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Who Cares if Michael Ferguson Can't Speak French?

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With some six weeks to go before MPs break for the Christmas holidays, their focus remains on whether the Conservative nominee for the position of auditor general has a level A, B or C proficiency in the French language.

The Conservatives have chosen Michael Ferguson whose French is not up to high civil service standards and opposition members led by the NDP have been berating Ferguson and the government for that failing. While it is ideal for a person in that position to be bilingual, this time around out of some 400 applicants, none of the top three met this fluency standard. Each day the opposition hammers the government on this issue. Yet, how many Canadians are paying attention to this 'inside the Queensway' story? Is this what the population at large is focused on today?

Former auditor general Shelia Fraser has stated that Ferguson is competent to hold that position. When Fraser was the auditor general she could do no wrong in the eyes of MPs, earning the nickname Saint Shelia. MPs hung on every word she said as though it was gospel, but now opposition MPs prefer to ignore her recommendation because it doesn't suit their political agenda.

It is also interesting to note that the same opposition that is now attacking Ferguson's appointment, claiming that he is unfit for such a senior position because he isn't fluent in both official languages, elected a number of MPS (for what is arguably one of the highest positions in the land), who are incapable of speaking one of our official languages to their constituents and who are without assistance, incapable of carrying out government business in both official languages. These MPs could not pass the same language exams that they are insisting a potential civil servant pass.

Unilingual MPs (including unilingual cabinet members and critics) can fully participate in government matters because in the House of Commons all documents are in English and French. They make use of simultaneous translation when someone addresses the House and the same applies to committees. Full translation service is available in committee, not only for the members, but witnesses and even for reporters and members of the public who have ear pieces attached to their chairs while they watch the proceedings.

Further, MPs can receive language training in their office and their staff can attend courses as well. They can have documents or letters from constituents translated and essentially conduct business in both official languages in spite of the fact that they may not be fully bilingual.

It won't be much different for Ferguson. He has promised to take language lessons. If he appears before a parliamentary committee, there will be simultaneous translation. His departmental website and all of his reports will be in both official languages. His department will translate his correspondence as well as whatever document he needs to see until he is proficient in both official languages. This is pretty similar to what happens for a cabinet minister and few would argue that a unilingual francophone or anglophone minister can not to their job if they are not bilingual.

While many of these MPs insist that senior government officials (including Supreme Court judges) be fluently bilingual in order to show respect to citizens who speak either English or French, I wonder how many of those same MPs would insist that anglophones in Quebec deserve the same treatment by their provincial government. I would bet that if asked that question by a reporter the answer would be a mumbled "it's provincial jurisdiction" followed by a cloud of dust as the MP ran down the corridor to get away from any further questions on that subject.

As Christmas approaches, what will be the topic of discussion around the kitchen table across Canada? Will it be the language proficiency of the auditor general or will Canadians be ticked off with having to pay far higher prices than Americans for the same items? Will they be discussing why the same company's Canadian website charges $150-200 more for an iPad or $100 more for a treadmill or far more for a book than its U.S. website? Are Canadians priorities the same as our MPs?

When the Senate took its turn to interview Ferguson it was standing room only in the committee room. Inside the Queensway this was a big story. Yet earlier in the day the Senate Finance committee heard witnesses as to why Canadians are being charged so much more for the same product when the U.S. and Canadian dollar are relatively equal. Did reporters pack that hearing? Do we see any media reports on that study, one that could potentially have an impact on the pocket book of every Canadian?

We won't hear about that study because it doesn't suit the opposition's political agenda. In the meantime Canadians get ripped off by high prices (in both official languages) and that hurts both their pocket books and our economy. In Ottawa, it is always about priorities.

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