Why official bilingualism doesn’t mean settling for second-best

Despite his inability to speak French, Ferguson was the best available candidate for the Auditor-General’s job

Why official bilingualism doesn’t mean settling for second-best

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Most Canadians consider themselves to be reasonable people, and rightly so. In fact, the term “reasonable” and its variants appear a dozen times throughout Canada’s Constitution. So when it comes to hiring for Ottawa’s most senior jobs, we ought to consider the meaning of “reasonable.” Is it reasonable to make the ability to speak both official languages the single most important qualification for all such positions?

The appointment of Michael Ferguson as Canada’s next auditor general has become an unusually contentious affair. Ferguson served as auditor general of New Brunswick from 2005 to 2010 and was noted for his blunt criticism of provincial spending and debt. He also has experience as the provincial deputy minister of finance. So there’s no question of his ability to scrutinize the federal government’s books or hold Ottawa to account. The only real complaint is that he admits he cannot speak French fluently.

Response to this admission has been vitriolic. Liberal MPs boycotted the appointment vote in Parliament because they claimed Ferguson’s unilingualism made the entire process “illegitimate.” The Edmonton Journal editorialized that “Ferguson cannot possibly be the best man for the job because he does not speak both official languages.” Graham Fraser, the commissioner of official languages, claimed the Harper government had “humiliated” Ferguson by nominating him for a position he was unqualified to fill.

All this follows a similar outburst over the recent appointment of respected Ontario anglophone judge Michael Moldaver to the Supreme Court. While both Moldaver and Ferguson have committed to learn French within a year, skeptics, such as La Presse columnist Lysiane Gagnon, claim it’s impossible for anyone over 50 years old to master a new language in such a short time.

The implication here is that Ferguson and Moldaver should never have even made the short list, let alone been given the job, because of the language issue. This suggests that only fully bilingual candidates can ever be considered for important positions in Ottawa. Such a rigorous application of official bilingualism seems entirely unreasonable.

The position of auditor general is among the most vital of all government positions. Sheila Fraser, who left the job this past summer, was loved and respected by Canadian taxpayers for her efforts protecting their money—in particular, ferreting out the truth of the Liberal sponsorship scandal and the federal gun registry. Canadians have every reason to demand that Fraser’s successor should be equally tenacious in carrying out his or her duties.

While the job description to fill Fraser’s vacancy did list proficiency in both official languages as “essential,” there were a great many other necessary attributes: demonstrated success in strategic management, experience in auditing complex organizations, experience in accrual-based appropriations and environmental accounting, decisiveness, strong professional ethics and an understanding of government procedures among them. Language fluency was but one of many requirements. And according to parliamentary testimony, none of the assembled potential candidates met all the listed criteria; Ferguson, however, was the best qualified of the bunch.

While the ability to communicate with all Canadians in either official language is an important skill for any top-level federal position, it remains a skill that can be learned at any age (regardless of what pessimists may claim). Making language the primus inter pares of job requirements not only risks excluding the most talented candidates, but threatens national cohesiveness as well.

Despite various legislative commitments to official bilingualism, Canada is not, in practical terms, a bilingual nation. According to the most recent census, only 17.4 per cent of the population can actually carry on a conversation in both English and French. Outside Quebec, the rate of bilingualism among English speakers is a mere 7.5 per cent. Imposing an ironclad requirement of pre-existing bilingualism on all senior positions in the federal government would effectively rule out the vast majority of Canadians from applying for such jobs. Is it reasonable to declare over 80 per cent of Canada’s population ineligible for the most important tasks in the country? That the Harper government is prepared to consider job applications from all Canadians suggests a welcome focus on merit and true national diversity.

Official bilingualism is in no way threatened by allowing Ferguson extra time to improve his French; the commitment remains well-entrenched in Canadian law. And given the high-profile nature of the auditor general, he can expect plenty of scrutiny regarding his linguistic efforts in the coming years. But for most Canadians, it will be his efforts looking out for their best interests as taxpayers that will prove far more important. Let him get on with the job.


Why official bilingualism doesn’t mean settling for second-best

  1. There are two official languages in this country, and it’s time  the Harper government recognized this. Ferguson’s appointment is a blatant disrespect to  francophone communities in this country. The argument “that 80% of Canadians are not bilingual” is clear proof that our federal government ought to do something to promote bilingualism in our nation. This begins by respecting the bilingual principals enshrined in our constitution.

    • Utter nonsense. Should we accept an otherwise less-qualified candidate solely because that person is fluently bilingual? Just so he or she can deliver second-rate reports equally well in both languages?

      You’ll note the article says he’s not fluent – not that he can’t speak it at all. He served a similar post in the country’s only bilingual province – apparently bilingualism wasn’t the defining qualification for New Brunswick, or they wouldn’t have hired him.

      If you’re hiring a translator, then clearly fluency in both languages is the key requirement. For many other roles, it should be the deciding factor between two otherwise equally qualified applicants. But in many positions, if the best qualified is only fluent in one of English or French, that person should not be passed over for a less-qualified bilingual person. To do so is to ask taxpayers to settle for second best.

      • The problem here is that the job competition specified that bilingualism was essential, but the hiring committee or whatever decided it wasn’t.  That is the issue, not poor Michael Ferguson’s abilities and background.  Your conjecture that perhaps we’d hire a lesser candidate is a moot point; perhaps if the ad didn’t specify the need to be bilingual, we’d have even better candidates.

