Official Bilingualism in Government Posts: Essential and Achievable

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Lately there has been much discussion – and much confusion – about the concept of official bilingualism, and the requirement for some government positions to be filled by people who meet this bona fide job requirement.

Let us be clear. In certain posts official bilingualism is not optional, but a requirement of the job. And let us be equally clear, in Canada official bilingualism means English and French. Period.

This concept of official languages is not unique to this country. Many multilingual western democracies, such as Switzerland and Belgium, have equivalent or even more demanding provisions for official languages in their courts and their public service, as do nascent developing democracies such as South Africa, Nigeria and India. The reason is quite simple. Creating a larger political unit (country) out of many smaller existing units with different languages, one that is a stable and robust democracy, is only possible if those linguistic differences are recognized constitutionally and accommodated in the national state apparatus.

Put simply, if there had been no official bilingualism there would be no Canada. The Constitution Act, 1867 (the former BNA Act) is replete with many examples of this guarantee of two official languages, demonstrating just how important the protection of the French language was to the successful conclusion of the confederation negotiations. Subsequently the federal Official Languages Act reinforces this constitutional requirement, guaranteeing language of work provisions for government employees and language of service provisions for citizens.

Note that this is something guaranteed to, and required of, individuals. It has absolutely nothing to do with groups or communities, or with indigenous peoples or the concept of multiculturalism. ANY Canadian who is fluent in the two official languages of this country is eligible for such posts. For example English is the first language of this writer, yet after a deliberate effort to master our second official language, (inspired by Pierre Trudeau’s vision of Canada as a bilingual and multicultural country), I not only became fluently bilingual but on occasion worked in unilingual French language units in the federal government. I might also add that coming from western Canada made this a more difficult proposition than for some, but it nevertheless proved to be one that was in the end quite achievable.     

Nor is there an obligation for any individual Canadian to become bilingual. There are also many positions in the federal bureaucracy that do not require bilingualism as a job criterion. But if you want to pursue certain types of government work, or move up the management ladder in your program or department, there will come a time when bilingualism will be an asset or a necessity.

This is hardly news. This has been the case since the 1970’s. Anyone considering a career in the federal public service, or the upper levels of the judiciary, has had plenty of notice that this is a longstanding reality. Moreover the federal government has long provided financial assistance for the preservation of official language minorities and for second language training.  Provinces and municipalities have also taken the lead in many cases. (In Toronto, for example, the local school board has specifically targeted newcomers to Canada for inclusion in French immersion classes.) [i] As a result, there can be little sympathy for individuals who find, after years of a successful career, that they are unable to progress further due to a lack of proficiency in one of the two official languages.

This was a point I made emphatically more than four years ago, when several media commentaries were sympathetic to the perceived plight of a senior judge in Ontario who was not eligible to be considered for a post on the federal Supreme Court due to his lack of fluency in French. As I said in an OpEd in the Globe and Mail at the time, “I applaud Justice xxxx’s accomplishments. I also agree that it would be desirable to have an indigenous judge on the Supreme Court. But bilingualism on the court is not optional. Nor are being bilingual and indigenous mutually exclusive….If Stephen Harper and Joe Clark could become sufficiently bilingual to function as national politicians, so can others. The Supreme Court requirement is for “functional” bilingualism, a level far below that necessary to participate in national leaders’ debates.”[ii]

Happily, only four years later a person of indigenous origin, Justice Michelle O’Bonsawin, has just been appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada. She is fluently bilingual. Meanwhile one year earlier, in 2021, the first person of colour and of a minority religion, Mahmud Jamal, was appointed to the Supreme Court, marking also the arrival on the bench of an immigrant who  came to Canada with his family as a teenager and first settled in Edmonton. Jamal himself stressed the importance of bilingualism in an interview shortly after his appointment, and noted that he had deliberately sought work in Montreal to gain competence in his second language. The importance of this appointment was highlighted by Chief Justice Richard Wagner, who said in a subsequent interview:

The appointment of Jamal in 2021 has confirmed that the federal government can find judges from diverse backgrounds who are also bilingual…(Some have) mentioned that we may be depriving ourselves of quality people who are not able to be bilingual. Well, it’s a non-issue. People who have the skills and who have the aspiration, one day, to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada know that they have to be bilingual.”[iii]

Which brings us to the recent kerfuffle over indigenous languages and those who are promoting their inclusion in the concept of official bilingualism in the federal public service. This too, is simply a non-issue. The idea of providing a bilingualism bonus to federal employees who speak an indigenous language is a non-starter, as the government has rightly stressed. [iv] Keep in mind that knowledge of an indigenous language might well be considered an advantage, or even a bona fide requirement, in the job description of certain positions. This knowledge of an indigenous language would be viewed as a positive element of a candidate’s qualifications in the merit-based public service hiring process, just as knowledge of a third language can often be seen as an advantage for those interested in a career in the diplomatic service with Global Affairs Canada, or with Immigration and Citizenship Canada.

This does NOT, however, have anything to do with official languages. If a position is classified as bilingual imperative, it is because the post requires the incumbent to operate in both official languages in their work environment, and/or in working with client groups and the general public, regardless of what their other language skills may be.

It may be that the unilingual anglophone Mary Simon’s recent appointment as Governor General will be widely viewed as a necessary deviation from the norm to symbolize the importance of indigenous reconciliation in Canada, and we certainly wish her well. But it is essential that her situation be seen as exactly that – an extraordinary exception to the rule — and not a slippery slope in which the importance of Canada’s two official languages is viewed as only one among many national priorities.  

[i] C. Alfonso. “Schools Target Newcomers for French Immersion.” Globe and Mail. September 8, 2022. 

[ii] Re “For Top Indigenous Judge, The Last Breakthrough Was Beyond His Reach”. Globe and Mail. November 22, 2018.

[iii] CBC News Online. June 6, 2021.

[iv]   and