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Leadership and language skills: Inseparable in the public service
Ottawa, December 8, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to thank Sandra Hassan for inviting me to speak to you today during your staff meeting. Your group plays a key role in the way federal institutions apply the Official Languages Act. But rather than talk about compliance, I would really like to talk to you about leadership this morning. More specifically, the connection between your language skills and your effectiveness as leaders of your organization.
Canada has made great strides in working toward respect for official languages and linguistic duality, which are core values of the Canadian identity. When it comes to official languages in the public service, however, it can be difficult to figure out just what the message is—especially because the current government says one thing and does something else.
The role of linguistic duality in Canadian society is quite simple: our two official languages, English and French, belong to all Canadians. They enable us to build bridges between communites across the country and to establish a national dialogue.
This dialogue is based on respect—respect for unilingual Canadians, respect for official language communities, respect for members of the public who receive services from the federal government and respect for the people who work for that government.
And yet, more than 40 years after the Official Languages Act was passed, there are still shortfalls in applying it. The impact of budget cuts on official language communities is not always taken into account; a unilingual English judge is appointed to the Supreme Court; and a unilingual English auditor general is hired, despite the fact that bilingualism was an essential criterion for the position.
I am still optimistic, though. The controversy surrounding the appointments has shown that both English- and French-speaking Canadians have higher expectations. The bar has been raised. I sincerely believe that, by continuing to demonstrate strong, consistent leadership in the public service, we can foster a culture that promotes linguistic duality as a value rather than a burden.
Linguistic duality is a fundamental value of Canadian society and must be an integral part of the public service. Creating a public service that reflects this value is a major challenge that requires action at all levels of the federal government, starting at the top. As members of the Central Agencies Portfolio, you play an absolutely vital role in determining the success or failure of the Official Languages Act within the public service. I believe that your attitude toward language—and particularly your respect for language of work as a value rather than an obligation—will determine your ability as a leader. In other words, I think that mastering, using and promoting Canada’s two official languages are key leadership skills.
The focus on leadership by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages is not new. It has been a recurring subject in the ongoing review of linguistic duality in the Government of Canada.
Leadership in a federal institution that respects both official languages means much more than giving a speech in French, or chairing a bilingual meeting, or sending messages in both official languages. In June 2007, I heard Jeffrey Gandz of the Ivey Executive Program and Ivey Leadership Program talk about leadership and the importance of knowing how to influence and persuade, in other words, encouraging, empowering and exhibiting values. “If leaders don’t exhibit values, the values don’t exist,” he said.
I asked Mr. Gandz how important it was for leaders to be able to communicate with the organization as a whole, as opposed to just their direct reports. That, he said, was the difference between a leader and a manager. You manage within a system; you lead across systems. So, to be a leader in the public service, you need to know how to influence, persuade, engage and empower all of your employees, in English and in French.
One of your key roles is to personify values: the values of your organization and of the public service. Linguistic duality must remain at the heart of public service values.
Shortly after I became Commissioner, I met with senior second language evaluations staff and raised an issue that had interested me for some time. For years I had been hearing people complain about how hard it is to get a C in oral interaction, and so I asked what was required.
I was told that to get a C in oral interaction, the candidate should be able to persuade, to explain something in detail and to give advice to a junior colleague.
I thought about this, and I realized something. These are not language criteria at all. These are leadership criteria.
The study we published this year called Beyond Bilingual Meetings: Leadership Behaviours for Managers aims to inspire senior officials and managers to set the standard in terms of official languages in their organizations. The study includes a leadership competencies profile for official languages that uses the same key competencies as the more general profile developed by the Treasury Board, which you have gotten to know throughout your careers: Values and Ethics, Strategic Thinking, Engagement and Management Excellence.
It is important that your leadership in linguistic duality be visible, that the tools are in place to implement it. Demonstrating courage by taking corrective action to ensure that employees’ rights are respected is a particularly vital competency. You will gain the respect of your subordinates if you show boldness, creativity and initiative in the actions you take to ensure that official languages are respected at work, and if you are honest and transparent with managers and employees when they fail to comply with the language-of-work provisions of the Official Languages Act.
The Beyond Bilingual Meetings study is available on our website, where you will also find a self-assessment tool for managers that allows you to evaluate the leadership behaviours already in place to promote official languages in the workplace, and those that have not yet been introduced.
The Official Languages Act was adopted in 1969, but it was not until 1988 that it was amended to include Part VII, which concerns the advancement of English and French and the vitality of Canada’s minority Anglophone and Francophone communities. Unfortunately, the Government of Canada has still not affirmed, loudly and clearly, that full and proactive compliance with this part of the Act is a priority.
All federal institutions, without exception, have the duty to advance English and French in Canada. This is equally within the reach of institutions whose mandate seems to naturally lend itself to Part VII-related activities as it is for institutions whose opportunities for initiatives are less obvious. Part VII also sets out the duty of all federal institutions to take positive measures in order to fulfill their commitment to advance English and French. Each institution must define the measures to be taken by working closely with official language communities and taking their needs into account.
Some federal institutions have a poor grasp of their Part VII obligations. This lack of understanding is often the result of insufficient planning and preparation. What’s more, some institutions still believe that Part VII does not apply to them.
Canadian Heritage and the Treasury Board do not currently have the power or authority to provide proper guidance to federal institutions in the implementation of Part VII of the Official Languages Act. Furthermore, the Treasury Board does not have the authority to develop policies to give effect to Part VII of the Act.
Therefore, I have recommended that the Prime Minister of Canada amend Part VIII of the Official Languages Act in order to assign the following responsibilities to the Treasury Board: establish policies to give effect to Part VII; recommend regulations to the Governor in Council to give effect to Part VII; issue directives to give effect to Part VII; and provide information to the public and to federal institutions relating to the policies and programs that give effect to Part VII.
The Government of Canada needs to make clear its commitment to Part VII of the Act. It needs to send a loud and clear message that implementing Part VII is an important priority for federal institutions. The government must also make institutions more accountable for their actions in this regard.
The government needs to adopt and communicate a proactive vision of the Act with regard to official language communities and the advancement of English and French, and must define the results that it expects from all federal institutions.
I have therefore recommended that the Prime Minister of Canada and the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages clearly communicate their commitment to Part VII and confirm that it is an important priority for all federal institutions to take positive measures to promote English and French and support the development of official language communities.
I have further recommended that the Clerk of the Privy Council take measures to make federal senior officials more accountable for the way in which their organizations implement Part VII of the Act, and ensure that they report the results of their efforts to the Canadian public.
I have also recommended that senior management of federal institutions implement the Official Languages Act in its entirety, by including Part VII in their institutions' decision-making processes.
Showing leadership in official languages is not just respecting the idea of it; it’s not just checking off boxes on a “to do” list. To give managers and employees a real choice in the language they use at work, you have to respect their preferences and you have to use both official languages yourself. You can’t just rely on giving bilingual speeches and leave it at that. Otherwise it’s just empty talk. It’s not real, and it’s not fair. And it’s never a good idea to value expediency over justice.
You have to make the public service we see on paper—and on-line—a reality.
Leadership is key. The success of language policy in your organization depends on your behaviour, on your actions and on the messages you send. Don’t wait for your managers or employees to bring up the subject of official languages in the workplace. Be proactive. It’s a question of respect. And good leaders are always respectful.
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.