Notes for an address to Statistics Canada employees on Linguistic Duality Day

Ottawa, Ontario, September 11, 2014
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Good morning, bonjour.

First of all, I would like to thank you for coming. It’s a pleasure to be here today at Statistics Canada for your Linguistic Duality Day activities. This year marks the sixth anniversary of Linguistic Duality Day.

I would like to thank Jean-Pierre Corbeil for inviting me and for his commitment to promoting linguistic duality at Statistics Canada. The work of Jean-Pierre and his official languages team has served as a reference for the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages for many years. Each of his analyses deepens our understanding of Canada’s linguistic situation.

The recognition of linguistic duality as an unchanging value of Canadian society and part of the very nature of this country is nothing new. However, especially in the public service, we often forget that the country’s identity was forged in English and French and that the national conversation continues to be in English AND French today.

As an important value for Canadian society, linguistic duality must be embraced by the public service.

Linguistic Duality Day is distinct from the Journée internationale de la Francophonie. Today, we are celebrating our two official languages and are emphasizing the importance of using both English and French at work.

As Statistics Canada employees, you play a major role in the federal government’s daily activities. You help other government departments and agencies develop and assess public policies and programs and make decisions that benefit all Canadians.

You have an enormous responsibility when it comes to promoting linguistic duality as a value. I would like to congratulate you if you are already working in both official languages. And if one of your career, or even personal, objectives is to use your second language more often, I encourage you to do so as much as you can, both at work and in your personal life.

In the coming decades, Canadian society will continue to see significant socio-demographic changes. For example, recent projections—produced by Statistics Canada, as a matter of fact—indicate that, by 2031, between 25% and 28% of Canadians will have been born abroad. We can therefore expect a constant increase in the proportion of Canadians whose mother tongue is neither English nor French. That is only logical when you consider that Canada has welcomed over 250,000 immigrants every year for many years now.

Because of the growing diversity in the country, some people argue that language requirements in the federal public service are a barrier to visible minority Canadians. That is a misconception.

Look, for example, at the results of a study carried out by the Canadian Human Rights Commission. This research found that visible minority Canadians between the ages of 20 and 49 were slightly more bilingual in English and French than English-speaking Canadians. These findings are bolstered by your research. The latest Statistics Canada data confirm that allophones—those whose mother tongue is neither English nor French—are indeed more bilingual in Canada’s two official languages than Anglophones. This means, of course, that these allophones actually speak at least three languages.

We can therefore expect that these same trends will apply to the public service. New generations of public servants will include more and more people whose mother tongue is neither English nor French, and they will speak both official languages in greater numbers than Anglophones do.

In fact, some managers have already told me that they are very impressed by their allophone employees’ language proficiency. The acquisition of language skills is becoming more and more important for public servants and those applying to the public service. In the not too distant future, language skills will be an increasingly relevant selection criterion for managers who have positions to fill.

But how can you promote linguistic duality as part of your work at Statistics Canada now? I think that small, simple gestures always have the greatest impact, such as giving a speech, facilitating a meeting and sending e-mails in both official languages.

Many public service executives who work in both official languages have told me that they find it difficult to understand why some of their managers, and even some of their colleagues, are reluctant to work in both official languages, despite their language obligations. I must admit that this leaves me puzzled too. But many public servants face this very real challenge every day.

It’s one thing to take language training to achieve a “B” or a “C,” but it’s quite another thing to put what has been learned into practice—it’s a whole different ball game. Obtaining a pass mark for one’s language level is only the beginning of proving that you have what it takes to be a leader who manages bilingual staff in the federal public service. And the last step in proving that you have what it takes to be a leader is to maintain your language levels until you retire.

Language training is a key element in professional development, and it allows public servants to enhance their leadership skills so they can advance in their careers.

This is why we conducted our study Challenges: The New Environment for Language Training in the Federal Public Service.

The study emphasizes the importance of employee motivation in second-language learning and in maintaining proficiency. We need to make sure your career plans include language training and that it is not put on the backburner. I applaud those public servants who are already doing this.

When the transfer of responsibility for language training from the Canada School of Public Service to individual federal institutions was completed, I feared the program would simply meld into general training, making it impossible to get an idea of how much is accomplished. The fact that we were able to gather so much information for this study is encouraging.

Many departments take their language training responsibility seriously and, despite budget constraints, are putting systems in place to measure progress.

But there is also the matter of the accountability of public servants. If you pass your language training and obtain a “C,” you need to maintain that level! You cannot simply take intensive second-language training every five years to obtain your language level and then forget about it for four and a half years. This does not reflect linguistic duality, and it is certainly not the goal of language training. It is up to your organizations to provide this training. However, each of you has an obligation to maintain your proficiency. It’s a matter of respect and professionalism.

Learning a second language—or even, in some cases, a third or fourth language—is a true professional, and even personal, challenge, whatever your age.

If you rise to the challenge, you will reap the rewards for many years. And if you keep up your proficiency, it will pay a lifetime of dividends. Living in English and French opens up opportunities for more encounters and more discoveries—it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

In our world of globalization and information overload, learning the other official language is a bridge to the rest of the world, not an obstacle. Allophones who immigrate to Canada to study, work and live here have understood this.

In the public service, the linguistic minority can shift many times over—especially here in the National Capital Region. It is not determined by provincial borders; it is determined by who is in charge!

Employees tend to use the language that their manager prefers. This reflex needs to be kept under control.

This is also a challenge for managers. An executive recently pointed out to me that you have to have a certain level of comfort in order to play a leadership role. He said that he did not feel comfortable enough in his second language to project proper leadership, and asked for my advice.

His question stayed with me. It is true that no one wants to appear less articulate or less confident when trying to inspire and engage colleagues and employees.

I was sympathetic: the summer I learned French, I remember being told by a very bilingual friend that I was quite different in French than I was in English. “Of course I’m different!” I replied. “I’m stupid, inarticulate and I have no sense of humour!

When I started this job in 2006, I was uneasy about my French. I had not had any kind of formal instruction for almost 30 years, and that had been a night course for adults. I had never even been tested.

Initially dismissive of my concerns, my chief of staff suggested that I hire a retired executive from the Office of the Commissioner, who had returned to his first love: language teaching. But rather than focusing on language instruction, we spent our sessions studying the Official Languages Act, clause by clause—en français.

Several years later, when I hired a job coach to help resolve a recurring management problem, we held our sessions in French. Speaking in our second language takes us outside our comfort zone—and that’s how we learn.

Since second-language proficiency is a critical leadership competency, then why not study leadership skills in your second language?

Linguistic duality is not a burden that holds us back: on the contrary, it allows us to move forward, to face the future of the public service with optimism. It is important to keep linguistic duality at the heart of our social debates and our responsibilities as public servants—it helps us better serve the Canadian public.

The success of your department’s language policy depends on your behaviour, your actions, the messages you send, the heart you put into it. I therefore encourage you to participate in your department’s linguistic duality promotional activities, as you are doing here today.

Linguistic duality is up to each of us, regardless of our mother tongue or of our position’s linguistic profile. Be proud of your official languages—and of the role you play in promoting the full recognition and use of English and French in the public service and in Canadian society.

Thank you. If we still have time, I would be happy to hear any comments you’d like to share or answer any questions you may have.

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