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Business Groups Say Bilingualism An Economic Asset, Much Like Natural Resources

Adrienne O'Pray of NBBC and Thomas Raffy of CENB. Image: Inda Intiar/Huddle

MONCTON – On the year of the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act, the New Brunswick Business Council (NBBC) and Conseil économique du Nouveau-Brunswick (CENB) are leading the creation of a working group that aims to increase the economic benefits that come from bilingualism in the province.

Recommended in a study from the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, the provincial government will support the group through Opportunities New Brunswick and the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.

We have a lot of assets in New Brunswick. Often we point to our natural resources but we can’t forget that our linguistic diversity is also a great asset that economic development can be founded on,” says NBBC president and CEO Adrienne O’Pray.

In the next 12 months, the new group will gather and consult with stakeholders from various sectors, including non-profit organizations and educational institutions, determine a mandate, figure out its priorities and report back to the public with updates. At this point, it’s not yet known whether the group will be publicly or privately funded.

“We want to have more voices at the table to say how do we make this an economic asset. It already is, it’s clear from the data, but how do we make sure that we’re getting the most potential that we possibly can from this asset we call bilingualism,” she said. “We’re looking for partners that can look at all aspects of this. And then say what are those specific projects that we need to put in place so that we continue to all benefit from the potential that’s here in the province.”

The creation of a working group was proposed in a 2015 study called Two Languages: It’s Good For Business, authored by economists Pierre-Marcel Desjardins of Université de Moncton and David Campbell of Jupia Consultants. The researchers presented an update of their 2015 study on Monday using newer data, including numbers from Statistics Canada’s 2016 census.

They had listed eight benefits of bilingualism on the New Brunswick economy in the 2015 report and added a ninth on Monday.

Those include the development of $1.2-billion worth of trade and investment activities with Quebec between 2011 and 2015; the development of a language industry; the development of the Quebec market for New Brunswick’s professional services, the development of the tourism sector and attraction of tourism revenue; the attraction of more bilingual immigrants than most other provinces, as well as national and international post-secondary students; and the attraction of national and global companies’ back offices, among other benefits.

Campbell said having a working group could help build on these benefits and exploit the full potential that bilingualism brings to the provincial economy.

“It cuts across all industries and says, ‘okay, if you have a bilingual workforce, what should you be looking at?'” he said. “We’re not doing as well on international exports as I would like to see – lots to do with Quebec but not internationally in terms of generating export revenue. We don’t do a lot in francophone countries…I think we could do a lot better job in promoting ourselves internationally within French-speaking countries than we do today.”

Currently, the contact centre and back office industry, including IT, natural resources, logistics and finance firms, is the biggest beneficiary of bilingualism in New Brunswick. That sector generates $1.5-billion worth of interprovincial and international export revenue for the province a year, according to the study. Compared to other parts of Canada, that sector in New Brunswick employs the highest proportion of people, with 15,200 workers.

For many large corporations like ExxonMobil, Xerox, RBC, and recently, TD, the province’s bilingual workforce is attractive. But Campbell said, although that might be the reason some companies decided to set up operations in New Brunswick, once they’re in, they also benefit unilingual English speakers.

In the contact centre and back office industry, currently 31.4 per cent of the workers are bilingual while the rest are unilingual English-speakers (66.2 per cent) or French-speakers (2.4 per cent).

“One of the reasons they come here is because we have a bilingual workforce but they don’t need to hire all bilingual,” he said. “They also hire thousands of unilingual English-speaking New Brunswickers.”

Moreover, New Brunswick’s bilingual character serves as an advantage in immigrant and youth attraction as the province competes with the rest of Canada, Campbell said.

“We do think that the bilingual attribute of this economy actually helps with that because it does set us apart from most other provinces in the country in terms of the ability to attract folks that speak either or both of those languages. We do think that’s a real advantage and that will help us in terms of industry and attraction of the service industry as we talked about earlier, tourism and other aspects of the economy as well,” he said.