Canadian Prime-Minister Stephen Harper’s recent appointment of Michael Ferguson as Canada’s Auditor General stirred controversy in Canada.
The reason? Ferguson doesn’t speak French, one of Canada’s official languages.
In reaction, Ferguson promised to learn the French language within a year.
Plenty of commentators found this hard to swallow. Ferguson built his civil service career in the only bilingual province of Canada, New-Brunswick. It’s hard to believe he didn’t think of learning French all those years he spent as Provincial Auditor, then as Deputy Minister of Finance.
How do you explain this? Was Ferguson too stubborn? Too lazy? Just didn’t care?
But more importantly, why did his nomination spark controversy about bilingualism, when unilingualism is the problem here.
Canadians should not be surprised to learn that there has been an Official Languages Act in place for 42 years now. One of its three main objectives is to enforce the “equality of English and French in Parliament, within the government of Canada, the federal administration and institutions subject to the Act.”
So the question is, how did a public official like Ferguson get away with speaking only one of Canada’s official languages for so long?
Now that he urgently needs to learn French, should tax payers foot the bill for his French courses? Dyane Adam, the former Commissioner of the Official Languages of Canada, doesn’t think so. In her opinion, whoever wants to work for the federal government should learn French at their own expense – after all, Ferguson trained as an accountant at his own expense.
For that matter, considering the sheer abundance of resources in the country, there really is no excuse for it.
In the level of work Ferguson is aspiring to, unilingualism should be considered as a form of illiteracy. In this increasingly globalizing world and especially in a country like Canada, well-trained Canadians should speak both English and French.
The most recent appointee to the Canadian Supreme Court was also a unilingual Anglophone. They say he was superior to the other candidates, but that’s doubtful. A Supreme Court judge should know not only the two legal systems, English Common Law and the Civil Code; he or she should know both official languages of the country. Canada has been developing French Common Law jurisprudence for over 40 years now.
If only 20% of Canadians are bilingual that means that the other 80% are obviously disqualified from careers as high ranking public officials. So what? The reason why 99.8% of Canadians are not doctors is because they did not study medicine. And so much the better: we want knowledgeable, well-trained doctors, don’t we?
Mr. Justice had plenty of time to learn French between kindergarten and his PhD, not to mention during his entire professional life. Why would we want a high ranking public official and judge who fails to understand the two distinct realities of our country? Why would we want a government official who has failed to acquire one of the most fundamental tools of education, one that is as essential as learning to read and count?
A Serious Limitation
Bilingualism should be on par with literature and mathematics in our educational programs. Being unilingual strictly limits one’s knowledge. It’s a form of illiteracy. And despite the fact that there are some very intelligent unilinguals, just like there are some very intelligent illiterates, who can argue that a society is always better off when the level of illiteracy is low?
As a matter of fact, the unilingualism of a candidate should make us question that person’s qualifications the same way we would wonder how an illiterate person could become Canada’s next Auditor General. In his whole life Ferguson has only had access to information in English.
Mandarin and Spanish
Many Canadians mix up their feelings about Quebec and French Canadians, with their feelings about French. But they shouldn’t let political opinions get in the way of their children learning another language. This borders on negligence. It’s like deciding not to teach our children math because we don’t like Wall Street.
Some argue that Mandarin, Arabic or Spanish are more useful than French. Well, that’s a hard case to make in Canada. French is useful, not nearly as hard to learn as Mandarin or Arabic, and a lot easier to practice than Spanish. And if you send your kids to French immersion school, it’s also free.
How should Canadians become bilingual?
It’s simple: first they have to stop thinking of French as a foreign language. French is a national language that can be found almost everywhere in the country. There are a lot of courses available and almost all DVDs have language menus where French subtitles can be added or the language can be changed.
During his entire career as a Deputy Minster, Ferguson could have practiced his French just by playing golf in French with his Francophone colleagues. Either he didn’t want to or it never crossed his mind. Troubling.
No matter where they live, unilinguals are all impaired. They might be brave and intelligent, but something will always be missing – they’re limited. Is this the type of person we want as Canada’s next Auditor General?
The 80% of the Canadian population who are not bilingual probably see bilingualism as a barrier. But they’re wrong. The real barrier is unilingualism. The problem is not that we lack bilingual high ranking public officials, but that we tolerate unilingual ones.
Bilinguals Canadians – 80% of whom are French-speakers – are perhaps too polite, too tolerant of unilingualism. Maybe it’s a sign of their good education….