Notes for an address at a conference of the students’ union of the National School of Public Administration

Bilingualism and Biculturalism – Contemporary Issues

Gatineau, Quebec October 7, 2015
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog


I would first like to thank Raphael Gave for giving me the opportunity to speak to you.

I don’t usually give lectures during election campaigns. In the past, the Official Languages Act has been the subject of partisan debate, and any comments from the Commissioner of Official Languages risked turning into an election issue. This is no longer the case.

During the—long—election campaign, the only issues related to language policy that surfaced were the NDP leader’s participation in the debates, because more English debates had been scheduled than French ones, and the Liberal leader’s participation in the Munk debate, because of uncertainty as to whether the debate would be bilingual. These issues were resolved.

For a long time, Quebec sovereigntists believed that electing an English-speaking prime minister from the West would mark the beginning of the end of Quebec as part of Canada, and that a Western Anglophone prime minister would not be seen as legitimate. And yet we have had an English-speaking prime minister from the West for nearly 10 years now, and his legitimacy has not been questioned. His policies may well have been questioned, but this is the nature of democracy. Each of the three main parties capable of forming the next government has a bilingual leader who can debate and discuss policy in both English and French.

Does this mean that we should repeal the Official Languages Act and close down my office?

No, quite the opposite. Because even though our language policy is generally accepted and is no longer considered to be a political hot potato, implementing it is still an administrative challenge.

I accepted this invitation because you are the next generation of public servants. As teachers and public service managers, you play a key role in promoting linguistic duality in Canada. And as future public servants, you will be the ones to take on that role. But before we continue, I would like to say a few words about the role and mandate of my office.

The Official Languages Act, which has been in effect for more than 40 years now, guarantees and protects linguistic duality. As Commissioner of Official Languages, I have a duty to take all actions and measures within my authority to ensure that the Act’s three objectives are met. These objectives are:

  • to ensure the equality of English and French in Parliament, in the Government of Canada, in the federal administration and in institutions subject to the Act;
  • to support the preservation and development of official language communities in Canada; and
  • to advance the equality of status and use of English and French within Canadian society.

I am an agent of Parliament, which means that I report directly to Parliament and not to the government.

The Act applies only to federal institutions; it does not apply to provincial, territorial or municipal governments. However, some provinces and territories have adopted their own legislation and policies to protect English, French or certain Aboriginal languages within their own jurisdictions. For example, the province of New Brunswick is officially bilingual, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have French-language services acts, and Newfoundland and Labrador has an Office of French Services.

Two conditions are necessary for linguistic duality to work in Canadian society. First, everyone needs to understand that English and French are not foreign languages; they are Canadian languages. Our two official languages belong to all Canadians, regardless of their linguistic background or whether they are bilingual or unilingual.

Second, linguistic duality is a value, not a burden—and it should be an integral part of the public service.

Unfortunately, these are not always the messages Canadian universities are sending. It is completely counterproductive that the principle of equality of our two official languages doesn’t permeate the conscience of our public policy makers until they have to meet language obligations as public servants. This is not a very sustainable way of promoting linguistic duality, which should be an integral part of their education.

Allow me to draw your attention to an important distinction. As citizens, we expect our government to be the role model when it comes to respecting our national values, which include official languages. Canada’s policies on linguistic duality not only help to strengthen our social fabric, they also define us as Canadians.

In the field of public affairs in Canada, you need to understand that our national conversation takes place in English and French and that you have to be able to understand our official languages. It can sometimes be more difficult to convince English-speaking Canadians outside Quebec of the need to speak French than it is to convince French-speaking Quebecers of the need to speak English. What is important, however, is having a country that is bilingual from coast to coast, and this is what I want to talk to you about today.

I have often said that knowing both official languages is a critical element of leadership in Canada. We are lucky to live in a country where you can have a successful career in certain lines of work and in certain regions of the country without learning a second language. But if you want to work at the national level, bilingualism becomes necessary in order to understand the country, communicate with people at home and abroad, negotiate contracts, woo clients, manage employees and much more.

