Official Languages in Evolution

Address by
Daniel J. Caron
President of the Council of the Network of Official Languages Champions, and Librarian and Archivist of Canada

Welcoming Remarks and Thanks

Special thanks

General thanks

Thank you for being here. I look forward to a lively and fruitful exchange of views, and I hope that my remarks will generate ideas and questions.

I also hope that I can help breath new life into discussions on official languages so that we can take up the challenges facing us in the coming years more effectively.

Table of contents

Opening Remarks

Official languages have always been an issue in Canadian government and in Canadian society at large. Celebrated by some and held in contempt by others, official languages have run the gamut from founding principles to administrative rules.

The current context, which is probably best defined by words such as "globalization" and "migrations," raises a number of questions vis-à-vis languages, their utilization and, in the end, their relevancy and survival.

It is crucial to revive discussion on this issue and refocus it on the traditional elements that served as a basis for its relevance and on new elements that should enrich this relevance.

To begin with, it is not a matter of defending either or both languages, but rather ensuring the viability and continuation of our founding principles and using them to our advantage in today's world. The defence of things Anglophone or things Francophone is part of a global debate that Le Monde diplomatique has rightly called, "the language battle."

The starting point should be the fact that English and French are vehicles for expressing world views and that an understanding of these languages brings us into contact with these areas of interest, their resources, their thoughts, their democratic traditions and of course their markets.

After looking at globalization as it exists today and the importance of languages in this new environment, I would like to examine why language is a crucial part of Canada's collective life. I believe this is one of the two pillars supporting the rationale for and pertinence of this issue for the Canadian government and Canadian society as a whole.

Thereafter, I would like to explore my second theme, which is the comparative advantage of bilingualism for individuals and organizations. I also want to talk about the utility of French and English for the Canadian society in the global environment.

Lastly, I would like to share with you some ideas on how to concretely implement and practice bilingualism - over and above the simple requirements of translation and the like.


Why this kind of discussion? How relevant is it for Canadian public servants?

There are a number of reasons:

1. Current Context

To understand our own situation, I believe it is important to consider what is happening both here and around us.

I would begin by noting that things are changing and that like many other elements and components in our society, languages are affected by socio-economic and demographic changes, creating new opportunities to make our values – as a nation and as a Public Service – real and more vital.

Globalization and the increased trade among nations, new markets and accompanying population migration have revealed new challenges and one of them is clearly related to language.

Here is an example:

In the United States, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Spanish is being used extensively and plays a role in all parts of social and economic life. For the first time this year, Spanish is accepted as an "official" language for the submission of papers at the American Society of Public Administration's annual conference in Florida. This is something new, and to me an important indicator of increased utilization of multiple languages. But Canada is already there: both in theory and in practice.

We clearly have an advantage over many countries vis-à-vis that issue: we have worked and evolved as a country within the context of linguistic duality from the very beginning.

2. First Pillar - Roots & Rationale

As you know, a nation is built on what we call "founding principles" that reflect the way people want to organize themselves to live in society. This is a key piece of our heritage that provides guidance for our governing institutions.

As this nation began to take shape, there were many discussions amongst British authorities on how to ensure that the creation of this new nation would be based on the true spirit of a lawful sovereign. We can find in the constitutional documents of this country multiple examples of the recognition of the necessity of keeping British and French traditions vis-à-vis civil law, land tenure, the principles of democracy, and of respecting the usage of French and English to ensure the viability of this new nation in respecting all its citizens.

In 1865, this even culminated in the words of one of the fathers of Confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald, when he reported that the form of government that would best suit this country was confederation - because of regional differences and linguistic duality. He explained that to make this country viable it was necessary to find a model of government that would permit "differences" to co-exist and contribute to the evolution and functioning of the country.

Canadian values regarding linguistic duality are embedded in the founding documents of this country, the 1867 and 1982 Constitution Acts, and these values have accompanied us through our journey as a nation. They have remained vibrant because they have always been supported by our fundamental conception of Canada as a State of Law, and by several important court decisions.

