Notes for an address to the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University

Kingston, Ontario, February 27, 2014
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Good afternoon everyone.

It’s great to be back at Queen’s University. David Elder and Christopher Cornish—I very much appreciate your kind invitation to discuss our official languages and the importance of linguistic duality and leadership in the federal public service.

I will also reflect on my own personal voyage of discovery on the road to learning my second official language.

Over the years, I have had the pleasure of several visits here, and I have always noticed how Queen’s prides itself on its reputation of being the source of the best and the brightest for the federal public service.

It could be argued, in fact, that academics from Queen’s founded our federal public service—with a little help from a few University of Toronto grads such as Lester Pearson.

The eminent historian Jack Granatstein wrote that “the modern civil service had its founder in Oscar Douglas Skelton.” When Skelton left Queen’s in 1925 to become Undersecretary of State for External Affairs, he believed that “the government of Canada could be improved only by regular infusions of bright, talented young university graduates.”Footnote 1

Thus began a steady migration of Queen’s grads to Ottawa. In 1932, Skelton recommended his former Queen’s student Clifford Clark as the best person to write a paper on monetary policy for Prime Minister R.B. Bennett to deliver at the Imperial Economic Conference. Clark later became Deputy Minister of Finance.

Other notable Queen’s contributions to the federal public service include W.A. Mackintosh of the Department of Finance and John Deutsch and Alex Skelton of the Bank of Canada.

Among the Ottawa crowd, Queen’s has also produced former prime minister Paul Martin’s chief of staff Tim Murphy, former Foreign Affairs deputy minister Peter Harder, former House of Commons speaker Peter Milliken, Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson, and Drew Fagan, a former Globe and Mail bureau chief and former assistant deputy minister at Foreign Affairs, who now plies his trade as the Deputy Minister of Infrastructure for the Province of Ontario.

On a visit here about 10 years ago, I spent some time with Keith Banting, a professor of public administration and the former director of the School of Policy Studies. At the time, I was doing research for my book Sorry, I Don’t Speak French, and I wanted to see how French had become part of the preparation and training of public servants at Queen’s.

I wanted to know how Queen’s was responding to the fact that there were 300,000 students in immersion programs in Canada, as well as how it was dealing with increasing requirements for bilingualism in the senior ranks of the public service.

I wanted to know if students who planned to study political science or journalism or public administration were being advised by the university to keep studying French. They weren’t.

It seemed to me that a school of public service that prepares graduate students for work in government would ensure that they met the language levels required for senior executives. Not so.

There were several reasons for this, I learned, the most striking being that most English-language universities in Canada treat French as foreign language—just like, say, German or Spanish—rather than as a crucial skill or a Canadian language of instruction.

I feel it absurd that Canadian universities continue to treat French this way, as a language to be taught in literature departments rather than as a language of instruction in history, political science and public administration classes.

Keith Banting informed me that there had been some discussion of extending the one-year program in public policy to two years and incorporating some French instruction. But the cost to students of a longer program made this an unpopular option, and so no changes were made. “The bottom line,” he said, “is that the school has no language training.”

Interestingly, further research suggested that some of Queen’s students were actually ahead of the institution. During my visit here 10 years ago, David Elder told me that more than half of the students in the program had organized French instruction with the Queen’s French Studies department on their own initiative. I wonder if that is still the case today.

This is one of the great Canadian paradoxes. In 1960, every university in Canada required competence in a second language as a prerequisite for admission. In most cases, that second language was French. Over the next 40 years, as primary and secondary schools embraced French immersion, universities dropped their language requirements, and French is taught as a foreign language by French departments grooming students to become French teachers.

There is hardly anything on the campuses to suggest that French is an essential language for communication with other Canadians or that knowledge of French is a prerequisite for a leadership role at the national level.

Canada has enabled English-speaking Canadians outside Quebec to reach their full potential for bilingualism around the ages of 15 to 19. After that, their language skills steadily deteriorate until they are considerably reduced.

The federal government has allocated an average of $86 million a year over the past four years to the provinces for second-language education. The investments made in immersion programs across the country have created a new generation of bilingual Canadians, many of whom are now attending post-secondary institutions.

And yet, I am disappointed that, year after year, many students who want to enrol in French immersion programs or courses at university are not able to do so—often because of a lack of space in those programs or because of funding problems that threaten the programs’ survival. Many students have had to give up on the idea of perfecting the language skills they acquired in elementary and high school, because few post-secondary institutions give their students the opportunity to take courses within their field in the official language of their choice.

There are many things students can do by themselves to work on their French skills in addition to their regular course load. However, students are bound to notice if their university does not consider proficiency in Canada’s official languages as a career skill. They will tend to focus their energy on other areas.

Some post-secondary institutions, such as the University of Ottawa, Université Sainte-Anne and Glendon College at York University, do offer immersion courses and programs. In fact, Glendon has recently developed a bilingual master’s program in public and international affairs. There is no question that the creation of immersion programs at Simon Fraser University and at the University of British Columbia is directly related to the growing number of students from the high school immersion programs being offered in that province. The University of Saint-Boniface actively recruits from Manitoba’s immersion high schools.

The Campus Saint-Jean at the University of Alberta is another interesting example. Many students come from local immersion programs and choose to continue their education in French there. All of this did not come about by accident, nor is it solely the result of the exemplary work of the Campus and its staff. This success stems from the efforts made by Edmonton public schools since 2000 to improve the immersion programs being offered and, on the strength of this success, other language programs as well.

