Archived - Notes for an address at the Official Languages Best Practices Forum
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Gatineau, November 29, 2012
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon.
I would like to begin by thanking Daphne Meredith and Daniel Jean for inviting me to speak to you today. I am delighted to be here at the Official Languages Best Practices Forum.
We all recognize that the public service is going through a difficult time and a transformative period in many institutions. I know that it will be a challenge to maintain the same standard with fewer resources and fewer people. This is why we have to be particularly vigilant.
As public servants, you exemplify public service values and carry them forward in your work. Linguistic duality and cultural diversity are important values and symbols in Canadian society and should therefore be intrinsic in public service best practices.
But what exactly is linguistic duality? It is a phrase that recognizes that Canada has two official languages – but that the majority of each language community is unilingual. These two language communities live side by side, and each have equal rights to services from the federal government. Linguistic duality, then, means fairness, respect and equality of treatment. These are values that must guide your work as public servants and shape the development of your skills.
In fact, as public servants, you play a crucial role in the success or failure of the Official Languages Act. Respecting language of work as a value, not an obligation—and the reasons behind this respect—will have a significant impact on your career in the public service.
Since the beginning of my mandate in 2006, one of my most important objectives has been to send the message that linguistic duality is truly a Canadian value, not just an administrative obligation. And I wanted that message to be visible and audible throughout our nation’s capital.
In my 2011–2012 annual report, I present the findings of my office’s observations on how English- and French-speaking visitors are greeted in the National Capital Region, and describe actions that businesses have taken to promote linguistic duality. These observations have proven to be more positive and, I hope, more instructive than many had assumed.
The bilingualism of businesses in tourist areas is Ottawa’s best kept secret. Our observations showed that, while there is substantial bilingual capacity for visitors to Canada’s capital, it is often invisible. Few employees of these businesses used the “Hello, bonjour” bilingual greeting to show customers that they are proud to provide service in both official languages. Employees of federal institutions, for whom bilingual greetings are a legal obligation, are doing better.
The federal government is not alone in wanting to provide services in both official languages. Along with provincial, territorial and municipal governments, private businesses are well aware of the advantages of communicating with Canadians in two or more languages.
Although they are not subject to the Official Languages Act, businesses operating in Canada benefit from doing business effectively in both official languages and are more competitive when they use both English and French in their approaches with clients. This is why it is important for the Government of Canada to continue to support Canadian businesses and international businesses located in Canada that foster linguistic duality.
To present linguistic duality as a fundamental value, public service leaders must promote respect for linguistic duality—which means respect for citizens and colleagues from both official language communities. 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. I don’t think government leaders realize how much their attitude towards linguistic duality influences their organizational culture. As an example, take two organizations that share the same vocation and the same location, and that shall remain nameless. One has recurring problems with linguistic duality, and the other has never had any issues. But they have very different organizational cultures. One looks at a situation and asks how it can be resolved while best serving the public. The other looks at the same situation and asks how it can be minimized while avoiding regulations. It all comes down to this: for one organization, linguistic duality is a value; for the other, it’s an obligation.
Have you ever asked yourself why you do what you do? Why some people and organizations are more innovative, influential or profitable than others? Why people are loyal to some leaders, but not others? Simon Sinek, an author and a professor at New York’s Columbia University, wrote an essay called “Start with Why.” His thinking can be summed up as, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”
All organizations can explain what they do, and some can explain how they do it, but very few can clearly articulate why. “Why” is not money or profit—those are results. It’s not the same thing.
Why does your organization exist? Why do people really buy from one company and not another, or obey a policy or behave in a certain way? The answer is quite simple: it’s because they believe in it. The same is true when I say that linguistic duality is a value, not an obligation. Behaviour will not change if linguistic duality is no more than an obligation. It is the values that guide our behaviour and influence the path we choose.
Starting with “why” works in big business and small business, in the non-profit world and in politics. Those who start with “why” never manipulate; they inspire. And the people who follow them or buy into the message they are putting out don’t do so because they have to; they do so because they want to.
But to be a leader—whether in terms of organizational or personal leadership—you have to know how to inspire others. When it comes to linguistic duality, whether in the private sector or the public sector , as long as the “why” is “because it’s the law, because we have to,” people’s behaviour will not change, and neither will their perceptions. The answer to “why” has to be “because we believe in it.”
As managers and official languages champions and co‑champions, you need to help people who are coming in to the public service or moving up in the ranks to influence, persuade, engage, energize and empower in English and in French. Notwithstanding the bilingual requirements of any position, linguistic duality must remain at the heart of the public service’s values, at all language levels and in all regions
A couple of years ago, my office published a study called Beyond Bilingual Meetings: Leadership Behaviours for Managers. This study, which is available on our website, aims to help managers create workplaces that are conducive to the use of both official languages. Throughout the study, public servants said they need leaders who lead by example. We have developed a self-assessment tool, 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 official languages leaders, you are catalysts for these changes.