A recent example:

In Caldech, a very recent decision, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed the importance of the principle of real equality for both official languages. The Court found that linguistic equality in the delivery of services may include access to services with distinct content. Providing identical services for each language community may therefore fall short of fulfilling the language obligations incumbent on federal institutions, and the institutions may have to consider the specific needs of the linguistic minority in developing and implementing their services.

This case is very interesting since it illustrates how deep-rooted we are in our founding principles. The case is also directly in line with the spirit of The Report of the Attorney and Solicitor General Regarding the Civil Government of Quebec, which was sent in 1766 to The Right Honourable the Lords of Committee of Council for Plantation Affairs.

The objective of that document was to report on measures to resolve some civil disorder in the colony. One of these measures was for the administration of justice and involved the hiring of a Chief Justice assisted by three judges and "[…] These are required to be conversant in the French Language, and that one of them particularly should be knowing in the French usages […]."

As we have just seen, these founding principles are essential to an understanding of the values of Canadian society; this in turn is essential to ensuring that these values are reflected in our daily actions.

The official languages question therefore remains central to the operation of Canada's public administration, because these founding principles remind us that it is not enough to prepare documents in one language and then have them translated into the other. This approach leads to the loss of an incalculable source of wealth and to a loss of meaning for all Canadians.

3. Second Pillar – Comparative advantages

Let me now turn to the second pillar that is relevant to this question.

Global trends are just catching up to us: workers are now more mobile and we see teams being formed on a regular basis made up of people located around the world. All this reinforces the point that language skills are more than ever a critical advantage for individuals. And linguistic competencies are turning out to be a critical comparative advantage for both organisations and nations.

For individuals

Globalization affords opportunities to advance professionally, since those who learn one or more second languages can develop a definite comparative advantage on the labour market. Such individuals can interact more with others, increase their level of understanding of others and thus become more effectively and more pertinently involved with them. Learning an additional language is without question a major asset for an individual.

Second-language learning is also an asset on the leadership front. Addressing someone in his or her language is a sign of consideration that builds trust and mutual respect and helps establish the conditions required for dynamic, solid leadership. With regard to public administration and its renewal, as stated by the Clerk in his 16th report to the Prime Minister, renewal means creating and maintaining a climate of work in which the needs and high expectations of Canadians can be fulfilled.

In fact, in the words of French philosopher Georges Gusdorf, "language cannot exist before the personal initiative by which it is activated." This affirmation also applies to bilingualism, which cannot really exist without individual desire and initiative. Individual responsibility is therefore an integral part of mastering the official languages and of the vitality of Canada's linguistic duality.

For organizations

In fact, taking languages for granted can be a serious error for an organization and the consequences of doing so can be detrimental. When languages are handled well in an organization few notice, but when an organization does not place sufficient attention to language it pays the price in productivity and reputation. For public sector organizations, improving their capacity to function and deliver in both official languages improves their understanding of client needs and expectations, and strengthens relationships with citizens and clients by enhancing trust. All this enables them to perform more effectively. In this sense, employers share with their employees the responsibility of fostering the learning and use of official languages.

For the country

The economic and cultural growth of a country is directly related to language issues.

From a strictly economic viewpoint, Canada has developed a language industry representing more than 6% of the world market. The Conference Board of Canada notes that the language industry accounts for close to 52,000 jobs across Canada. This represents an enviable pool of expertise in a world of increasing openness in which borders are being broken down as time passes.

In addition, Canada is, I believe, one of the few major countries that by virtue of its two official languages is a member both of the Commonwealth and of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie. This is an undeniable benefit to our country in terms of its outreach and its access to close to 100 countries.

4. Some specific ideas on how to implement and practice bilingualism

Today, we are in the process of renewing our Public Service. This provides a great opportunity to embrace the values of bilingualism, take advantage of our traditions, and use these strengths to enable us to better perform in the new environment. Public Servants themselves are shaping the future of the Public Service, and Official languages are a fundamental part of this process.

