The appointment of an auditor general who does not speak French has prompted a veteran public servant to resign in protest.
Michel Dorais, a former federal deputy minister who had been serving as one of two independent members of the internal audit committee that oversees the Office of the Auditor General, resigned in a letter to the interim auditor general this week.
In an interview with Radio-Canada's Emmanuelle Latraverse, host of the weekly political program Les coulisses du pouvoir, Dorais said he considers Michael Ferguson "highly competent" and he has "a lot of admiration for the individual."
"His competencies in audit are absolutely outstanding, there's no doubt in my mind," said Dorais.
But, Dorais said, "the impact is that the language of work [at the auditor general's office] will over time change substantially" if the person in the top leadership role can only function in English.
Dorais questioned to what extent Ferguson could be said to understand the entire country well if he didn't have a network in both linguistic communities.
"Maybe it was acceptable 10, 15, 20 years ago when we were still changing and still moving the public service to adapt to the Canadian society we had decided to build, but in 2011, I'm sorry, but such a position of leadership requires that we know what the hell is going on in the country," Dorais told Latraverse.
The auditor general is an important symbol and "also a very important person to give advice to the Parliament of Canada. If that person does not know what is going on, I think we have a major hole here and I think Parliamentarians will suffer from that kind of limited scope that is brought to the table," Dorais said.
News broke in question period
Quebec Liberal MP Denis Coderre announced Dorais' resignation Friday, showing off the resignation letter during question period in the House of Commons and attacking the government for not choosing a bilingual candidate.
"The criteria was clear. You had to be bilingual," Coderre told reporters later. "It was essential to speak both official languages at that time, not to learn it after."
In the letter, made public Friday, Dorais said he found it "difficult to continue to serve on the audit committee while accepting that the incoming auditor general does not meet an essential requirement for the position."
"Promising to learn on the job no longer cuts it," said Dorais in giving 30 days' notice of his resignation.
Ministers defend appointment
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told the House he was pleased "the best candidate for the job has agreed to learn French" and insisting Ferguson "embraces our official languages."
"Eighty per cent of Canadians are not able to have bilingual qualifications," Baird said. "There is a role for them."
Baird accused the Liberals of having a double-standard, noting the previous Liberal government in which Coderre served as a cabinet minister had a unilingual finance minister.
Later in question period, Liberal Mauril Bélanger reminded the House that the job description published in the Canada Gazette specified the successful candidate needed to be proficient in both official languages.
"There is no language requirement in the Auditor General's Act," responded Treasury Board President Tony Clement. "We did search out bilingual candidates but at the end of the day when looking at all of the different merits of the candidates we chose the person who was most meritorious... We stand by that appointment."
Clement later tabled documents showing that in 2009 Dorais donated to former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.
"I certainly make no allegations of the partisan leanings of the individual. I simply find that the House should be informed of these facts," Clement said.
In 2008, Dorais penned a column in the Ottawa Citizen that suggested the Conservatives in government "lack respect for civil servants" and have "failed to understand how the bureaucracy can perform for them."
Critics fear precedent
Thursday Liberal MPs and Senators walked out of votes to protest Ferguson's appointment. Nevertheless, motions endorsing Ferguson's appointment passed in both chambers thanks to the Conservative majority. The Opposition NDP voted against the motion in the Commons.
Both parties say they are concerned about the precedent Ferguson's appointment sets for hiring across the civil service.
"I do see a pattern," said Quebec NDP MP Guy Caron. "I do see that many nominations, many actions by this government in the past... are not reflective of any commitment on linguistic duality in Canada."
"There [was] progress made in the linguistic front and we still want to go forward. Conservatives just want to bring us backwards," Caron said.
Ferguson appeared before both the House public accounts committee and the Senate this week. He told the Senate that language evaluators in February estimated he needed some 1,200 hours of language training to meet the requirements. He's been working on his French since then.
The official languages commissioner has also expressed concern at the appointment of a unilingual candidate.