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February 27, 2012

Parlez-Vous?

Reuel S. Amdur

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There has been much criticism of the appointments of Michael Moldaver to the Supreme Court and of Michael Ferguson as Auditor General, neither of whom is bilingual.

At the risk of being labeled a redneck, I want to make the case against the bilingual requirement for such positions.  One could begin by noting that many of the politicians advocating such a requirement are themselves not bilingual, and they would be most unhappy were such a requirement to be in place for their positions.  And that fact underlines the central problem with such a requirement.

A bilingual requirement, where it is not necessary in order to fulfill the tasks of the job, sets up barriers to achievement.  Canada has made bilingualism important but has not made it possible for large numbers of people. 

As social psychologist John Dollard and his co-authors put it in Frustration and Aggression, “Anticipation of failure is the equivalent to anticipation of punishment.”  Should we make it compulsory that all MP’s be bilingual?  All holders of government jobs?

In many communities elsewhere in Canada opportunities for intensive second-language education in the schools are just not available.  I have three sons, and we sent two of them to a private bilingual school in Waterloo, Ontario.  The oldest was too old to get in, and at the time the local public system did not have any such program.

So if my oldest son had set his sights on top jobs in accounting or law, he would know: so far and no further.  Anticipation of failure.  Loss of opportunity. 

The federal government has successfully sold the idea that bilingualism is important, that it opens all kinds of doors, but it has not made it possible. 

Trudeau said that Canadians should be prepared to sacrifice for bilingualism in order to keep the country together.  The sacrifice means acceptance of failure, of punishment.  On the contrary, Keith Spicer argued that languages should be seen as opportunities, but they are only opportunities if people have access.

It is not reasonable to make judges and auditors know both languages in order to be appointed.  There are expert translators, and the courts and the office of the Auditor General are well populated by them.  Yet, there is serious inequality in such appointments.

French Canadians will rightly point out that a unilingual English-speaker is being appointed to the Supreme Court, but no consideration would be given to a French-speaking jurist who is not also fluent in English. 

The remedy is simple: The Prime Minister could appoint to the bench qualified Francophones who are not fluent in English.  This approach would make unnecessary the charade of people like Moldaver promising to learn French.

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