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Notes for an address to students at the University of Waterloo
Waterloo, January 18, 2012
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
I would like to begin by thanking Mr. Poirier for inviting me to speak to you today. One of the benefits of being Commissioner of Official Languages is having the opportunity to meet people who are making French a part of their lives.
And so I am particularly pleased to be talking to you today at the University of Waterloo’s French Studies Department because you are the ones who are building the future of linguistic duality in Canada.
Your generation faces great challenges. Fortunately, you have remarkable tools that allow you to communicate with the world in real time and have instant access to any information you need, sometimes on your phone while sipping a coffee!
In this context, it is reassuring to know that so many young Canadians value our country’s linguistic duality. It is a distinctive feature of our society that we should extend to the rest of the world.
Our two language communities have helped make Canada the country we know and love. Whether your first language is English, French or another language, linguistic duality is a Canadian value "from coast to coast to coast” that we all share. English and French should be treated with the same respect, even if you are unilingual. These languages belong to all of us.
I’d like to talk briefly about what my office does. The Parliament of Canada adopted the first Official Languages Act in 1969, when the Right Honourable Pierre Elliott Trudeau was Prime Minister. The Act states that English and French enjoy equal status, rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and government of Canada. A new Official Languages Act came into force in 1988 and was amended on November 25, 2005.
I was appointed Commissioner of Official Languages in 2006. I am the sixth person to hold this position. Like the other agents of Parliament, I report directly to Parliament and, in a way, am the guardian of one of the Canadian values that transcend partisan debates of the day.
My job is to promote the Official Languages Act and oversee its full implementation. I protect the language rights of Canadians and I promote linguistic duality and bilingualism in Canada. It is my duty to ensure that the following three main objectives of the Act are met:
- Ensure the equality of English and French in Parliament, the Government of Canada, the federal administration and the institutions subject to the Act;
- Support the development and vitality of official language communities in Canada, that is, English-speaking Quebecers and French-speaking Canadians outside Quebec;
- Advance the equality of status and use of English and French in Canadian society.
Canada’s language policy does not require all Canadians to speak both official languages. On the contrary, it exists to protect the rights of unilingual citizens. All Canadians have the right to obtain services from the federal government in the official language of their choice. This is why it is important to be bilingual when you decide to work for the federal public service and serve all Canadians.
Being bilingual is not only important for a career within the federal government, however. You may be wondering how official languages policy affects you if you have decided on a career in education, in business, in research, in communications. You may be thinking that your language skills will have no impact on your career.
Knowing both official languages is a critical leadership skill—essential if you want to understand and communicate with people here and abroad, negotiate contracts, woo clients, manage employees and much more.
Being in tune with the society in which you live is an indispensable survival skill. What is important today? What will the key issues be tomorrow? To see the whole picture, you need to be aware of current concerns and know how they are being presented—in English and in French.
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. It’s hard to make sense of Canada’s national dialogue if you only understand half of it.
In Canada, leadership in official languages means doing everything possible to give all Canadians equal opportunities to live in the official language of their choice.
History shows that major advances in official languages at the federal level have always been the result of strong, decisive political leadership.
In 1966, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson laid the groundwork for Canada’s language policy. He said that the federal government should be able to serve Canadians in the official language of their choice, and that public servants from both language groups should be able to work in their own language.
At the time, Mr. Pearson said that his government hoped and expected that, “within a reasonable period of years,”Footnote 1 the federal public service would reflect the linguistic and cultural values of English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians. These aspirations became a reality through stronger legal foundations, particularly through the adoption of the Official Languages Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
It has been more than 42 years since the Act was passed, and I find that Prime Minister Pearson’s wishes have still not been fulfilled by successive federal governments. The “reasonable period of years” has long since passed.
I would like to tell you about my personal observations on how language training has evolved within the federal public service. In the early 1970s, a massive remedial language program was set up for thousands of public servants, mainly middle-aged or older employees. It was a kind of “war effort,” in other words, an intensive but temporary measure.
The program gradually became grandfathered in the public service and is now permanent. Some English-speaking public servants began to develop an attitude of noncooperation, even passive resistance: “You want me to learn French? Then send me off to language training!”
It was thought that, over time, universities would fill the language training gap and produce future bilingual public service employees. But this has not happened. Instead of supplying more bilingual graduates to the labour market, universities removed the second-language component from their admissions requirements. Thus, two categories of students were created: those who have come from an immersion program and those who have not. Consequently, some students are quite proficient in French when they arrive at university, and others do not speak a word of French.
Times have changed. In the public service, the focus is no longer on having an extensive language training program for workers who are 48, 52 or 56 years old, because now there is an urgent need to target younger workers.
Universities have now passed the language training buck back to the public service, when the public service had been counting on the universities to handle it. I have heard faculty in charge of a certificate program in public affairs say that “if our students need to learn French, well, the government will take care of that. We don’t have to worry about that—that’s not our department.”
We are now seeing the consequences of this kind of thinking. Look at the recent language controversies surrounding the appointment of a unilingual judge to the Supreme Court and the hiring of a unilingual auditor general. The latter in particular showed that we have higher expectations with regard to our leaders’ language skills. Appointing a unilingual auditor general resulted in strong criticism in many of the country's major English- and French-language newspapers. The bar has been raised.
In the past few years, a growing number of universities that offer programs for students who want a career in the public service have begun to realize that bilingualism is a key skill.
To help students find these post-secondary institutions, my office released a study and launched a very useful tool on our website. The tool is an interactive map of Canada that shows where second-language programs are offered across the country. The tool provides a myriad of information, including second-language programs or programs available in both languages, courses taught in the second language, what kind of support is available, networking opportunities, and exchange programs where students can study in their second official language.
At Dalhousie University, officials realized that half of the professors in the public administration program were able to teach in French. The University of Windsor, Glendon College at York University and the University of Montréal all offer bilingual programs, and the University of Montréal even offers a trilingual program. I’m not sure whether it’s because of my office’s study or because the message is getting out there on a regular basis, but people are becoming more and more aware of the fact that the Government of Canada needs bilingual employees. And these individuals must make their presence known.
We live in a time where failure is obvious and success is invisible. Let me give you two examples. The Vancouver Olympic Games were a success on the ground in terms of the use of both of Canada’s official languages. The opening ceremony, on the other hand, was a failure. No one remembers the success on the ground, but everyone remembers the backlash from the absence of French during the opening ceremony. My second example is the state funeral for Jack Layton. The ceremony was a huge success in terms of linguistic duality, but no one ever mentions that.
The situation is not entirely negative, however. For the first time, a majority of provincial premiers are bilingual, as are eight out of the nine NDP leadership candidates. The Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the Chief of the Defence Staff, the Clerk of the Privy Council, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism all come from Western Canada and are all bilingual.
So they were wrong when they said, 40 years ago, that the Official Languages Act meant the end of any federal public service career for many people from Western Canada. Quite the opposite. The careers of those I just mentioned clearly show that bilingualism is not just an asset for those who aspire to the top government jobs in Canada; it is an essential leadership skill.
Whether you are considering a career in the public service, in politics, in business or with one of the many NGOs that operate across Canada—and throughout the world—if you want to be able to communicate with Canadians everywhere, bilingualism is an essential skill. As Commissioner of Official Languages, it is my job to tell you this. But it is your responsibility to learn—and to maintain—those language skills.
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
Canada, Official Report of the Debates of the House of Commons, Vol. IV, Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1966, p. 3915. From the statement of policy respecting bilingualism in the public service made by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson on April 6, 1966.