Archived - Notes for an address at a meeting of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federal Council
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In Newfoundland and Labrador, Showing Leadership Means Maximizing Your Linguistic Competencies
St. John's, November 8, 2012
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Ladies and gentlemen, good morning.
It’s a pleasure to be here in Newfoundland and Labrador and to speak with you. It has been too long since my last visit, in 2008.
My meetings here with Francophone community leaders, French second-language officials and public servants are always productive. Nothing is done by half measures in this province. I always find Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to be very open to others—including those who speak other languages—and welcoming. Every time I come here to visit, my team and I meet admirable francophiles, most of whom have mastered the French language and greatly appreciate the Francophone community. The proof of this commitment is the number of francophiles who work for Francophone organizations here.
I sense much pride among Newfoundland and Labrador’s Francophonie—pride that is justified. I continue to be amazed by the fact that that Francophones living here surrounded by an Anglophone majority have a generous and inclusive vision of their community and identity—and Anglophones have tremendous respect for the Francophone linguistic minority. I also find it interesting that Newfoundland and Labrador is one of only three provinces whose proportion of Francophones is increasing, according to the latest census.
I hope that at today’s meeting we can discuss our concerns and successes regarding official languages. I would like to share themes from my 2011–2012 annual report and answer your questions and address your concerns.
But first, I’ll say a few words about my office’s mandate and role.
The Official Languages Act, which has been in effect for over 40 years, guarantees and protects linguistic duality. As Commissioner of Official Languages, my mandate is to take all measures within my power to ensure that the three main objectives of the Act are met. Those objectives are:
- ensure the equality of English and French in Parliament, the Government of Canada, the federal administration and the institutions subject to the Act;
- to ensure the preservation and support the development of official language communities in Canada; and
- to advance the equality of status and use of English and French in Canadian society.
I am an agent of Parliament, which means that I report directly to Parliament and not to the government.
As you know, the Official Languages Act applies only to federal institutions, not to provincial, territorial or municipal governments. But some provinces and territories have adopted legislation and policies to protect English, French or Aboriginal languages within their jurisdiction. For example, New Brunswick is officially bilingual, and Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island each have a French language services act. Here in Newfoundland and Labrador you have no provincial language-related legislation or policy, but you do have an Office of French Services.
Two conditions are necessary for linguistic duality to work in Canadian society. First, contrary to the message put forth by some Canadian universities—and recently by Quebec’s Minister of Education, Marie Malavoy—English and French are not foreign languages; they are Canadian languages. Our two official languages belong to all Canadians, regardless of their linguistic background or whether they are bilingual or unilingual. Second, linguistic duality is a value, not a burden—and it should be an integral part of the public service.
I draw your attention to an important distinction. As citizens, we expect our government to show leadership in supporting our national values, which include official languages. Canada’s policies on linguistic duality help not only to strengthen our social fabric, but also to define us as Canadians. This is why the government, through its institutions, has to lead the way. However, to move forward we need the leadership of individual public servants—people are the lifeblood of federal institutions.
To present linguistic duality as a fundamental value, public service leaders’ conduct must promote respect for linguistic duality. I am impressed by the engagement of public servants in Newfoundland and Labrador. Creating a public service that genuinely respects linguistic duality is a challenge that requires action at all levels of the federal government, starting at the most senior levels.
We have a great example of that conduct in the St. John’s Passport Canada office, which I mentioned in my 2011–2012 annual report. Although the Official Languages Regulations do not obligate that office to serve the public in both official languages, Passport Canada capitalized on the fact that its St. John’s office had bilingual employees—and went beyond its obligations by officially designating the office as bilingual. This is a symbolic gesture of respect to the more than 2,000 Franco-Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.
This initiative was possible thanks to the leadership and dedication of the manager of Passport Canada’s St. John’s office, Ron Thompson. I often speak of the importance of having people who exercise leadership in the promotion of linguistic duality, and this is an example of such leadership. Mr. Thompson, it took courage to undertake that initiative, which truly shows how much you value your clients and want to give them the best service possible.
In 2011, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages released a study titled Beyond Bilingual Meetings: Leadership Behaviours for Managers. This study, which aims to help managers create workplaces conducive to the use of both official languages, is available on our website. A self-assessment tool is also available on our website that you can use to evaluate your leadership behaviours in a bilingual workplace, to see where your strengths lie and to identify the behaviours you need to adopt. The desired changes in an organization often happen by ripple effect. Every step in the right direction counts. As managers, you are catalysts for these changes.
