Archived - Notes for an address to the officer cadets of the Royal Military College Saint-Jean as part of Heritage Week
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Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, November 30, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Ladies and gentlemen, officer cadets, members of the Canadian Forces, good morning.
It is a great pleasure to be here with you today and to speak to you as part of your Heritage Week. I would like to thank Colonel Guy Maillot for his kind welcome as well as Captain Éric Le Marec.
It is always with the greatest respect that I meet men and women who have chosen to serve their country, and pursue college and university studies to better be able to do so. This is no small task, and few people are capable of doing what you do. I admire the dedication that you show. By choosing a military career, you are putting the interests of others before your own, and this brings honour to each and and every one of you. A military career is not an easy choice; the fact that you have made it shows that you already have leadership abilities.
The world in which we live is more and more complex, and understanding the nuances of national and international relations requires a larger set of different skills. As members of the military, you must have more than one string to your bow. You must simultaneously develop your intellectual abilities, your physical fitness and your leadership skills, and you must also be capable of communicating in English and French, our two official languages. The Colonel explained to me that these are the four pillars of your College. I told him that I believe that these four pillars can be brought back to only one: leadership. To succeed, you must show great determination.
The Royal Military College Saint-Jean is part of the French-speaking community’s long struggle for recognition within the Canadian Forces. Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the College, which was founded to meet the need to provide military training in French.
Unfortunately, the College’s role has suffered greatly since the cuts in 1995 and is only slowly recovering. It was General Roméo Dallaire—himself a graduate of this college—who made me understand that bilingualism is a key leadership competency in the Canadian Forces.
“A Canadian officer must be able to communicate and not simply monologue,” he said. “That means communicating in the soldier’s language. Because the soldier will no longer die in the officers’ language.” Six years ago, General Dallaire also said to me “bilingualism has never been presented as a fundamental criterion for rising to the rank of officer.” I believe that this is no longer the case.
As you are preparing yourselves to take up the challenges of the future, General Walter J. Natynczyk has also sent a message that has the great merit of clarity: to rise to the senior ranks, you must speak both official languages. This is recognition of the fact that speaking both official languages is an essential leadership skill.
I have not always been bilingual; however, I clearly remember what drove me to explore French. Curiosity has been the driving force in my career, and it is what led me to have a career in each of our official languages.
I was born in Ottawa and moved to Toronto with my family as a teenager. I studied in English at the University of Toronto and, at that time, I was a unilingual Anglophone student. Then, in 1965, as part of my studies, I worked at an archaeological dig at Fort Lennox, on the Richelieu River, quite close to here. That summer was a revelation, a real shock to me. There I was, in my own country, yet it seemed like a foreign land. I realized how little I knew about my own country. I didn’t understand what the other students were saying, and that was unbearable. I wanted to participate in student life and learn. But I also wanted to have fun with my colleagues. So I rolled up my sleeves and, as well as learning French, developed a passion for Quebec that has never left me.
This experience helped me understand the difficulties of learning a second language and what it means to be an immigrant. Learning another language and learning about another culture does enable us to understand people better—but most important, it helps us in our everyday lives! When I was an English-speaking student in a French-speaking community, my immediate need was not to understand Quebec culture, though I certainly wanted to. It was just to know what people were saying, to understand their jokes and be part of the gang.
Before my appointment as Commissioner of Official Languages in 2006, I was a journalist. I spent a good part of my career—from 1968 to 1995 to be exact, apart from a few interludes when I was travelling, studying or writing books—writing about Quebec and its 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. Bilingualism has always been at the heart of my adult life, and I have dedicated my career to explaining to each of the language communities what is happening on the other side.
Now, as Commissioner of Official Languages, I also ensure that the two language communities respect each other. It is, to a certain extent, the extension of a career dedicated to understanding and respect.
