Speaking Notes for a Meeting with the Quebec Federal Council

Ottawa, Ontario, February 25, 2015
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Good day,

Thank you for inviting me to meet with you. It's always a pleasure to talk to the people who coordinate their institutions' activities at the regional level.

Our meetings allow us both to have a look at how linguistic duality should be experienced on a day-to-day basis. They also give me a chance to hear about best practices and innovative projects that I can share at other meetings. Passing on best practices is a pleasant aspect of my job, and your federal council is a great source. Thank you for that.

Marie Lemay has done exemplary work as chair of the Quebec Federal Council. I worked with Ms. Lemay when she was at the National Capital Commission, and I was always very impressed with how, under her leadership, the NCC was exemplary in delivering services, greeting the public in both official languages, and making sure events and documents were available in both official languages.

The Quebec region's challenges in terms of official languages and the minority language community are very different from those of other regions in the country. While Quebec shares many of the same concerns as French-speaking minority communities outside the province regarding official languages issues at the national and inter-regional level, there are distinctions to be made within the Quebec region. First, many Quebecers do not really understand that the English-speaking minority is actually a minority. I have always felt that when Quebec feels confident and at ease with its role as a society with a French-speaking majority, it is open, generous and inclusive with respect to its English-speaking and other minorities. However, when it feels beleaguered and threatened, it does not feel like a majority at all, but like a minority in North America. This is the paradox facing federal institutions in Quebec, where the perception can shift from confident majority to beleaguered minority in the blink of an eye.

Quebec's English-speaking communities face a specific demographic challenge. The older generation lived and worked in Quebec at a time when it was not necessary to speak French to function. Now, as they are no longer in the workforce, are vulnerable and need health and social services, these services are not always available in English, except on the Island of Montréal. Life is very different for Anglophones who live in Beaconsfield than for Anglophones who live in Trois‑Rivières, Sherbrooke or Gaspé. Also, the Anglophone minority has a disadvantage that Francophone minorities elsewhere in Canada do not have: English minority organizations in Quebec are not viewed as national organizations, whereas the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, for example, is viewed as a national organization.

I understand the Quebec Federal Council has identified linguistic duality as a priority issue; you all agree it is important to influence, persuade, engage, energize and empower—in English and in French—and inspire others to do the same. I also understand an action plan is being developed for 2014–2016, and the current focus is Part V of the Official Languages Act, which deals with language of work.

Let me take you back in time a little. The Official Languages Act came into effect in 1969, but it was only when the Act was amended in 1988 that the right to work in the official language of one’s choice in regions designated as bilingual was spelled out in Part V.

I would venture to say that, at the time, we didn't fully appreciate what a radical move it was to grant employees the right to work in the language of their choice. I would also venture to say that even now, many managers don't fully understand just how this affects their jobs.

Much of what public servants do on a regular basis is decided by someone or something else: the government of the day, the minister or the deputy minister, Treasury Board guidelines, Public Works and Government Services directives, collective agreements, and even the Official Languages Act and the Public Service Employment Act. However, there is one thing they can choose if they work in a designated bilingual region: the official language in which they want to work.

But this goes against the grain; so much so that public servants often choose to use the language of the majority, in other words, English outside Quebec and French in Quebec.

As I have often repeated since the beginning of my mandate, to be a leader in the public service, you must be able to communicate in both official languages, and you have an obligation and a responsibility to promote linguistic duality. Being a leader also means showing respect. Canada's national dialogue takes place in both official languages and is based on respect: respect for unilingual Canadians, respect for official language communities, respect for those who receive federal government services and respect for federal employees.

Leadership by example is essential. The message must come from above, especially when it comes to language of work. I don't think government leaders are always conscious of how much their attitude towards linguistic duality influences their organizational culture. Each of you carries significant influence in this regard.

We all recognize that the public service is still going through a difficult time and a transformative period in many institutions. From what I understand, one of the main concerns in your region is that, because of the Deficit Reduction Action Plan, more departmental teams are formed by people from different regions, and accommodating French as a language of work within these teams is increasingly difficult. As is the case with federal councils elsewhere, your organization has been downsized and streamlined to create a single new official languages committee under Quebec Federal Council sponsorship. I know it will be a challenge to maintain the same standard with fewer resources and fewer people; we have to be particularly vigilant: leadership is so important when it comes to official languages in the public service.

Have you ever asked yourself why some people and organizations are more innovative, influential or profitable than others? Why people are loyal to some leaders, but not others? Simon Sinek, an author and a professor at New York's Columbia University, wrote an essay called "Start with Why." His thinking can be summed up as, "People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it."

