Well, after years of serving Her Maj in a number of countries, and in a number of roles, I’m now in Canada.
Those of you who have followed the fortunes of ‘The Great White North’ may know a little about its perennial issues over language. It’s officially a bilingual country and entry to its public service is generally restricted to those who can demonstrate competence in both English and French. This subject was recently revisited when a vacationing civil servant sued Air Canada because he wasn’t able to order a ‘Seven Up’ in French. A judge awarded him $12000 for his trouble. This decision has opened old wounds and has led to many in the rest of Canada asking how we ever ended up in this position.
Historically the French had an enormous influence in the development of Canada. Without delivering a lengthy history lesson, it’s probably enough to say that the British eventually came to be the dominant power in Canada. The older among you may recall the domestic strife of the 1960s and 70s, when it appeared that French speaking Quebec may leave Canada. In stepped the only Canadian Prime Minister that most foreigners have heard of, Pierre Trudeau, to save the day and keep Quebec in the federation. Trudeau, as the name suggests, was of Quebec stock and his political party, The Liberals, were historically the dominant party in Quebec. Losing Quebec would have been similar to Britain’s Labour Party losing Scotland!!!! In any event, one of the costs of keeping ‘La Belle Province’ in Canada was this concept of bilingualism.
The reality, so far as I can find, is that very few people outside of Quebec or those areas that border Quebec, can really be described as truly bilingual. Many put their children through ‘French Immersion’ schools, and have a grasp of the language, but few are actually fluent. For most Canadians it isn’t really an issue, as life is generally conducted in English. Where it is important, however, is in the civil service. For entry to any position in Ottawa, candidates must demonstrate that they are bilingual in French and English. On the face of it this seems fair, but the reality may be somewhat different. People in Quebec speak French in their daily lives, but live as a minority in a country where English is all round them. Very few Quebeckers are not naturally bilingual. This is not the case for other Canadians, most of whom have little or no contact with the French language. The result of this is that around 80% of Canadians are not eligible to apply for jobs in their civil service and that jobs are filled by ‘the best French speaker’ rather than the best candidate. Think what the effect would be if entry to the British civil service was restricted only to those who could demonstrate their abilities in Welsh and English. How many non Welshmen would be able to satisfy that criteria? Mind you, it would ensure a lot of votes in Welsh speaking communities!
Many in Canada thought that the present Conservative government would dismantle some of Trudeau’s work. It seems, however, that this is not going to happen and that Canada, truly one of the world!s great countries, will carry on with the tail wagging the dog.