Higgs favours hire-first, train-later approach for bilingual civil service jobs
What PC leader calls a 'reasonable' idea francophone activists call a dog whistle
Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs is raising the possibility of relaxing bilingual hiring requirements at Ambulance New Brunswick and in other areas of the New Brunswick civil service.
Higgs told Radio-Canada in a recent interview that he would favour hiring "qualified" people first for designated-bilingual jobs, then give them time to learn their second language later.
He was speaking about ambulance paramedics but added, "it's something we need to look at across the board."
Higgs made the comments before the death of a 54-year-old Nash Creek man hit the news.
David Harvey's family said it took 30 minutes for an ambulance to respond because a nearby ambulance bay wasn't staffed.
The lack of staffing at that station hasn't been explained, but Ambulance New Brunswick has been plagued by staffing shortages because it hasn't found enough bilingual paramedics to have one on every two-person crew.
Last year, ANB agreed to a court settlement that included a judge's binding order that the organization must provide bilingual service on all ambulances.
Earlier this year, a labour arbitrator in a paramedic seniority case suggested the bilingualism requirement could be relaxed in areas of the province where there's less demand for second-language service.
But the New Brunswick government says that goes against the Official Languages Act. It's asking the courts to quash the arbitration decision.
Higgs suggested other qualifications for being a paramedic should be considered before language skills to ensure no positions are left vacant.
"We hire for skill, and we train for language," he told Radio-Canada during a recent St. Stephen rally to support paramedics. "We know we have language requirements to meet, but let's not lose sight that we're out serving the public.
"Is it better to have no ambulance, or is it better to have an ambulance that will serve your needs and be there, and do what it can to provide that service?"
Poor immersion results
The Paramedic Association of New Brunswick has called for a recruitment strategy that targets people who are already bilingual.
Higgs said his approach would apply equally to anglophones and francophones, though his rationale for it is based mainly on the French immersion program for anglophone students.
The PC leader frequently points to statistics showing the majority of immersion students are not fluent in French when they graduate.
To give those students "a fair chance," he said, the hire-first, train-later approach could be applied to other parts of government beyond ambulances.
"I think it's possible. I think it's a reasonable approach given our education system is so far behind."
Comments alarm activists
Those comments, reported in French-language media outlets, alarmed francophone activists, who see it as a potential retreat from official bilingualism.
The Acadian Society of New Brunswick issued a statement last week accusing Higgs of using "dog-whistle" tactics — making superficially reasonable arguments about bilingualism that would appeal to anti-French sentiment.
Liberal MLA Victor Boudreau, the former health minister, said Higgs's comments ignore the fact the provincial civil service does not require bilingual staff in all positions.
Instead, the government uses a "work team" approach that drafts a "linguistic profile" of the community or group that each team is serving, then decides how many of the positions must be bilingual.
An office in Moncton would require a higher percentage than one in Woodstock, for example.
The province says that out of 9,511 positions where linguistic profiles were applied, 3,993 positions were designated bilingual as of December.
Ambulances a 'particular' case
Boudreau acknowledged that ambulances are "a particular situation. … If your 'office' is an ambulance, and there's only two people in that ambulance, to provide bilingual service, one of the two has to be bilingual."
And he said trying to avoid that requirement would only lead to lengthy court challenges.
"We have constitutional and legal obligations to both linguistic communities in New Brunswick."
Boudreau said if a position has been classified as bilingual, the ability to speak the other language is a qualification just as important as the others.
"If the position needs to be bilingual, then that skill is just as important as the other skills attached to that job," he said. "It's a skill required to do the job, just like every other skill."
Law may need to change
The PC leader acknowledged he was not sure whether his hire-first, train-later approach would require changes to the Official Languages Act.
"I don't know if it would or not. I don't think so, because we're not changing the standard. We're changing the timelines."
He pointed out some government positions only become designated as bilingual after a unilingual person holding the job retires — an indication that the legislation allows some leeway.
But he said a unilingual person hired for a bilingual position would have a strict deadline to learn their second language.
"You wouldn't allow the timeframe to be extended," he said. "You would define it at the very beginning when you hire. This is the timeframe in which you mean the qualifications for language, so it's not a never-ending situation. You just couldn't accept that."
Higgs still learning French
Higgs's own experience shows how challenging it can be to master a second language. He promised when he ran for the PC leadership to be bilingual in time for the 2018 election campaign, but admits now it's been "difficult."
He's still taking lessons from a tutor once a week and now gives speeches and answers questions in halting, broken French. But he said his position is different from designated positions in government.
"I'm an elected official," he said. "If I'm not meeting the service requirement in that sense, people can vote me out. I'm gone."