Archived - Notes for an armchair discussion at the Canada School of Public Service on Linguistic Duality Day
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Ottawa, Ontario, September 12, 2013
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
It's a great pleasure to be here at the Canada School of Public Service to take part in today's discussion with my fellow panelists.
On such a day as this—Linguistic Duality Day—I can think of no more appropriate venue to speak about a subject that is quite near and dear to my heart, and hopefully to yours as well.
As it happens, our discussion coincides with the release by my office of a new study on language training in the federal public service. I'd like to use my time this afternoon to address some of our findings. I will use Blueprint 2020 to frame the discussion by looking at ways linguistic duality contributes to a capable, confident and high-performing work force.
But first, it's been five years since the federal government began marking Linguistic Duality Day. What exactly is it that we celebrate on this day?
Linguistic duality is part of our identity—a dual identity that belongs to all Canadians. Our history confers upon the Government of Canada the duty to help make our two official languages, English and French, accessible to all Canadians.
Neither English nor French are foreign languages. They are Canadian languages. Our two languages belong to all Canadians, regardless of their linguistic background or whether they are bilingual or unilingual.
In Canada today, there are more than 7 million people who speak French as their first language and more than 25 million who speak English. About 17% of Canadians are bilingual.
Linguistic duality is a value, not an obligation. It's an asset, not a burden. Linguistic duality is an integral part of the federal public service. It enables every employee to contribute to the fullest of his or her ability.
At last count, 71% of public servants cited English as their first language, and 29% French. Forty percent of federal public service positions require knowledge of both official languages, while one third of offices and service delivery points are required to offer bilingual services.Footnote 1
As current and future leaders, you have a critical role to play by emphasizing the importance of linguistic duality throughout the public service. Those of you who internalize it as a core value already know this is essential for making it an integral part of your workplace and work practices.
No matter what function you serve, whether you supervise employees or deliver a service directly to the public or to a deputy minister, you demonstrate leadership when you respect linguistic duality. So how do we make the most of these leadership opportunities? Language training is key to this. It can help public servants develop the leadership skills they need to create that capable, confident and high-performing work force, as envisioned in Blueprint 2020.
Language training helps federal employees maintain and perfect their language skills. It enables them to progress in their careers towards management positions.
But language training services have changed significantly in the past decade through decentralization to federal institutions. The process hasn't been well documented, making it difficult to get a clear picture of what and how we're doing on this front.
This is why we conducted our latest study, Challenges: The New Environment for Language Training in the Federal Public Service.
When language training was introduced in the public service five decades ago, it was meant to be a temporary measure. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that universities would eventually churn out a regular supply of bilingual graduates for the country's largest employer. This would make federal language training obsolete as the public service benefitted from the talents of graduates from across the country. This was a very logical and forward-looking view of the situation. It did not happen that way.
I have met with more university presidents, chancellors and deans than I can count. Most of them readily admit that their institution isn't doing enough to build on the language skills their students acquire in high school. Some do better, such as the University of Ottawa. But for students in many regions, reinforcing their second official language is a matter of personal commitment. It's not a standard academic path.
The federal government has therefore had to continue providing language training. And this commitment is obviously part of our future, given that Canadian universities with the best of intentions are not able to deliver solid second-language programs and activities.
Part of language training involves helping public servants without second-language skills to become bilingual. But this is not the main objective. More often, employees want to upgrade their existing skills. They want to achieve a reasonable level of bilingualism, and they show interest when they begin their careers—not three months before becoming a supervisor.
The study released today notes the importance of employee motivation in learning and maintaining a second language, as well as the key role public service managers play in leading by example and using both languages regularly.
Language training must be integral to your career plans, not something secondary. I applaud the public servants who are already doing this.
When responsibility for language training was fully transferred from the Canada School of Public Service to individual federal institutions last year, I feared the program would simply meld into general training, and that it would be impossible to evaluate the language-training component. The fact that we were able to gather so much information for this study is encouraging. A lot is still being done.
As part of our study, we thought it important to define accountability. How do we ensure departments are taking their language training function seriously and putting systems in place to measure progress? I'm pleased to report that many departments have been doing this in spite of budgetary challenges.
Yet, that doesn't mean we can pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. It is also my view that federal institutions must improve their reporting on language training activities, expenditures and results. While 84% of respondents in our survey indicated they keep records of language training data, nearly one quarter of them admit that data is not collected systematically.
Given that there is currently no way to measure language training across the public service, I am recommending that deputy heads be required to establish a list of indicators and collect data in line with them. They should be establishing a reporting mechanism on language training and these measures should all be in place by October 1 of next year.
Another challenge involves the coordination of training in outlying regions. The new language training system that has been gradually implemented since 2006 changed the role of the Canada School of Public Service so that it no longer coordinates language training activities in the regions. This coordination had become essential where a small number of public servants are spread across the offices of several institutions. The Canada School of Public Service compensated for this difficulty by forming groups of learners and by retaining the services of training providers.
Therefore, I am recommending that deputy heads of federal institutions be required to establish, by April 1, 2015, a mechanism to ensure the effective and efficient coordination of language training in the regions.
Further, with language training in the federal public service soon celebrating its 50th anniversary, I am recommending that the President of the Treasury Board put in place, by October 1, 2014, a panel of independent experts to conduct an in-depth review of the effectiveness of current language training, both in terms of the language skills it produces and the way these skills are evaluated. This review should be undertaken in consultation with the federal institutions that play a key role in this regard, namely the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, the Public Service Commission of Canada, the Canada School of Public Service, Public Works and Government Services Canada and Canadian Heritage.
I know that federal institutions across the public service have employed various strategies to ensure both languages can thrive in the workplace. We asked institutions what they are doing in this regard and 83% of survey respondents say they have strategies in place to help employees retain their language skills. Some hold bilingual meetings and organize various language activities, for example.
To build on the positives and improve accountability, I urge deputy heads to continue investing resources in language training to promote the professional development and language retention of their employees.
It is also my recommendation that, by April 1, 2015, each federal institution reach, at a minimum, the level of funding allocated to language training before the budget cuts initiated in 2011.
I'm delighted to support these efforts with a new on-line tool public servants can use to review best practices for language training and create their own models. I invite public servants at all levels to benefit from this.
The recommendations in my study support the Blueprint 2020 vision of adept public service managers and leaders creating opportunities to keep employees learning, growing and meeting new standards of excellence—in this case by using existing and newfound linguistic knowledge to tap into the richness of Canada's diversity and better serve Canadians.
In closing, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that 25 years ago this month the Official Languages Act was substantially amended to specify the obligations of federal institutions while providing for a permanent review of the official languages program by parliamentary committee and applications to federal court for remedy.
It was a major amendment because this Act, which enshrines our linguistic duality and language rights, takes precedence over all other acts of Parliament except the Canadian Human Rights Act.
Today, even though we celebrate Linguistic Duality Day one day a year, we have the opportunity to embrace the spirit of the day throughout the year simply by using both official languages as we carry out our duties.
It is my hope that seven years from now in 2020—with the support of the Canada School of Public Service, the Network of Official Languages Champions and dedicated public servants like you, we will be celebrating Linguistic Duality Week!
- Footnote 1
Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, “Quick facts about official languages,” and Clerk of the Privy Council, “Annex A: By the Numbers – A Demographic Profile of the Federal Public Service for 2011”.