COLUMN: Discriminatory bilingualism

Four decades of government over-correction has perverted the intent of official bilingualism in Canada. By doing so, it has created a two-tiered and discriminatory system for Canadians.

President of the Treasury Board Scott Brison recently called for the creation of a new golden era of the public service. A service where millennials are brought into the public service to bring it to the next level. Not a bad idea, except many will not be able to take part due to the government’s language hiring policies. Bilingualism has gone from creating a fair and equal playing field where Canadians can receive services in either official language, to being a discriminatory policy that shuts out unilingual Canadians from good paying jobs.

All federal service hiring in the National Capital Region for example requires a mandatory bilingual imperative. Speak only English or only French, too bad for you. The requirements call for various language abilities, which are classed at a level of CBC. That does not stand for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but to the ability of speaking, writing, and reading the non-native language. Unlike traditional schooling, a ‘C’ is better than a ‘B’, and an ‘A’ is not good at all. If French is your first language, then the rating is for your English ability. If English is your first language, then the rating is for your French ability.  Positions from janitor all the way up to executive at federal departments and institutions require this. It has created a firewall where existing unilingual employees cannot advance, and where merit and ability are secondary considerations after language skill.

The education system has not helped matters, at least in Ontario. For youth who attend French-immersion classes in school, the curriculum has been modified by the province to be more spoken-French based, less on reading and writing. The idea behind this, as it was explained to this writer, was if students mastered spoken French, the reading and writing would come along later. Theory and reality are two different things. Many who graduate from immersion programs are not at the skill levels required for working in the civil service. To answer Brison’s call for millennials to join the civil service, even those from English Canada who took immersion, would not qualify.

The solution to this is not throwing more money into language training. It is changing the expectation of what government should provide and be able to provide Canadians while still adhering to Section 20 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 20 outlines Canadians rights to receive services in their mother tongue. By no means should people who only speak one language be excluded from receiving services from the government. But it also does not mean that every person from janitor to software programmer to administrator should have to be able to speak both languages to do their job.

An example of what works well would be within the City of Cornwall. City council outlined in 2008 that top administration personnel and select front-line positions would need to be bilingual. The need is not there for other positions. This the more practical and pragmatic way bilingualism should work.

Excluding Canadians based on language is a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protects Canadians from discrimination.  By doing so, the government continues to promote language intolerance that the constitution was designed to get rid of. In this new “golden age” of the civil service, before the minister starts hiring, he needs to iron out the issues and reform the civil service. Excluding Canadians based on language is not right.

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