We cannot forget that the Parti Québécois was elected in Quebec two months ago. Even as a minority government, their coming into power is having a large impact on the Canadian political landscape and on how Canadians perceive their official languages. As a result, it is even more important that federal institutions respect their responsibilities under the Official Languages Act and that they prepare to manage a possible a backlash from Anglophones asking why we should offer services in French when Quebec is tightening the Charter of the French Language. We are re‑entering a period of Canadian history where language issues are highly political and sensitive. Federal institutions must take this into consideration and demonstrate exemplary leadership.
Not only must federal institutions deal with budget constraints that could hinder their ability to respect their language obligations, but the ongoing transformation of government is posing new challenges to Canada’s linguistic duality. New tools in the machinery of federal government—blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts—present challenges in how federal departments communicate with citizens while respecting their language obligations. It is possible to use these technologies while respecting the Act.
By the way, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages is on Facebook and Twitter—I invite you to follow us and join the conversation.
Linguistic duality needs to continue to thrive, despite budget cuts and program changes. Collaboration is fundamental to identifying challenges to overcome and obligations to meet. Consider how your decisions might affect the implementation of the Official Languages Act.
Federal institutions need to wear their official languages lenses and minimize the effects of their decisions in this period of fiscal restraint. Some organizations have centralized internal services such as human resources and finance in regions that are not designated bilingual for language-of-work purposes. Others have decided to broaden regions and combine some regions designated as bilingual with regions that are not.
These decisions have an impact in provinces such as Newfoundland and Labrador. You now have managers who supervise employees in bilingual regions and who have language-of-work rights. Ensure that these managers are aware of their obligations and have the skills they need to carry out these obligations. Institutions have the prerogative to undertake cost-cutting mesaures. However, they need to make sure that they respect the rights of the public and of employees when they do so.
If we do not remain steadfast in protecting and promoting language rights, the situation could degenerate rapidly. The greatest risk is that reorganization and cuts will make it harder to supervise public servants, allow them to work in their official language of choice or obtain the language training they need.
Now, a few words on Part VII of the Official Languages Act.
Part VII is difficult to define and leaves quite a bit of room for interpretation. Since 2005, all federal institutions have the obligation to implement positive measures to support the development and enhance the vitality of official language minority communities and promote the equal status of English and French. It’s up to federal institution leaders to show creativity and resourcefulness in fulfilling their obligations.
Engaging with the Francophone community will help you understand their needs and priorities. The Francophone affairs orientation committee is a good example of this type of dialogue. I know that you all have the development of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Francophone minority community at heart. Take the opportunity to be innovative and demonstrate this commitment.
Bilingualism is a key characteristic of leadership in the public service and a crucial element of renewal. The federal government needs to recruit more bilingual employees and promote itself as an employer of choice for young Canadians across the country. This will require that we cooperate with post-secondary institutions and that we provide Canadians with fair and equitable access to high-quality second-language training at all levels of the education system.
Since the Official Languages Act was passed, the government of Canada has promoted English and French second-language learning through various initiatives, including some at the pre-university level. However, the proportion of bilingual Canadians remains low and, in some regions, there currently aren’t enough programs in the second official language to keep up with the demand. The federal government needs to support young people who want to improve their knowledge of English or French.
This is why I recommended in my most recent annual report that the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages work together with provincial and territorial governments, as well as post-secondary institutions, to increase the number of programs in which students can take courses in their second official language.
The federal government also needs to increase funding for language exchange programs, in which demand far outweighs supply. In these exchanges, students don’t just learn a language, but experience it fully. Only total immersion gives such an opportunity. In my annual report, I recommended that the Prime Minister take the necessary measures to double the number of young Canadians who participate each year in language exchanges at the high-school and post-secondary levels.
Bilingualism is a great asset to employers in Newfoundland and Labrador. It is important to promote the value of being bilingual and the opportunities it makes possible. A bilingual workforce will help your province to continue the growth it saw in the last decade. The bilingual post-secondary education and career fair held last February in St. John’s demonstrated the workplace opportunities open to bilingual citizens. I applaud the Newfoundland and Labrador Federal Council for coordinating the federal presence at that event.
In my 2011–2012 annual report, I reiterate that, for linguistic duality to thrive as a fundamental Canadian value, the private sector, all levels of government and post-secondary institutions must be involved. Federal institutions need to play a leadership role, and demonstrate by example.
Be proactive, just as Mr. Thompson of Passport Canada in St. John’s was. Linguistic duality is a question of respect. And good leaders are always respectful.
Suggested questions to ask participants, if time permits:
- What are your biggest challenges in respecting the obligations in the Official Languages Act?
- What do you see as the most important effects of the current budget cuts and restraints?
- Are the current budget cuts and restraints having any particular effects on official languages? On language training?
- Does your department have innovative practices related to official languages that you would like to share?
- Have you seen a change in attitude towards linguistic duality in recent years?