Notes for an address to the Canadian Forces College: The importance of bilingualism in the Canadian Armed Forces

Toronto, Ontario -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Brigadier-General Cotten, faculty members, students, ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon and thank you for inviting me to speak about the importance of bilingualism in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

I’d like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat, the Petun, the Seneca and the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation.

This territory is covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and is within the lands protected by the “Dish With One Spoon” wampum agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and Confederacy of the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes.

Today, the meeting place of Toronto is still home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island, and we’re grateful for the opportunity to work in the community on this territory.

Speaking of territory and community, I’d like to let you know how much respect I feel in this building. I see the men, women and leaders here before me, but I also see all the others who have passed through these halls over the decades. Congratulations on your college’s 75th anniversary next October!

You’re here to advance your career and become better leaders. I’m here to talk to you about a skill that I consider to be essential for any leader—bilingualism.

As CAF officers, you know what values Canada is built on. I imagine this is one of the reasons you joined—to defend the values we all share as Canadians. Linguistic duality is one of those shared values.

The equal status of English and French is a fundamental Canadian value, along with peace, respect, inclusion, human rights and freedom. You convey these values when you perform your duties, whether you’re in the army, the navy or the air force.

Canada was built primarily in English and French. Today, the two languages still connect us and form the basis of communications among a diverse and constantly changing population.

Linguistic duality and official language minority communities run in my blood.

I come from Sainte-Anne-des-Chênes, which was a very small village in Manitoba. When I lived there, the village’s population was 100% French-Canadian, and yet there was no French school for me to go to.

My parents and many others fought for this right, and my younger brothers had the opportunity to be educated in their mother tongue. At home, linguistic duality, bilingualism and the future of our community were all part of our daily family discussions.

Talking about official languages and fighting for our rights made me the man I am today. I was therefore honoured and proud to be appointed as Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages.

I’ve spent my life studying and defending linguistic duality. Some might say that it’s a lifelong battle, but I consider it to be my lifelong passion.

What I’m trying to illustrate with my story is the Canada that you represent. Linguistic duality is not a theoretical concept that sounds good in a casual conversation. It is English and French living together and working together in our country. Your fellow Canadians speak English, they speak French, and some are bilingual, trilingual or even multilingual. That’s Canada.

Linguistic duality is a powerful symbol of openness, empathy and respect.

On that note, I’d like to tell you that it’s always a privilege to meet women and men like you, who have chosen to serve their country and to continue their education in order to enhance that service. I admire your dedication. In choosing a military career, you are putting the interests of others before your own, and that choice does you credit. Choosing a military career isn’t an easy decision, and it shows that you already have leadership skills.

In my opinion, being able to speak both official languages is an essential leadership skill. This is especially true in the CAF, where, more than in any other organization, leaders must prove deserving of their subordinates’ respect.

Before going further, I would like to take a few minutes to talk about the main factors supported by the Official Languages Act. This is the Cartesian part of my speech.

As Commissioner of Official Languages, I promote respect for both of Canada’s official language communities. My job is also, clearly, to ensure compliance with the Act, which will be turning 50 in 2019.

Even though we’ve made great progress over the past 50 years, there’s still a long way to go in terms of the equal status of our official languages.

Like any other federal institution, the CAF have certain obligations under the Act, especially when it comes to service to the public, language of work, the development of official language minority communities and the promotion of linguistic duality.

Let’s start with Part IV of the Act, which governs services to the public in both official languages.

As members of the CAF, you’re expected to communicate with the official language communities where you’re posted.

Consider last year’s major floods in Québec and Ontario. The Canadian Forces helped many residents struggling with the rising waters. It went on for weeks, and people were completely exhausted. But I remember the mutual support and the images of soldiers and civilians working together. They had to communicate in either official language. At times like these, we see the power of bilingualism. Think back to the 1998 ice storm in Quebec and Ontario, or the 2017 ice storm in New Brunswick’s Acadian peninsula.

A workforce that can take action, coordinate, communicate and reassure people in distress in both official languages is a workforce that is prepared, effective and respectful. It is a workforce that leads by example. It is your workforce and these are your key qualities.

