ARCHIVED - Montréal, January 25, 2008

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Notes for an address at a meeting
with the Quebec Federal Council

Graham Fraser – Commissioner of Official Languages

Check against delivery

Good day,

Thank you for inviting me to meet with you. It’s always a pleasure to talk to the people who coordinate what their institutions are doing at the regional level. It lets us both have a look at how linguistic duality should be experienced on a day-to-day basis in the various regions across the country. Meeting with you also gives me a chance to hear about best practices and innovative projects that I can later bring up in other meetings. 

I am especially pleased to be with you at this time, because I am convinced that the federal public service will be facing some special challenges in Quebec in the coming years. These challenges will have an impact on the country as a whole. Let me take a few moments to outline my thinking on this point. 

I wouldn’t want to belittle the importance of the sovereignist movement since everything seems to indicate that Francophone Quebeckers are ready, as a society, to become full partners in Canadian society, to “reconquer Canada” as the title of a recent book puts it. Here are a few examples that support this feeling:

  • Unilingual Francophone soldiers in the Canadian Forces are risking their lives in Afghanistan without waves of protest sweeping through the Quebec citizenry. 
  • The 400th anniversary of the founding of Québec City will have national scope. 
  • A growing number of Francophone Quebeckers are moving westward and joining established Francophone communities in demanding quality services in French. 
  • The current political climate is neither pre-referendum nor post-referendum, but is focussed on totally different considerations. 

Given this context, the Francophones of Quebec are seeing the federal public service in a new light. For the first time in a long time, federal institutions in Ottawa have had to increase the language training available for unilingual Francophones who are joining their ranks. 

Will these new recruits to the public service find a work environment where the rights of each and every individual are fully respected and where Francophones and Anglophones take advantage of their differences to better serve the public? Will they see Canadian bilingualism as an irritant, a deception or a favourable opportunity?

The answer to these questions will have repercussions that go far beyond the daily work environment in your organizations. If the federal public service can show how bridges between Canada’s linguistic communities can enrich the lives of each and every one of us, the impact will be felt throughout Canadian society. 

But how do we do it? In November, when appearing before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages, I mentioned three specific areas where the government would have to act:

  • The government must consider the knowledge of both official languages as a leadership skill during the renewal process for the public service.  
  • It must absolutely take concrete action and develop and implement the next phase of the Action Plan for Official Languages.
  • It must show strong leadership in order to improve the active offer of service to the Canadian public.

Leadership has always been linked to official languages policy at the federal level. Indeed, how can you exercise leadership if you do not understand those you are leading? How can you respect employees if you cannot talk to them in the official language of their choice? How can you respect the public if you ignore their language rights?   

Since I became Commissioner of Official Languages last October, I have had ample opportunity to observe the relationships that exist between leadership and language. To get the “magic” C level in oral interaction, those being assessed have to be able to be persuasive in their second language, able to intervene in a work conflict, able to supervise employees, or, as someone from the Public Service Commission said to me, able to testify in court or give a course. 

It is not a matter of criteria for linguistic assessment, but rather leadership competencies that have a profound effect on the entire organization. 

In June, I heard Jeffrey Gandz of the Ivey Executive Program and the Ivey Leadership Program talk about leadership and the importance of being able to influence and persuade people, i.e. embody, convey, promote and implement values. He said, “If the leaders do not embody the values, they quite simply don’t exist.”

I asked him how important it was for leaders to be able to communicate with the organization as a whole and not only with their direct subordinates. In his view, this was the distinction between being a leader and being a manager. You manage a sector, but you lead the organization as a whole. It all comes down to saying that to be a leader in the public service, you have to be able to influence, persuade, motivate, stimulate and value all employees, in English and in French.  

That is why the issue of official languages is, for me, an important component of public service renewal. This issue takes on a special dimension in Quebec in terms of the participation of the Anglophone minority. I recognize the efforts you have made to date and urge you to continue. Full representation of Anglophones in the federal public service in Quebec is not only possible, it is to everyone’s advantage.

Official languages affect many aspects of public service renewal and not only the equitable representation of both linguistic groups. They have an impact on recruitment, employee retention and staff training, as well as on leadership development. That’s why official languages are on the agenda of the interdepartmental committee that is currently studying the issue.

Let’s agree on one thing from the outset. Not all of us have to be bilingual. However, the public service must have a good number of qualified employees who can communicate in both official languages. And I would add that this is a minimum. Some are already bilingual when they are hired. Others become bilingual over the course of their careers. This means we have to ensure the survival and development of our language training programs so that in future these employees can access a wider range of positions, including those that require supervising employees in both official languages. 

Earlier, I mentioned the importance of building bridges between public servants in both linguistic groups. That also applies to relationships between those who work in Montréal, Jonquière or Sherbrooke and their colleagues in Ottawa or elsewhere in the country. I know perfectly well that this is quite often a problem, as evidenced by the studies on the language of work published in recent years.

