Tag Archives: bilingualism

The False choice: Bilingualism vs. Open Government (and accountability)

Last week a disturbing headline crossed my computer screen:

B.C. RCMP zaps old news releases from its website

2,500 releases deleted because they weren’t translated into French

1) The worst of all possible outcomes

This is a terrible outcome for accountability and open government. When we erase history we diminish accountability and erode our capacity to learn. As of today, Canadians have a poorer sense of what the RCMP has stood for, what it has claimed and what it has tried to do in British Columbia.

Consider this. The Vancouver Airport is a bilingual designated detachment. As of today, all press releases that were not translated were pulled down. This means that any press release related to the national scandal that erupted after Robert Dziekański – the polish immigrant who was tasered five times by the (RCMP) – is now no longer online. Given the shockingly poor performance the RCMP had in managing (and telling the truth about) this issue – this concerns me.

Indeed, I can’t think that anyone thinks this is a good idea.

The BC RCMP does not appear to think it is a good idea. Consider their press officer’s line: “We didn’t have a choice, we weren’t compliant.”

I don’t think there are any BC residents who believe they are better served by this policy.

Nor do I think my fellow francophone citizens believe they are better served by this decision. Now no one – either francophone or anglophone can find these press releases online. (More on this below)

I would be appalled if a similar outcome occurred in Quebec or a francophone community in Manitoba. If the RCMP pulled down all French press releases because they didn’t happen to have English translations, I’d be outraged – even if I didn’t speak French.

That’s because the one thing worse than not having the document in both official languages, is not having access to the document at all. (And having it hidden in some binder in a barracks that I have to call or visit doesn’t event hint of being accessible in the 21st century).

Indeed, I’m willing to bet almost anything that Graham Fraser, the Official Languages Commissioner – who is himself a former journalist – would be deeply troubled by this decision.

2) Guided by Yesterday, Not Preparing for Tomorrow

Of course, what should really anger the Official Languages Commissioner is an attempt to pit open and accountable government against bilingualism. This is a false choice.

I suspect that the current narrative in government is that translating these documents is too expensive. If one relies on government translators, this is probably true. The point is, we no longer have to.

My friend and colleague Luke C. pinged me after I tweeted this story saying “I’d help them automate translating those news releases into french using myGengo. Would be easy.”

Yes, mygengo would make it cheap at 5 cents a word (or 15 if you really want to overkill it). But even smarter would be to approach Google. Google translate – especially between French and English – has become shockingly good. Perfect… no. Of course, this is what the smart and practical people on the ground at the RCMP were doing until the higher ups got scared by a French CBC story that was critical of the practice. A practice that was ended even though it did not violate any policies.

The problem is there isn’t going to be more money to do translation – not in a world of multi-billion dollar deficits and in a province that boasts 63,000 french speakers. But Google translate? It is going to keep getting better and better. Indeed, the more it translates, the better it gets. If the RCMP (or Canadian government) started putting more documents through Google translate and correcting them it would become still more accurate. The best part is… it’s free. I’m willing to bet that if you ran all 2500 of the press releases through Google translate right now… 99% of them would come out legible and of a standard that would be good enough to share. (again, not perfect, but serviceable). Perhaps the CBC won’t be perfectly happy. But I’m not sure the current outcome makes them happy either. And at least we’ll be building a future in which they will be happy tomorrow.

The point here is that this decision reaffirms a false binary: one based on a 20th century assumptions where translations were expensive and laborious. It holds us back and makes our government less effective and more expensive. But worse, it ignores an option that embraces a world of possibilities – the reality of tomorrow. By continuing to automatically translate these documents today we’d continue to learn how to use and integrate this technology now, and push it to get better, faster. Such a choice would serve the interests of both open and accountable governments as well as bilingualism.

Sadly, no one at the head office of the RCMP – or in the federal government – appears to have that vision. So today we are a little more language, information and government poor.

Three asides:

1) I find it fascinating that the media can get mailed a press release that isn’t translated but the public is not allowed to access it on a website until it is – this is a really interesting form of discrimination, one that supports a specific business model and has zero grounding in the law, and indeed may even be illegal given that the media has no special status in Canadian law.