As Commissioner of Official Languages, I hold six roles or functions dealing with the implementation of the Official Languages Act. First, I oversee promotion and education—as I am doing today by speaking to you—all across the country, something I have been doing since my appointment in 2006. Second, I act as an ombudsman in the investigation of complaints and monitor the repercussions of government initiatives. In other words, I ensure that federal institutions respect the Official Languages Act. I also act as a liaison with linguistic minorities, audit public services and intervene before the courts. The Act also defines the duties of the Commissioner of Official Languages: I am directly responsible to Parliament. My various duties may be divided into two categories: promotion and protection. I am part cheerleader, part nag. I must, at all costs, avoid ambiguity and always be clear.
I report to two parliamentary committees: one in the Senate and the other in the House of Commons. I am an officer of Parliament, which means that—like the Auditor General, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Information Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner, the Commissioner of Lobbying and the Integrity Commissioner—I am a guardian of the values that transcend the partisan debate of the day. In my case, I oversee the promotion of linguistic duality.
I believe that here at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean you understand the importance of this linguistic duality, because you live it daily. Knowledge of Canada’s official languages is a key leadership skill and is essential if you wish to be able to understand your country, give advice to senior civil servants and ministers, and command officers. The ability to overcome linguistic obstacles is also a key leadership skill in Canada. And Canada needs such leaders.
Here, at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean, you have the opportunity to develop your leadership abilities in a bilingual environment, and that is an unmatched opportunity that enables you to better understand what is happening in your country and better represent it when you are overseas.
The Royal Military College Saint-Jean is an educational institution like no other. When you finish your studies and your military training, you will be commissioned as officers in the Canadian Forces, in addition to receiving your degree. That is an impressive accomplishment. A stimulating career in the service of your country lies ahead of you. Now is the moment to take the initiative and take advantage of your exceptional training to become the leader you have sought to become since you decided to pursue a career in the Canadian Forces.
Knowing the official languages is not just a way to discover the world and learn from what it offers you. It is also a wonderful way to open yourselves up to others and develop deep friendships that you otherwise would not have had. The friendships that you will develop at the College with your classmates, teachers and officers, whether in English or French, will stay with you for the rest of your lives. These close connections are part of your training as officers.
Your bilingualism is both your passport and your calling card—it gives you access to new worlds outside of your own and identifies you as Canadian.
Mastering both official languages is also an opportunity to show your leadership skills. Do not forget that, during your career, you will have the choice or opportunity to climb the career ladder in the Canadian Forces. You must direct other military personnel and it will be your responsibility to understand them and make yourself understood. Knowing both official languages gives you a head start and enables you to set the right example.
You have the chance to explore what is happening in official language communities and the ethnic communities that have chosen to adopt English or French, or both. It is fascinating to see what drives people to learn another language, and incorporate it into their lives and identities. Our country, with its two official languages, is respected around the world. Our linguistic duality makes ours a country of openness, discovery and respect for others. By becoming a leader in the Canadian Forces, these are the values that you must project.
You are part of the young generation that wants to be heard and will do what it takes to make it happen. If you want to make a difference and give a new face to official languages in the Canadian Forces, you must demonstrate your leadership abilities and grant bilingualism a privileged place in your studies at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean. As members of the Canadian Forces, you owe it to yourselves to be able to serve your country and the Canadian people in both official languages. Canada is counting on you.
Canadians are very aware of the important economic advantages that a bilingual and multicultural society has. We understand as well that we cannot be fair to everyone if we cannot manage to establish equity and respect between our two major language groups. This is why it is so important for Canada to be able to count on armed forces that are bilingual. You symbolize linguistic unity and you must uphold this unity when you carry out your duties.
Canadians form a democratic and officially bilingual nation, which is committed to giving everyone the same rights and opportunities. Bilingual by choice: this is our ideal of peace and civility. This vision of the future suits us well. And though we are a country with two official languages and two official cultures, they do not constrain us. English and French are at the heart of our identity, and it is thanks to our linguistic duality that we are able to understand, accommodate and protect. I hope that you will continue to respect and protect your official languages, whatever your own mother tongue is. And I hope you will be proud of the message that you convey when performing your military functions. You are officers of Canada, and linguistic duality is part of you.
Thank you. If you have any questions, I would be happy to answer them.