February 11, 2012

Part 3: History of Plain Language in Canada

The first two posts in this series covered the Canadian context and the access-to-justice intiatives in the legal system.

2. Better Governance Initiative

Federal Government

After the 1975 Access to Justice Report, high-level government employees formed the Interdepartmental Plain Language Committee. From their efforts, plain language spread throughout the government. For example, the Justice Department Legal Services Division adopted a service standard of responsiveness, clarity of legal advice, and use of plain language. The Justice Department’s Programs Branch set up the Public Legal Education and Information Program, which spread plain language through its work. The Public Legal Education and Information Network provided a Plain Language Online discussion board on the Internet in the 90s that I managed.

The Canadian government is committed to using plain language in both French and English. It tries to provide clear language for translations to other languages. The communication policy says:

Federal government institutions have an obligation to communicate clearly and effectively with the public. They must use plain language and proper grammar in their communications.

Plain Language

An institution’s duty to inform the public includes the obligation to communicate effectively. Information about policies, programs, services and initiatives must be clear, relevant, objective, easy to understand and useful.

Using plain language and proper grammar helps to provide useful information to the public and to ensure clarity and consistency of communication. This principle also applies to internal communications, as well as to information prepared for Parliament or any other official body, whether delivered in writing or in speech. (as last restated in 2006)

Programs were set up to review the readability of publications and forms by the Department of Revenue and Taxation, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and others.

Since policy requires public communication that is complete, clear, understandable, and useful, the Office of Auditor General has in past considered plain language and readability when it audited the work of government departments and agencies. The previous Auditor General of Canada Shelia Fraser, who served for 10 years, also believed that the audit reports produced by her staff must be readable to Canadian taxpayers.

The Canadian government published a writing style guide called The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing which adopted plain language in 1987 and since updated. It is now available and maintained online by the Translation Bureau as part of Termium, a general program for quality of language. As of 2008, Canada’s School of Public Service has this message on its website:

Writing in plain language can sometimes be a challenge in the federal government. This practical and interactive course teaches how to write in a more structured and simplified manner. Participants will learn to apply the principles of plain and clear language in order to write more effectively.

Following several studies of the literacy of the Canadian population conducted by Statistics Canada, plain language became a focus for that agency. In addition, the government created the National Literacy Secretariat that also promoted plain language by funding projects:

  • Plain Language: Clear and Simple, a writing manual for government published in 1989 as a combined effort of fourteen federal departments. The National Literacy Secretariat and Human Resources Development published an associated Trainer’s Guide. Three-day training sessions were offered to federal employees and others, based on the book and trainer’s guide.
  • The pamphlet became an online training program in cooperation with the Department of Justice, the Plain Train [http://plainlanguage.com/PlainTrain/Index.html], in both English and French.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and their project Target Crime with Literacy (policeABC.ca) promoted plain language to police forces and trainers across Canada as a tool to meet the communication needs of Canadians.

Provinces Launch Assorted Programs

Several provinces adopted their own plain language policies to provide plain language information to their residents. The level of activity depends on politics and changes of governments and their budgetary priorities.

Quebec’s Centre of Expertise promotes plain language as a best practice in the delivery of services. http://grandsorganismes.gouv.qc.ca/?page=element&nIDElement=1978

Laws and regulations are often written in plain language. The Yukon Territory first reported its plain language drafting to the Legislative Drafting Section of the Uniform Law Conference of Canada in 1988. In 1990, Alberta produced the first law that required business to use plain language for financial consumers. In the same year, British Columbia produced a new law for its small claims courts and adopted forms in plain language.

Next up: Serving the needs of the economy and the workforce

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