It’s an issue that I bring up on a regular basis with the leaders of federal institutions and public service managers. They recognize the problem, but it is all a bit abstract for them. I think that there are opportunities for more in-depth discussion on this issue between managers in Quebec and elsewhere.

Naturally, an organization that is taking full advantage of its employees’ ability to function in both official languages is well positioned to offer better services to Canadians. However, according to the observations made by my staff, there are still major obstacles to overcome in this regard. 

I am thinking specifically about the active offer of service in both languages by front-line employees. It’s an issue that the public service across the board seems to be having difficulty in dealing with. Given its importance, I must admit that the situation leaves me somewhat perplexed.

Active offer in bilingual points of service is not incidental. It’s an essential component of quality service everywhere where services have to be offered in both languages. When you greet someone with a “Bonjour / Good morning,” you are opening the door to communication in the language of his or her choice. Without bilingual greetings, service in the minority language may just as well not exist. Worse, it might seem that we are embarrassed to offer it and that the public should be just as embarrassed to request it. That is why we track active offer in our performance report cards for federal institutions. If you haven’t already done so, I urge you to make active offer of service a priority in your organization and implement measures that will allow you to track your progress in this area.

On another front, Mr. Moisan, from Canadian Heritage, will be addressing you later on how to follow up on the Action Plan for Official Languages, which expires on March 31, 2008. This project is very dear to me and will have an impact on several of your organizations and especially on Quebec’s Anglophone community. 

This Plan, which came into effect in 2003, provided for additional transfers to provincial governments and minority community school systems for second language teaching, but also for direct investment by the federal government in the areas of immigration, health, and early childhood, and for the use of official languages in the public service. A total of 751 million dollars was to be spent over five years. At the national level, some of your organizations played a role in the development and implementation of the Plan. 

Minister Josée Verner will soon be looking at Bernard Lord’s consultation report into what form this intervention might take. Quebec’s Anglophone community has expressed a great deal of interest in the Plan’s renewal. 

Like the Francophone minority communities across Canada, Anglo-Quebeckers hope that the impetus gained from the first five-year plan will be maintained and the initiatives that have been launched will fully achieve the desired outcomes in health, education and immigration. I have also been told repeatedly that the Action Plan should have a broader reach and also focus on areas such as arts and culture, to provide for the development of all aspects of the Anglophone community in Quebec. It has been two years now since the Official Languages Act was amended to strengthen this legislative obligation. 

To this end, I urge you to reach out to community organizations in a spirit of cooperation and to be enterprising and imaginative when doing so. The “positive measures” provided for in the Act are not defined, so you have free rein in terms of the action you could undertake. It is therefore up to the institutions, together with the local and provincial communities, to explore how they can provide support, based on their specific mandate and the means and expertise at their disposal.

This new Action Plan had been developed when Statistics Canada released new language data from the 2006 census, including a major study on aspects affecting the vitality of official language communities. The census results have been highly politicized. Some politicians and mathematicians use them to show that French is losing ground in Canada and that the commitment to official language minority communities as defined in the Official Languages Act in 2005 should be reconsidered. When given the figures on the vitality of Quebec’s Anglophone community, some suggest that that it might be better to stop supporting its development. In this context, the renewal of the Action Plan is an opportunity to point out that the official language communities make an important contribution to Canadian society in every region of the country and in all fields.

The original Action Plan also included funding for the development of official language initiatives in the public service. It is true that this funding was relatively modest and that subsequent cutbacks were detrimental to initiatives that were underway. I hope that special attention will be paid to this component so that you can benefit from the support you need. 

In closing, I would like to congratulate you on the efforts you have made together to improve the linguistic environment in the federal public service in Quebec. It seems to me that your group is ready to take on a special leadership role with the other federal councils across the country.  

You have developed a number of best practices that could very well be applied elsewhere, such as the official languages recognition awards that were given at the follow-up training session you held last fall. It would also be a good thing to let members of other federal councils see for themselves what you were doing, if you would be agreeable to inviting them.

Outside Quebec, and to a too great extent in Ottawa as well, the public service has been suffering from a certain weariness when it comes to language issues. This can be explained by the fact that people have too little exposure to the French fact on a day-to-day basis. However, it also has to do with a misguided conception of the language debate by the general public. 

I am talking about the tenacious myth according to which Canadian language policy was supposed to put an end to the language debate. Because the debate continues, people think the policy has failed. However, the language debate is an integral part of what Canada is. So it’s a matter of benefiting from it as much as possible. This is what I am trying to show Canadians, as well as the federal public service. I believe that you, as a group of leaders of federal institutions in Quebec, also have a role to play through your actions and relationships with your colleagues in other regions in Canada.

My staff and I are always available to support your initiatives. Obviously, you already know that you can count on a committed and very resourceful colleague in the person of Eva Ludvig.

Thank you for your attention.