Letter to the Editor - Ottawa Citizen

September 4, 2014

Re: Federal government poisoned the well of official Bilingualism, Aug. 29.

Columnist Kelly Egan’s comments on the federal approach to official languages calls for a response.

Egan thinks offering services to the public in both languages is a “fine idea in theory”, but finds excessive that somebody would check if the government lives up to its obligations; that citizens would be able to file complaints when they think their rights are being violated or even (yes, the horror!) go to court when an organization fails to correct the situation after multiple infractions.

Kelly Egan describes a bleak world of frustration, resentment and unhappiness. Those were the stories I heard when I was a journalist. However, 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 language, see language skill as a professional competency that enables them to understand the country and are committed to offering services in both languages. It is part of their pride in being federal public servants.

I see linguistic duality as a value, not a burden, and I have found that many public servants agree with me. It is an integral part of the federal public service and enables every employee to contribute to the fullest of his or her ability. Through the Official Languages Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it is also expressed as a series of rights for all citizens. And rights are meaningless if the government may choose to ignore them. So yes, my staff occasionally monitors key elements of bilingual service; people can file complaints with my office and in the rare cases where the government proves intractable, they can go to court.

Kelly Egan and I agree on one thing: the way the Official Languages Act is implemented does not always work well. Not everyone arrives in the Public Service already bilingual, and language training by federal institutions is often too little and offered too late in one’s career. In some departments, people have been sent on intensive language training for months just before they are transferred in a bilingual position, rather than having them build language skills over a few years as they work. There needs to be more opportunities to increase one’s language skills while at university and language training must be integral to a public servant’s career plans, not something done at the last minute.

And yet, despite these deficiencies, literally tens of thousands of bilingual positions within the public service are occupied by anglophones. Nationally, francophones and anglophones occupy a proportion of position that roughly mirrors their demographic weight, including at the executive levels.

About that $ 1.1 billion over five years the federal government spends on bilingualism that Egan wants to see converted into asphalt: most of it is earmarked for students. English schools in Quebec, French schools outside Quebec, immersion schools and programs all profit from this investment into Canada’s future.

To suggest that soldiers are dying for lack of treatment because funds are spent on the country’s official languages is an exaggeration, to put it mildly.

Forty-five years after the adoption of the Act, the implementation of official language policies rightly remains an important and controversial issue. I will continue to participate to this national conversation on Oct. 7 when I present my annual report, which includes a discussion on language training.

Graham Fraser is Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages

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