New Brunswick

Languages commissioner steps up call for bilingual top bureaucrats

New Brunswick’s official languages commissioner is renewing her call to make bilingualism a requirement for all senior civil servants in the provincial government.

Katherine d'Entremont's argument immediately rejected by Donald Arseneault

Katherine d’Entremont, New Brunswick's commissioner of official languages, presented her annual report Thursday. (Jacques Poitras)

New Brunswick's official languages commissioner is renewing her call to make bilingualism a requirement for all senior civil servants in the provincial government.

And Katherine d'Entremont is forcefully rebutting Premier Brian Gallant's comments that such a requirement would be unfair to anglophones who haven't learned to speak French.

In Canada's only officially bilingual province, approximately half of New Brunswick's senior public servants are unable to speak French.- Katherine d'Entremont, official languages commissioner

​D'Entremont presented her 2016-17 annual report to a committee of MLAs on Thursday and she used the opportunity to push back at the premier, who rejected the proposal she first made in 2015.

Gallant said last year that the idea "is not fair, given that we have not yet offered a generation of anglophones a fair chance to become bilingual through accessible second-language training opportunities that work."

D'Entremont disputes that in her report, asking "unfair to whom?"

Only bilingual province

She notes New Brunswick has been officially bilingual since 1969, "almost half a century," and French immersion classes first appeared in the 1970s.

She also says almost 30 per cent of bilingual New Brunswickers have English as their first language.

"In Canada's only officially bilingual province, approximately half of New Brunswick's senior public servants are unable to speak French to the Francophone population, to Francophone MLAs, to the Francophone media, and to Francophone stakeholder groups," she writes.

"Is this fair for this linguistic community, which has a status equal to that of the Anglophone community?"

D'Entremont's office interviewed 21 people from francophone municipalities and organizations who said they had to hold meetings in English with provincial officials to seek funding.

"It's a power relationship," she said. "They are going there looking for something, so it's important that they be able to express themselves in their preferred language."

Flipping the circumstances

The new study gives the province "a better idea" of the need for bilingual senior officials, she said.

"You just have to flip the situation upside down and think about how unacceptable it would be if an anglophone organization, an English-speaking organization, went to meet with senior officials … and they weren't able to use their language. It wouldn't happen."

But Liberal cabinet minister Donald Arseneault immediately rejected the idea of making it a requirement.

It's one of those common sense things where you don't legislate it or anything like that. It just makes sense that deputy ministers are bilingual.- Bruce Northrup, former cabinet minister

"In every department, we have people with the capability of serving the various groups or associations or New Brunswickers in each language," said Arseneault, who is the minister responsible for official languages. "I don't see this as being a problem."

Progressive Conservative MLA Bruce Northrup told reporters he liked the idea of bilingual senior officials but didn't think it should be a strict requirement.

Northrup, who doesn't speak French, said when he was a cabinet minister, it helped that his deputy minister was bilingual.

"It's one of those common sense things where you don't legislate it or anything like that," he said. "It just makes sense that deputy ministers are bilingual."

D'Entremont's 2015 report surveyed senior public servants and found only half could communicate in French.

A requirement at federal level

She defines "senior" officials as executive directors, assistant deputy ministers and deputy ministers, who she says make up three per cent of the civil services.

Her new report points out the federal government requires all assistant deputy ministers to be bilingual.

Her 2015 recommendation was to require bilingualism in all new senior hirings starting in 2020 and to set up an intensive second-language training program for top officials.

It was prompted by the appointment of Michael Ferguson, a former New Brunswick auditor general and deputy minister of finance, as the federal auditor general. Ferguson was appointed to the national position despite not speaking French.

Caught up quickly

"At the time, many Canadians wondered how Canada's only official bilingual province could have unilingual senior public servants," d'Entremont writes in this year's report.

D'Entremont points out that Ferguson has since learned French and argues he could have learned it in New Brunswick if the province had required it.

Among other elements in d'Entremont's report:

  • She believes legislative officers, such as the chief electoral officer, should be required to be bilingual. She says bilingualism was not listed as a requirement in three recent job postings for such positions.
  • Municipalities and regional service commissions that are subject to the Official Languages Act are "generally" meeting their legal obligations, but d'Entremont says they aren't required to provide the same level of bilingual service as the province. She recommends expanding what they're required to do.
  • She applauds the province for working with Ottawa to recruit French-speaking immigrants to reflect the province's language balance.
  • Complaints to her office were up 81 per cent in 2016-17 but there's no one problem or phenomenon that created the increase. Of 114 admissible complaints, 92 were about lack of service in French, and 22 were about lack of service in English.

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