Harper-era ministers rejected bilingual private tweets; Graham Fraser wants to know Liberal policy
Canada’s languages czar is revisiting a Harper-era battle over the unilingual tweets of cabinet ministers to see whether things have changed under the new Liberal government.
Earlier this year, official languages commissioner Graham Fraser locked horns with three federal departments whose ministers unapologetically tweeted about policy or announcements in English or French only.
Fraser’s investigation concluded that those tweets violated two sections of the Official Languages Act, which requires all government business to be communicated in both English and French.
Ministers are free to tweet in one language about their personal life and other matters, Fraser ruled, but any content referring to government matters must be bilingual – even if a minister is using a personal and private Twitter account that is not maintained or overseen by public servants.
Fraser told the departments to start fixing the problem by June 2015.
But the three departments under investigation – Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Public Safety and Foreign Affairs – categorically rejected the finding, maintaining they should not be held responsible for the personal social-media accounts of their ministers, including Twitter.
Aligned with ministers
The response aligned exactly with the ministers’ views. Then-Treasury Board president Tony Clement said last year he would rather turn off his personal Twitter account than be compelled to abide by language rules.
“It is inappropriate for the Treasury Board Secretariat to be the subject of your investigation as the use of his own personal Twitter account by the president is not a matter pertaining to the administration of the affairs of this department,” Yaprak Baltacioglu, secretary of the Treasury Board, wrote to Fraser on July 28 this year.
“A clear distinction between the president’s social media presence and that of this institution is necessary to maintain public confidence in public servants’ honesty, fairness and impartiality.”
A copy of the letter was obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act from Treasury Board, which is responsible for implementing the Official Languages Act across government. Fraser’s office says similar responses were received from Public Safety and Foreign Affairs.
‘The bilingual requirement must fully extend to ministers’ electronic communications.’– Liberal Stéphane Dion, in February
While in opposition, the Liberal party sided with the languages commissioner. Stéphane Dion, then a Liberal MP, claimed in February this year that 16 Conservative cabinet ministers tweeted primarily in English.
Dion complained in a letter to Clement that ministers’ use of social media appeared to circumvent the language law. “The bilingual requirement must fully extend to ministers’ electronic communications,” he said. Dion is now himself the minister for foreign affairs.
A spokesman for Fraser says investigators have recently gone back to the three departments to see whether their positions have changed under the Liberal government.
“They’re following up again to see if their replies are still the same,” Nelson Kalil said in an interview. “Is this still your take on this?”
While Fraser’s office revisits most of its investigations, he said, “This one’s perhaps been expedited by the fact that there’s been a change in government.”
A spokeswoman for Treasury Board did not respond to questions about the commissioner’s follow-up.
Liberals have social media code of conduct
“TBS (Treasury Board Secretariat) does not comment on ongoing investigations or discussions with agents of Parliament,” Kelly James said in an email.
The new Liberal government issued acode of conduct on Nov. 27 which for the first time codified the use of social media by ministers and parliamentary secretaries. The code allows ministers to have private accounts, and cautions departments against retweeting or linking official accounts to the personal ones of their ministers.
But the policy does not specifically refer to any requirement to tweet in English and French when a minister is using a personal Twitter account to refer to government business.
Kalil says the law nevertheless requires it.
“If a minister, on his own [Twitter] account, is talking about something with regard to his department or his mandate, yes, then that would have to be in both official languages.”
Scott Brison, the new Liberal president of the Treasury Board, has a personal Twitter account where his tweets are primarily in English, though the subject matter since being appointed Nov. 4 is largely personal.
The federal government has issued guidelines and standards for official social-media accounts, with no reference to ministers’ private accounts.