Commissioner’s Blog

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François Boileau
French Language Services Commissioner

A first visit to Sarnia

In my last ten years as Commissioner, I have travelled a lot and I have met people from the four corners of Ontario. Yet, I never had the chance to go to Sarnia and, this weekend, I finally got that chance!

I had the opportunity to chat with a group of retirees and seniors from the South-West at the FARFO Information Fair and to speak to them about my priorities:  health. I also brought up the reform of the Act, a subject that is getting a lot of coverage right now in the media, especially after the publication of the results of the AFO survey. But that’s not all. The Sarnia region is an area that is not yet designated, and I think that my recommendation to make the entire province a single large designated area resonates deeply for the community of Sarnia. They want more access to services, they have French-language secondary services that serve more than 220 students and, finally, there are very active organizations and a cultural centre that make a significant contribution to the Francophone vitality of this area.

I also had the opportunity to be the guest of honour of the AGA of the Réseau-Femmes du Sud-Ouest de l’Ontario [“Southwestern Ontario Women’s Network”]. This organization has offered services to women who are victims of violence (spousal, economic, isolation, etc.) in the communities of Windsor, London, and  Sarnia, for more than 26 years. This is nothing short of incredible! The organization has faced some difficulties in recent years, but overcame them with power and panache. For each of these three areas, three people were available to respond to women’s needs, with more than a thousand hours per year for counseling, companionship, and follow-up services. I was impressed with the work that they do every day, and their accomplishments that, in my opinion, are not highlighted enough in the media or elsewhere in the province.

Here are a few projects for Francophone women from the South-West that are worthy of recognition:

  • Portable Housing Project (Windsor) – pilot project: rather than place a woman on a waiting list for subsidized municipal or provincial housing, she is given a direct subsidy. That way, she can choose where she wants to live (she can choose private), and stay close to her social support. This is now a permanent project across the province.
  • Establishment of the Centre juridique pour femmes francophones de l’Ontario [“Legal clinic for Francophone women of Ontario”] (CSJFFO): The goal of the CSJFFO is to increase access to justice for all French-Speaking women of Ontario. Women often face obstacles with their legal issues, such as having trouble finding a Francophone lawyer, the high costs of legal representation, the eligibility requirements for a legal aid certificate, the geographic isolation of rural regions and long distances to travel to obtain services. (From the 2016-2017 Annual Report of the Réseau-Femmes du Sud-Ouest de l’Ontario)

I would also like to congratulate RFSOO for establishing new strategic planning. You have a mission and a clear strategic direction and especially very specific objectives. Congratulations for your fine work. Francophone women living through difficult situations have resources and tools available to them and are certainly well taken care of by your people. I wish you great success in the coming years.

Despite that Sarnia is not a designated area under the French Language Services Act, it is important for me to highlight the relentless work done by Francophones in this area. I also took some time to stroll in the city, and have French fries on the bridge (recommended by a delegate of the Information Fair).

I will have fond memories of this trip, especially of the people I met and the discussions we had. I promise not to let another decade go by without a visit!

A good day for access to justice in French

Yesterday’s announcements by the Attorney General of Ontario were hardly mundane. They directly address recommendations made in a number of important reports on improving access to justice in French as well as in my own annual reports.  Let’s look at the announcements one by one. First, the final report of the Seamless Access to Justice in French Pilot Project was made public, as I had recommended. Second, the notable improvements we obtained at the Ottawa courthouse will remain in place permanently. As a result, the new signage, the greeting by security officers at the courthouse entrance, the ticketing system used to alert staff when a litigant is requesting service in French, and the large signs advertising both French-language services and useful information about language rights will stay on. In addition, ongoing staff training, back-up planning, and inclusion of active offer in the performance plans of managers and employees will remain. Outstanding coordination with the courts and other important organizations such as Legal Aid Ontario, the Ottawa Police Service and the Legal Information Centre made the pilot project a success.

How do we know the pilot project was successful? For the simple reason that the Ottawa courthouse used to be one of the courthouses – if not the courthouse – that generated the most complaints to my office. Since the pilot project’s inception in May 2015, my office has not received a single complaint about deficiencies in French-language services at the Ottawa courthouse. Does that mean everything is perfect? Of course not. Some significant challenges remain. But the measures that have been developed, which are explained in simple yet eloquent terms in the final report, point to possible solutions that in some cases are so simple they only require some thought, and in others so innovative they only take some reflection. The final report is lengthy, it’s true. However, it is also clear and well crafted, asking the right questions and presenting fact-based conclusions. The report was written by public servants for public servants (and that’s not at all negative, quite the contrary), but it can and must be used by all interested parties and litigants across the province and even in other parts of Canada.

