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The burning question of bilingualism

Waterloo fire Chief John deHooge, who takes over the Ottawa FireService in January, got a foretaste of local politics this week as citycouncil went behind closed doors to argue about language.

Waterloo fire Chief John deHooge, who takes over the Ottawa Fire Service in January, got a foretaste of local politics this week as city council went behind closed doors to argue about language.

DeHooge, a 30-year veteran who beat 317 other candidates from across the country for the job, doesn’t speak French.

It’s normal to exclude the public from discussions involving personnel matters, and probably just as well in this case, as the reportedly heated argument was likely not one of council’s finer moments.

But we’re not in Waterloo anymore, chief. As the capital of a bilingual nation, Ottawa has special responsibilities and, appropriately, policies to ensure employees can serve the public in either language. There’s a point, however, where principle should take a back seat to practicality.

At the federal level, there’s been some soul-searching about civil servants taking courses that simply prepare them to pass tests and get their certification rather than actually acquire any working knowledge of another language. Once the test is over, the new language skills often disappear because they aren’t used anyway.

Official Languages commissioner Graham Fraser recently questioned the wisdom of sinking such massive amounts of time and money into sending middle-aged managers on perpetual French courses.

DeHooge, for his part, has promised to take French lessons. The catch is, that’s all he has to do.

There’s no deadline, and no requirement that he actually learn French, or even get better at it.

It’s lip service to a policy that, applied without common sense, can result in ludicrous decisions.

For example, take the case of Jeanne Barr, the postmistress in Pakenham, notified by Canada Post she was out of a job because she doesn’t speak French. Of course, neither does Pakenham, but try telling that to Canada Post and the Official Languages Act.

City councillors Georges Bedard and Jacques Legendre, who were only doing their jobs in questioning the hiring of a unilingual fire chief, want the city’s language policy tightened so that in the future anyone in such a senior position would have to be bilingual.

Of the six contenders actually interviewed for the job, two were bilingual, but neither had experience running a large urban fire department. I can’t help but worry that if the city’s policy had been to Bedard’s and Legendre’s liking, the job would have gone to one of these less-qualified candidates, with language trumping actual experience and ability on the job.

If our Toronto-born chief can learn to parlez-vous a little, great, but I hope he’ll concentrate on firefighting.

 
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