Is bilingualism in federal civil service necessary?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has begun his attack on yet another sector of our population with statements made in Quebec this week

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has begun his attack on yet another sector of our population with statements made in Quebec this week, but he also thinks he’s a champion of the French language.

In fact, he holds himself up as the premier supporter of the French language, at the same time he’s saying bilingualism in the federal public service is not totally necessary.

This when more and more of our young people here in Sylvan Lake and across the country are being educated in French Immersion classes so they have the proficiency to speak in both Canada’s official languages.

In a year-end interview with the French language television station TVA, the premier is quoted as favouring “institutional” bilingualism over “individual” bilingualism.

What that means is that only certain public sector jobs should require proficiency in both official languages.

“I think for someone who is at the head of an organization in our system, they must be bilingual but it’s not the case with all the members of an institution,” Harper said.

“For example, I seriously think that the prime minister needs to be bilingual but does every cabinet minister need to be bilingual? I think that’s too much. Does the chief justice of the Supreme Court need to be bilingual? Absolutely. Is it important for each judge, I don’t think it’s necessary. It’s not fair.”

An article in the Montreal Gazette, then stated, Harper appealed to Francophones and Quebecers not to “doubt” his commitment to the French language.

“As I’ve said many times, the origin of the Canadian state is with (Samuel de) Champlain, his arrival in Quebec and we have this heritage and it’s my duty to respect it and to protect it,” he told TVA host Pierre Bruneau.

“As prime minister, I think I’ve given more space to French than any prime minister in the history of the country,” he proclaimed according to the article.

That’s certainly a profound statement when positioned against other prime ministers who have been French speaking or who spurred the move to entrench bilingualism in the first place.

While we agree there are probably many positions in the federal public service where proficiency in the French language is not essential, we wonder about Harper’s suggestion that cabinet ministers — essentially the top people controlling their departments — don’t necessarily have to be fluent.

Further, we wonder how he can suggest disregard for the protection of English and French as official languages of our country which are addressed in the Constitution Act, 1867 and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which was passed in 1982. Then there’s the Official Languages Act passed in 1969 and substantially amended in 1988.

Will we see those or other bilingualism legislation reopened in the new year? It appears obvious from Harper’s statements, that’s what’s in store.

Then there will be a debate that will mobilize large portions of our population and potentially threaten our country’s unity at a time when a Parti Quebecois premier in Quebec is struggling with a minority government while planning to toughen French language laws. The debate is sure to galvanize support for something being threatened and likely support for the premier.

Sounds like the makings of some interesting dialogue in the near future.