Why should Brad Wall learn French?

Canada bilingue - misères d'une illusion

Darcy Meyers - Don Martin speculated in this weekend’s National Post on the new “it” guy - Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall. Martin argues-correctly in my opinion- that Wall’s attributes make him well suited to take a run at the top job in the nation. The large caveat put on this interpretation is that Wall is unilingual. Such a “shortcoming” is portrayed as an obvious impediment to national leadership in Canada. Whether you agree on Wall’s leadership suitability or not, there is the larger question of required language capability and federal service-specifically Prime Minister. Is it not time to move beyond this restrictive qualification when rating a leader’s ability? Not that communication doesn’t matter-but in today’s age should bilingual fluency be a requirement?
Why does any future PM of Canada have to speak fluent French-when seamless translation is possible? Is it not yet passé to have such a language requirement for a leader-with today’s communication services and technology? We can twitter our every thought, dictate our text and translate it into any language with relative ease - a unilingual leader would have far more resources available for their communications. Instantaneous translation is available and accepted globally- in business and international affairs-it should be acceptable within Canada as well.
The Canadian language of majority is English -- by far -- yet it is possible for a leader to become PM with weak English skills. Stephen Dion was criticized for his shaky English, but that was not his downfall. It was the widespread negative perception on his leadership abilities that sunk his boat. Mr. Dion was given the benefit of the doubt with his English skills initially, but he lost the public perception battle. Jean Chretien governed for over a decade without speaking either official language very well, which was part of his charm. The most popular leader in the world is unilingual, and is respected from Azerbaijan to Zambia. Barack Obama has experienced no ill will or suffered a perceived leadership fault for lack of language skills -- such an assessment would rightly be considered nonsense. Canadians accept language shortcomings from capable leaders, both English and French, and we should not narrow our leadership pool. Such limitations are outdated and do not serve Canada or our rich French heritage well.
Further, and more important than leader speculation and personal attributes, is the broader application of bilingualism within the civil service. Should the federal civil service maintain stringent language requirements any longer as a broad policy? The civil service requirements are limiting or dissuading otherwise qualified candidates from engaging in our public service. The bilingual communications requirements of the Government of Canada could largely be met by application of new technologies, over hiring practices or expensive language training. This should be the future of bilingualism in Canada -- embracing and investing in technology -- not a broad-based policy with no grounding in true effectiveness.
Stephen Harper has said, “Canada is not a bilingual country. It is a country with two languages. And there is a big difference.” He’s right. One of the primary goals of Official Bilingualism was to promote and broaden the bilingual community in Canada. Based on this measure-the policy has been an outright failure. We remain a country of many languages -- not a bilingual country.
Less than 19% of Canadians are bilingual. This figure highlights the failure of a misapplied language policy. After 40 years of bilingual policy, a unilingual leader is far more reflective of the national character than a bilingual one. This has clearly become a false condition for leadership in the Canada of the 21st Century. It is also a false application of policy within the broader context of civil service. It is unreasonable that 4 in 5 Canadians would not qualify for many federal civil service jobs, even if they speak an official language. Similarly this 80% would be considered inadequately qualified for Prime Minister based solely on language skills. This is truly antiquated with the availability of today’s technologies.
Of course, the main resistance to updating our approach to language will be spearheaded by the permanently aggrieved separatists, stirring up resentment over a policy well liked in Quebec. Any such attempt to update language laws or present an English only leader would be met with fierce opposition and predictable tantrums. Although this aggrieved claim would be used to support the cause of separatism, the inverse is the unfortunate truth. Forty years of official language policy has done nothing to tame separatist sentiment or act as a bridge for unity.
Unilingual French Canadians will always have their language rights protected and will continue to receive service in their language as guaranteed under the Official Languages Act. That act -- and constitutional assurances -- protect these language rights, but the nature of service and delivery can be better interpreted and are open to evolution in application.
French is a founding language of Canada -- it is and will always be respected as such. However, the growth and evolution of communications globally will not heed any archaic language laws. Competitiveness must be sought in all areas, including how we communicate internally. The need to adapt and compete outside our borders will eventually overcome the current political myopia present today. Canada should move beyond the old arguments of centuries past and overcome our secular language tendencies. We should move forward in our approach to communication and language rights. We can ensure respect is maintained and competitiveness is sought within the global context-by applying and embracing new technology in our approach to languages.

Darcy Meyers is a freelance writer, commentator and blogger based in Saskatoon.

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