Our world is constantly changing, and Canadian Forces College (CFC)’s mission statement highlights the importance of your role on the world stage. But the part of the Act that undoubtedly affects you the most is Part V, which governs language of work.

In federal institutions, managers are required to respect their employees’ language-of-work rights by creating workplaces that are conducive to the use of both official languages. This makes it easier for everyone to develop a full range of leadership skills, which includes fluency in both official languages.

Having officers who can serve just about anywhere—including in one of the 213 bilingual units or the 55 Francophone units, not to mention the 288 English-speaking units—is a critical advantage for the CAF.

CFC’s mission is to prepare you for joint command and staff positions or future strategic responsibilities within a complex global security environment.

Understanding the subtleties of domestic and international relations requires an increasingly wide range of skills. As members of the Canadian military, you need to have more than one string to your bow. You must develop your intellectual abilities, your physical fitness and your leadership skills while also being able to communicate in your country’s two official languages, English and French.

The last factor I want to talk about is Part VII of the Act, which is about taking positive measures to enhance the vitality of official language minority communities.

And just what are positive measures? I must admit that I wish the wording in the Act were more specific, but in general, it means that the CAF must take a proactive and systematic approach that considers the needs and interests of Canada’s official language minority communities in order:

  • to enhance their vitality;
  • to support them and help them to develop, which also implies avoiding making decisions that could hinder that development; and
  • to foster the recognition and use of English and French in society.

In other words, the needs of official language communities must be a consideration in the CAF’s decisions. Deciding to change or eliminate programs or services or to move a military base without consulting official language communities is not in compliance with the spirit or letter of Part VII of the Act. Even if these decisions are not yours to make, you still have a role to play in supporting communities―you are the troops on the ground.

I would go even further to say that you need to be proactive when you make decisions and when you take action. This means establishing and maintaining contact with the communities in your area.

You come from all across Canada, from coast to coast to coast. Your collective knowledge and experience are as extensive as this great country.

Knowing how to speak both English and French is also a great way to open up to others and build lasting friendships that you wouldn’t otherwise have known. The relationships that you form here at CFC with your fellow students, your teachers and your superiors, whether they’re forged in English or French, will remain with you for life.

Don’t get me wrong―I’m not trying to sugar-coat it. Learning your second official language is not easy. As with anything, the key is to practice, practice, practice. And to open yourself up to others and never give up.

When you finish your CFC training, you’ll have a more exciting career serving your country than ever before. You’ll be responsible for leading other members of the military. You’ll need to understand and make yourself understood. You’ll need to reason, comprehend, explain and persuade. Your fluency in both official languages will give you a head start and will help you lead by example.

I hope that you’ll commit to mastering your second official language and that you’ll continue to respect and protect your country’s official languages, regardless of your own mother tongue.

Just because Canada has two official languages doesn’t mean that we’re limited to those languages. But we also understand that we can’t be fair to everyone if we can’t instill equity and respect for our two main language groups. That’s why it’s so important for Canada to have bilingual armed forces.

Our linguistic duality makes us a country that promotes openness, discovery and respect for others. By becoming a leader in the CAF, you convey these values to your subordinates and to your peers, and you demonstrate them to your superiors, and to the public, wherever you’re posted.

Remember that federal institutions’ ability to demonstrate and convey current Canadian values, both at home and abroad, depends mainly on the vision, conviction and language skills of their leaders.

Consider the upcoming deployment to Mali, in which our soldiers will play a crucial role in supporting the UN peacekeeping mission. Imagine the importance of being bilingual in intense and dangerous situations in a French-speaking country. Also imagine the contacts and the relationships that can be developed and maintained. If you can speak with the locals, or at least with their leaders, you can better understand their realities. If you can establish trust, you can also gather information. Being bilingual can open doors even abroad.

If you want to make a difference, if you want to have a positive impact on your colleagues, if you want to make a good impression during your future missions, then make official languages a priority in your military career with the Canadian Armed Forces.

Thank you. If you have any questions, I would be pleased to answer them in the official language of your choice.