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Respect, Leadership and a Career in the Federal Government
Toronto, March 18, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
First of all, I would like to thank Professors Patrice Dutil, Janet Lum and John Shields for giving me the opportunity to speak to you.
I suspect that some of you may be wondering what relevance the federal government’s language policy might have to your program—or to your career. To the extent that you have thought about it, I suspect you have considered it as simply another test you will have to pass, someday, down the road.
I am going to make the case that knowledge of Canada’s official languages is a critical leadership competency—an essential skill in your ability to understand the country, advise senior officials and ministers, and manage employees.
As future leaders, what you know—and what you don’t know—can make or break you. The ability to be in tune with the society in which you live is an essential survival skill. What is important now? What are the big issues of tomorrow?
The media is an imperfect mirror of our society, but it’s the best we have when examining current events. What they talk about gives a sense of what is relevant for the immediate future of the country.
Looking back at 2010, it is interesting to see what influenced public opinion the most. Last year’s top five news stories of the year will be instantly recognizable to all of you:
- The earthquake in Haiti
- The G20/G8 Summit
- The trial of Colonel Russell Williams
- The WikiLeaks diplomatic cables
- The Canadian mission in Afghanistan
There are two points I want to make about this list.
First, is that Toronto is only the focus of one of those items. The story about Haiti is international but gained local significance in Montréal, which boasts one of the largest Haitian communities outside Haiti. The G20 was indeed in Toronto, the story mostly about its police force. Williams’ trial was in Belleville, WikiLeaks on the Internet. The decisions about Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan are made in Ottawa.
I could continue down the list. Number six is the alleged corruption of British Columbian officials; the others mostly international stories. To spare the feelings of any Maple Leafs fans in the room, I chose the list that excludes sports news.
I’m not trying to say Toronto is irrelevant in national affairs. It’s a powerhouse not only for our economy, but also our cultural and social development as a country. However, decisions made by our leaders in Ottawa, Toronto, Halifax, Calgary or Vancouver are influenced by what is happening throughout the country. My second point is about what’s missing from the list:
- Jean Charest’s budget
- The Bastarache Commission on the appointment of judges
- The Marc Bellemare affair
These three stories were on the Quebec media’s top five—if you exclude news about the Montréal Canadiens, of course. The other two were Haiti and the Olympic Games.
To get a good sense of what these are about, you had to read or listen to the Quebec media, either in English or, better yet, in French. And, if you look at the first list, the coverage of Haiti in French was quite different—more complete, more familiar—than the coverage in English. The coverage of the G-20 was also different, insofar as many of the demonstrators from Quebec felt that they had been targeted by police.
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 the The National, Tout le monde en parle as well as CTV Question Period or The Hour. Should your Minister go on Tout le monde en parle? If so, how should he or she be briefed? If you don’t watch, or can’t understand the program—which is one of the most watched programs in Canada, not just in French—it will be hard to give good advice.
I have been arguing this since the beginning of my mandate: the ability to reach out past language barriers is a key leadership skill in a country like Canada.
In each region of the country, in both language communities, there’s a growing awareness that interesting things are happening on the other side of the fence..
Each community is too culturally rich to ignore. Making sense of Canada’s national dialogue is very difficult if you understand only half of it. It is imperative that Canada’s next generation of leaders are able to communicate proficiently in the country’s two official languages.
Proficiency in the country’s official languages is also a bridge to multilingualism and thus an enhanced role on the world stage.
As a journalist, I went on one of the Team Canada trips to China. The federal government pulled together all the Chinese speakers in the region from various embassies. They also hired Canadians in China to work as guides and translators for what seemed like the hundreds of Canadians who were on that trip.
Something struck me about these very impressive young Canadians, some of whom had been studying in China or working in other parts of Asia. Although I couldn't evaluate the quality of their Chinese, they seemed to be able to explain to the bus driver where we wanted to go and what time we needed to be picked up and so on. They were able to carry on quite vigorous conversations with people and explain things to us.
Also, they were all bilingual in both of Canada’s official languages.
Clearly, learning French for the English Canadians and English for the French Canadians was not a barrier to their learning Chinese; it was part of what led them to learning other languages.
Canada’s largest employer recognizes that—in theory. How does knowledge of both official languages affect your ability to be a manager? Well, if you’re a supervisor in Ottawa, the people you supervise have the right to work in the official language of their choice, English or French.
In the federal public service, employees working in certain regions (in the National Capital Region, in New Brunswick, in most of Quebec, and in eastern and northern Ontario) have the right to work in either French or English.
As a consequence, supervisors in these areas must be able to communicate with them in either language. This means the employees can write their briefing notes, speak at meetings, deal with payroll, the employees obtain guidance and have their annual appraisal in English or in French. It is their choice, not the choice of their supervisor.
As these regions count for more than half of the entire public service workforce, there is a significant demand for talented, bilingual supervisors, managers and administrators.
This is not a new policy. It was first introduced as government policy by Prime Minister Lester Pearson in 1966—45 years ago next month—and it became law in 1988. In practice, 20 years after language-of-work provisions were added to the Official Languages Act, creating a public service that reflects Canada’s linguistic duality remains a challenge.
The few English- or French-speaking workers find themselves greatly outnumbered and don’t want to create a fuss, so they get by, using their second language, rather than working in their own language. Sometimes, this happens in entire offices.
That’s why managers and executives in the federal government must understand that bilingualism is a matter of respect. To be a leader in the public service, you need to know how to influence, persuade, engage, energize and empower all of your employees, in English and in French.
