Dump public service bilingual bonus, top bureaucrat says

The head of the Public Service Commission of Canada says a decades-old bilingual bonus paid to public servants that costs more than $60 million a year should be scrapped.

Public Service Commission president says money would be better spent on language training

Patrick Borbey, head of the Public Service Commission of Canada, says the federal government's bilingual bonus for public servants should be scrapped and rolled into a language training fund. (CBC News )

The head of the Public Service Commission of Canada says a decades-old bilingual bonus paid to public servants should be scrapped. 

The bilingual bonus, $800 a year paid out to each public servant who meets French and English language requirements in a job, no longer serves its original purpose of increasing bilingual workers in the public service, said Patrick Borbey, president of the Public Service Commission of Canada.

The bonus costs $66 to 68 million each year, money Borbey said would be better spent on a language training fund to help public servants improve and maintain language skills.

Reviewing language in the public service

Borbey and another senior bureaucrat, Matthew Mendelsohn, were asked by Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick to review Canada's two official languages in the federal public service.

They spoke to public servants for months about what works and what doesn't, and one big issue was the bilingual bonus, Borbey said. 

The bonus was implemented in 1977, a time when the rate of bilingual workers in the public service was low, about 25 per cent, he said. 

Today, that number is about 43 per cent. And for those who want to climb up the ladder in the public service and who are lacking in second language skills, paying for training often comes out of pocket.

"We have many public servants who want to have access to language training and can't," Borbey said. "It's not affordable."

Some employees also don't invest in maintenance and have to be re-trained, which comes at a cost, he said. 

Public service unions not consulted

Unions that represent public servants say they are still considering where they stand on the idea of scrapping the bonus. 

However the heads of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE) and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) expressed irritation they weren't part of the process of coming up with the recommendations, though the report does recommend consulting them later.

"This committee is recommending that we revisit a long-standing, duly-negotiated benefit," said Emmanuelle Tremblay, president of CAPE. "How come we weren't made aware prior to the report being issued?"

Emmanuelle Tremblay, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, says unions should have been included in early discussions about the bilingualism bonus. (Susan Burgess)

"It just makes sense to have a broad perspective on the issues that we're facing in the public service around bilingualism," said Debi Daviau, president of PIPSC.

Both Daviau and Tremblay agreed however that access to language training is a concern for their members.

Daviau said she gets "an enormous number of emails from members who are concerned because the need for a second language is preventing their careers from moving forward."

The head of the largest public sector union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, declined to be interviewed.

Support from young public servants for review

Many young Ottawa-area public servants raised concerns about a lack of language training during a union consultation of millennial employees, according to Jenilee Forgie, a 33-year-old employee of Employment and Social Development Canada who does not receive the bonus.

Employees on the cusp of management get training because they might need to supervise employees in their second language, "whereas it would make a lot of sense even economically to make that investment in the beginning of a public servant's career when it's less costly to be investing in their time to be on language training," Forgie said.

She and others have asked their union, CAPE, to support a review of the bilingual bonus with an eye to re-directing resources to training.

Yet she does have misgivings when she thinks about her francophone colleagues being asked to give up the bonus.

"They're already making concessions in the workplace by speaking English in most cases," she said.

Some young public servants such as Jenilee Forgie, 33, support reviewing the bilingualism bonus with an eye to re-directing resources to language training. (Susan Burgess)

English as the default

In their review, Borbey and Mendelsohn looked at many aspects of languages in the public service, including training, evaluation and language standards set years ago.

Another recommendation they made is to set new language standards in the workplace so people can participate in meetings, activities and events in both English and French, allowing workers to speak in the language of their choice.

This level of bilingualism happens in some departments, but isn't across the board, Borbey said. ​

Often, when public servants work on projects, especially in a virtual setting where workers are located across the country, not everyone has French skills and the default is to communicate in English. ​

Tremblay, a francophone, said she understands that pressure to default to English, and considers herself part of the problem.

"I speak English at most of my meetings because I want to be understood by the majority, and we don't have much time when we have an info session at lunch with our members," she said. "Do I have time to repeat everything in both official languages? Of course not."

"The report does touch on more fundamental issues, and I think those are more promising avenues than just scrapping the bilingual bonus."

With files from Ottawa Morning, Laurie Fagan, Susan Burgess