Monday, 31 October 2011

En francais? Harper, the Auditor General & Bilingualism

 Mike Ferguson Canada's new Auditor General
As it currently stands, Harper's appointment to fill the important post of Auditor General is unqualified for the job. This is not a slight on the man or his abilities. Like Justice Michael Moldaver - Harper's uni-lingual Supreme Court appointment - Mike Ferguson has waded into a political storm not of his making. Both are well suited to their new positions in terms of professional qualifications. Moldaver is immensely qualified student of the law. He's both an astute legal mind and avoids the appearance of being merely an ideological appointment (He was previously elevated by Liberal Jean Chretien).  Ferguson too has a wealth of experience from which to draw, first as the Auditor General of New Brunswick and, secondly, as a provincial deputy minister. Clearly he has an understanding of  the job as well as an inside knowledge of the public service and an ability to work with a ministry to get things done. Yet, as with Justice Moldaver, Ferguson can't speak a lick of French.  This, of course, runs counter to the Official Languages Act. The Auditor General is required to be able to fulfill  his job in both official languages. Both he and the government have acknowledged this (although, at first blush, it seems the government was operating oblivious to requirements). Ferguson has vowed to become proficient in French as quick as possible. 

This position is incredulous. I don't doubt the earnestness or ability of the new AG to accomplish this.  Intense and rigorous French language training can have a remarkable impact, turning nascent candidates into, if not fluent, passable speakers, able to understand and converse with some aptitude. Parliamentarians are offered these services with often spectacular results (Stephen Harper parle français? c'est fantastique!). 

The point is not about one's capacity or prospects to learn the language. What's important here is the message it sends. This is yet another not-so-subtle blow to one of Trudeau's earliest legacies. The Official Languages Act was about more than simply mandating that French was a working language of the federal government in which civil servants in key posts were expect to be proficient in English or French, or about Canadians being able to access services in either tongue. The Act symbolically placed English and French on an equal footing, with neither subordinate to the other.

By callously appointing a uni-lingual Auditor General, the Conservative government is either signalling its contempt first, for this officer of parliament and its role or, second, its contempt for the equality of the French language. It also illustrates a government that exercises a complete indifference to rules, procedures or the law. 

When the Official Languages Act came into force in 1969, a civil service dominated by English speakers was provided with a chance to upgrade language skills. This was an accommodation intended to avoid penalizing individual civil servants for lacking a skill-set that was not required upon being hired. These rules, now in place for decades, requires candidates for certain positions in to be proficient in both official languages prior  to being hired. These standards have not been expected of the Auditor General. 

The office of the Auditor General is neither a new post, nor is the language requirement. Requirements are codified and widely known.  The post is expected to be bilingual from the day the position is filled. The result of this appoint is that, in effect, the spirit and letter of the law will have no force of effect for at least a year and possibly more.  This is an untenable situation for an institution required to conduct itself in both official languages.  

The optics of this are also bad. It signals an indifference to the spirit of official bilingualism and the French language. This opens a needless antagonism between Harper and, through him, between English Canada and Quebec. Following on the heals of a uni-lingual Supreme Court appointment, this merely seems to underscore perceived hostilities in this regard. It's also another notch in the Conservative belt against the Liberal legacy of the last half century. By undermining one of his key achievements, Harper is actively undoing federal commitments to maintaining parity between French and English at a national level. Ferguson may be an able auditor, but the politics of this appointment extend far beyond that office.

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