Notes for an address to the Global Affairs Canada 2016 Head of Mission Pre-departure Program

Ottawa, Ontario, June 7, 2016
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon.

I would like to thank Linda Thompson for inviting me to talk about official languages as part of the 2016 Head of Mission Pre-departure Program.

First of all, congratulations! Becoming a head of mission and representing Canada abroad is an honour—and a big responsibility. My brother was a career diplomat and ambassador, and my wife was a counsellor in the Canadian Embassy in Washington. As Commissioner of Official Languages, I was supported by the embassies in Finland, Belgium, Egypt, Ireland, Israel, Spain, Switzerland and France, as well as by the High Consulate in India and the Permanent Mission to the United Nations. And so I have a personal and professional appreciation of the work that you do.

In my work, I have met with diplomats, delegations and official languages commissioners from all over: the European Community, Iraq, Nepal, China, Kosovo and Sri Lanka. I was the first chair of the International Association of Language Commissioners. During each of those visits, I learned that Canada’s language policy is considered to be a model of public policy and social cohesion, and in some places, it is an inspiration. Many of the jurisdictions I just mentioned have developed a language policy based on the Canadian experience. It is therefore likely that you will be asked about it.

I would like to talk about two aspects of language policy that concern you: the symbolic and the practical. First, the symbolic aspect. You must not underestimate the effect of using both official languages during public presentations or speeches. It is an important—and indeed an essential—way of expressing our identity abroad and of presenting the face of Canada to the world.

And now the practical aspect. All Canadians, unilingual and bilingual alike, are proud when their leaders and representatives use both official languages in public. I remember the surprise and admiration of the American delegates when Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau addressed the United Nations in both of Canada’s official languages. And I was impressed by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper—the first Western prime minister since 1962—and his custom of always using both official languages on the international stage, regardless of the language of his audience.

It is easy to forget to say a few words in Canada’s other official language at a dinner or at a reception or at a conference. I know—I have done it myself. You have to think about it and be disciplined about it. And for those of you who are Governor in Council appointments from outside the diplomatic corps who are not comfortable in your second official language, I would recommend that you come up with a paragraph that you can comfortably read in public.

Your Mission must be able to serve Canadians in the official language of their choice. This is sometimes more difficult than you think. Many missions have very few Canadians; most employees are hired locally. And a person from Beijing or Singapore who is fluent in English and French—or even one from Washington or London—is not necessarily interested in being a receptionist or a security guard. So it takes a bit of effort and imagination to make sure that every Canadian who steps into your mission is served in the official language of his or her choice.

Here is another important factor to remember. You work for a minister whose preferred language is French and who is experienced in official languages matters. I can assure you that he is quite demanding on that front. There are also half a dozen other ministers whose official language preference is French and who expect to be supported in French.

There have been some embarrassing failures. I am not talking about ambassadors who did not use both languages at formal events; I am talking about embarrassing operational breakdowns.

Someone from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service recently told me about an incident that occurred in an Asian mission where he had been assigned. He had been out of the country when a man walked into the office to report the details of a terrorist threat that he was aware of. The only other language he could speak besides his own was French. Unfortunately, there was no one in the Canadian mission who could question the man, and we had to ask the Americans for help. The American mission had French-speaking staff who could conduct the interview. We did not.

Then there is the issue of immigration. It is important that prospective immigrants to Canada receive accurate information about our country’s linguistic reality. Too many immigrants are misinformed and arrive in Canada with a number of false impressions. Some think that Canada is an English-speaking country from coast to coast and are surprised to find out that if they move to Quebec, they will have to learn French and their children will have to go to French school. Others, going by the bilingual information they found on federal websites, believe that Canada is fully bilingual from coast to coast and are surprised to discover how little French is heard in public places in Toronto and Vancouver. Immigrants need to know that Canada has official language minority communities that are vibrant and interesting, but that it is still necessary to speak the majority language to find employment.

As I mention in my annual report, success is no accident. It requires preparation and a language planning strategy that includes welcoming visitors, supporting ministers during their official visits, statements, communications, social media and human resources.

Once again, congratulations on your overseas assignment. I wish you good luck and thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today.

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