Canada’s official-languages watchdog says the Conservative government has left respected but unilingual senior public officials open to national humiliation by appointing them to positions that require fluency in both English and French.
The members of the federal Liberal caucus walked out of the House of Commons and the Senate on Thursday rather than take part in a vote to appoint Michael Ferguson, an anglophone accountant from New Brunswick, as Canada’s new Auditor-General.
Mr. Ferguson’s appointment was approved in the absence of the Liberals because the Conservatives hold a majority of the seats in both chambers.
A day earlier, a Supreme Court judge felt pressured to defend himself against an accusation that he didn’t keep his promise to become fluent in French. Mr. Justice Marshall Rothstein, who was appointed to the top court by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006, said he never made such a promise despite recent allegations by New Democratic MPs.
“In two cases,” said Graham Fraser, the Commissioner of Official Languages, “we’ve had senior people, who’ve had highly productive lives of public service, who the government has humiliated by putting them in an untenable position in which these people have had to defend the government’s position to pay no attention to the importance of bilingualism in these senior leadership roles.”
Liberal Leader Bob Rae said the government told him in advance that Mr. Ferguson would be the nominee for the Auditor-General’s position, but neglected to informed him that he could not speak both official languages. Bilingualism is listed as a criteria of the job.
The Conservatives “changed the rules at the end of the game,” Mr. Rae said. “Since when is it fair or reasonable to do that? It is not. It is whimsical, it is arbitrary, it is capricious, it is wrong, it is illegitimate, and the government should know it.”
The Liberal Leader told reporters he has consulted constitutional lawyers about the situation. “I can assure you the battle does not end here,” he said.
The New Democrats share the Liberal view that the Auditor-General should be bilingual, but stayed in the House to vote against the resolution.
New Democratic MP Yvon Godin called on Mr. Ferguson to “rethink” his decision to accept the position, given that, as an Officer of Parliament, he needs support of all parties in the House.
Mr. Fraser said the Conservatives are failing to recognize the degree to which it has become an essential competency for public roles of national leadership.
“My recommendation in the annual report that I tabled a couple of weeks ago was that the government proclaim very clearly, and communicate very clearly, its commitment to the principles of the Official Languages Act,” Mr. Fraser said. “And certainly with these appointments, the government’s actions are sending an entirely different signal.”
Some elements of the Conservative Party have been less than supportive of Canada’s official bilingualism, which was entrenched into law 42 years ago. But Mr. Harper has been committed to ensuring that language rights are respected.
“Our government’s investment in bilingualism is more than any government in history,” James Maunder, a spokesman for Heritage Minister James Moore, said, adding that the Conservatives are spending more on bilingualism than the previous Liberal government did.
“We are proud of our investments to ensure our two official languages are an essential part of our identity,” Mr. Maunder said. “We’ll continue to take action to ensure bilingualism can flourish, that the money that is spent is done so wisely, and organizations that receive funding are held accountable.”