Notes for an address at a meeting of the Atlantic Federal Council

Moncton, New Brunswick, December 10, 2015
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Ladies and gentlemen, hello.

I am delighted to be here with you in Moncton. While this is my first visit to the Atlantic Federal Council in its new form, I have met many of you on other occasions, prior to the consolidation of the four federal councils.

Talking with you—the representatives of the federal councils—allows me to see how your regions are experiencing linguistic duality. It also gives me insights into the challenges you face in implementing the Official Languages Act and the steps you have taken to achieve your objectives. You are also giving me the opportunity to hear about your best practices and innovative projects, which I can then share with other regions.

The election of a new government in October has had a significant impact on Canada’s political landscape. Cabinet will have to honour the commitment it made during the election campaign and in the Speech from the Throne: to “encourage and promote the use of Canada’s official languages.” Specifically, the new government will have to come up with a new plan for official languages to support English- and French-speaking minorities and promote Canada’s linguistic duality, restore the Court Challenges Program, invest in CBC/Radio-Canada and ensure that all government services are provided in accordance with the provisions of the Official Languages Act. Many of the new members of Parliament who represent the Atlantic region speak English and French fluently, and some of them already have strong ties to official language communities. This augurs well for the communities and for the promotion of Canada’s official languages. Their leadership in official languages can be expected to bring positive changes and innovative ideas to the region.

This wave of renewal gives me an ideal opportunity to remind you of the importance of leadership in official languages. As managers, regardless of your responsibility level, you have a duty to act as official languages champions and to be guided by the values of linguistic duality and respect. We sometimes forget the importance of the things managers do and say, and the influence they have in the workplace. When it comes to linguistic duality and bilingualism, what leaders do and say sets the tone for what happens in their organizations. They show the way for others. The Atlantic Federal Council, the top federal entity in the region, has a duty to promote—through its words and actions—the importance of Canada’s official languages as a core value in the public service.

I am therefore pleased to hear that the Atlantic Federal Council has made official languages one of its priorities and that an official languages subcommittee has been established. Making a commitment to official languages, on paper, is a good thing. However, that commitment has to be reflected in the actions you take and the measures you implement, both here and in your respective institutions.

Some of you may have felt concern about how the consolidation of the Atlantic federal councils might affect respect for official languages.

There is no denying that you have had some adjustments to make following the consolidation of the regional councils. You will have to be vigilant about official languages and keep them front and centre in your internal communications and in the offices across the Atlantic region. I realize that the challenges you face in Prince Edward Island and in Nova Scotia are different from those in New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador. However, the consolidation of the four provincial federal councils provides an opportunity to step back and ponder the official languages situation in the Atlantic region. Sharing your best practices will also help your respective organizations achieve their objectives. You have a lot to learn from each other, just as you have a lot to offer each other. You have to keep up—or get into—the habit of emphasizing the importance of official languages at work and in your meetings. Complacency and inertia must be avoided at all costs. You therefore need to keep an open mind and not be afraid to rock the boat if need be.

There are two essential conditions for preserving linguistic duality in Canadian society. First, everyone has to understand that English and French are not foreign languages: they are Canada’s languages. These 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 and not a burden, and it must be an integral part of the public service.

We often forget the close relationship between the importance that public service leaders place on official languages and the use of those languages in the workplace. For example, at a meeting attended by employees of designated bilingual regions, showing leadership in official languages is not simply a matter of saying a few opening remarks in both languages and then giving people the opportunity to use the official language of their choice. It worries me when fluently bilingual people, who often speak French better than I do, do not embody linguistic duality in the way they chair or participate in meetings. If these people would speak to their audiences in both official languages from the get-go, as they should, the other participants would feel more “comfortable” using French, and they would not need to “be reassured.” People should not have to apologize for using French in meetings. Leaders have to be active and set an example. Here, around the Federal Council table, everyone speaks both official languages. It is a requirement. We should also be an inspiration.

Speaking and understanding French is not a burden! It is a Canadian value, and it is the law. And, as managers who lead employees in designated bilingual regions, you have a duty to transmit this value through your words and actions. The two official languages are equally important, and meetings must take place in both of these languages. A while ago, my office published a study titled Beyond Bilingual Meetings: Leadership Behaviours for Managers, which is on our website. There is also a self-assessment tool you can use to evaluate the things you are already doing that are having a positive impact in your workplace, and to identify measures you should introduce or encourage in your organization. I invite you to check it out.

The principle of the equality of the official languages must be entrenched in the culture of your organizations. Many departments now have offices in unilingual regions and in regions designated bilingual for language-of-work purposes. Some departments have made changes to their work methods in some regions. Your council’s members come from all across Atlantic Canada. The use of technologies in your departments must respect the Official Languages Act. When implemented properly, videoconferencing systems and shared servers for teamwork can provide ways of working more efficiently in both languages. Any changes in the organization of work must take into account public servants’ right to work in the language of their choice in regions designated bilingual. This requires particular attention when staff from a bilingual region and staff from unilingual regions have to work together. Official languages are not a concern for Francophones only. There needs to be a dialogue on official languages that calls on Anglophones to participate as well.

Active offer is a key aspect of the federal government’s language obligations. When members of the public wish to be served by a federal office or an organization subject to the Official Languages Act, such as Air Canada or Canada Post, they should automatically be served in both languages with the greeting “Hello, Bonjour.” This is an important factor in the quality of service provided in both languages in federal institutions in Atlantic Canada.

The importance of active offer is not just practical. It is also symbolic. A few years ago, Nik Wallenda, the daredevil American acrobat, crossed Niagara Falls from the U.S. side to Canada. When Wallenda entered Canada, he was greeted by an employee from the Border Services Agency who said, “Welcome to Canada, Bienvenue au Canada.” Of course, there was no expectation that the acrobat would ask for service in French. This is a way to tell foreigners, “You are in Canada. This is the country’s public face. You are in a country that has two official languages—a country where members of the public can access services in the official language of their choice.” This aspect is just as important as the presence of the Canadian flag at the border. I place a lot of importance on the subject of active offer. My office will be publishing a study on the topic next year.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight the leadership of Paul Landry, Official Languages Champion for the Council, as well as the leadership of the Official Languages Sub-committee. I am aware of the language training work being done and of the contribution the French-speaking community can make in that regard. In addition, I would like to congratulate the Public Health Agency of Canada, and its regional director general, Judith Wood Bayne. The institution ranked among the top 10 in best practices for Linguistic Duality Day as a result of its Service Loans and Language Internships in the French-speaking Community tool.

Furthermore, the Language Training Sub-committee’s work supports one of my recommendations in that regard: that efforts must be made to ensure that language training in the regions is coordinated more effectively and efficiently. I encourage you to continue your efforts in that respect. The Atlantic Federal Council must continue to take the lead in official languages in the region and across the country.

Thank you.

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