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February 24, 2010

You need to speak French in Ottawa

Reuel S. Amdur

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In 2007, Ottawa hired Vernon White as chief of police. Then, at the end of 2008, it was announced that Waterloo fire chief John deHooge would be the new fire chief in Ottawa.

The two had something in common: neither spoke French.  Both promised to learn the language.

While there was a certain discomfort about White’s hiring, de Hooge’s appointment created resentment in the francophone community. 

Such top positions in Ottawa are supposed to be bilingual.  Similarly, demands are being made that all new Supreme Court judges be bilingual. 

Bills to that effect have been introduced by Liberal Denis Coderre and NDP-er Yvon Godin, bills that died on the order papers due to prorogation. 

Bilingual policy involves several considerations: service to the community, opportunities, and pride in origin.  Let’s look at these one at a time.

Canada is committed to provision of service in both official languages, at least “where numbers warrant.”  People should be able to receive service in either when they buy postage stamps, deal with the income tax officials, or come up to the customs agent at the border. 

Our ability to meet this expectation is a work in progress, as reports of the Commissioner of Official Languages demonstrate.  But there is another side to the matter: job opportunities.

If you have to be bilingual to get the fire chief’s job, that rules out many potential candidates, in fact, most. 

Canada has not given students in school sufficient opportunities to become bilingual.  Restricted career opportunities create resentment and hostility.  Denial of opportunity, as psychologists have observed, is experienced as punishment. 

We might question how important bilingualism is to getting the job done as chief of police or of the fire department in Ottawa. 

The police and firemen on the front line are more apt to need to speak both languages.  The picture is less clear for the Supreme Court, as legal nit-picking may make bilingualism more pertinent. 

On the other hand, there is still the problem of opportunity for Supreme Court appointees to have learned the other language and of the resentment that could come from such a limitation where the opportunity is so limited to learn it in school.

The other factor to consider is pride of identity.  French Canadians have faced past discrimination, even in places like Montreal.  While the situation has changed radically, the memory lingers.  As well, there is the reality of language loss, especially among French Canadian communities outside Quebec. 

English today is the dominant world language, the language of commerce, science, and even diplomacy. 

A couple centuries ago, it was French and before that Latin, except for commerce.  Next—Mandarin? 

Because of the importance of English, many educated French speakers also know English.  Outside Quebec, a knowledge of French among anglophones is not equally widespread.  Therefore, French Canadians tend to feel endangered and to feel a loss of what was once a lofty position in the world of letters, science, diplomacy, and commerce. 

Factoring in these different strands and coming up with reasonable policies is complicated.  However, one issue stands out—education.  If we want bilingual people in important positions, we need to make the opportunity available.  That means that we need much, much more bilingual education. Not long ago, I had occasion to call a hospital in Belgium, in the Flemish section.  I asked the woman at the switchboard to connect me with someone in nursing or social work who could speak either English or French, and when I was connected I was told I could speak either.  Other countries manage to produce educated citizens with two or more languages, and so can we if we really want to. 

While it does not seem wrong to me for Ottawa to hire White and deHooge, especially with the expectation that they will learn French, there is a certain imbalance.  Would consideration have been given to a candidate for chief of police or fire chief who was a unilingual francophone?  Very unlikely.

In Canada, there is the right to service from the government in one’s official language.  In some cases, it is a matter of a person being unilingual, and in other it is a matter of the person’s preference.  Then there is the matter of opportunity.  Here education is the preeminent factor, where there has been glaringly insufficient attention given.  In the absence of real opportunities in the educational system, the awarding of some posts with the expectation that the candidate learn the other language is reasonable. 

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