Fostering Canada’s rich diversity continues to be a national priority, as emphasized in the latest speech from the throne. Yet, critics often view diversity as a zero-sum game. One recent argument insisted that promoting French-language diversity and racial diversity represents “deeply contradictory goals with little introspection,” claiming that French-language requirements discriminate against racialized people. This trade-off mentality is dangerous because it pits groups against each other. In reality, French-language diversity and racial diversity can thrive in tandem, and the federal workforce is a living example of that.
French-language diversity is increasing
French-language diversity in Canada has always faced challenges but it first gained legal representation in 1969 through the Official Languages Act. Today, its preservation is reinforced by the Liberal Party modelling bilingualism in its speeches and investing a record $2.7 billion over five years starting in 2018–2019 to make bilingualism more accessible to Canadians. Additionally, non-partisan government policies, such as the Directive on Official Languages for People Management, have promoted bilingualism in the federal workplace.
Such political and administrative dynamics have helped bolster the number of government positions requiring bilingualism or French-only from 40.1 per cent in 2017 to 45.1 per cent in 2019, according to the latest data from the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. Interestingly, this same data set reveals a story of diversity complementarity rather than contradiction.
Racial diversity is also increasing
Two common ways of measuring diversity are (1) overall representation and (2) access to executive positions. For visible minorities (the government’s term for racialized people), both metrics have increased. Between 2017 and 2019, the number of government-employed visible minorities skyrocketed by 21.2 per cent, expanding their representation in the federal workforce from 15.1 per cent to 16.7 per cent (figure 1). Notably, Black representation increased the most, growing from 2.8 per cent to 3.2 per cent, and it did so without cannibalizing the representation of other visible minority groups (South Asian/East Indian, people of mixed origin, Chinese, and others).
Clearly, representation has improved but what about access to executive positions wielding power over decisions and resources? It has also improved. Between 2017 and 2019, the number of visible minority executives increased by 20.8 per cent, elevating their share of total executive positions from 10.2 per cent to 11.1 per cent. Again, there wasn’t any cannibalization across visible minority groups. However, this gain has been outpaced by the growth in visible minorities’ overall representation. What this means more broadly is that the pipeline of diverse candidates to fill the nation’s top bureaucratic positions has expanded quickly. Yet, more efforts to train, promote and retain these staff are required to ensure that senior leadership is more racially representative.
Promoting diversity can be inclusive
This complementary diversity is even clearer when French-language and racial data are combined. Since 2017, the federal government has added roughly 8,900 positions that require bilingualism or French-only speakers. Visible minorities have filled a whopping 28 per cent of these positions (which is almost double the percentage of working-age visible minorities in Canada who can speak French). This, in large part, is a result of greater access to language training and new initiatives to achieve departmental racial diversity goals. Simply put, visible minorities are fully capable of promoting the French language if they’re equipped with the proper resources.
Interestingly, these encouraging trends haven’t threatened many other diversity groups. For example, women’s representation and the share of Indigenous executives have both increased over the same period. This may be due to workers having intersectional identities. However, the myriad of diversity personified by top cabinet ministers signals the priority to reflect Canada’s true diversity in the government. Equally, the bureaucracy’s increasing emphasis on diversity since 2016 – through new studies, task forces, departmental diversity and inclusion councils, executive leadership development programs, and the like – has expanded diversity across multiple fronts.
A path forward for French-language diversity
French-language diversity and racial diversity in the Canadian government are increasing but more must be done to reflect Canada’s true diversity. To increase French-language diversity, the government should prioritize improving the quality of language training. Currently, departments use third-party language-training suppliers, which often entails high costs, as noted by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. This decentralization across departments translates into a lack of standardization, inhibiting a high and consistent quality of education, and limited coordination, preventing departments from pooling resources and sharing best practices to teach French.
Our newsletter about the public service.
Nominated for a Digital Publishing Award.
Instead, the government should offer more virtual group language lessons, workshops and resources through the Canada School of Public Service (the government’s central employee training hub). In-housing more teaching ensures greater quality control, broadens accessibility to more staff and saves on training costs in the long run. To help employees master French, the government should create short and immersive language-exchange programs – across departments and with international agencies – so that staff can work in a different official-language setting. These micro-assignments can include a language-mentoring component, which has also been suggested by the Privy Council Office. In turn, departments would benefit from these staff subsequently spurring more ideas, best practices and collaborations across departments and institutions.
A path forward for racial diversity
To increase racial representation, the government should invest in targeted recruiting programs. As the federal Joint Union/Management Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion suggests, recruiting racialized students has historically been challenging. Programs like the Indigenous Student Employment Opportunity and the Federal Internship Program for Canadians with Disabilities elevate the importance of specific groups; a similar resource-backed program for racialized people would highlight them in recruitment. Another way to build the diversity pipeline is through sponsorship programs. In the United States, the Charles B. Rangel Graduate Fellowship Program (funded by the federal government) helps historically underrepresented U.S. minorities fund their graduate program, pairs them with mentors and places them in a full-time position at the U.S. State Department. This end-to-end program incubates talent from the start and fosters their long-term success with resources.
To boost racialized employees’ access to executive positions, the government should formalize a career mentorship program available across all departments. This government-wide approach would enable more standardization (while allowing for some departmental customization) and best-practice sharing. Additionally, departments should consider a reverse-mentorship program, whereby junior racialized staff act as mentors to senior non-racialized executives. Research and the United Kingdom Civil Service’s first-hand experiences reveal that such a program elevates a group’s visibility, unlocks more trust between groups and ultimately increases retention. These interactions also create a non-hierarchical feedback loop that enables executives to better understand lived realities and how the organizational culture interacts with those realities. Thus, they can more effectively address diversity and inclusion barriers.
Whether it’s targeted recruiting or mentorship programs, what’s crucial is that these initiatives be incremental to existing efforts and not cannibalize them. Additionally, accountability is integral to their success. For instance, this could mean factoring into executive evaluation and compensation how an organization performs based on its original diversity goals.
Diversity is just one piece of the journey
Canada’s commitments to cherish its French-language diversity and racial diversity deserve some praise. The federal workforce proves how these two can be complementary rather than a zero-sum trade-off. However, the Canadian government can’t rely on this positive trajectory because it’s far from being truly diverse and inclusive. That’s why it should standardize more official language teaching and bring it in-house, promote official language-exchange programs, invest in targeted recruiting for racialized people and institutionalize mentorship programs.
Beyond diversity, workplace inclusion equally needs attention. For example, the 2019 Public Service Employee Survey results show that visible minorities in the government are nearly twice as likely as non-visible minorities to report experiencing discrimination. This can negatively impact an individual’s sense of belonging, trust in a department, willingness to fully contribute at work and even retention.
Be it diversity challenges or inclusion challenges, resolving both is critical to reducing workplace inequities and socioeconomic disparities. Doing so is a necessary step to making diversity, inclusion and equity a reality in the Canadian government.