Archived - Notes for an address to Public Safety Canada employees on Linguistic Duality Day
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Ottawa, Ontario, September 12, 2013
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Good morning ladies and gentlemen.
I would like to thank your deputy minister, François Guimont, for inviting me to speak today with the upstanding employees of Public Safety Canada. His continued commitment to linguistic duality is much appreciated.
Let me begin by wishing you all a happy Linguistic Duality Day. Today marks five years since the federal government first began celebrating this occasion. Today also coincides with the release by my office of a brand new study on language training in the federal public service. I'd like to use some of my time here with you this morning to share a few of our findings and recommendations.
But first, what exactly is linguistic duality and what are we celebrating on this day? In short, linguistic duality is part of our common identity. This dual identity belongs to all Canadians, even those who don't speak both languages.
The coexistence of linguistic and cultural diversity is an issue that is increasingly ubiquitous around the globe. But even in a world where globalization is challenging the meaning of national identity, linguistic duality remains an unequivocally Canadian value, and our national conversation takes place in English and French.
Something that is still misunderstood about the Official Languages Act is that making all Canadians bilingual is neither a reality, nor the goal of the Act. In Canada today, there are more than 7 million people who speak French as their first language and more than 25 million who speak English as theirs. About 17% of Canadians are bilingual.
In the federal public service, official languages representation has been virtually unchanged for the past 25 years. Roughly one third of public servants, including both full-time employees and executives, report French as their first official language.Footnote 1 One third of offices and service points are required to offer bilingual services, and 40% of positions require knowledge of both official languages. Notwithstanding these realities, creating a public service that genuinely respects linguistic duality is a considerable challenge.
Since the beginning of my mandate in 2006, my foremost objective has been to instill the message that linguistic duality is truly a Canadian value, not just an administrative duty.
And linguistic duality works best when people feel inspired rather than simply required to respect it. It is vitally important that the government show leadership when it comes to protecting our language achievements, especially if we are to claim that this is an essentially Canadian value.
This leadership must be shown starting at the highest levels of federal institutions. I don't think government leaders realize how much their attitude towards linguistic duality can influence their organizational culture.
At Public Safety Canada, your mandate is to keep Canadians safe. As your website so aptly states, “There can be no greater role, no more important obligation for a government, than the protection and safety of its citizens.”Footnote 2 I could not agree more.
In my job as Commissioner of Official Languages, I know it can be challenging to find the common ground between my mandate and yours, but our two institutions do share common ground on certain issues.
For example, in the event of a natural disaster requiring the evacuation of citizens, such as an earthquake, you must be able to communicate with all Canadians. As a federal institution, it is your duty to ensure the safety and security of Canadians, and it is my duty to ensure that every Canadian can be served in the official language of his or her choice.
In some cases, providing service in both official languages can become a matter of national security—and even a matter of life and death. This may seem dramatic, but when you think about it, you realize it is true. Often, when dealing with a crisis or panic, our brain only functions well in its first language. Information that may seem basic is simply not understood in our second language, even when we are reasonably bilingual.
You already exercise national leadership in ensuring the safety and security of Canada and Canadians. It is important that this leadership is expressed in both English and French, our two official languages, to strengthen the federal capacity to face any emergency, share information and work with other departments, federal organizations, levels of government, the private sector, and emergency workers and specialists in this field.
As public safety officials, you must be ready to act immediately in case of an emergency or natural disaster. Your interventions must enable all emergency management partners to interact and understand each other from the outset. Being prepared to respond in both official languages across Canada is a fundamental duty of your organization. Strong leadership, in English and French, will promote quicker and more effective interventions, while strengthening the safety and resiliency of all Canadian communities, including our official language minority communities.
Each department must see to it that its decisions take into account the potential consequences for official language communities. Under Part VII of the Official Languages Act, federal institutions are required to support the development of English-speaking communities in Quebec and French-speaking communities in the rest of Canada, and to promote linguistic duality in Canadian society.
I am sure that you are required to make difficult decisions on a daily basis and that meeting your official languages obligations is but one of your myriad responsibilities as leaders. However, I believe that being proficient in both official languages—and effectively using and promoting them—is an essential leadership skill.
You play an absolutely critical role in the implementation of the Official Languages Act. And the approach you take to languages—particularly how much you respect them as a value rather than an obligation—has a strong impact on your success or failure as a leader.
For linguistic duality to be perceived as a value in your department, managers at all levels must be willing and able to demonstrate it through concrete actions.
To be leaders in the public service, you need to know how to influence, persuade, engage and empower all of your employees—in English and in French. I have already recommended that the Treasury Board raise the minimum level of language proficiency to CBC/CBC for positions requiring supervision of employees in regions designated bilingual for language-of-work purposes.
