How Bilingualism Promotes The Mediocre

Having to learn another language (or two) shallows the talent pool for the public sector

The Secret Public Servant is our pseudonymous columnist offering an insider’s view of Canada’s federal government on a biweekly basis. Read their introduction of themselves here.

I really like C. He’s crazy bright, self-deprecating, and passionate about being a public servant. He’s one of the people I look forward to chatting with, and I stop into his office with the slightest excuse. 

One day he tells me that he’s about to leave for a minimum of nine months. I ask why, but I already know the answer: language training. C will spend this time in a classroom with a small number of students, sometimes even one-to-one, learning French. He has to do this to advance. That’s nine months when his talent and ability are not being harnessed by his department.

Before I get accused of Anglo-cultural chauvinism, allow me to state that I speak French and I’m perfectly capable of holding a conversation in French with colleagues. But the bilingual culture generates an industry of language training: 90 per cent of that is French language training within the National Capital Region (NCR), and the most recent figures I have access to (based on an average from 2009-14) report that it costs the government approximately $52.5 million annually. And for those of you who think this column is a conservative Trojan horse, honestly, it’s not the money. I’ve three problems with the language policy as it works at the moment: It’s a talent suppressant, it’s racist, and it promotes the wrong people.

Other than that, it’s working beautifully.

A quick primer: The Official Languages Act enshrines the right of every public servant to work in either of the official languages in recognized bilingual areas. There are three levels of fluency: A, B, and C. Counterintuitively, “A” is the lowest and “C” is the highest. 

Still awake? Well done. Most executive jobs are advertised as “CBC” (I know, right?), describing the required level for each skill: employees are assessed on written comprehension, written expression, and oral proficiency. Yes, there are occasional “English Only” appointments, but they are not the norm and are often only awarded on an interim or acting basis (e.g., until the person has passed their language requirement).

And here’s where it gets tricky. Everyone knows that Ottawa or the NCR is the mothership of the Federal Government. While only about 42 per cent of all federal employees work there, over 70 per cent of executive positions are based there (executives make up about 2.5 per cent of public servants). So, in practical terms, your prospects of advancing are far greater if you’ve spent some time in the NCR, and they are greatly enhanced if you speak French. A fellow public servant told me they call the people in the NCR the “Gatineau Mafia.”

Imagine you’re a bright 23-year-old from Saskatchewan or British Columbia who hears the call to public service. Then you learn that to advance to the executive level you’ll have to acquire a new language. Yes, some will persist — mostly monomaniacal sociopaths who dream only of maple leaves and ice fishing. But others will just go work for the private sector. In other words, I submit that official bilingualism actively deselects non-French-speaking people of talent from working in the Federal Government. Ask yourself: How many young go-getters have you met who see public service as an attractive career route? I am always cheerleading the feds as a career path for young people. And I regularly receive blank expressions.

I’ve made this point to senior executives, too. I bided my time and waited until after the second drink to bring it up. But I might as well be asking their views on global warming. The work culture applies a conservationist paradigm to the French language. They seek to protect French the way you’d try to protect an endangered species. So asking them to rethink it is like suggesting we should go murder a polar bear. 

But why did I say that language training is racist? Imagine you’re an immigrant from a non-French-speaking country. More than a quarter of Canada’s workforce is landed immigrants, and many of our public servants are from non-English or -French backgrounds. When they come to Canada, for obvious reasons, the majority opt to learn English. 

Approximately 22 per cent of Canadians are visible minorities. The numbers show that members of visible minorities represent about 13 per cent of the federal government workforce, but only 9 per cent of executives. According to Statistics Canada, 72.5 per cent of immigrants reported having a mother tongue that was neither English nor French. While a lack of diversity isn’t solely a problem found in the federal public service, an insistence on bilingualism means that new Canadians need to learn two new languages to succeed in the federal government as an executive.

Then there’s the syndrome of people accelerating through the ranks whose abiding virtue is that they can walk, chew gum, and speak French at the same time. I’ve seen that firsthand, too. Take R, for example; her people skills are up there with Long John Silver’s gifts for nautical diplomacy. She is touchy and defensive and has all the warmth of a cold tea bag. She also has a reputation for abruptness, and people who meet her can’t believe she’s anywhere near the job she’s in. Once over coffee, she described her career path to me. It ended with an EX5 (a very high-up position). She didn’t couch it as something she hoped to attain if she worked hard. She described it as a casual path.

Initially, I was puzzled by this. But then I looked more at her career path. “Bilingual imperative” all the way. I fully expect her to get there, in much the same way that winter follows fall, or death comes after disease. And, lest it be said I am simply relying on anecdote, logic says a similar thing: Once a job is designated as a “bilingual imperative position,” it automatically shallows the talent pool of people who can apply, and Joe or Joanna from Saskatchewan gets one step closer to working somewhere his or her talents are appreciated. 

As for C? He came back to the office almost a year later. I speak French to him from time to time. He gamely replies as best he can, with an accent that you could open cans on. Time well spent, right?

Editor’s note: Canadaland has confirmed the identity of the Secret Public Servant and verified their role in the public service, but we have agreed to grant them anonymity, as they will be sharing information in each column that would directly result in their termination.

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