And we cannot ignore the fact that the Parti Québécois is now the ruling party in Quebec. Even as a minority government, the PQ’s rise to power is having a large impact on the Canadian political landscape and on how Canadians perceive their official languages. More than ever before, failure will be visible. Federal official languages policies will need to be explained again, as Quebec plans to tighten its Charter of the French Language. We are entering another period of Canadian history in which language issues are highly political and sensitive. Federal institutions need to take this into consideration and demonstrate exemplary leadership.
Not only must federal institutions deal with budget constraints that could hinder their ability to meet their language obligations, but the ongoing transformation of government is creating a brave new world for Canada’s linguistic duality. New tools in federal government communications—blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds—present possible hurdles in how federal departments connect with Canadians while respecting their language rights. However, it is possible to use these technologies and comply with the Official Languages Act.
By the way, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages is on Facebook and Twitter—please feel free to follow us and join the conversation. It’s also a way for my office to better understand what federal institutions face when using these channels to communicate with Canadians in both languages.
Linguistic duality needs to continue to thrive, despite the budget cuts and program changes. It is essential that we work together to identify challenges to overcome and obligations to meet. Ask yourself how your decisions might affect the implementation of the Official Languages Act.
It is vitally important that the government show leadership when it comes to protecting our language achievements, especially if we say that they are an intrinsically Canadian value. Our actions speak volumes. And the public service isn’t necessarily looking for those legendary “perfectly bilingual” people from Montréal or Timmins. You don’t need to be perfectly bilingual to be a leader, but you need to have enough skills to understand and answer in your second language. You have to be willing to speak in that language in formal and informal situations. In fact, as a result, they are even more inspiring.
This brings me to language training. We have already seen a dramatic change in the language training model. In the previous model, employees were able to go off to a language school run by the government and staffed by public servants, at no cost to their department, for as long as it took. That model is gone, which is not necessarily a bad thing, because that model was not sustainable. We now have a model in which each department is responsible for language training and each manager is responsible for ensuring that language training is included in every employee’s learning plan. In the current context of fiscal restraint, it will be particularly important for departments and managers to ensure that language training and language maintenance continue to be part of each employee’s learning plan, because the overwhelming temptation will be to keep putting language training on the back burner—indefinitely. Individual employees will also be expected to be more proactive and accountable for their official language learning, and departmental leaders and managers will need to behave in a way that fosters the use of both languages.
Some managers want to make sure that the right message is sent when they authorize an employee to go on language training. When an employee wishes to take the next career step and become a manager, which requires B or C second-language levels, these managers start by asking the employee why they want to do this. Remember, people don’t buy what you do, but WHY you do it. And if the answer is along the lines of “because I have no choice if I want to be a manager” instead of “because linguistic duality is a core public service value and language skills are leadership skills,” the managers kindly remind the employee that linguistic duality is a fundamental value of the public service, and therefore of their department, and that they need to understand this if they are to become leaders in Canadian government.
Future managers who do not see linguistic duality as a value and who are not ready to lead by example may not, in fact, be ready to take on leadership duties in the federal government. Executives need to ensure that the new generation of managers are ready to become leaders who embody linguistic duality as a core public service value, and not just consider it a burden or a task to be ticked off a to‑do list. This is an excellent way for departments to lead by example and reinstate a corporate vision and best practices in linguistic duality—best practices that will have tremendous, positive trickle-down effects for public service renewal, legacy leadership within the department and a new corporate attitude towards language training in the public service for years to come.
The public service needs to implement best practices to help federal employees maintain their second official language. Managers just might have to get a little creative. Sometimes, it’s just a question of common sense. In a discussion following a meeting in Québec City, public servants noted that during bilingual meetings, people who were taking notes for the minutes were unilingual and therefore not able to note comments in both languages. Now, this can create a situation where one language community’s comments could be dropped and not end up in the meeting minutes. Managers need to be aware of this when having bilingual meetings, and make sure that minute-takers are bilingual and that meeting minutes are translated in both languages. This is an inexpensive best practice that managers can easily implement. Furthermore, managers should not hesitate to go above and beyond their linguistic responsibilities and provide documents in both languages, whenever possible, even if it is not required by law to do so.
Another best practice in linguistic duality that some departments have set up is a weekly French-language lunch-and-learn session for employees. The objective is to have discussions in French on non-work-related topics so that employees can practise what they learned in language training. It can also be simply to bring colleagues together who would otherwise not speak French to each other. Sessions like these are an opportunity for employees to show their commitment to official languages in the public service and demonstrate their leadership skills.
Find the answer to “why” you do what you do, and think carefully about the difference between “obligation” and “value.” The success of your department’s language policy and the advancement of your career depend on what you do and the messages you convey. 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.