Conversation with Graham Fraser

At the beginning of your term, you were in favour of re-examining second-language teaching. Do you think it is realistic to believe that, one day, more university graduates will be bilingual?

Absolutely. One of the surprises for me was discovering the variety of French programs that are offered in postsecondary institutions but that are still relatively obscure. They represent an untapped potential, because there is a lack of coordination and coherence.

Although the federal government is the largest employer in Canada, it is hesitant to send a clear message to the universities about its bilingual workforce needs. Many English-language universities still treat French as a foreign language. In 2003, the government’s goal was to double the number of bilingual high school graduates—from 25% to 50%. That goal has simply not been achieved.

But let’s look at the positive side. Year after year, 300,000 students enroll in immersion courses. Forty percent of employees who joined the public service last year were bilingual. University presidents were interested and even enthusiastic about our study on second-language learning opportunities in Canadian universities. University immersion and bilingual training programs have been a great success. Some law faculties have also understood the real issues in the debate over the importance of bilingualism among Supreme Court judges, which has been a wake-up call, as it were.

Sometimes you take a stand and intervene in certain cases that do not seem to fall directly under federal jurisdiction. Why?

To start with, let me make one thing clear: my mandate does not allow me to intervene officially in matters that are not under federal jurisdiction.

There are two reasons why I speak out and express my convictions in certain specific areas. First, the scope of the Official Languages Act is fairly broad. It talks about “fostering full recognition and use of English and French in Canadian society,” “enhancing the bilingual character of the National Capital Region” and “encouraging the business community, labour organizations and voluntary organizations in Canada to foster the recognition and use of English and French”. So it is obvious to me that Parliament wanted to go beyond the limits of federal institutions when it developed the Act.

Second, the key to the development of official language minority communities lies not in their numbers, but rather in their vitality. Health and education are two key elements of vitality in any community. Can you enrol your children in a school that provides a quality education in your language? When the answer to this question is “maybe” or “no”, the community will find it difficult to retain its members. However, health and education fall under provincial jurisdiction.

Ever since it came into effect, the bilingualism bonus for federal government employees has been $800 per year. This was originally a significant amount, but now it is less considerable because of inflation. Do you think the amount of the bonus should be increased?

While I agree that the bilingualism bonus is not exactly a staggering figure, it is not up to me to say whether it should go up. The amount is established in the Bilingualism Bonus Directive, an integral part of the collective agreements negotiated between the parties represented on the National Joint Council, which brings together spokespersons for the government as employer and for public service bargaining agents. It is up to the National Joint Council to examine the Directive and determine when a revision is required.

Best wishes for the holidays!

During this festive season, we want to thank all of our Beyond Words readers for their loyal support and for their interest in official languages. We would like to extend our very best wishes to you and your family for a happy holiday season and hope that 2011 brings you peace, health and prosperity!

A note to our readers

During the holiday season, the Beyond Words team is taking its annual winter break. We’ll be back rested, relaxed and raring to go in January!

Published on Thursday, December 16, 2010

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