Letter to the editor – It’s time to talk about bilingualism in the public service

October 5, 2017

The bilingualism bonus given to some federal public servants has recently become an issue again, having appeared in one of the recommendations of the report on language of work, which was released on September 14 by the Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick. The report is not just about the bonus, however.

It marks the second milestone in a very necessary and useful conversation on language of work in the federal public service.

Language of work has been the subject of numerous controversies in the federal public service over the past several years. The required level of language skills, access to language training, the bilingualism bonus and the difficulty many supervisors are having in communicating in the official language of their employees’ choice are all contentious issues. The report, which is based on public consultations conducted by senior public servants Matthew Mendelsohn and Patrick Borbey, is straightforward in addressing these issues.

One of the report’s recommendations is to make CBC/CBC (superior proficiency level) the minimum linguistic profile for bilingual supervisory positions. This would mean raising the linguistic profile for many positions. It would also address a recommendation made by the Commissioner of Official Languages in 2011.

The report also recommends that the government recruit people who have a basic knowledge of their second official language and who could attain an effective level of bilingualism more quickly.

These changes, as well as several others proposed in the report, are aimed at updating a language-of-work arrangement that is nearly 30 years old. Much has been accomplished since then. Thousands of supervisors have successfully reached an appropriate level of bilingualism. According to the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, over 95% of supervisors currently meet the language requirements of their positions. And providing public servants with commonly used software and keyboards in the official language of their choice is a given in almost all of the public service.

However, there are still some problems, and new challenges have emerged.

Nearly one fifth of the complaints investigated by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages have come from public servants who reported that their language-of-work rights were not respected. After investigation, most of these complaints are deemed to be founded, and corrective measures are required by federal institutions.

Maintaining a workplace where every employee can use the official language of his or her choice is complicated when professionals with various levels of proficiency in their second languages—including no level at all—work together. It requires strong leadership from executives, ongoing attention from managers and willingness on all sides.

In addition to the issues identified in the Clerk’s report, there are new communications technologies in the workplace to consider. Employees are now working virtually with each other and their supervisors, and they are using collaborative tools like GCconnex. Because English is so prevalent on these forums, there is a risk that bilingualism will quickly deteriorate in the public service, which will undoubtedly have an impact on the quality of service to the public.

Mr. Wernick’s report does not include a timeline for implementing the recommendations, which means that important conversations will need to take place in the upcoming months. Everyone involved is going to have to do their part to ensure that this exercise results in concrete action so that the federal public service is more effective and fully respects the language rights of all of its employees.

Ghislaine Saikaley, Interim Commissioner of Official Languages

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