In the federal public service, fluency in both official languages is a crucial skill for managers because public servants have the right to work in the official language of their choice in designated bilingual regions—the National Capital Region, the province of New Brunswick, parts of Ontario and parts of Quebec.

Being in tune with the society in which you live is an essential survival skill. What is important today? What will the major issues be tomorrow? To see the whole picture, you need to understand current concerns and know how they are being presented—in English and in French.

The media may be an imperfect mirror of our society, but it’s the best we have when it comes to analyzing current events. The topics covered in the media give us a sense of what is relevant for the immediate future of the country. It is always interesting to look at what makes the news in Canada—and what doesn’t—depending on the language in which the news is reported.

Very often, what people react to in the news varies according to whether they are Anglophone or Francophone. But when it comes to national public policy issues, you need to know what will trigger a response in people, from coast to coast to coast, in both official languages. To get a good sense of how Canadians feel about these issues, you need to read or listen to the media in Quebec—and in the rest of Canada—in English AND in French.

Part of your job as policy analysts will be to understand the different reactions to events in different parts of the country. To do that effectively, you need to watch “Le Téléjournal” as well as the “The National,” and you need to tune in to “Tout le monde en parle” as well as “Question Period” or “The West Block.” Should your minister go on “Tout le monde en parle”? If so, how should he or she be briefed? If you don’t watch the program—which is one of the most popular shows in Canada—or if you only watch television in English, you will not be able to give the best advice to your minister. Also, if your minister receives an invitation from Rosemary Barton of “Power and Politics” or from Tom Clark of “The West Block,” you should know what to tell him or her to expect. Being a unilingual public affairs professional in Canada—even in Quebec—is what is known as a career-limiting move.

Attitudes towards language policy are different depending on the language in which the conversation takes place. English-speaking Canada is often indifferent to what is happening and to what is being said in French-speaking Canada, whereas French-speaking Canada is linguistically insecure and fears that the French language is disappearing. These are two key challenges that must be taken into account in your profession.

Although English is undoubtedly the >lingua franca of the early 21st century, French has also become increasingly attractive. Old-stock Francophones are no longer the only ones who want to keep French relevant. In fact, never in the history of the language have so many people learned or spoken French, both in Canada and around the world. And this trend is confirmed by the ever-increasing popularity of French immersion programs across the country.

As I have been insisting since the beginning of my mandate, the ability to cross language barriers is a key leadership skill in a country like Canada.

Ministers, members of Parliament and heads of federal agencies—just like thousands of public service employees—have recognized that being fluent in both official languages is a critical leadership skill and have worked hard to become bilingual. To what extent are they using their language skills to communicate publicly with Canadians? Fluency in both official languages is clearly a requirement. We are very sensitive to the quality of our politicians’ speech when they speak in their second language. Ask Ms. Marois, Mr. Harper or Mr. Couillard, who was criticized for speaking only in English in a speech he gave in Iceland. After the federal leaders’ debates in French, the media turned to linguists to analyze Mr. Mulcair’s and Mr. Trudeau’s French.

Each community is too culturally rich to ignore. Making sense of Canada’s national conversation is very difficult if you don’t understand half of it. Canada’s next generation of leaders must be able to communicate effectively in both of the country’s official languages.

Having good leadership skills in public affairs means understanding English-speaking and French-speaking communities across the province and across the country: the newspapers they read, the television shows they watch, the movies they see and the theatres they go to. It means getting their jokes.

The world is changing rapidly, so we need to have flexible tools and policies to help us adapt to the current linguistic reality. The population will continue to diversify faster than ever. Laws and policies have been established to protect the French language, and they work. But in our globalized economy, no modern society can afford to ignore the lingua franca of its era. Being bilingual helps you overcome many challenges, personal as well as professional.

Don’t forget that the values you hold today will have an impact on the public policies of tomorrow. This is why linguistic duality must continue figure prominently among your values. The future lies in diversity and versatility, and bilingualism—or even multilingualism—is a measure of success.

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.

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