Shortly after I became Commissioner, I met with senior second-language evaluation staff and asked them what was required to obtain a “C.” I was told that, to get a C in oral interaction, the candidate should be able to explain something in detail, be able to persuade others, and be able 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. And if our leaders do not embody these criteria, it is as if they do not exist. Managers in the public service who do not use both official languages demonstrate a lack of respect for a fundamental Canadian value.
Ninety per cent of your positions are located in the National Capital Region. Your leaders' ability to explain, persuade and advise public servants in both official languages is an issue that must be addressed; it cannot be ignored. The bilingual capacity of emergency centres is also critical. While working for another organization, one of my assistant commissioners encountered a situation in which his team opened an emergency centre and there was not one single bilingual individual at the headquarters. This should never happen.
The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages' focus on leadership is not new. It has been a recurring theme in the ongoing review of linguistic duality in the Government of Canada. By putting linguistic duality on an even keel with your organization's other values, you are taking a step in the right direction. But there is still work to be done.
There are many ways to exemplify leadership in official languages matters within a federal institution. No matter what function you fulfill at Public Safety Canada, whether it's supervising employees or delivering a service directly to your deputy minister, there are opportunities to demonstrate leadership simply by respecting linguistic duality. For example, consider:
- delivering a speech in French;
- facilitating a bilingual meeting; or
- sending messages in both official languages.
These are all examples of leadership that promote linguistic duality. But how do we attain the competency and comfort level we need to excel?
In my view, language training is a key component of linguistic duality and career development that can help public servants develop the leadership skills they need to progress in their careers.
However, language training has taken a new direction in the past decade stemming from its decentralization to federal institutions. It's a process that hasn't been well documented, making it difficult to get a clear picture of what and how we're doing on this front.
This is why we conducted our latest study, Challenges: The New Environment for Language Training in the Federal Public Service.
The study released today notes the importance of employee motivation in second-language learning and maintenance, as well as the key role that public service managers can play in leading by example and using both languages regularly.
We must also ensure that language training is included as part of career plans, rather than secondary to them. I applaud those public servants who are already doing this.
When responsibility for language training was transferred from the Canada School of Public Service to individual federal institutions last year, I feared the program would simply meld into general training and it would become impossible to get an idea of how much gets done. The fact that we were able to gather so much information for the study is encouraging. A lot is still being done.
As part of our study, we thought it important to define accountability. How do we ensure departments are taking their language training function seriously and putting systems in place to measure progress? I'm pleased to report that many departments have been doing this in spite of budgetary challenges.
Yet, that doesn't mean we can pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. It is my view that federal institutions need to improve their reporting on their language training activities, expenditures and results. While 84% of respondents in our study survey indicated that they keep a record of language training data, nearly one quarter of them admit that data is not collected systematically.
To build on the positives and improve accountability, my recommendations to deputy heads of federal institutions are the following:
- that deputy heads be required to establish a list of indicators and collect data in line with those indicators, and establish a reporting mechanism on language training. These measures should all be in place by October 1 of next year;
- that, by April 1, 2015, deputy heads of federal institutions be required to establish a mechanism that will ensure effective and efficient coordination of language training in the regions;
- that the President of the Treasury Board put in place, by October 1, 2014, a panel of independent experts to conduct an in-depth review of the effectiveness of current language training, both in terms of the language skills it produces and the way these skills are evaluated. This review should be undertaken in consultation with the federal institutions that play a key role in this regard; and
- that, by April 1, 2015, federal institutions should reach, at a minimum, the level of funding allocated to language training before the budget cuts initiated in 2011.
I know that federal institutions across the public service have employed various strategies to ensure both languages can thrive in the workplace. We asked institutions what they are doing in this regard and 83% of survey respondents said they have strategies in place to help employees retain their language skills, such as holding bilingual meetings and various language activities.
I'm delighted to support these efforts with a new on-line tool public servants can use to review best practices for language training and create their own language training model. I invite public servants at all levels to make use of it.
In closing, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that 25 years ago this month the Official Languages Act was substantially amended to specify the obligations of federal institutions while providing for a permanent review of the official languages program by parliamentary committee and applications to federal court for remedy.
It was a major amendment because this Act, which enshrines our linguistic duality and language rights, takes precedence over all other acts of Parliament except the Canadian Human Rights Act.
Today, even though we celebrate Linguistic Duality Day one day a year, we have the opportunity to embrace the spirit of the day throughout the year simply by using both official languages as we carry out our duties.
It is my hope that, seven years from now, in 2020—with the support of Public Safety Canada and dedicated public servants like yourselves right across government—that we will be celebrating Linguistic Duality Week.
Thank you. If we still have time, I'd like to answer any questions you may have.
- Footnote 1
Clerk of the Privy Council, Nineteenth Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada, “Annex A: By the Numbers - A Demographic Profile of the Federal Public Service for 2011.”
- Footnote 2
Public Safety Canada, “Securing an Open Society: Canada's National Security Policy.”