General

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.