By Mark Cardwell
Frustration over the absence of French-speaking officers on board some Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers that operated on the St. Lawrence River this winter has led to a formal complaint to the federal Official Languages Commissioner by one of the two pilots’ corporations on the storied waterway. “It’s a question of respect,” Michel Fortin, President of Central St. Lawrence River Pilots Corporation, told Canadian Sailings. “We’re in Quebec. We want and have the right to work in French.”
According to Fortin, the complaint was filed in early February after “a few” of his corporation’s 108 pilots complained that they were unable to communicate in French with the crews onboard two Halifax-based Coast Guard vessels – the Terry Fox and the Henry Larsen – that spent several weeks breaking ice between Quebec City and Montreal this winter. Despite the fact that all of his corporation’s pilots are bilingual, and that they communicate in English with the vast majority of crews on the roughly 7,000 ships they pilot between Quebec City and Montreal each year, Fortin said they want to be able to speak French with the officers on board federally-owned vessels. “This has nothing to do with safety of navigation,” he said. “It’s a question of rights. We want at least one person on the bridge who can speak French.”
A spokesperson with the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages acknowledged that a complaint from the pilots has been received, and that an investigation is under way. “This situation shouldn’t be too difficult to address,” Robin Cantin said from Ottawa. “We have a lot of success in these types of complaints, which deal with services.” He added that once the investigation is complete, the Office of the Commissioner, who is currently Graham Fraser, will make recommendations on how to deal with the situation to the federal institution involved. In this case it would be Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which is the department responsible for the Canadian Coast Guard.
In an April 3 email response to Canadian Sailings, Natalie Letendre, a spokesperson for the Coast Guard in Quebec City, wrote that the “working language of Coast Guard vessels based in Quebec is French. “The Coast Guard is taking steps to ensure all other Coast Guard vessels working in Quebec have at least one French-speaking officer to communicate with others as necessary. “Marine Communications and Traffic Service Centres will continue to provide services in both official languages. These Centres are the main point of contact for vessels.” That echoes a recent statement from CCG in Ottawa on the ongoing and much-criticized consolidation of the Quebec Marine Rescue Sub-centre in Quebec City. “The Canadian Coast Guard has assured the government that maritime search and rescue services for the eastern portion of Quebec region can be consolidated while maintaining the same level of bilingual, 24/7 service on which mariners currently rely,” reads the March 28 missive. “However, Coast Guard recognizes that the government must be absolutely confident that strong French-language services are in place before any changes proceed. “Therefore, Coast Guard officials will engage with the Official Languages Commissioner to ensure French-language services out of JRCC Halifax meet or exceed current levels.” It added that the CCG “will delay consolidation until such time that the Official Languages Commissioner shares the Coast Guard’s level of confidence in the bilingual capacity at the JRCC Halifax.”