Since the beginning, we have had a language debate in Canada. Although there are 7.2 million francophones in this country (roughly 20 percent of the population), the stakes of this perennial debate can seem rather insignificant for anyone living in a predominantly anglophone region. In such a place, the issue can seem rather one-sided, centred on shallow complaints of underrepresentation. Cue the eye roll.
As a translator for the federal public service, I am no stranger to this eye roll. It usually comes from unilingual English speakers who gripe about the difficulties of working in a “bilingual” environment, the strains of language training, and the infamous language evaluations that most public servants must endure. Of course, a bilingual public service was not always a reality. With her new book, Canada’s Official Languages, Helaina Gaspard, co-founder of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa, delves into the historic battle waged by French Canadians who sought representation, services, and jobs in their native tongue.
While today’s public service has a merit-based hiring system, Gaspard shows how cronyism was the norm following Confederation. Although we frown upon it now, early nepotism helped French Canadians get hired. Elected or high-ranking officials who were francophone tended to hire those they knew — other francophones. Then Ottawa created the Civil Service Commission, now the Public Service Commission, in the 1920s.
The commission laid the foundation for the modern merit system. As Gaspard explains, however, the new system favoured English speakers: recruitment practices were based on English Canada’s education traditions, and entrance exams were often translated without proper cultural context. This had a devastating effect. By 1946, only 13 percent of public service employees spoke French: “Tacitly, by reducing its dependence on patronage, the federal administration began removing a mechanism that helped to ensure Francophone representation within its ranks.”
As the public service became increasingly unilingual, fewer and fewer francophones could access government information in their native tongue. Numerous actors — the Jean Committee, the Ordre Jacques Cartier, and Ernest Lapointe, Mackenzie King’s Quebec lieutenant — agitated for more inclusivity throughout the 1940s and ’50s, but the political will for true change was lacking.
Then, during the Quiet Revolution, increasingly assertive francophones in Quebec shed their Catholic identities and latched onto language and cultural identity as a way of distinguishing themselves from the rest of Canada. As the Parti Québécois gained influence, Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Liberals recognized that lax protections for language rights were a potential liability they could no longer ignore.
Ottawa enacted the Official Languages Act in 1969 (it was revised in 1988). Although Trudeau is often credited with laying the foundation for official bilingualism, the legislation was far from altruistic. Rather, Gaspard argues, it was “a tool for political compromise” and a strike at Quebec nationalism. “The OLA enabled citizens across the country to live and interact with their government in French,” she writes, “so that no person or province could claim to need more power because they spoke on behalf of the French-Canadian nation.”
The OLA established English and French as our official languages and allowed people to interact with the government in either one. Even if it was cynically motivated, the law had real consequences across Canada — especially for francophones living outside Quebec and New Brunswick and anglophones living in Quebec. It was not, however, a panacea.
The OLA aimed to protect an individual’s “language of service” rights, as well as “language of work” rights. Canadians could now seek out education and federal resources in their preferred language. The act also ensured that federal judicial decisions, laws, and other documents would be published in both English and French. We see the success of this measure as the “Français” option atop every Government of Canada website proves. (Il est vrai que la qualité de la langue n’est pas toujours impeccable, démontrant ainsi le besoin continu de traducteurs compétents! ) It was no easy feat implementing language of service provisions, but the effort was ultimately successful — and further reinforced by the Charter of Rights in 1982.
The implementation of language of work rights, however, was less successful. In fact, it remains an ongoing challenge, partly because of the provision’s complexity and partly because the government has abdicated its responsibility to enforce it.
According to the act, federal public servants have the right to work in whatever official language they choose. But according to Gaspard, the OLA did not offer any real way to measure the success of workplace protections, to track progress, or to actually hold anyone accountable. The legislation offered recommendations, which, as Gaspard puts it, were not interpreted as required actions.
Even as the act failed to establish a proper language of work framework, public servants and their unions pushed back. Many worried that anglophones would lose their jobs if they could not meet bilingualism requirements, and that francophones would take their place. Ottawa promised that no workers would lose their jobs, though unilingual employees would still need to meet new bilingualism criteria. This set into motion the publicly funded second-language training approach the government still uses. But rarely is such training sufficient.
Shaky implementation of the OLA is why many federal departments are all over the place when it comes to language. In my experience, an office’s level of bilingualism depends more on its team than on its role in the federal bureaucracy, and of course a team’s composition can change quickly.
Gaspard shows how the de facto responsibility (and burden) for language of work rights — for the promotion of French in the public service and for ensuring functional bilingualism — falls on managers. Despite best efforts all around, and even with training, working in the language of one’s choice is not a reality for most French speakers. “The group that the law is designed to support is a minority within the public service,” Gaspard explains. To claim language of work rights, that minority would have to “test its environment on an individual basis.” Basically, a francophone has to be willing to make waves — or the status quo prevails.
Fifty years after the OLA was passed, it is not uncommon for a predominantly francophone team to hold meetings in English because of one anglophone in the room. That pernicious eye roll becomes a slap in the face: our language is cast as a temporary obstacle, a simple test that English-speaking Canadians must overcome “just to do the job.” What is a temporary obstacle for our colleagues is a daily hindrance for us. Anyone who has spent time learning a language knows how exhausting and mentally draining it can be. Francophone public servants feel that drain every day.
While the OLA secured language of service rights for millions, it has yet to secure true language of work protections. And Gaspard sees no foreseeable solutions. As in the past, no politician willingly makes language an issue “unless there is something to be gained.”
From my translator’s keyboard, I believe that we could, over time, promote true English-French bilingualism and fully realize the goals of the Official Languages Act. If we actually prioritize and fund language training in elementary school, high school, and university, we could prepare for a generation of public servants more comfortable speaking and writing in both official languages — and capable of engaging citizens from across the country. Then I remember that education is a provincial matter. And, as Gaspard ultimately reminds us, unless we face another political crisis or revolution, we’re unlikely to see any major improvements to the state of bilingualism in our public service.