Letter – Response to Randal Denley: Dispelling some myths about bilingualism in the public service

Response to Randall Denley

I read Randall Denley’s column on bilingualism in the federal public service, and feel compelled to respond to the bleak and inaccurate picture he paints.

To begin with, bilingualism is not now and never has been “a primary criterion for hiring and advancement.” It is not a criterion at all for hiring—although, thanks to the popularity of French immersion programs and the fact that many young people recognize the importance of bilingualism, some 40% of new recruits to the public service are already bilingual.

Bilingualism is not even a criterion for advancement. Only those jobs that are identified as bilingual require bilingualism, and they are identified as such because it is necessary for the job. Only a minority of federal public service jobs require bilingualism: a proportion of the jobs that serve the public and those jobs in Ottawa, New Brunswick, Montréal and parts of Ontario that involve supervising public servants who have the right to work in the official language of their choice.

Until 1969, the only language requirements were for French-speaking Canadians, who had to function in English. Every prime minister since then has worked to ensure that bilingualism is a two-way street.

Language policies in the federal government were first announced by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson in 1966—almost exactly 50 years ago. Pearson wanted to create a climate that would allow English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians to work together, using their own language and cultural values but with each fully appreciating and understanding those of the other. Those principles underlie the Official Languages Act, which followed three years later.

At least Mr. Denley does not repeat the old bromide that “it’s impossible for Anglophones to get hired into the public service.” The most recent data shows that 74% of new hires were Anglophones, and of those, two thirds were hired into a position that does not require bilingualism. Many are entry-level positions, leaving the new public servant years to improve his or her language skills before applying for a manager position.

For the first time in a decade, the federal government has significant representation from Quebec and several French-speaking ministers who have requested that their briefing materials, oral and written, be in French. This is only reasonable. Imagine the furor that would erupt if an English-speaking minister were unable to be briefed in English on a complex issue. How can that happen unless bilingualism is defined as a professional skill? How can a minister get reasonable communications advice on whether to accept an invitation to appear on “Tout le monde en parle” if none of his senior public servants can understand the program? How can public servants advise a minister on the policy implications of a potential decision for Quebec if they cannot understand the Quebec media? How can public servants participate in federal-provincial discussions and develop relationships with their Quebec counterparts if they do not speak French?

This is not a matter of rules or what Mr. Denley calls “onerous language requirements;” it is a question of having the necessary skills to do a job that requires an understanding of the country as a whole.

He implies that the presence of a single French-speaking employee transforms a workplace of 50. In actual fact, the reverse is true. All too often, the presence of a single English speaker at a meeting—even if that person understands French—transforms the meeting into an English-speaking event, as one Francophone after another feels the need to speak in English.

Canada is a country with two unilingual majorities: some 60% of Francophones do not speak English, and some 90% of Anglophones do not speak French. For five decades, it has been government policy to ensure that Canadians should not have to learn a second official language to get services from the federal government. In order to accomplish that, it is essential that a critical mass of federal public servants be able to offer services and ministerial advice in both official languages.

If English-speaking public servants no longer had the right to use English in meetings, to write their briefing notes in English or to have their performance appraisals done in English, Mr. Denley would be justifiably outraged. It is equally unjust to deny that right to French-speaking public servants.

Like many critics of Canada’s language policies, Mr. Denley implies that they are unfair to immigrants. In fact, many immigrants are attracted to Canada because of our language policies, not in spite of them. And studies show that it is easier to learn a third language than a second.

However, it is true that the way the Official Languages Act is implemented does not always produce our next generation of bilingual public servants. Federal institutions often provide too little language training and offer it too late in a public servant’s career. In some departments, people are sent for months of intensive language training just before they are transferred to a bilingual position, rather than having them build language skills over a few years. There need to be more opportunities to strengthen language skills at university, and language training must be an integral part of a public servant’s career plans, not something done at the last minute.

Since becoming Commissioner of Official Languages, I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of public servants, both English- and French-speaking, who are proud to have learned the other official language, who see language skills as a professional skill that enables them to understand the country and who are committed to providing services in both languages. It is part of their pride in being federal public servants. They see linguistic duality as a value, not a burden, and as an integral part of the federal public service. It is key to how they understand and serve the country.

Graham Fraser, Commissioner of Official Languages

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