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Language wars

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If Canadians ever needed to wonder why there is animosity between French and English speakers in this country, one need only witness an exchange between NDP MP Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe and Auditor General Michael Ferguson, at the Public Accounts committee of Parliament, last Thursday.

Blanchette-Lamothe, elected an MP for Montreal in 2011, was asking questions as Ferguson was appearing to discuss his latest report which dealt with, among other things, the issue of increasing the old age security pension age from 65 to 67.

She posed a question to him in French. He attempted to answer in French but it was clearly a struggle for him to do so and Blanchette-Lamothe cut him off after barely a sentence.
"I very much appreciate very much your attempt to speak in French but unfortunately the committee is not the place to practice. I think I deserve a quick and efficient answer as much as my colleagues. So is it possible to ask you to answer in English during my five minutes and maybe practice another time."

Ferguson appears to turn a deep crimson at her admonishment.

It should be noted that when Ferguson was appointed last year there was quite a controversy about the fact that he was not bilingual. In fact the NDP have even now introduced legislation requiring all officers of parliament to be bilingual, something the government looks like it may support.

And yes, in a perfect version of Canada, everyone would speak both English and French and we'd all be happy and get along. But life isn't perfect and Ferguson's attempts to learn French have not been successful, at least not yet.

Perhaps he is a man who struggles with languages. Learning a second language, particularly as an adult, is never an easy feat, and he has probably been a little busy trying to do his job. Although sometimes civil servants are able to go to language training full time for months, that's not a possibility for the auditor general.

I have no doubt he is trying to learn and I can tell you, from experience, the one thing that can kill any confidence one has in trying to speak a second language, is for someone who speaks that language to publicly humiliate you when you try.

Blanchette-Lamothe was in her rights to ask the question in French. She was not in her rights to try to score political points by embarassing an officer of Parliament. Ferguson easily could have just launched into an English answer. There are translators paid to translate every word spoken at every committee and sitting of the House of Commons and the Senate. He knew that and he could have simply answered her in English.

He tried to speak French because he knows it has been an issue and clearly he is trying to make good on his promise to learn the language.

If Blanchette-Lamothe was truly worried she didn't have enough time to ask all her questions if Ferguson continued to speak so slowly in French, she easily could have said "Thank you for trying to speak French, but if you'd be more comfortable in English, that would be okay."

Instead she chose to be rude and embarass him, suggesting he could "practice" somewhere else.

At the end of the meeting Blanchette-Lamothe did go over to Ferguson and apologize but the damage was already done.

There are colleagues who disagree. They think Ferguson's response in French was unacceptable and that Blanchette-Lamothe was fully within her rights to criticize his abilities.

But the fact remains, Blanchette-Lamothe's ability to do her job was not compromised in any way. She could continue to ask questions in French and have answers translated from English. Or she could listen to the English, since she is clearly bilingual.

Trying to force bilingualism and score political points by belittling someone in public is not the answer. In fact, it may mean fewer people want to even try to speak their second language.

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About Mia Rabson

Mia Rabson is a born and bred Winnipegger whose interest in politics seemed clear when she dressed up as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for Halloween in the 7th grade.

Her interest in writing was no surprise to her parents, who learned early in Mia’s life that no piece of blank paper — or wall, for that matter — was safe in her hands.

She holds an honours BA in English from Queen’s University, a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario, and has completed a political journalism fellowship in Washington, D.C. with the Washington Centre for Politics and Journalism.

Prior to working for the Winnipeg Free Press, Mia briefly worked for the Detroit News in the paper’s Washington bureau.

Mia joined the Free Press team in February 2001, and in April 2001 was appointed to the Manitoba legislature bureau. In December 2004, she was appointed bureau chief at the legislature. She became the newspaper’s parliamentary bureau chief/national reporter in Ottawa in January 2008.

In 2008 she was nominated for a Michener Award with a team of reporters from the Free Press for its coverage of the province’s child welfare system.

She counts reliving the invasion at Dieppe, France, with veterans of the failed Second World War expedition and overcoming her fear of heights to touch the Golden Boy statue atop the Legislative Building among her favourite experiences as a reporter.

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