The Canadian Forces have fallen well short in efforts to promote bilingualism but that's going to change, Defence Minister John McCallum said Tuesday.
He said attitudes are going to have to change or people will lose out on promotions and pay raises.
Only 43 per cent of military positions that are supposed to be bilingual are actually filled by bilingual personnel, the minister told the Commons official languages committee.
Only 40 per cent of senior military officers can handle both English and French, Mr. McCallum added.
"This is clearly not acceptable," he said.
A decade after the government trumpeted plans to make bilingualism a watchword in public service, the military remains a bastion of unilingual anglophones.
In contrast, 100 of the 111 senior civilian executives in Defence are fully bilingual and the others are in language training.
And 85 per cent of civilian bilingual positions are filled by bilingual personnel.
Mr. McCallum said a bilingualism level of 40 per cent among uniformed personnel is unacceptable and admitted that overall, the military has had "a rather poor level of performance," on bilingualism.
Benoit Sauvageu of the Bloc Quebecois said he's disappointed with "the utter failure of official languages in the armed forces."
Mr. McCallum said steps are being taken to remedy the problem.
A new strategic plan, signed by Gen. Ray Henault, the chief of the defence staff, just hours before the minister's appearance at the committee, sets out new goals for the military and includes penalties for those who miss the mark.
Officers who fail to meet bilingual standards will lose promotions and raises, the minister said.
The new plan says the number of bilingual people in designated bilingual positions will be increased by five per cent each year.
Now, only 45 per cent of those promoted to the rank of colonel are bilingual, but Mr. McCallum said that will rise to 50 per cent next year, 60 per cent the year after and to 70 per cent the following year.
Mr. McCallum said after the committee meeting that the military failed on bilingualism for a number of reasons.
"The Canadian Forces are subject to a number of challenges, resource constraints, operational deployments," he said.
"I'm not sure certain people may have an attitude that doesn't put this at the top of the agenda. That's possible."
He said the new language policy, approved by the top brass, will demonstrate that the institution understands the problem.
"Ministers come and ministers go," he said. "But a long-term policy such as official languages in the Canadian Forces has to be institutionalized and that has happened."
Mr. McCallum said he can't impose a 100 per cent bilingualism requirement on a military that is already overworked and overstressed from repeated overseas deployments.
"There are other factors at work in the Canadian Forces," he said. "You cannot immediately shift from 40 per cent to 100 per cent, or even over three years, without causing great stresses and strains on the system.
"People need time to learn languages."