Archived - Notes for a speech to members of the Canadian Society of Association Executives
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Ottawa, March 24, 2010
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
It’s a pleasure for me to be here today to discuss official languages and the role they play for businesses and non-profit associations, particularly in relation to communications and marketing.
English and French both have roots throughout our country, and have been part of Canada’s history since Confederation. Canadians’ rights with respect to official languages have evolved considerably since then, and are protected today not only by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but also by the Official Languages Act.
You may not be aware of it, but several of your members have been studied closely in terms of their approach to language. Last year, University of Toronto Political scientists David Cameron and Richard Simeon published the results in a collection entitled Language Matters: How Canadian voluntary associations manage French and English.
They found a wide range of different approaches.
In social policy, we see a virtually complete separation between the work of the Canadian Council on Social Development and the Conseil québécois de développement social; in others, we see confederal relationships prevail as in the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and the Fondation des maladies du cœur du Québec and several business associations. The relationship between the Anglophone and the Francophone branches of Amnesty International closely mirrors the idea of sovereignty-association, with separate groups collaborating where mutually desired. Finally, there are more conventional federal arrangements, as with the Canadian Federation of Agriculture or the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.Footnote 1
They did their study to discover what changes had occurred since John Meisel and Vincent Lemieux did a similar study for the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism four decades earlier. They were impressed by the changes they observed.
“The most striking conclusion to emerge from these case studies is how well these associations have learned to collaboration on shared goals,” they wrote. “None of these groups is hamstrung or paralyzed by internal conflict over language—as was the case with several when Meisel and Lemieux conducted their study.”Footnote 2
So you and your organizations should be congratulated. “The general picture,” according to Cameron and Simeon, is one of relative success.”Footnote 3
Most members of CSAE are not subject to the Act, the contents of which, like the official languages provisions of the Charter, apply mainly to federal institutions. Although you are not bound by the letter of the Act, in a Canadian market, you can certainly allow yourselves to be inspired by its spirit—and even more so in a market as remarkable in its linguistic duality as the Ottawa–Gatineau region.
Linguistic duality is a core value of our country. It is not without controversy, I admit, but it is part of what defines us as a nation, both here at home and on the international stage.
Languages play a huge part in Canada’s civil society. Of the 33 million people in this country, seven million are Francophones. Six million of them live in Quebec, including four million who cannot converse in English. As you develop your daily communications and marketing initiatives, you will need to further integrate a dual approach into your strategies, in order to reach your entire client base.
Even as the roots of English and French have taken hold across the country, language brings immigrants together with other Canadians. New immigrants to Canada make a choice when coming to this country: which official language should I live in? As the English- and French-speaking communities both grow with the arrival of immigrants, your planning and marketing must stay on top of the evolving needs of the entire Canadian population.
The first natural course of action is to consider Canada’s—and your members’—linguistic duality from the very beginning of all your business activities, including strategic planning. This will build language needs into your budget from the get-go and help you avoid surprises later on.
However, it is not enough to simply acknowledge the need by setting aside funding. Action is required on many levels. If you are to seriously consider reaching out to both language communities, you need to include members of both communities in your communications and marketing activities. How can you develop marketing campaigns—or products—if you can’t communicate with and understand the other culture? To really understand Canada, it’s important to go beyond the Ottawa Citizen and the Globe and Mail; The National and CTV News. You need to be aware of and explore other perspectives on what is going on.
The Quebec public offers a perfect example of the need to adapt a marketing campaign. For its various public health campaigns, Health Canada tends to devise separate communications activities in English and in French. At the most basic level, they don’t simply translate into French a slogan that has been tested in English; separate focus groups are held. That is why “Really Me” is “Drogues, pas besoin!” in French, not “Vraiment moi.” Break Free” is “Fumer, c’est fini!” and “Play it Smart” is “Moi, j’ai toute ma tête.”Footnote 4
To get away from social marketing for a moment, and into something more commercial, let’s look at a traditional Canadian product: beer, specifically Molson Canadian and Molson Export. The latter is sold in Quebec, while the former is sold in the rest of Canada. For obvious reasons, a beer with the slogan “I am Canadian” that promotes patriotism, which was popular throughout the country, would completely miss the point in Quebec. Quebec culture is internally-focused and draws on an identity rooted in language.
