That other official language

Halifax Regional Council’s decision last year to hire a full-time French-speaking communications advisor and pay to translate PSAs seems, on the face of it, to be a wise move.
Since French is one of Canada’s two official languages and Halifax has 12,000 citizens who declare French as their first language, it’s a no-brainer, right?
But how many of those people who declare French as their first language are unilingual francophones?
Dartmouth Councillor Tony Mancini, who championed this move, says that question came up during the debate. Mancini said the number of 350 was bandied about and so some wondered, if this is only going to help 350 people, why are we spending all this money? Wouldn’t it be better to spend this money helping some new immigrants?
I questioned Mancini, since he represents a sizeable chunk of the city’s francophone community. I asked why Council placed a higher priority on ensuring French-language services were met when most of these people also understand English.
Most can speak English and don’t face a significant language barrier, not like a new immigrant from Syria, for example. “The first place to start is with one of our own languages, which is French,” Mancini says.
The new communications officer will largely help French media in Halifax, who will now have a French-speaking spokesperson to do interviews about what the city is doing.
Translating PSAs into French will help citizens more directly, but could there have been a better use of these resources? Should the city have put a higher priority on, say, hiring an Arabic translator to help translate the bureaucratese of City Hall for new immigrants? This would help them navigate the gauntlet of red tape that is surely quite daunting for a newcomer who doesn’t understand English at all, much less only speak it as a second language.
There are many Arabic-speaking immigrants from Syria who could benefit from having someone help them access municipal services and adjust to life in Halifax.
Mancini recognizes this as a need and says the initiative to provide French-language services is a start.
“There’s a lot more we can do, not only for the French community, but other different communities that we have,” he says. “It’s all about celebrating and respecting the diversity.”
As to the argument that there are only 350 unilingual francophones in Halifax, Mancini suggests there is more to consider.
If you are bilingual and English is your first language, consider in what language you normally prefer to read the newspaper, or listen to the radio. In what language do you read important information about government services?
If you have a preference, like me, to check this in English, then you understand the value of providing these services in French to citizens whose first language is French.
The city does offer services and information in “just about any language” through the 311 desk, Mancini says. Breton Murphy, HRM’s manager of public affairs, says service is available in 150 languages and is always looking to increase awareness of language and cultural barriers that new arrivals face and respond to them.
“For example, when parks and recreation staff are hiring for various recreation programs, they’re keeping an eye open for those who speak Arabic, and other languages,” Murphy wrote in an email. “The challenge with that, of course, is that we can only make our hiring decisions based on who applies. We encourage anyone who speaks a second language to apply because there is definitely a demand for that skill.”
Murphy also points the city’s Diversity and Inclusion Office, which has two people to help newcomers. Mancini says people are always more comfortable reading and learning new information in their first language.
That extends to other languages and Mancini would like to see more signs, like the Arabic sign at the Oval. “Something as simple as a sign in your first language,” he says. “It’s so much more welcoming.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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