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Leadership, Respect and a Career in the Federal Government
Halifax, November 7, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
First of all, I would like to thank Professor Stéphane Mechoulan for giving me the opportunity to speak to you.
I am here in Halifax this week to attend the third forum on the Perspectives of Canadians of Diverse Backgrounds on Linguistic Duality. Building on the success of the first two forums, which were held in Toronto and Vancouver, my office decided to pursue this initiative in the Atlantic region.
The two previous forums enabled us to improve our understanding of the relationship Canadians have with the country’s language debates, but the picture is still not complete. Here in Halifax, we will be able to get a better understanding of the similarities—and differences—of our country’s various ethnocultural communities, from coast to coast. As Commissioner of Official Languages, one of my key roles is to promote linguistic duality throughout the country. And to do that, I need to know what linguistic duality means to Canadians of all backgrounds.
Linguistic duality refers to the fact that Canada has two official languages of equal status and that each language is associated with a language community whose history and cultural traits have helped make Canada the country we know today.
I suspect that some of you may be wondering how the federal government’s language policy is relevant to your program, or to your career. To the extent that you have thought about it, I imagine 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 knowing 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 that you live in 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 the media talks about gives us a sense of what is relevant for the immediate future of the country. Public servants need to be aware of the issues of the day, and how they are presented in English, and in French. How does knowing both official languages affect your ability to be a manager? Well, employees working in regions that have been designated as bilingual (the National Capital Region, New Brunswick, most of Quebec, and parts of eastern and northern Ontario) have the right to work in either English or French.
Supervisors in these regions must therefore be able to communicate with their staff in either language. This means that employees can write their briefing notes, speak at meetings, deal with payroll, get their instructions and have their annual appraisal in English or in French. It is their choice, not their supervisor’s.
In the past couple of years, some federal institutions in the Atlantic region have decided to regionalize their operational structure, which means that supervisors in Halifax may have to supervise employees in the New Brunswick region who have the right to work in the language of their choice. Language skills are always useful, even in unilingual regions.
As the bilingual regions account 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—and it became law in 1988. More than two decades have passed since language-of-work provisions were added to the Official Languages Act, and yet creating a public service that reflects Canada’s linguistic duality remains a challenge.
English- or French-speaking workers who are in the minority sometimes 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. This can happen in entire offices.
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 be a leader when you can’t understand those you are leading? How can you respect employees if you can’t speak to them in the official language of their choice? How can they respect you? This goes beyond the work force as well. How can you respect members of the public without respecting their language rights? How can you respect elected representatives without using the official language of their choice? The issue of respect is critical.
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. All across the country, in both language communities, Canadians are increasingly interested in knowing what’s 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 the next generation of Canadian leaders are able to communicate proficiently in the country’s two official languages.
Proficiency in Canada’s official languages is also a bridge to multilingualism and an enhanced role on the world stage.
As 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 hired Canadians living in China to act as guides and interpreters for the hundreds of Canadians taking part in that trip.
I was very impressed by these young Canadians, some of whom had studied in China or worked in other Asian countries. Although I couldn't 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 explain things to us.
And on top of this, they all spoke both of Canada’s official languages.
Clearly, learning French (in the case of English Canadians) and English (in the case of French Canadians) had not stopped these young people from learning Chinese. Rather, learning a second language was one of the factors that led them to learn others.
The government, Canada’s largest employer recognizes that—in theory. Part of your job, as future public servants and policy analysts, will be to understand the different reactions to events in various 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,” which is one of the most popular programs in Canada, and not just in Quebec? If so, how should he or she be briefed? If you don’t watch the program, or can’t understand it, how can you give good advice?
Leadership in a public sector organization that respects both official languages means much more than giving a speech in French, or conducting a meeting in both languages, or sending out bilingual e-mail messages to staff.
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 your ability to read, write and speak in your second official language. Most people get a letter grade of A, B or C, with C being the highest level of proficiency. If you do really well, you receive an “E”, and are exempted from ever being tested again. 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.
Like all important management values, linguistic duality is more than a series of rules and standards. And, like fiscal integrity 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 shows they watch, the movies they see and the theatres they go to.
It means getting their jokes.
Some might see this as an onerous obligation, but it should be regarded as a terrific adventure and wonderful opportunity. Using another language on the job opens doors and generates opportunities. You get to see the world through different eyes and gain new perspectives on old problems.
It’s an adventure you can experience right here in Halifax, where there is a vibrant and growing French-speaking community. The rich Francophone and Acadian culture and heritage permeate throughout the province and are easily accessible. Here, you can find many opportunities to get acquainted with Canada’s other official language—the recent Festival des cultures francophones, which took place right here in Halifax just a few weeks ago, was organized to celebrate the diversity of the city’s French-speaking population. Not only was it a great event where you could discover musicians and authors from here and abroad, it was also an excellent opportunity to hear and speak French and to increase your understanding of other cultures.
When I was at university, getting in touch with the French side of Canada’s identity was a serious eye-opener. A summer project in Quebec made me realize how much I’d 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.