Quebec-based Molson Export has its own slogan: “Une vraie bière de Serge.” It is loosely based on the French expression “un bon serge,” meaning a genuinely nice guy and, particularly in this case, a loyal friend. Had the slogan been “Je suis canadien,” the campaign would have taken on a political undertone.
On the flipside, the Molson Export campaign means absolutely nothing to Quebec English-speakers. Molson and others continue to wrestle with the challenge of trying to reach out equally to Quebec’s majority and minority language communities. And companies face that same marketing challenge in the rest of country.
Other leading companies, like Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Bell, have all adapted completely different concepts for the Quebec market. The most recent Bell commercials are a notable exception: the commercials use the same concept in English and French, but the actors are different so that the commercials are not dubbed. This approach makes the French characters equally relatable to their target audience, with their movements and expressions in tune with Quebec culture.
If you are interested in the history of the evolution of advertising in French in Canada, let me recommend Frederick Elkin’s book, Rebels and Colleagues: Advertising and Social Change in French Canada. It was written almost 40 years ago—but it is still very relevant.
Perhaps because they affect the bottom line, commercial marketing campaigns tend to be fairly good at identifying segments of the population that require a specific cultural connection. But it seems to me that non-profit groups have even more to gain from such an approach. Your effectiveness often relies on the commitment of local groups and volunteers. Beyond the sales pitch, you need to establish an emotional connection with your audience. As Nelson Mandela is credited with saying: “If you talk to somebody in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
I’ve used the Quebec market as a general example, but locally, it’s important for groups to recognize the environment in which they operate. Ottawa–Gatineau is unique in Canada, as a region shared by two different provinces with very different needs and different minority language communities. Whereas in Ottawa the Francophones are in a minority situation, they constitute the majority on the other side of the river.
I recognize the challenges of finding bilingual staff, budgeting for translation and marketing services, and so on. Many federal institutions share these same challenges. But success in outreach begins by looking inward. Embracing both language cultures in your workplace is, in fact, an advantage for business, as well as a mark of respect for employees of both language groups. It should be perceived as a value that offers a competitive edge.
Within your associations, leadership plays an important role in the promotion of both languages. Unlike the public service, which is bound by language-of-work obligations, you have no official directives to follow for language in the workplace. However, with your associations located in the Ottawa–Gatineau region, it stands to reason that at least some of your employees are French-speaking. By demonstrating respect for these employees and encouraging them to communicate in their language whenever possible, you will go a long way in creating a positive work environment. It will also be easier to develop what I like to call the “linguistic duality reflex”: seeing the language implications of an activity right from the start, instead of seeing it as an afterthought.
The exit of the baby-boomers and the entry of Generation Y are creating an unprecedented renewal of the workforce. This new generation means that you will have at your fingertips a greater number of bilingual candidates. The new generations that will be entering the workforce have never known a Canada without a Charter, without an Official Languages Act, without French immersion. A record number of our youth are currently enrolled in some form of second-language program or have graduated from one.
Sadly, these numbers drop at the post-secondary level due to a lack of bilingual programs or programs catering to immersion graduates. But this is changing, too. Across the country, programs are popping up that offer second-language learning in various fields of study. Such programs mean that our youth are not forced to choose between second-language learning and their field of interest.
When hiring, consider organizational needs and future growth to see how bilingual candidates are a requirement and an asset. For many positions in the public service, bilingualism is viewed as a competency similar to experience and education. This same view can easily apply to the private sector.
The Ottawa–Gatineau region is defined by its strong English- and French-speaking populations, as well as by its high rate of tourism. Here, both the public and the private sectors should develop a linguistic duality reflex dictated by the needs of those they serve.
As you continue to discuss marketing and communications, fields where language skills as well as a superior knowledge of the target market are fundamental, I encourage you to look to new and innovative ways to better communicate with your members—and your employees—in their language of choice.
You are located in the ideal region to accomplish this, a region that gives you access to many resources that can assist you.
The opportunities offered by linguistic duality and bilingualism in the workplace start with you, the executives. Leadership is key to instilling a new vision and attitude in the workplace—and to gaining that competitive edge.
- Footnote 1
David Cameron and Richard Simeon, Language Matters: How Canadian voluntary associations manage French and English, UBC Press, Vancouver, 2009, p. 177.
- Footnote 2
Ibid, p. 178.
- Footnote 3
Ibid, p. 178.
- Footnote 4
Used respectively for Canada’s Drug Strategy, the National Program on Impaired Driving, the national Strategy on Tobacco Use.