Boreal

Shooting the Messenger

14 - Yours, Mine and Ours

There was a certain logic to Foreign Affairs dividing the world along linguistic lines. French-speaking officers for French-speaking countries; English-speaking officers for English-speaking countries, with the rest of the world shared among both linguistic groups. Where this logic broke down was in Ottawa.

The 1980’s marked the end of the British invasion that began with the explosive growth of the Department after the end of the Second World War.

In 1969, the Parliament of Canada passed the Official Languages Act. In 1969, 2,500 miles to the west, high school students in Ashcroft, British Columbia were already honouring both its intent and spirit.

At Foreign Affairs in Ottawa, more than a decade after its passage by the House of Commons only a kilometre or so down the road, remnants of this British invasion continued a rearguard action against the equitable representation of the two language groups, and to employees being allowed to work in French. In these pockets of resistance Britannia still ruled.

One of the enclaves was the Management Services Division under English-born Director Paul S. Dunseath, a loyal member of the Monarchist League of Canada. Only two of Dunseath's twenty-seven member staff could be considered French-Canadian and they were not programmers. Within this division was the Computer Systems section under Jim Rodgers and Office Automation under Melody Duncan.

The Management Services Division and my own division, the Financial Planning and Analysis Division under director Dave Gordon would spearhead the computerization of the management and financial function at Canadian missions.

I do not know whose idea it was to use automation to, in effect, turn back the clock on language rights. All I know for sure is that Dunseath's division did not have anyone with the necessary skills to build a French interface; therefore it can be assumed he had not planned to build one.

My section, which under ordinary circumstances would be required to work closely Dunseath's staff, might have been able to assist in developing a French computer interface. Unfortunately, Richard, the new head of the Financial Systems Analyst Section, a Franco-Ontarian, did not think it was necessary.

I don’t use Richard’s last name for, in my opinion, he did not know any better when it came to the Official Languages Act and, as for all the other stuff you will be reading about, he was mainly following orders.

Richard, like many Franco-Ontarians, preferred working in English even if they had been hired, in part, because of their assumed ability to work in French when required.

This preference for working in English was usually out of fear that any claim they may have made to being able to work in both official languages, when it came to working in French, was simply not true.

A Chartered Accountant by training, Richard exhibited all the symptoms of these insecure bilinguals. The fact that my spoken French was very good, courtesy of a French-speaking spouse who was also a professional translator and interpreter, only added to Richard's insecurities.

When I drove into Ottawa, after seven years in British Columbia, my mastery of the French language was on a par with Richard’s, probably worse. My good fortune was in meeting, dating and marrying a girl (BA, MA, MBA) from Montréal who taught French as a second language at Ottawa U and would later join the elite of translator/interpreters who work on Parliament Hill. She decided she would do something about my tortured French syntax and she did.