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Offering bilingual services in Francophone communities: Important elements to consider

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I Introduction

It is commonly acknowledged that the human resources of an organization are the most important resource. However, in today's job market where many sectors experience shortages of skills and talents, the hiring process can be quite difficult. Securing a bilingual employee capable of offering high quality services to stakeholders can be especially challenging and demands consideration of various crucial elements.

This article will provide an understanding of these important considerations. It will offer guidelines and tips for clarifying needs, recruitment, the selection process and creating an organizational culture capable of supporting the work of bilingual employees. A process that is structured and well thought out can decrease the cost and time of these tasks and facilitate delivery of quality services to the francophone population.

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II Understanding francophone communities

Serving a new community, whether it is the francophone community or any other target group, demands that we first and foremost have some understanding of the working context of that community. Understanding the context of the community that is to be served will also help to define the appropriate skills and qualifications required of bilingual employees.

There are hundreds of francophone communities across Canada and Ontario has the highest population of French-speaking people outside Québec. Each community has unique diversity and issues. A visit on various sites such as Ontario's Office of Francophone Affairs (http://www.ofa.gov.on.ca/english/commun.html) and La Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne (http://www.fcfa.ca) will provide an overview of the characteristics of francophone communities.

This said, one of the skills to be verified in the selection process is the candidate's understanding of the francophone community and its issues. Does this person know where to get appropriate information such as research, information on political issues associated with Francophones in minority settings? Does he/she know or bring an established network of organizations with which to partner or service? The capacity of the candidate to strategically network and position the organization as viable potential partner on various francophone community projects is an important consideration. In this area, it may be a good idea to verify how credible this person will be perceived within the francophone community, particularly if this person is the only bilingual staff and sole link to the community.

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III Creating an organizational culture conducive to serving Francophones

A new bilingual employee needs to work within an organization that understands how to support him/her to perform the tasks required. Many bilingual employees feel very isolated and do not always feel appropriately supported by their organization, which tends to increase turnover tremendously. Since finding bilingual staff with the appropriate skills can be quite challenging, it is very crucial that special attention be given to retention.

Cultivating an inclusive approach to service is key. Minority members of both official languages in Canada (Francophones outside Québec and Anglophones in Québec) have the right to be serviced in their own language. Unlike ethno-cultural groups who are serviced under the Canadian multiculturalism approach to integration, Francophones in this country have been recognized as equal to Anglophones and are to be considered quite differently than any other ethno-cultural groups.

Much can be addressed in the area of creating an organizational culture conducive to serving Francophones and it may demand a look at the various myths, resistance and misunderstandings within our organizations that impede capacity to serve the Francophone communities equally. French language staff can become great asset in this area and can play an advocacy role for the purpose of creating a better understanding within the organization.

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IV Tailoring services to the francophone community context

Francophones in a minority situation in Canada have historically been challenged with what is termed "symbolic violence". In a nutshell, the symbolic violence is the action of the dominant linguistic group to force the linguistic minority to use the dominant language, cultural approaches and reality, whether it is done consciously or not. Symbolic violence has created community wounds resulting in Francophone stakeholders requiring trust-building, excellence and participatory approaches in service delivery. In short, Francophones use and promote services which they have been involved in planning.

Ensuring excellence in the provision of French-language services may also mean:

•    Joint planning of French and English activities. The key reflective question to ask is: "Should we be developing this initiative simultaneously in French and English?" Surprisingly, not all initiatives demand that we do so. However, the ones that are needed should ideally be integrated at the beginning of the planning process, which will facilitate the implementation for French language staff and may also increase chances for better funding.

•    Involving francophone stakeholders at the beginning of the hiring process is usually a worthwhile practice. Their presence on the hiring committee will support recruitment strategies and help with selection of the most appropriate candidate. In addition, their feeling of engagement in the process will most likely serve to foster a positive working relationship that may lead to future community partnerships.

•    Moving beyond the simple translation of resources and avoiding the "one package fits all" approach to service. For example, a training session on how to develop a communication plan may have to consider a specific Franco-Ontarian context, or one on physical activity may have to take in consideration the fact that many francophone communities do not have access to leisure and organized sports leagues in their language. Special consideration should also be given to outreach strategies. For instance, the work may take place in a specialized sector which is clearly identifiable in the English-speaking environment but may not have the same identifiable structure in a Francophone environment. In this particular situation, it would mean that the outreach approach would have to be completely tailored, as it may be necessary have to knock on doors not required in English.

The very process of positioning an organization to serve Francophone communities with appropriately tailored quality services will offer its staff an excellent learning opportunity, providing knowledge and skills that will most likely be transferable to many other initiatives.

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V Conclusion

Organizations that succeed at offering quality French-language services understand that the services must be adapted to the context, the environment and engage the francophone community in an empowered manner. In general, valuing the language, respecting the culture and the right to francophone services, community engagement, high quality services and accountability are core values that an organization needs to cultivate in order to be appreciated and successful at servicing the Francophone communities. Extending these practices to the process of hiring bilingual staff will further support the provision of quality services to the francophone population.