Here's a really good question: Should federal cabinet ministers be obliged to tweet in both official languages, or are they allowed to tweet only in their mother tongue because their Twitter accounts are personal, and not government business? The Official Languages Commissioner is currently asking that very question as he follows up on complaints that John Baird, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, often tweets government business in English only, on his feed. The announcement of the investigation has touched a rather raw nerve.
For Mr. Baird, the issue is black and white: He says his Twitter feed is personal and therefore exempt from bilingualism requirements, even when he is using Twitter to announce government news and policy. His Treasury Board colleague, Tony Clement, has gone further and said he will quit the hyper-addictive online networking service before he ever allows the Official Languages Commissioner to "overlord" him. This is a memorably improbable statement from someone who has tweeted an average of 10 times a day since joining Twitter in 2010.
Mr. Clement's indignation is misplaced, and Mr. Baird's position doesn't add up. The OLC is smart to look into what is a complicated but very relevant question in the social-media age.
The rules are simple: MPs can post websites, Facebook pages and tweets in any language they choose, for the simple reason they represent only themselves, not the government. Government departments, on the other hand, must do everything bilingually. When it comes to Twitter, most departments – including Foreign Affairs and the Treasury Board – run dual accounts: one in English and one in French.
But where do cabinet ministers fit in? Are they MPs or are they the government? When Mr. Baird humblebrags to his 35,100 followers that he once met Joan Rivers, there is no obligation for him to share that fact in French. But when he tweets, "Canada will continue to work with allies and the #Iraq govt to provide critical supplies to the security forces protecting Iraqi civilians," as he did on Sept. 2, he is speaking for the government. He should have tweeted the statement in French. He didn't. He generally doesn't.
Mr. Baird could do better. To dismiss his account as personal is disingenuous: He is the Foreign Affairs Minister of Canada, and Canada is a bilingual country. There are plenty of cabinet ministers who rigorously tweet government business in both languages. Mr. Baird's unilingual tweeting reflects a choice, and a choice reflects an attitude. He does not appear to feel an obligation to reach out on Twitter to speakers of Canada's other official language, even if, as a cabinet minister, it is his duty to represent and serve them. To a large degree, Canada's Official Languages Act is about respect, which is something @HonJohnBaird could show more of.