At the post-secondary level, some universities have increased their second-language learning opportunities, while others have reduced their efforts in this area. The decision to reduce efforts is caused by various factors. For example, the government of Canada is not expressing its need for bilingual workers loudly and clearly enough to prompt post-secondary education officials to pay more attention to the benefits of second-language learning.

There are students who are ready, willing and able to learn in their second official language. To achieve a true continuum of second-language learning, the federal government must demonstrate its leadership by developing an overall strategy on this issue. We need a continuum of second-language learning from elementary school to the post-secondary level and then into the workplace. I believe this continuum is an important and integral part of preparing our young people to be productive employees and citizens who can invest themselves fully in the civic life of their country.

That is why, in my 2009 study of second-language learning in Canadian universities, I recommended that the federal government provide financial assistance to universities so they can develop and carry out initiatives to improve students’ second-language learning opportunities. I believe a priority should be placed on increasing the number of exchanges and real-life opportunities for students to use their second official language and interact with people who speak that language.

This brings me to one of my favourite themes: the importance of linguistic duality in Canada and in the federal public service. This subject is near and dear to my heart. 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.

Neither English nor French is a foreign language: they are Canadian languages. Our two languages belong to all Canadians, regardless of their linguistic background or whether they are bilingual or unilingual.

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. Making all Canadians bilingual is neither realistic nor the goal of the Official Languages Act.

Linguistic duality is a value. It’s an asset, not a burden. It is an integral part of the federal public service and enables every employee to contribute to the fullest of his or her ability.

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 2

One third of offices and service points are required to offer bilingual services, and 40% of positions require knowledge of both official languages.Footnote 3

For those of you considering a high-level career in the federal public service, you need to internalize linguistic duality as a core value. It needs to be part of your DNA.

In the House of Commons, I’m always pleased to see our elected officials demonstrating leadership by using both official languages. I know, for instance, that many ministers and opposition MPs take their responsibilities quite seriously on this front. This simple act inspires others on the Hill and throughout the public service to embrace linguistic duality.

No matter what function you hope to serve in your federal public service career—whether you supervise employees in a managerial role or become a deputy minister—you will find opportunities to demonstrate leadership by respecting linguistic duality.

This leadership must start at the highest levels of federal institutions. Many times I have pointed out to government leaders how much their attitude toward linguistic duality can positively influence their organizational culture.

Making a conscious and committed effort to speak English and French in the workplace can improve collaboration among colleagues, within work teams and right across federal institutions—in fact, right across the federal public service.

Like many of you, I haven’t always spoken my second official language. As a young student working in Quebec for the first time in 1965, the summer I learned French, I remember being told by a bilingual classmate that I behaved differently in French than I did in English. “Of course I’m different!” I replied. “I’m stupid, inarticulate and have no sense of humour!”

When I became Commissioner of Official Languages seven years ago, I was uneasy about my French, since I had not had any kind of formal instruction for almost 30 years—and that had been a night course for adults. I had never even been tested.

Initially dismissive of my concerns, my chief of staff suggested that I hire a retired executive from the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages who had returned to his first love: language teaching. But rather than focusing on traditional language instruction, we spent our sessions studying the Official Languages Act clause by clause—en français.

Shortly after I became Commissioner, I asked senior second-language evaluation staff what was required to obtain a “C” level. To get a “C” in oral interaction, I was told that candidates have to be able to explain something in detail, persuade others and give advice to a junior colleague.

I thought about this, and then I realized something. These are not just language criteria—they are also leadership criteria.

There are many ways to demonstrate leadership on language matters within the federal public service. For example, I encourage public servants to consider:

  • delivering a speech in French,
  • facilitating a bilingual meeting, or
  • sending e-mails in both official languages.

These are all examples of leadership that promote linguistic duality. So how do we attain the competency and comfort level we need to excel in our second language?

Language training is a key component of linguistic duality and career development, and it can help you develop the leadership skills you will need to progress in your career. And although language training may be available to you in the public service in some form, it is clearly an advantage when recruits arrive ready to work and contribute in both official languages.

This is why I continue to press the federal government to call on universities to produce more bilingual graduates. They have yet to answer the call seriously. The other part of that equation, of course, is the need for adequate funding for French-language instruction in those same institutions, both inside and outside of French Studies departments.

In closing, I’d like to bring up the argument that English-speaking Canadians should learn French for the sake of Quebec and national unity. On the contrary, I say that we should do it primarily for ourselves. Learning another language is the first step to understanding the rest of the world—not just the country we live in. By failing to make French a significant part of Canadian life, we are limiting our ability to connect with the whole country and with the rest of the world.

But I see hopeful signs. Immersion education has had its effect at the elementary and secondary levels, and it makes a strong case for continuity in universities. As an institution that prides itself on its reputation as the source of the best and the brightest, I encourage the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s to consider anew the advantages of immersion education for its graduates aspiring to a fulfilling and rewarding career in the federal public service.

Thank you.


Footnote 1

Graham Fraser, Sorry, I Don’t Speak French: Confronting the Canadian Crisis That Won’t Go Away, McClelland & Stewart, 2007, p. 200.

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Footnote 2

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,”

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Footnote 3

Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, “Quick facts about official languages,”

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