveal “a stunning lack of respect for months of work… and for the stakeholders consulted.”

The report is just the latest in a string of bad language news that happened right in the middle of Aboriginal Languages Month, capped by Language Commissioner Snookie Catholique’s resignation last Friday.

Report, what report?

In his response to the 2009 review, ECE Minister Jackson Lafferty promised his department would prepare a full response to the 90 recommendations.

“Since that time, Annual Reports on Official Languages… have been tabled and none has contained any references to the recommendations arising from the 2009 review,” the latest report says.

Lafferty and his staff did respond to some of the recommendations during the committee’s 2014 five-year review of the act. But none of these responses are in the public domain.

“As a result, the department failed to be accountable to the standing committee, which has a legitimate mandate for oversight, or to the public,“ the report said.

It also found that two of the NWT’s language boards are in breach of regulations by not having English, French and Inuktitut representatives.

Communication breakdown

The issue at stake isn’t so much the work the department is doing to improve language programs and legislation; in 2010, ECE released a new language strategy, and Frame Lake MLA Wendy Bisaro told EDGEYK.com that they seem to be doing good work.

The problem is that the department’s strategy was seemingly developed without any reference to the 2009 review, and ”without adequate rationale or substantiation” explaining the new direction. This, essentially, rendered the 2009 review a monumental waste of time and resources. And it made it difficult for the committee, which is meant to provide third-party oversight, to assess the department’s actions and successes.

“The department is doing stuff, but we don’t really know what their vision is and that’s the frustration,” said Bisaro. “We were almost talking across purposes… They didn’t seem to understand what we were looking for and we didn’t understand what they were telling us.”

Lafferty’s response

The day after the report was tabled, Lafferty gave an extended speech responding to a new motion from Bisaro. She had called for ECE to give a full, public, response to the 90 recommendations within 120 days, and to table the official language strategy.

“We took the advice of the standing committee and added the voice of language experts to draft [a] 10-year plan and its corresponding actions in response to the standing committee’s report,” Lafferty claimed.

Though he noted that: “The advice was received from standing committee to create [more] layers of bureaucracy [which is] not what Aboriginal governments, elders and language experts are telling us. What they said is we need less bureaucracy and more authority as keepers of the language, and we listened.”

He said he would respond to Bisaro’s motion with “further detailed reporting” within 120 days.