Archived - Notes for an address during an informal discussion with participants of the Canada School of Public Service’s pilot project
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Ottawa, November 2, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Good afternoon, and thank you all for coming today. I would also like to say hello to those who are joining us via webcast.
I am pleased to be here this afternoon for several reasons. First, because this activity is part of the Universities Language Training Project, which I have praised on numerous occasions. I am also glad of this opportunity to talk to you because you are the ones who are building the future of linguistic duality in Canada.
I applaud this exemplary pilot project, which is one of the commitments made by the federal government in the Roadmap for Canada’s Linguistic Duality 2008-2013: Acting for the Future. I hope that, even before graduation, it will help you determine whether you meet the qualification standards of positions that require the use of both official languages in federal departments and agencies. I believe this pilot project is the answer to many shortcomings in the administration of official languages competencies in the public service.
First, I would like to briefly describe my role. As Commissioner, my main responsibility is to promote linguistic duality within the federal government and in Canadian society as a whole. I am also Canada’s official languages ombudsman—the protector of Canadians’ language rights. Citizens can contact me when they believe their language rights have been violated by a federal institution. Federal public service employees also call on me when they feel that there have been breaches concerning their right to work in their own language, where that right applies.
Your generation has never known a country where the teaching of French was prohibited or limited to a small minority. I was born in Ottawa at a time when French was a private code used among Francophones. The barrier between Anglophones and Francophones was impenetrable, and the French that we learned in class was nothing like what we heard on the street.
Later, during my last year of high school, a friend invited me to a concert by Quebec singer-songwriter Gilles Vigneault at the University of Toronto. I was only vaguely aware of his existence at the time, and it was an amazing discovery! I barely understood a word of what he was singing, but I was dazzled. Here was a cultural phenomenon in the flesh: Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, in person, right in front of me. It was a deeply moving experience.
I don’t know if any of you have already had this feeling of being spellbound by a song or a book or a film—it’s the beginning of an infatuation. I had this experience with Gilles Vigneault and, later on, with the monologues of Yvon Deschamps, the songs of Beau Dommage and Pierre Lapointe, the novels of François Gravel, the films of Claude Jutra, Denys Arcand and Denis Villeneuve, and the plays of Wajdi Mouawad. I not only discovered artists—I also discovered a culture.
Curiosity was the starting point for my career working in both official languages.
I moved to Toronto with my family as a teenager. I studied in English at the University of Toronto, and I was unilingual. After my first year, a year after I heard Gilles Vigneault, I got a summer job at an archaeological dig at Fort Lennox on the Richelieu River near Montréal. That summer was a revelation and a real shock. There I was in my own country, but it was completely unfamiliar. I couldn’t understand what the other students were saying, I didn’t know about any of the issues they were concerned about, I didn’t know any of their songs or anything about their world. So I listened a lot and I asked a lot of questions. And so, in addition to learning French, I developed a strong interest in and passion for Quebec, and that has never left me.
Learning French, I became more sensitive to what people go through when they come here and learn our language. Speaking French with an accent helped me better understand how people who speak English with an accent feel. That experience helped me understand how hard it is to learn a second language. Learning another language and another culture does help us understand each other better, that’s very true, but more importantly it helps us simply to function from day to day!
When I was an English-speaking student in a French-speaking community, my immediate need was not to understand Quebec culture, much as I wanted to. It was just to know what people were saying, understand their jokes, be part of the gang.
Before I was appointed Commissioner of Official Languages in 2006, I was a journalist. I spent a good part of my career—in 1968, then from 1976 to 2006—writing about Quebec and the Quebec political scene for the rest of Canada. I worked for publications like the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s and The Gazette, in Toronto, Montréal, Québec City, Washington and Ottawa. Between 1995 and 2000, I did the opposite. As a guest columnist for Le Devoir, I wrote about what was going on in the rest of Canada. In a way I have been a linguistic and cultural bridge between the English- and French-speaking communities throughout my career as a journalist.
Your generation faces great challenges, including climate change, economic crises and new international instability. At the same time, you have remarkable tools that give you unprecedented access to information and instant communication. These new technologies open all kinds of doors to both Anglophone and Francophone culture. You find nothing unusual or unnatural about being bilingual or even trilingual.
Learning a language is a lifetime’s work, and to keep up your skills in that language, you have to use it. We know that hockey players play better in April than in September—it’s the same thing for language: use it or lose it!
Canada, with its two official languages, is known and respected as a welcoming and inclusive country. Every year, some 250,000 people leave their own countries to settle here, knowing that linguistic duality is at the heart of Canadian identity.
Canadians are extraordinarily lucky because our two official languages are also international languages that give us access to two world cultures.
I see no contradiction between linguistic duality and cultural diversity. I would even go so far as to say that, without the recognition of Canada’s two language communities, the very idea of multiculturalism would be harder for people to accept. Cultural diversity, like linguistic duality, is a central feature of Canadian history. Diversity has always been part of the make-up of this country. Beginning with the intermingling of Aboriginal, French and English cultures, Canada’s social fabric has been enriched over the decades by the contributions of Canadians of diverse backgrounds.
As Commissioner of Official Languages, one of my tasks is to explain this important relationship to all communities in Canada, not just the English- and French-speaking communities. Saying that linguistic duality is one of our values means that we accept and welcome cultures that are separate yet connected.
Knowing our two official languages is the key to your success, especially considering the global knowledge economy and growing international competition.
Let me give you an example. When I was a journalist, I was involved in one of Team Canada’s trips to China. The federal government had called on all the Chinese speakers working in the various embassies in the region. It also recruited Canadians living in China to act as guides and interpreters for the hundreds of Canadians taking part in the trip. I was very impressed by these young Canadians, some of whom had studied in China or worked in other Asian countries. Although I could not tell how good their Chinese was, I did notice that they were able to explain to the bus driver where we wanted to go and when he should come back to pick us up. They were also more than able to converse with people and provide us with explanations. And on top of this, they all spoke both of Canada’s official languages.
Clearly, learning French (in the case of English Canadians) and learning English (in the case of French Canadians) had not prevented these young people from learning Chinese. Rather, learning a second language was one of the factors that led them to learn others.
When you are ready to join the workforce, your skills will be in great demand and you will want to stand out from the crowd. To be a political leader in Canada, you need more than just knowledge of the two official languages; you need to be able to speak them fluently. This is also a requirement for advancement in the federal public service. And bilingualism is essential not only in the public service but also for anyone who wants a career in journalism, business, tourism and hotel management, or the armed forces. Knowing both official languages, and even one or two other languages, will give you a strong competitive edge.
There has never been a better time to develop language skills—especially for those interested in a public service career. The public service is Canada’s largest employer, and 40 percent of all positions require a working knowledge of Canada’s two official languages. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is to have a bilingual public service. How can we claim to be able to serve Canadians in the official language of their choice if we don’t understand them?
As the government renews itself and a new generation makes its mark, I am more optimistic than ever that it will be a bilingual—maybe even trilingual—generation. A truly Canadian generation!
You have all shown great leadership in your willingness to be a part of this program. I encourage you to take full advantage of your language skills and seek out the many tremendous opportunities that will come your way both personally and professionally. I would like to take this opportunity to encourage your universities, and all Canadian universities, to maximize your second-language learning opportunities and to encourage you to maintain your language skills.
Throughout my career, I have always found it useful to be able to speak both French and English. I’ve travelled across the country and around the world, and I’ve never met anyone who regretted being bilingual. I have, however, met a fair number of people who bitterly regretted the fact that they had never mastered a second language.
Thank you for your attention. I would be pleased to answer your questions and hear about your own experiences of linguistic duality.