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Should Indigenous-language training be offered to federal employees?

Poll: Indigenous language

Senior civil servants explored offering Indigenous-language training to federal employees and possible exemptions to those who already speak one from requiring fluency in both English and French, newly released documents show.

Deputy ministers from several departments discussed the issue last fall.

A memo, released to The Canadian Press under federal access-to-information laws, flagged a "growing tension" between official-language requirements and Indigenous languages.

Under Canada's Official Languages Act, federal institutions must offer working environments for employees to communicate in both French and English, and offer services to Canadians in either language.

As such, communicating in both is expected for senior executives and there are a number of public service jobs where bilingualism is mandatory. There is room, however, for an employee to take classes and learn French or English as a second language.

The memo issued last fall said a working group was held about making changes to the official-language requirements. It said some Indigenous public servants belonging to a network of around 400 who work for the federal government asserted the need for a "blanket exemption."

"My own personal view is there are opportunities for exemption — if the individual speaks an Indigenous language," Gina Wilson, a deputy minister who champions the needs of federal Indigenous public servants, wrote in an email to colleagues last November.

"Our GG (Governor General) is a good example."

Inuk leader Mary Simon's appointment in 2021 sparked a discussion — and some controversy — over bilingualism in Canada's highest offices, given how Simon, the first Indigenous person named as Governor General, spoke English and Inuktitut, but not French.

Simon, who was born in Kangiqsualujjuaq, in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec, said she attended a federal day school and wasn't able to learn French.

She committed to doing so after her appointment and has been taking lessons, delivering some French remarks in public speeches.

Commissioner of official languages Raymond Théberge said more than 1,000 complaints about Simon's lack of French were lodged with his office after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named her to the role.

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