        • I get your point. However, as someone who has done a fair bit of hiring myself over the years (albeit in the private sector), I know two things:

          (1) if a candidate wants a job and thinks they meet most of the qualifications, they will likely apply despite that one critical item they are missing – so the pool likely wouldn’t have been much different;

          (2) “essential” requirements do get overlooked regularly when a candidate is otherwise clearly the most capable candidate in the other areas and willing to work on the one where he / she is weak.

          Personally, for the reasons I stated in my first comment, I think it’s crazy to lose an otherwise qualified candidate on the language issue, and am glad the hiring team had the good sense not to reject him over a “red tape” issue. (And you’re a regular on here, so you know how rare it is that I agree with this government!)

  2. Thank you for your statistics regarding the truth of the state of bilingualism in our country.  It is not a matter of speaking a little of the other language but rather the ability to converse easily in both languages.  That is not as common as one might think….may I remind you of Mr. Dion, he could not be said to converse easily in English.

    • We continue to confuse elected representatives with people hired to executive jobs in government.  Dion was elected by his constituents, who one may assume are largely Francophone.  Moreover, your inability to understand a person with a very thick accent does not preclude his ability to speak English.  I agree that he was difficult to understand in English, as I imagine harper is difficult to understand when he tortures French.  But they’re both elected, and they both try.

      Mike Ferguson grew up in the only officially bilingual province of Canada; how he became NB chief auditor is a surprise.  I like the guy and his credentials, other than languages spoken, are impeccable.  But let’s stop kidding ourselves, editors, he’s not gonna learn French in a year — not if he’s performing his other critical duties.

  3. I am waiting for the day when an auditor general, or a judge on the Supreme Court, is hired who can’t speak English (it will never happen, of course).  Then we will see just how “essential” it really is for such people to be able to communicate with Canadians in their own language.   

    • Well said. I’d also add that one reason it wouldn’t happen is that virtually all high-level politicians, magistrates, executives, etc., in Quebec, also speak English. Pauline Marois aside, it’s almost unthinkable for anyone to be able to rise to the top knowing only one language. Bilingualism, and multilingualism, is in my experience something much more developed in Quebec than in the rest of North America. Being around 60 years-old and working in a high-level position while being unilingual leaves a feeling of a striking lack of curiosity. 

      • If as Maclean’s says, “Communicating in either official language is a skill that can be learned at any age”, then why, pray tell did Mr. Ferguson not learn French earlier…….especially working for the only officially bilingual province in Canada.

  4. There are two official languages in the country, as “unpractical” as that may be. The French language is being taught in English Canadian High Schools at the same rate as English is taught in French high schools, and most francophones are able to hold a conversation in their second language, as a lot of Anglophones do.  I completely agree that Ferguson deserved his position, but the least the government test would have been to give him the contract conditionally to him making some substantial progress in French over the span of one year. 

    Whether unilinguals like it or not, Bilingualism is an asset and a must in Canada. 

  5. “according to Parliamentary testimony none of the assembled potential candidates met all the listed criteria; “? That wouldn’t be testimony by Clement would it? Or Nicholson who quite happily pointed out that his government doesn’t care about the facts?

    Because I find it hard to believe that there wasn’t at least one bilingual candidate that met all the qualifications at a rudimentary level.

    Note that isn’t saying that Ferguson isn’t the best man for the job out of those who applied, but when you list various qualifications as “essential”, and none of the candidates have them, the proper course of action is to re-list the position with some of the qualifications no longer “essential” but “highly desirable”, thus hopefully getting an even bigger list.   After all, if you drop the bilingualism criteria, there may have been a whole host of people apply, some of which possibly with better credentials than Ferguson.

  6. Harper staffers couldn’t’ve written a more one-sided ‘editorial’.
    An “essential” selection criteria isn’t “preferable” or “a plus”.
    It simply means you can’t not meet it when applying. Period.

  7. Outside Quebec, the rate of bilingualism among English speakers is a mere 7.5 per cent. Last time I looked in a democracy 51% was the winning number!

    • Yeah but last time i checked, canadians respected their constitution.

  8. Given where most of the “political leakage” in the country occurs, maybe Ferguson should have to speak french.  

  9. I love the look on Ferguson’s face (seems to be his default) – wouldn’t want to piss him off, lol!
    Great editorial Macleans guys/gals!!!!   Finally, common sense instead of emotional demands from a small percentage of the general population.

    • I take it you don’t speak french.

  10. What the article doesn’t mention is that 13% of the population of Canada is unilingual… in French. It seems that these people doesn’t count and are considered second-class citizens. Many other francophones (like myself) speak English at some degree, but can not always fully understand complex (and sometimes) important details in English (like many francophones I use English at work and abroad, but live almost my entire life here in Canada in French).

    The real boss of the auditor general is the people, and according to our Constitution, I have the right to require that my employee (yes, the auditor general) report to me in the official language of my choice.

    The right to be ignorant and only speak one language is not protected by any Charter of rights and freedoms.

    • Je suis d’accord avec Justin, bien dit.

      • Moi aussi, entièrement d’accord.

  11. It’s better to be bilingual.

    Unilinguals just don’t know what they’re missing.

    C’est mieux être bilingue

    Si seulement les unilingues savaient ce qui’ils ignorent…

  12. The problem is not competence, but the fact that the position was advertised as requiring someone who is bilingual. A lot of potential candidates did not apply for this reason. Then suddenly a uni-lingual candidate got the job. The process was not fair.

  13. I can’t allow this to pass since it’s in our chartre des droits et libertes that equality needs to be respected. If Ferguson is really “that” good, then let him have the job AFTER he learns French. At that payscale there aren’t any excuses.

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