Notes for an address to the officer cadets of the Royal Military College of Canada

Kingston, Ontario, September 16, 2016
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Ladies and gentlemen, officer cadets, members of the Canadian Armed Forces, good morning.

It is a great pleasure to be here with you today. I would like to thank Robert Paquet for inviting me.

First, I would like to congratulate you on the 40th anniversary of the Royal Military College of Canada’s Language Centre. The year 1976 was a turning point in the history of bilingualism in Canada. That year, as your college was celebrating its centenary, there was a huge controversy about the right of French-speaking pilots and air traffic controllers to use French in Quebec airspace. This was known as the Gens de l’air crisis. Two government ministers resigned: one because the government had conceded too much to those who opposed the use of French by pilots and controllers, the other because the government was doing too much to support the Francophone cause. It was a different time. However, although we have made great progress since then, we still have a long way to go to achieve equity between our official languages.

Canada was built in English and French. Even today, the two languages are a bridge that connects us, and the cornerstone of communication for a diverse and ever-changing population. The Canadian Armed Forces have also changed—and for the better.

Over the past four decades, the Language Centre has worked hard to promote official languages in the Canadian Armed Forces. The equal status of English and French is one of the fundamental values of Canada, like peace, freedom, sovereignty and the protection of the Arctic. These are values that you personify when you perform your duties as members of the military.

Since I entered office in 2006, it has been a fascinating and challenging journey working to protect language rights and promote linguistic duality as a key element of our national identity and as a value rather than a burden. At the core of this vision of linguistic duality is an enduring conviction that our respect for both official languages fosters opportunities for growth and understanding among Canadians.

Language is only one of many ways in which Canadians define their identity. But the coexistence of English and French—what we call linguistic duality—will always be an indelible feature of Canadian society. It is a powerful symbol of openness, empathy and respect.

On that note, it is always with the greatest respect that I meet men and women who have chosen to serve their country and are pursuing post-secondary studies to be better equipped to do so. I admire your dedication. By choosing a military career, you are putting the interests of others before your own, and this brings honour to each and every one of you. A military career is not an easy choice. The fact that you have made it shows that you already have leadership skills.

As I have been saying since I became Commissioner of Official Languages, bilingualism is an essential leadership skill, especially in the Canadian Armed Forces. A former commander of the Royal 22e Régiment once said to me that when he allowed his staff to speak French in radio communications during exercises, the regiment’s effectiveness increased considerably. In the Canadian Forces, more than in any other organization, the leaders must prove that they are worthy of their subordinates’ respect.

I myself have not always been bilingual. I started learning French in 1965 when I was in university. During a summer internship in Quebec, I realized how little I knew about my own country. I wanted to learn, but I also wanted to have fun with my colleagues, so I rolled up my sleeves and, as well as learning French, developed a passion for Quebec that has never left me.

Ever since then, bilingualism has always been a part of my life, and I spent my career as a journalist explaining to each of Canada’s official language communities what was happening on the other side. I have never stopped learning my second language—if you don’t use it, you lose it!

One of my duties as Commissioner of Official Languages is to ensure that both language communities respect each other. In a way, it was the logical next step in a career dedicated to respect and understanding.

It was General Roméo Dallaire—himself a graduate of this college—who made me understand that bilingualism is a key leadership skill in the Canadian Armed Forces. “A Canadian officer must be able to communicate and not simply monologue,” he said. “That means communicating in the soldier’s language. Because the soldier will no longer die in the officers’ language.

General Dallaire also told me that “bilingualism has never been presented as a fundamental criterion for rising to the rank of officer.” I believe that this is no longer the case. According to Canadian Armed Forces policy requirements, you must obtain at least a level B in reading, writing and speaking in your second official language. Officers must be able to be persuasive in their second language. They also have to be able to address a workplace conflict, supervise employees, testify in court or give a course in their second language. I encourage you all to go beyond the minimum intermediate level.

We live in an complex world, and understanding the nuances of national and international relations requires an increasingly wider variety of skills. As members of the Canadian military, you must have more than one string to your bow. You must simultaneously develop your intellectual abilities, your physical fitness and your leadership skills, and you must also be able to communicate in English and French, our two official languages.

Sometimes the federal government makes decisions that adversely affect the vitality of official language minority communities and the substantive equality of Canada’s two official languages. In the 1990s, as part of the government’s many initiatives to improve public finances, it closed two of the three military colleges: Royal Roads and Royal Military College Saint-Jean. Your college, already bilingual in theory, then became the only centre for training fully bilingual officer cadets.

The closure of Royal Military College Saint-Jean in 1995 had a negative impact on the bilingualism of officer cadets as well as on the linguistic duality of the country. Royal Military College Saint-Jean gave young Francophones, as well as many Anglophones, the opportunity to become bilingual officers. It also gave English-speaking students a truly French-speaking environment, a form of immersion that cadets who went straight to Kingston were not able to experience.

For more than two decades, Canada’s armed forces have suffered from the absence of a French-language military university. Thankfully, the government announced this year that Royal Military College Saint-Jean is to regain its status as a university, a decision that will correct a serious problem. I was very pleased indeed to hear this news.

Before he retired, General Walt Natynczyk sent a message that has the great merit of clarity: to rise to the senior ranks, you must speak both official languages. This recognizes the fact that fluency in both English and French is a key leadership skill and essential if you want to understand your country, command officers and advise senior civil servants and cabinet ministers. The Canadian Armed Forces—and Canada—need leaders with these skills.

By honing your French skills here at the Royal Military College of Canada or at Royal Military College Saint-Jean, you are also developing your leadership skills. This is a unique opportunity that will help you to gain a deeper understanding of what is happening at home and thereby better represent your country when you are abroad.

According to Chief of the Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance, soldiers will soon be deployed in West Africa, in French-speaking countries where the French military is leading a United Nations peacekeeping mission. French language skills will be essential, as much for communicating with the population as with the French army. This is just one example among many to show you how important it is to be fluent in both of our official languages in your line of work, especially when you are representing Canada during your missions. Our country, with its two official languages, is respected around the world.

Now is the time to take the initiative and make the most of your exceptional training to become the leader you have wanted to be since you decided to join the Canadian Armed Forces.

Being able to speak English and French is also a wonderful way to open yourselves up to others and forge lasting friendships that you otherwise would not have. The friendships that you develop at the College with your classmates, teachers and officers, whether in English or French, will stay with you for the rest of your lives. These close connections are part of your training as officers.

When you finish your studies and your military training, a stimulating career in the service of your country will lie ahead of you. Do not forget that, throughout your career, you will have opportunities for advancement in the Canadian Armed Forces. You will have to lead other military personnel, and it will be your responsibility to understand them and make yourself understood. Being fluent in both official languages will give you a head start and help you to lead by example.

Although we are a country with two official languages and two founding cultures, they do not constrain us. We also understand that we cannot be fair to everyone if we cannot ensure equity and respect between our two largest language groups. This is why it is so important for Canada to be able to count on armed forces that are bilingual. You symbolize linguistic unity, and you must uphold this unity when you carry out your duties. Canada’s linguistic duality makes it a country of openness, discovery and respect for others. These are the values that you project when you become a leader in the Canadian Armed Forces.

If you want to make a difference, have a positive influence on your colleagues, make a good impression during your future missions and be the new face of official languages in the Canadian Forces, make bilingualism a priority in your studies.

I sincerely hope that you will make a commitment to become fluent in your second official language and that you will continue to respect and protect your country’s official languages, whatever your own mother tongue is. And I trust that you will continue to be proud of the message that you send when you perform your military duties.

Thank you. If you have any questions, I would be happy to answer them.

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