Notes for an address to the Executive Committee of the Public Health Agency of Canada

Official languages leadership is also a question of public health

Ottawa, Ontario, September 28, 2016
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Hello everyone,

I am very pleased to be here with you today. I would like to thank your president, Dr. Siddika Mithani, for inviting me to speak to you.

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 our official languages 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 time 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 numerous 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.

This leadership must be shown starting at the highest levels of the organization. I don’t think government leaders realize how much their attitude towards linguistic duality influences their organizational culture.

And the approach you take to language—particularly how much you respect it as a value rather than an obligation—has a strong impact on your success or failure as a leader.

For linguistic duality to be perceived as a value in your institution, your managers at all levels must be able to lead by example.

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

I know it can be challenging to find common ground between my mandate and yours, but our two institutions do share certain issues. As a federal institution, it is your duty to prepare yourselves and intervene in the event of a public health emergency, and it is my duty to ensure that every Canadian can be served in the official language of his or her choice. For example, in the event of an epidemic or another public health issue, you must be able to communicate with all Canadians, which requires a certain degree of preparation. In some cases, providing service in both official languages can become an issue of national security—and even a matter of life or death. This may seem dramatic, but when you think about it, you can see the logic in it. My office has also had to act in many similar cases of this nature over the past years. Often, when dealing with a crisis or panic, our brain only functions in its first language. Information that may seem basic is simply not understood in the second language, even if the person is reasonably bilingual.

You already exercise national leadership in promoting and protecting the health of Canadians. It is important that this leadership be expressed in both English and French, our two official languages, to strengthen the federal capacity to face any emergency, share information and work with other departments, federal organizations and levels of government, as well as with the private sector, emergency workers and specialists in various fields. As public health officials, your interventions must enable all emergency management partners to interact and understand each other from the outset. Being prepared to respond in both official languages across Canada is a fundamental duty of your organization. Strong leadership, in English and French, will promote quicker and more effective responses, while strengthening the safety and resiliency of all Canadian communities, including our official language minority communities.

In the health sector, we must remember the importance of delivering services in the minority language—in English in Quebec’s English-speaking communities, particularly in the regions where there is an aging unilingual English-speaking population, and in French in French-speaking communities elsewhere in Canada. These two official language minority communities have their own issues in terms of access to health services in their language. Therefore, it is essential to collaborate with community health agencies and focus on training for health professionals in the minority language, recruitment and networking.

As you develop your daily communications and marketing initiatives, you will need to further integrate a dual approach into your strategies, in order to reach your entire client base. The first natural course of action is to consider Canada’s—and your employees’—linguistic duality from the very beginning of all your business activities, including strategic planning. This will build language needs into your budget from the get-go and help you avoid surprises later on.

However, it is not enough to simply acknowledge the need by setting aside funding. Action is required on many levels. If you are to seriously consider reaching out to both language communities, you need to include members of both communities in your communications and marketing activities. How can you develop marketing campaigns—or products—if you can’t communicate with and understand the other culture? You must know what is going on in the two linguistic communities, throughout Canada.

Without the leadership of all federal employees, the public service and the whole of government will be unable to give both official languages the respect they deserve. 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 and an enormous influence on how linguistic duality and bilingualism are perceived in the workplace.

I would like to address briefly the issue of the report cards that were published in my last annual report.  

In general, your organization's 2015–2016 report card attests to a good performance and concrete efforts that reflect a clear commitment to respecting your obligations under the Act. The Agency obtained notable results in two out of the five areas evaluated, namely management of the official languages program and language of work. Moreover, your organization took measures to remedy deficiencies that were noted in your previous report card, notably by establishing a detailed action plan. You also obtained a good rating with regard to the participation of English- and French-speaking Canadians in your workforce, as well as for the development of official language minority communities and promotion of linguistic duality. It is a step in the right direction, and I would like to congratulate you on your efforts.

On the other hand, the Agency must step up its efforts to improve active offer of service to the public in person and on the phone. What we call “active offer,” or bilingual greeting, is a key element in the federal government’s language obligations. This means that when you go to a federal office—or an office of an organization subject to the Official Languages Act, you should not have to ask yourself if service in the official language of your choice is available. If this office has a duty to provide  service in both official languages, the person behind the counter or on the phone should convey this to you from the outset by extending a greeting such as “hello, bonjour.” This is what active offer is. Our data on your institution indicate that service in both official languages is often available, but active offer is not systematically practised, such that members of the public do not know that they can be served in the official language of their choice.

We have made progress on many fronts with regard to official languages over 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.

Of course, for the public service to fulfil its obligations, it must be able to count on bilingual people, in the right places: in services to the public, in supervisory positions, in teams that provide support to other public servants, and so on. 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 their career advancement.

Cabinet ministers, members of Parliament and heads of federal agencies—just like thousands of federal employees—have worked hard to become proficient in both official languages. However, 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 as simple as that.

Being fluent in both official languages is an effective way to show leadership. I still fail to understand why some managers, after getting their C level, 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,” and never to be used in the workplace. That 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 one’s choice is an individual right belonging to all public service employees, both English- and French-speaking, regardless of the language requirements 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 in which language they wish to be supervised. 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.

To reinforce the fact that fluency in both official languages is a leadership skill, in early September, I published a tool 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 a knowledge of both official languages is required to perform all the duties of the position. I have brought copies with me today, and the tool 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 government decisions.

Attitudes have changed and will continue to evolve. The willingness—and the desire to do a good job—that I have observed in many public servants at all levels of responsibility is an encouraging sign. However, official languages in the public service are an issue that needs constant attention. You should not take anything for granted, otherwise you will have to start all over.

Thank you for your attention. I will be pleased to answer your questions in the official language of your choice.

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