Notes for an address to Privy Council Office staff

Thoughts on our official languages 50 years after the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism

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

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Beginning of dialog

Good afternoon everyone.

I would like to begin by telling you how very pleased I am to be here and to meet all of you. I would also like to thank Patrick Tanguy for inviting me to speak today.

I have been Commissioner of Official Languages for almost 10 years now. Since 2006, it has been my job to protect language rights and promote linguistic duality as a key element of our national identity. It is a job that I do every day with pride and with pleasure. The role of Commissioner of Official Languages has been and still is—at least for a few more weeks—stimulating and fascinating.

During my decade in office, I have tried to build bridges and foster dialogue with federal institutions and among Canadians of all backgrounds and origins. I have also met with myriad federal public servants from all over the country. In these meetings, I have often said that linguistic duality is a Canadian value and that being fluent in English and French is a leadership skill in the public service. Today’s meeting is no exception, because leadership is what I want to talk to you about.

The equality of our two official languages is the very foundation of the Official Languages Act and that equality must be reflected in every government communication on every communications platform. There is no question of accommodation. In addition to honouring the principle of equality of English and French, federal institutions have a duty to protect the vitality of official language communities and not to hinder their development.

The ability of federal institutions to operate efficiently, to fulfill their language obligations with regard to their employees and the public, and to reflect contemporary Canadian values across this country and abroad depends in good part on the language skills of their leaders. Without the leadership of all federal employees, the public service—and ultimately the whole of government—will be unable to give both official languages the respect they deserve.

Your organization is the role model for professionalism and excellence in the public service. And since the success of our government’s language policies depends on the behaviour, actions, messages and spirit of its leaders, your attitude toward official languages has a strong impact; it has enormous influence on how linguistic duality and bilingualism are perceived in the workplace.

We have made progress on many fronts with regard to official languages in the past 10 years, but we are still a long way from equality. Protecting and promoting official languages is like running up the down escalator: stop for a moment, and you go backwards.

Nearly 50 years ago, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (the B&B Commission) concluded that there was still more work to be done before English and French would have “full equality of status” in Ottawa. Today, even though there are still challenges, we can say that the B&B Commission’s recommendations are the cornerstone of our current language policy.

Here is a brief overview.

After realizing that French-speaking Canadians did not have their rightful place in the federal government, Lester B. Pearson, Canada’s prime minister from 1963 to 1968, established the B&B Commission in 1963.

One of the B&B Commission’s recommendations was that English and French be formally declared the official languages of Parliament, the federal administration and federal courts. The objectives of the recommendation were to give Canadians the opportunity to communicate with their government in English or French, to give them equal opportunities to obtain federal government positions, to enable them to work in the official language of their choice, and to strengthen the vitality of official language communities.

The B&B Commission’s vision of linguistic duality was based on the notion that English-speaking Canadians and French-speaking Canadians have equal status across the country.

In the wake of the B&B Commission’s recommendations, and under the leadership of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the Parliament of Canada adopted the first Official Languages Act in July 1969, giving English and French the status of official languages of Canada. The Act created the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, whose role was defined by the B&B Commission as “the protector of the Canadian public and the critic of the federal government in matters respecting the official languages.” I am the sixth person to hold this position.

I would like to clarify something that has often been misunderstood. Language requirements for public servants have been in place since 1969. However, the Government of Canada’s language policy actually predates the Official Languages Act. Contrary to popular belief, it was not “Pierre Trudeau’s dream.”. The author of the policy was Lester B. Pearson, an Anglophone from Ontario.

Looking at the policy, you can see the framework—and the spirit—of the Official Languages Act. This policy was not a spontaneous decision. In June 1963, the Honourable Maurice Lamontagne rose in the House of Commons and declared that the government intended to “achieve as soon as possible perfect equality for the two official languages, not only with regard to verbal or written communication with the public but within every department.” Lamontagne, who was president of the Privy Council and had been one of Pearson’s senior advisors, had been a strong influence on the prime minister regarding language issues and the creation of the B&B Commission. I repeat, this was in 1963.

Of course, in order for the public service to meet its obligations, it must be able to count on having bilingual people in the right places: in offices that serve the public, in supervisory positions and on the teams providing assistance to fellow public servants. That is a lot of people. To increase the bilingual capacity of the public service, the government could dramatically expand current exchange programs, create scholarships for students to study in their second official language and offer language training programs for mid-career advancement in areas where there is a shortage.

Cabinet ministers, members of Parliament and heads of federal agencies—just like thousands of federal employees—have worked hard to become bilingual in both official languages. But to what extent are they using those skills in their day-to-day work to communicate publicly with Canadians? If you don’t use it, you lose it—it’s a simple as that.

Being fluent in both official languages is an effective way to show leadership. I still don’t understand why some managers, after getting their C levels, seem to be relieved never to have to speak their second language again, as if achieving this level of proficiency was only to confirm that they are technically bilingual, but not to be used in the workplace ever again. This is an appalling attitude and should not exist in the public service anymore.

In regions designated as bilingual for language-of-work purposes, as is the case here in the National Capital Region, the right to work in the official language of their choice is an individual right belonging to all public service employees, both English- and French-speaking, regardless of the linguistic identification of their position.

I would venture to say that I do not think that we fully appreciated at the time what a radical move it was to grant employees the right to work in the language of their choice. And I do not think that managers currently understand just how this affects their jobs. So many aspects of a public servant’s work are regulated by someone else, from the size of their workspace to the time they have to complete a task. However, employees do have the right to choose the language in which their supervisor must talk to them. Why? We could have said, “Because it’s 1988,” which is when this right was finally added to the Act. It was a normal progression in the process of ensuring the equality of both languages.

Not all issues have benefited from the same consensus.

In 2015–2016, complaints under section 91 of the Act about the language requirements for federal public service positions rose 13% over the previous year. One of the reasons for this is a long-standing disagreement between my office and the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. The Secretariat tells federal institutions that a BBB linguistic profile in the second official language is appropriate for most supervisory positions, while I still insist that CBC is the minimum level to ensure clear and effective communication with employees in regions that are designated as bilingual for language-of-work purposes. A supervisor must be able to communicate ideas, to persuade and to influence in both official languages.

I also continue to receive complaints about the language skills of Governor in Council appointees, which is an issue that I am concerned about, as well. I was recently pleased to learn that the Prime Minister intends to modify the Governor in Council nomination process so that it is more rigorous and transparent.

To reinforce the fact that fluency in both official languages is a leadership skill, I published a tool today to help people who are involved in selecting candidates for leadership positions within federal institutions, both at home and abroad. It provides the criteria that should be used in the decision-making process for Governor in Council nominations and for filling federal public service positions. This tool helps to assess whether the knowledge of both official languages is required to perform all of the duties related to the position. I have brought copies with me today, and it is also available on our website. I hope you will find it useful and that you will share it with your colleagues.

As I have mentioned in the past, when it comes to respecting official languages, success is no accident. Successful institutions plan their actions, consult with communities and evaluate their progress. This is possible only if employees, managers, executives, new recruits and human resources specialists fully understand their institution’s official languages obligations, particularly with respect to establishing the linguistic profiles of positions. When it comes to the linguistic profiles of leadership positions in the public service, good planning will ensure that the Canadian public receives quality service in both official languages, that employees are able to work in the official language of their choice and that the needs of official language minority communities are taken into consideration in governmental decisions.

Attitudes have changed and will continue to evolve. The open-mindedness that I have noticed in many senior officials is an encouraging sign. However, official languages in the public service is an issue that needs constant attention. You cannot take anything for granted, otherwise you will have to start all over.

Thank you for your attention.

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