2) Still more fascinating is how the RCMP appears to be completely unresponsive to news stories about inappropriate behavior in its ranks, like say the illegal funding of false research to defend the war on drugs, but one story about language politics causes the organization to change practices that aren’t even in violation of its policies. It us sad to see more evidence still that the RCMP is one of the most broken agencies in the Federal government.

3) Thank you to Vancouver Sun Reporter Chad Skelton for updating me on the Google aspect of this story.

Review of Graham Fraser’s “Sorry, I don’t speak French”

Dear friends, sorry for the long delay between posts. Between the convention last week and the 5 days of seminars in 3 cities I did this week I was a cooked noodle by the weekend. I’m back on the horse though, and even polished off “Sorry, I don’t Speak French” on the flight to Vegas. I’ve written up a little review for those who were thinking about picking it up…

I stumbled upon this book by luck. Sam M. recommended I check it out after posting my CBC piece on the Dominion Institute blog. Serendipitously, a month later the Millennium Scholarship foundation gave me a copy as a thank you gift for a talk I gave at a “Think Again” conference.

It’s a brave soul who wades into Canada’s language politics but Graham Fraser has clearly impressed given that soon after the publication of this book he took on the role of Commissioner of Official Languages. In reading this book I take comfort in knowing we have a Commissioner well educated on the subject. Graham’s book provides us with a basic review of Canada’s language policy – essentially beginning 50 years ago with the launch of a Royal Commission on Bilingualism and weaving its way to the present day, analyzing the impact and effect of the commission’s results along the way.

For me the book had deep personal resonance. If you are a French Immersion Alumnus (Frims, as we called ourselves at Churchill) or have lived in either Ottawa or Montreal, I suspect it will for you as well. Upon reading the book the larger political and policy forces that drove both my education and experiences living in these places came into focus. Graham’s honest recounting of the tensions and problems inherent in Canada’s bilingualism policies often confirm what we likely suspected and/or already knew – his book compelling not because of its novelty, but because it gives those thoughts context and structure.

The book also made me realize I share a common experience with some 347,000 other Canadians. Canadians who were also educated in French Immersion but are often too embarrassed to speak it because they feel their French is inadequate (something I’ve begun to overcome) and/or who went on to learn a third language. Indeed, the only part of his discussion of immersion experience that didn’t ring true to me was his description of French Immersion as an Anglo education and culture, translated into French. I remember reading L’Etranger by Camus and other “French” books (not French translations of English books as he asserts). I also distinctly remember the strong Quebecois nationalists’ slant of my Grade 10 history text – a perspective that was almost disorienting when read from a classroom in Vancouver.

The books strongest and weakest moment is reserved for its analysis of present day language policy. Graham’s thesis appears to be that bilingualism has been, more or less, a success. Its detractors, and Canadians more generally, have simply misunderstood its intended goal. Bilingualism, according to Graham, was never about getting every Canadian to learn the other official language but to enable the public service, and the government services they provide, to function in both official languages. In this regard the chapter on the impact of bilingualism on the public service is excellent while the chapter on bilingualism in politics – which essential discusses how bilingualism is a prerequisite for political leadership – is somewhat wanting. Indeed, throughout the book you are left wanting for more. It almost felt like Graham constantly leads you up to the finish line, but then chooses to end the chapter, failing to provide you with the analytical conclusion you thought he was going to provide. My real fear is that he is much more pessimistic then he lets on and didn’t have the heart to plunge the dagger too deeply into policies and a subject matter he clearly feels passionate about.

If you are a Frimm, a public servant, or someone concerned with either language politics or national unity – this is definitely a book for you. It’s an easy, enjoyable to read and, if you’re like me, humbling. Given how much of our collective energy language seems to have occupied over the past two decades I remain struck by how little I knew (and still know) about Canadian language policy. It’s a great primer, and if you’ve got the time, worth reading.

[tags]book review, bilingualism, public policy, canadian politics, graham fraser[/tags]