Boreal

Shooting the Messenger

15 - The Return of the Double Standard

The Canadian Parliament adopted the first Official Languages Act in 1969 when the Right Honourable Pierre Elliott Trudeau was Prime Minister of Canada. The Act declares that English and French enjoy equal status, rights and privileges as to their use in all the institutions of the Parliament and government of Canada.

Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages website.

The time that I joined Foreign Affairs was also a time that would see the rapid computerization of the financial and administrative function at all our missions abroad.

I had a minor role in the implementation of computer-based management information systems at two of our five large diplomatic installations, Washington and London. The others being Paris, Brussels and Tokyo. In Washington we used a Service Bureau to which the embassy was linked via computer terminals.

The London system was built in Ottawa with mainly American technology, as would be all future systems. This, during a period when rapid expansion of the high technology sector in the Ottawa area would earn the National Capital Region the name of Silicon Valley North.

Next on the automation schedule was Paris, to be followed by Brussels and Tokyo. The Paris and Brussels systems would, except for minor modifications, be carbon copies of the system installed at the Canadian High Commission in London. A system that responded to a user in English only!

During the preparation for the implementation of the Paris system I enquired if I could work on the French language user interface. Richard said “No,” my services were not needed because there would not be a French language interface. Only employees who understood English would be given the opportunity to work with the unilingual English system.

I reminded Richard that this was against the law. Richard then started to backtrack. Down the road, he said, they might produce “un système batardisé” (a bastardized system) for those who wanted to work in French.

A legitimate off-spring for English-speakers, and a bastard for French-speakers... eventually. Un poid, deux mesures. How insulting.

"What about French User Manuals?"

Richard was initially puzzled by the question. If only people who understood English would be allowed to use the system, what was the point of French manuals?

Completely logical! The only problem, it was also against the law.

It may not have occurred to Richard, but Dunseath had to be aware that Canadian missions abroad are considered Canadian territory and therefore subject to Canadian law and that law included the Official Languages Act and a Constitutional guarantee!

Dunseath and Richard could not unilaterally make English the de facto language of administration at Canadian missions; the logical outcome of installing computer-based management information and control systems that responded to the user in English only.

The French-speaking Canadians working at the mainly French-speaking Paris embassy had a Constitutionally guaranteed right to work in French, computer systems or no computer systems, and have access to manuals and such in both official languages.

Building a French user interface to most computer systems was, and is, a relatively simple and straightforward exercise if somewhat time consuming if you have not planned ahead, so why deny some public servants their constitutional right to work in one of the two official languages?

It was a pointless discussion. For Richard, he was forcing mainly foreigners to work in English since a large portion of support and administrative staff, at any Canadian mission, is locally hired. For him, I guess, he was only breaking the law a little, and who was going to know.

I did manage to convince Richard’s boss, Dave Gordon, that user manuals should at least be made available in French before installing our computer systems at missions where the language of work was predominantly French.

This did not sit well with Richard. Yes, he told me, the English user documentation would be translated into French and be available sometime after the installation.

The availability of French user manuals was going to be delayed because he wanted the translation to be done by French nationals and not by any of the more than one thousand translators that the taxpayers pays to do this work.

He wanted “Parisien French” he said, and Canadian translators were just not good enough.

Whether he said this because they had no intention of providing French documentation at this time, or that he actually believed this slander about Canadian translators not being as good as Parisians I can only speculate.

Richard may have just been projecting his own inadequacies onto the professional translators and interpreters within the Translation Bureau, or he may just have wanted to insult my wife who, as previously mentioned, was a professional translator and interpreter with the Canadian Parliament.

I also found it unconscionable that he would use my taxes to pay foreign nationals to do a job that Canadians were quite capable of doing and doing well.

The conversation again went nowhere.

What was it with this Department? Richard had been at Foreign Affairs for maybe a year, and already he had fallen for the mantra that whatever Canadians can do, others can do better.

During my time in this parallel universe where the laws I was familiar with did not apply, it had never occurred to me to talk to outsiders about the goings on at Foreign Affairs. The Department is not only Canada's window on the world, but also the world's window on Canada.

It is one thing to let Canadians know what their government is up to, quite another to tell the world.

It may have been the world's view of Canada, which was being distorted by Dunseath and Richard that caused me to talk to an outsider, and not just any outsider. Before doing so, I made one more attempt at stopping this lunatic endeavour, the product of one man’s prejudices and another’s insecurities.

I talked with Dave Gordon again, and asked him what he thought about Richard’s plans to contract work ordinarily done in Canada by Canadians to French nationals.

Gordon said that he saw nothing wrong with that.

I should not have been surprised, on a previous occasion, he had told me that Richard was right; he had attended a meeting where he had to listen to Canadian interpreters and they weren't any good.

Who were these people?

I said that it was a matter of principle; that what Richard was doing was unacceptable. This is when Gordon warned me that if I did anything to interfere with their plans for Paris I would face disciplinary action.

I left Gordon's office telling him that "sometimes you have to do what you have to do." How corny.

When I got back to my office, I did what would have been unthinkable only a few days earlier, I became a whistleblower. I placed a call to Maxwell Yalden the Commissioner of Official Languages.