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Jean Charest is a partner at McCarthy Tétrault and was premier of Quebec from 2003 to 2012. Zachary Paikin is a research fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy, a Toronto-based international affairs think tank. Stéphanie Chouinard is associate professor of political science at the Royal Military College and a fellow of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

In the recent controversy over Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau’s language skills, his defenders have advanced the usual arguments: English is the language of international business; knowing French is an asset, but not essential.

Of course, at issue is not whether a unilingual anglophone can be an effective CEO; it is that an inadequate embrace of bilingualism is a national failure. However, a less often appreciated fact is that Canada’s place on the world stage also depends on us embracing our bilingual history and character. More than ever, Canada’s national sovereignty in a changing world needs to be expressed both domestically and internationally, in French and in English.

Many Canadians may feel relieved by the declining visibility of last century’s tortuous national unity debates. However, this has come at the cost of our commitment to conceive of Canada as a shared political community. Our future as a country depends on the ability of francophones to feel that all of Canada is their home.

Moreover, Canada’s core national unity and identity dilemma remains a challenge. But today, it must be addressed in the context of a more complex international environment.

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Canada’s decades-long national unity struggles unfolded against a mostly consistent international backdrop: the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, during which our country was fortunate to be neighbours with the world’s unquestioned hegemon. By contrast, in today’s world, change is the norm. The rules that will inform the international order of the coming decades are currently being contested and are far from being settled.

In this new and uncertain era, our interests will not always align with those of our southern neighbour. While Washington may wish to compete with Moscow and Beijing in a bid to maintain its position as the world’s pre-eminent power, Ottawa may legitimately fear that unbridled great power competition will destabilize the rules-based international institutions that have buttressed Canada’s economic prosperity and international position for decades.

By embracing its bilingual identity on the world stage more fully, Canada would distinguish itself from its American neighbour and counter its growing reputation as a “vassal state” of the United States.

Canada requires a more independent foreign policy – one in which we are allied to the US but not necessarily aligned on every file of importance. This, in turn, warrants a term-setting mentality: rather than reacting to threats as they unfold, we must identify and stand by our own interests and vision for international order, even at the cost of occasional disagreements with our allies.

We currently lack the foreign policy framework necessary to develop and sustain such an approach. Looking ahead, a renewed commitment to bilingualism – both in Ottawa and among the population at large – can help to change that. And while some assert that the task of enhancing the diversity and representativeness of Canada’s federal institutions should supersede bilingualism, these goals are not mutually exclusive.

No doubt, Canadians of diverse backgrounds have important contributions to bring to the foreign service. If a candidate brings energy and intellectual heft to the table but cannot speak one of the official languages, this should not constitute an absolute barrier to employment. But those recruits should be required to spend the first year or two of their careers focused almost exclusively on language training.

If individuals wish to join our foreign service, or the federal public service more broadly, they must be willing to advance the interests of Canada. Fostering an independent foreign policy is one such interest – and one that cannot occur in a vacuum. It will rely upon the development of a national strategic approach and school of thought fit for a world in transition, replete with its own vocabulary.

Such a task must, in large part, be pursued through the use of both of our own distinctive national languages. The growing Americanization of our political and intellectual culture – owing to factors such as the gravitational pull of U.S. media and the dominance in policy circles of American concepts – casts doubt on whether a Canada that only thinks in English will ever be able to think for itself.

At a time of significant global change, a strengthened commitment to bilingualism would not only infuse our national project with renewed energy at home, but also signal that Canada is willing to set the terms of its international position.

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