Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Graham Fraser's So-called Secret Shoppers

Graham Fraser, Canada's commissioner of official languages, has kicked off a bit of a kerfuffle in the nation's capital over a recently announced plan to investigate the state of bilingualism in the national capital region, a research study which would entail both examining signage and service delivery at federal government offices and buildings, but also examining commercial services in the region.

In today's Ottawa Citizen, Fraser defends this study as part and parcel of his mandate, which is not only to be the ombudsman for the federal government's institutional bilingualism, but also to promote and encourage bilingualism in Canada's business and voluntary organizations. He outlines a well-worn path of both his own actions, and those of his immediate predecessor, Dyane Adam. By couching this study as necessary research for identifying best practices in the private sector, he makes a good case for why his office should fund such research. Indeed, had Fraser been alloted more space, he might have pointed out that historically some of the best work of the Commissioner's office has been in areas that are not squarely within the realm of adjudicating complaints about federal bilingualism, but promoting linguistic duality more broadly. Efforts to promote French second language learning and French immersion, which have been ongoing since the first commissioner, Keith Spicer, leap to mind as an example.

It's unfortunate that the media were so quick to attach the phrase "secret shoppers" to this initiative, which invokes images of language police that are, alas, not alien to recent Canadian history. But it would be nice if these secret shoppers were in fact able to discover some great language practices in Ottawa. Then perhaps we could call Fraser "Canada's Secret Santa" if and when he produces a report filled with great new ideas for making bilingual service delivery more widely available. A December report release seems in order, no?

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