In this regard, we must leave behind a "bilingualism of obligations" and continue to move towards what I would call a "bilingualism of positive necessity and voluntary adoption." To do this, we must go beyond rules and regulations and look to our values, which clearly support linguistic duality.

While the regulatory framework provides various tools to the Canadian government, it will never be more than a means, not an end in itself. To use these tools according to their real purpose and to bring out their full value, we must go beyond regulation and standardization and fully embrace the concept of values and responsibility.

Members of the Public Service of the 21st century share this value. They must share the responsibility of putting it into practice in their daily work. Through their language skills, they are better able to access relevant information and knowledge. This in turn fosters a more representative, coherent, relevant and effective Public Service that is better positioned to serve and deliver for Canadians.

From the perspective of organizational culture, Public Service renewal is also an opportunity to build on existing positive perceptions of official languages among federal public servants, something that came out clearly in a 2002 study done for the Canada Public Service Agency.

New ways

We understand the importance of the role of languages in society. We know we have tools - Acts, policies, rules, etc. We also know we have values and traditions, as foundations for our work to meet the expectations of Canadians.

How can we put all these ingredients together into practice?

First, we must have a positive attitude toward this source of wealth. More than "What's in it for me?" We must ask the more productive and more positive question: "What opportunities will language learning open up for me?"

In moving in this new direction, we can do a lot under four headings: Elaboration of Public Policy, Learning, Knowledge of Canadian News, and Image.

First, the elaboration of public policy must be rooted in references that come from both Official languages (e.g. richness of both common law and civil code), reflecting the perceptions and concerns of both linguistic communities. Also, when we publish documents and material, are we making sure that a comprehensive bibliography includes sources from both official languages in order to take advantage of the richness of our heritage?

Second, with regard to learning, we have to leverage the excellent work done by the Canada School of Public Service in the development of official languages learning tools. For example, they have developed self-paced e-learning tools (i.e. a suite of e-learning products) to support second language training from the beginner to advanced levels, allowing all Public Service employees to have a 24/7 access to the material at no cost, from work or from home.

Another very important tool is the Learning Plan, which should include the development of language skills and abilities. We can also take advantage of programs offered by universities and colleges, as well as those from the private sector throughout Canada.

Third, it is crucial to recognize that understanding Canadian news is not limited to reading the Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Citizen. To develop a comprehensive view, it is important to consult sources from both official languages that better reflect the linguistic and regional characteristics of our country.

Fourth, and lastly, image plays a key part. It is fairly easy to ensure that Canada's promotional tools present a bilingual image of our country, for example in our embassies. When chairing a meeting, it is important to begin in both languages so that everyone feels comfortable using the language of their choice. Finally, why not plan to hold bilingual orientation sessions for new Public Service employees rather than in each official language?


In conclusion, recognition and respect for official languages is a question of respect for colleagues and Canadians. It is a matter of institutional and constitutional sustainability, of reinforcing our comparative advantages, and of making Canadian values more vibrant in our daily life. In short, it means respecting our own founding principles.

The future of official languages in Canada depends on our willingness and our ability to make linguistic duality work. We do not need to wait for new rules and regulations, we need to use what we have, to be respectful of our values and creative and innovative in the way we approach this.

We must be clear that Canadians are expecting that their federal Public Service will be institutionally bilingual, not only able to serve Canadians in the official language of their choice but also to nourish policy thinking from the work and ideas emerging from the two official language communities.

This is important and doable, and is the best way of capitalizing on this comparative advantage developed by Canada over the years. The wealth of the work being done in the federal government is a product of our ability to draw on these two different approaches, namely civil law and common law, and to find innovative solutions. Unilingualism is not an adequate response to the new concept of coexistence that is now taking shape.

We must also remember that bilingualism is a shared responsibility between employees and employers, between organizations and individuals

From every point of view, official languages will continue to be a dynamic part of our fabric inasmuch as each and every one of us makes furthering it an ongoing commitment.

We will continue to move towards the achievement of our linguistic duality through the contribution and lasting commitment of each and every one of us to the development of official languages in Canada.

Thank you.

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