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New Public Service Commission president should take 'bolder' approach to bilingualism: Senator Tardif
OPINION
New Public Service Commission president should take 'bolder' approach to bilingualism: Senator Tardif
September 21, 2017
Image of Claudette Tardif
Claudette Tardif, Alberta

The following is an open letter to Patrick Borbey, who became president of the Public Service Commission of Canada in May:

It is with great interest that I read your profile in the July 17, 2017 edition of The Hill Times.

Having someone with your experience, expertise, and enthusiasm at the helm of the Public Service Commission of Canada will prove essential in modernizing employee recruitment and retention practices in the public service.

Like many others, I believe that much work needs to be done in order to ensure that Canada's best and brightest are recruited for what is hoped to be a long and productive career within the public service of Canada. I certainly applaud the initiatives that you intend to undertake during your seven-year tenure as the president of the commission. However, I must admit that I find your thoughts on bilingualism in the public service somewhat underwhelming.

Indeed, in the last two paragraphs of your profile in The Hill Times, you are quoted as saying that a lack of bilingualism should not be considered a barrier for a career in the public service, adding that there are ample opportunities for public servants to be trained in a second official language.

While this is undoubtedly possible, I am not convinced that this particular vision is optimal in making the public service of Canada more functionally bilingual, and I certainly do not believe that this is the message that we want to convey to young professionals interested in the federal public service. It may actually perpetuate the systemic issues already prevalent across so many departments, some of which were highlighted most recently in the Official Languages Commissioner's 2016-17 annual report.

In this report, it is noted that there has been a considerable increase in the number of public servant complaints regarding the government's obligation to take language requirements into account during staffing processes, particularly in regions designated as bilingual for language-of-work purposes.

It is my understanding, Mr. Borbey, that you are familiar with this issue since you co-chaired the Privy Council's 2016 working group on language-of-work in the federal government. While great strides have been made since the 1960's with regards to bilingualism in the public service, it is clear that the lack of ability to speak both official languages continues to be an issue despite the money spent in workplace bilingual training programs each year.

I am therefore of the view that if the public service was serious about increasing the bilingual capacity of its workforce, it should be considerably bolder in its approach to staff recruitment, notably by encouraging more of our young people to become bilingual before they enter the public service and, perhaps, the job market altogether.

Indeed, it may be time for the public service to foster knowledge of the other official language by making bilingualism a requirement for all entry-level positions and promotions in regions designated as bilingual for language-of-work purposes and, additionally, increase the level of bilingualism competency required for these positions. I strongly believe that this can be achieved without sacrificing quality in other competency areas.

If the public service moved in that direction, the impact would be significant since many bright young Canadians would likely join the ranks of the approximately 400,000 students who are already enrolled in French and English immersion programs across the country.

Additionally, university students and young professionals would take this core competency more seriously and therefore seek to expand opportunities in the other official language in university settings or at the onset of their careers.

Some universities and colleges already have means at their disposal to adapt their programs to meet a potential strengthening of the federal public service's bilingualism requirements and many others would follow suit if provided with the right incentives. The pool of competent bilingual candidates could only grow over time.

I appreciate the fact that you consider bilingualism to be an important component of the federal public service of Canada and I am equally comforted by your desire to increase that capacity during your tenure as president of the commission. It is my hope that you will aspire to do so by taking bold actions and making high-level bilingualism a core competency of the federal public service workforce where warranted and, perhaps, beyond.

Claudette Tardif is a senator representing Alberta. She is chair of the Senate Committee on Official Languages.

This article appeared in the September 4, 2017 edition of the Hill Times.