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Francophone farmers seen shorted on AAFC service

An audit of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s ability to serve farmers in both official languages finds many of its offices in Western Canada lacking.

Graham Fraser, the federal commissioner of official languages, on March 30 released the results of his audit of AAFC, conducted between November 2006 and November 2007.

“The bilingual capacity of offices responsible for providing services in both official languages falls short at times, particularly in Western Canada, and mostly in offices of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA),” Fraser wrote.

“Major weaknesses” were seen in the department’s ability to actively offer minority language service at all offices visited, he wrote. As well, he added, about 40 per cent of its offices could not provide “satisfactory services” in person or over the phone in the local minority official language.

“Farmers who know their land know the best time to plow, what to plant, when to harvest and the best way to go about it,” Fraser said in a release. “The same goes for planning and implementing programs and services for Canadian producers in the language of their choice.”

The language clauses included in implementation agreements, collateral agreements and contribution agreements negotiated between AAFC and other organizations showed particular weaknesses, Fraser’s audit noted.

“The renewal of these agreements offers (AAFC) a chance to clarify the expectations concerning communications and services in both official languages.”

In Quebec, on the other hand, the audit found that all AAFC offices studied were able to provide “satisfactory” service over the phone and in person in English.

AAFC has “a few” mechanisms in place to monitor compliance with regard to official languages, Fraser said. But it has no “formal mechanism” for measuring and monitoring compliance in terms of bilingual services to the public.

Fraser’s audit recommended AAFC review the language designation of all positions providing service to the public, “with priority given” to PFRA offices.

(The federal government recently rolled the services of PFRA into AAFC’s Agri-Environment branch.)

If AAFC employees now in designated bilingual positions don’t meet the language requirements of the job, Fraser recommended AAFC offer them language training “as soon as possible.”

If those designated staffers remain unable to provide services in both official languages, Fraser recommended AAFC “implement the required administrative measures.”

Fraser also recommended AAFC make sure the quality of bilingual services to the public is a performance objective of managers responsible for offices that are required to offer services in both official languages.

Managers of those designated bilingual offices should take mandatory awareness sessions on requirements regarding communications with and services to the public in both official languages.

He also urged the department to develop a “policy or guidelines” to better manage communications with and services to the public in both official languages offered by AAFC employees.

AAFC, he said, should also consult “national and regional representatives of official language minority communities,” especially those representing rural residents and farmers, to find out their specific needs in terms of service from the department.

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