According to Sinek, all organizations can explain what they do, and some can explain how they do it, but very few can clearly articulate why. He rejects the idea that the "why" is for money or profit. Instead, he posits the centrality of values as an organizing principle. We can recognize ourselves in this way of thinking.

Linguistic duality is much more than a simple obligation: it is one of our core values. Behaviour will not change if linguistic duality is no more than an obligation; because of this, we each have unused potential to influence our staff as well as our audiences.

Those who start with "why" never manipulate; they inspire. People follow them because they want to, not because they have to.

It's not easy to be inspirational during a period of constraint, but it is more important than ever. When it comes to linguistic duality, as long as the "why" is "because it's the law," people's behaviour will not change, and neither will their perceptions. The answer to "why" has to be "because it's an intrinsic value to us as Canadians."

Linguistic duality needs to continue to thrive, despite the budget cuts and program changes. It is essential that we work together to identify challenges and obligations. Ask yourselves how your decisions, even the simplest ones, might affect the implementation of the Official Languages Act. Think about the importance of distributing working copies of documents in both official languages, of letting employees know they get to choose the official language in which they work. Think of making sure meetings are bilingual; the person chairing the meeting is responsible for ensuring everybody understands what is being said.

A few years ago, the Treasury Board Secretariat greatly reduced its centre of excellence and let institution heads carry official languages responsibilities for their own departments. One consequence of this change is that departmental official languages coordinators are increasingly looking to the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages for guidance. We are happy to help by sharing best practices, but this situation puts us in an awkward position. It's not appropriate for us, as an agent of Parliament, to be giving advice on situations we might have to investigate later. It's not fair to you, or to my employees who have to conduct such investigations.

While I understand that some official languages champions would like to see the Treasury Board Secretariat rebuild its oversight of official languages policy implementation in federal institutions, it might not be realistic. The Treasury Board Secretariat is in the midst of devolving many of its oversight functions, in line with the Federal Accountability Act. In this context, it's largely up to each department to recognize that they have responsibilities, and one of these responsibilities is knowing what they should be doing under the terms of the Act and the policy. One crucial element is ensuring that somebody at a senior level, with access to the most senior executive levels, is responsible for official languages, in order for official languages to remain a top priority. It is much easier and more productive to prevent an official languages issue from the top down than to wait until something happens and then have to fix it from the bottom up. You are sitting at the Quebec Federal Council for this reason: to be a leader.

Executives need to make sure the new generation of managers is ready to lead and embody linguistic duality as a core public service value, not just consider it a burden or a task to be ticked off a to-do list.

The public service needs to implement best practices to help federal employees maintain their second official language. Managers might have to get a little creative. Leading by example goes a long way when it comes to official languages at work, and sometimes leaders need help to do this in a way that speaks to their subordinates and compels them to follow suit in their professional lives. Let me give you an example.

Several studies have shown that communication anxiety plays an important role in reducing second language learners' willingness to communicate in their second language. "Anxiety and perceived competence were part of the self-confidence that contributed to motivation for second language learning and contact with speakers of the target language community. Willingness to communicate is defined as a predisposition toward approaching or avoiding the initiation of communication. Language anxiety needs to be considered within the context of learning."Footnote 1 The Cross-Cultural Adaptability Inventory (CCAI) is a tool that can be of great use in determining an individual's or a group's skills in effective cross-cultural communication and interaction. It is widely distributed commercially and makes it possible to identify strengths and weaknesses in areas essential to effective cross-cultural communication and interaction, such as emotional resilience, flexibility and openness. This tool can help public service leaders support employees who wish to acquire or maintain second language skills, and could be used to introduce new official languages best practices for specific regions, contexts and departments, among others.

Managers who show leadership do not hesitate to go above and beyond their linguistic responsibilities whenever possible. Find the answer to "why" you do what you do, and think carefully about the difference between "obligation" and "value." The success of your department's language policy depends on what you do and the messages you convey. Be proactive; it's a question of respect. And good leaders are always respectful.

Thank you. If we still have time, I'd like to answer any questions you may have, or hear about your own experiences with linguistic duality.


Footnote 1

Debra M. Hardison, “Changes in Second-Language Learners’ Oral Skills and Socio-Affective Profiles Following Study Abroad: A Mixed-Methods Approach,” The Canadian Modern Language Review, Vol. 70, No. 4, November 2014, p. 418.

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