How can you exercise leadership without understanding those you are leading? How can you respect employees if you cannot speak to them in their preferred official language? This goes beyond the work force as well. How can you respect members of the public without respecting their language rights? How can a public servant respect elected representatives without using the official language of their choice? The issue of respect is critical.
Leadership in a public sector organization that respects both official languages means much more than reading a speech in French, or conducting a meeting in which both languages are used, or ensuring that messages to staff go out in both languages.
This is what we wanted to demonstrate with a study published earlier this month: Beyond Bilingual Meetings: Leadership Behaviours for Managers. The consultations conducted during this study helped to identify the essential characteristics and behaviours of a good leader in a bilingual public service. Not surprisingly, the study suggests that managers’ actions have a direct impact, on a daily basis, on the use of both official languages within the public service.
So, bilingualism is an important leadership skill for public service managers. But just how bilingual do they have to be?
In the federal government, bilingualism is evaluated according to a candidate’s ability to read, write and speak another language. Most people get a letter grade of A, B or C, with C being the greatest fluency for people speaking a second language. C levels are highly prized, because they mean you can manage people. You can intervene in a conflict, supervise an employee or convince a colleague.
One public servant quoted in our study argued that “
you don’t need to be perfectly bilingual to be a leader, but you need to have enough skills to understand and answer in the second language. You have to be willing to speak in your second official language in formal and informal settings.”
The public service isn’t necessarily looking for those legendary “
perfectly bilingual” individuals from Montréal or Timmins. As one of the francophone participants in our study explained, “
managers who have difficulty speaking their second language are especially good examples because they show that it’s not easy and it’s okay to make mistakes. As a result, they are even more inspiring.”
Throughout the study, public servants said they need leaders who lead by example. More specifically, the supervisors who inspire them:
- encourage employees to write in the official language of their choice;
- respect their employees’ preferred official language in individual communications;
- have a good understanding of their employees’ official languages needs and make work tools available in both official languages;
- And yes, they hold bilingual meetings and provide documentation in both official languages.
And the list goes on.
The study includes a Leadership Competencies Profile for Official Languages, which uses the same key competencies as the more general leadership profile developed by Treasury Board: Values and Ethics, Strategic Thinking, Engagement and Management Excellence. For each value, we identified a series of intermediate competencies, as well as behaviours that flow from these competencies.
Let me give you a series of quick examples.
In Values and Ethics, one of four competencies is “
Shows respect for the language preferences of his or her employees.” Associated behaviours include the following:
- Finds out which official language each employee prefers to use at work;
- Speaks to employees in the official language of their choice; and
- Consults employees to determine their language-of-work needs.
An example from Strategic Thinking is “
Uses strategic methods to ensure that the vision is respected.” Among other things, this means that the manager:
- Develops a series of best practices in cooperation with various working groups; and
- Outlines specific expectations with respect to language of work.
One of the competencies for Engagement is “
Demonstrates courage in taking corrective action to ensure that employees’ rights are respected,” which means that managers should do the following:
- Show boldness, creativity and initiative in the action taken to ensure that Part V of the Official Languages Act is respected; and
- Be honest and transparent with managers and employees when they do not respect Part V of the Official Languages Act;
Management Excellence competencies include ensuring “
that employees have the required language skills.” Successful managers will do the following:
- Determine with employees, during their performance assessment, whether they still have the language skills required for the position and discuss all the training and learning retention needs;
- Include language training and learning retention in the training plan; and
- Remind employees, during performance assessments, of their responsibilities with respect to learning retention.
The study is available on our website.
Like all important management values, linguistic duality is more than a series of rules and standards. Like financial rigour or accountability, it’s a value that needs to be ever-present in the workplace.
Bilingual leadership means knowing the cultural environment in which your executives and employees live—the newspapers they read, the television programs they watch, the movies they see and the theatres they go to.
It means getting their jokes.
Some might consider this an onerous obligation. But it should be considered a terrific adventure and wonderful opportunity. Using a second language on the job opens doors and gives you more opportunities. You get to see the world through different eyes and gain new perspectives on old problems.
It’s an adventure you can live right here in Toronto.
It’s difficult to think of Toronto as having a strong French presence. There’s no French Quarter where you can immerse yourself in the language while sipping a glass of Merlot on a terrasse.
In Tony Ruprecht’s latest book, Toronto’s Many FacesFootnote 1, the author includes a few pages about the francophone community, its organizations and its events. He doesn’t devote a lot of space to it, but he grasps two essential characteristics of the community: its diversity and its openness.
Some of Toronto’s 53,000 Francophones come from various places in Canada: from the francophone regions in Eastern and Northern Ontario as well as from Quebec and the Maritimes. The majority, however, trace their origins from outside Canada: Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. In this way, the francophone community is a reflection of the city.
It’s also a very open community that welcomes Anglophones to its events. The films shown at the Festival du film francophone de Toronto have English subtitles and most of its audience is now English-speaking. There are various events throughout the year, from the Saint-Jean-Baptiste concerts to performances organized by the community from Rwanda. In addition to Radio-Canada, the city now has its own francophone community radio station. TFO, Ontario’s French-language public television broadcaster, has its headquarters here and offers quality programming for children and youths.
Getting in touch with the French portion of Canada’s identity when I was attending university was a serious eye-opener. For me, it was a summer project in Quebec that made me realize how much I’ve been missing.
Even though I’ve spent most of my career working in Ontario, speaking both English and French—and making sense of French Canada—has always served me well.
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
RUPRECHT, Tony “Toronto’s many Faces” Fitzhenry & Whiteside, Toronto, 2005, 356 p.