Another piece of good news: we hoped that this pilot project would contribute to the growth of French-language services. Consequently, I was heartened by the Attorney General’s statement that discussions are currently under way with partners, including the courts, to identify other regions where measures similar to those tried in Ottawa could be implemented. Moreover, we should also acknowledge the resources that are present in the National Capital so that we can improve access to justice in other regions that may have a smaller Francophone population.

That brings me the last announcement of the day, which was that the Attorney General of Ontario plans to establish an advisory committee that will report directly to him. This committee will be responsible for making connections between the objectives in the 2012 Access to Justice in French (Rouleau-LeVay) report, the 2015 Enhancing Access to Justice in French (Thorburn) report, which tended to focus on identifying concrete measures, and this recent report, in which the measures are analyzed and evaluated. Although the Ministry of the Attorney General of Ontario has not yet announced the composition of the new advisory committee, I have no doubt that they will select members from the courts, the Francophone legal community and their senior management. Hence, the committee will definitely help hold people’s feet to the fire, so to speak, and thus ensure that none of the recommendations and improvements are shelved or forgotten.

We will see what tomorrow brings!

The new Action Plan to enhance the bilingual capacity of the judiciary in the superior courts

With the words of the Franco-Ontarian anthem Notre place ringing out across Ontario, Franco-Ontarian Day was marked by the pride and unity expressed by participants. Celebrations flying the green and white demonstrated the strength of this Francophone community and its rich and diverse culture and language.

The celebrations also provided the ideal opportunity for the Minister of Francophone Affairs to announce some good news: Marie-France Lalonde has launched a new community fund that will provide $3 million over three years to support Ontario’s Francophonie. This is excellent news for Francophone organizations. On the federal side, the Minister of Justice of Canada also wanted to take part in these festivities and made an announcement that will benefit Francophones and Anglophones in minority communities. Of course, I am talking about the federal government’s action plan to enhance the bilingual capacity of the judiciary in the superior courts.

I welcome this new action plan with hope and enthusiasm. We had been impatiently awaiting these new measures for several years. Nonetheless, this is an important step forward for access to justice for all Canadians. The plan is in response to the recommendations made in 2013 by my counterparts at the federal level (Graham Fraser, at the time) and in New Brunswick (Katherine d’Entremont) and myself.

The Action Plan provides that the evaluation of candidates for the judiciary will be improved in two ways:

  • two additional questions will be included in the questionnaire used for evaluating candidates for the judiciary; and
  • the advisory committees will be asked to check the language proficiency of candidates who self-identify as bilingual.

The Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs is also now authorized and encouraged to do spot checks of candidates’ language proficiency.

In addition to a more in-depth assessment of language proficiency, the Action Plan provides that the advisory committees and members of the judiciary will have access to a wider range of information and training concerning language rights.

I am also very happy to see that the federal Minister of Justice will be able to consult the provinces and territories in order to learn the interests and priorities of the Canadian public in relation to access to the superior courts in both official languages. The Department will also be working with them to assess the existing bilingual capacity of the superior courts.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the first two recommendations in our 2013 report: that the Department of Justice Canada take measures, in conjunction with its provincial and territorial counterparts, to ensure appropriate bilingual capacity at all times and also to establish a memorandum of understanding with the attorneys general and the chief justices of superior courts of each province and territory. Those recommendations were not included in the Action Plan, but they are nonetheless important. I am committed to raising this question again with the Attorney General of Ontario and encouraging him to discuss it with his colleagues across the country.

I congratulate everyone who has contributed to these achievements, in whatever way, since the result will be to encourage better language skills development for judges and candidates for the judiciary.

Access to justice in French in Ontario is a priority for our office: there is still a shortage of French language services in a number of courts, and people regularly bring this to our attention. This new Action Plan could prove to be an excellent tool for ensuring better management of how language skills are assessed and providing training about language rights for members of the judiciary. As we said in our 2013 report, it is important to “ensure that all Canadians can fully and freely exercise their language rights in their dealings with Canada’s superior courts, in particular the right to be heard in the minority official language.”

This action plan is definitely a BIG step in the right direction.

Gretta Chambers, an incomparable Canadian

On September 9, Gretta Chambers, born Taylor, passed away at the venerable age of 90. I won’t sing the praises of her life story here, since the Globe & Mail has published a well-written, fascinating article on the subject. Instead, I will take the liberty of simply recounting one of our meetings. If I remember well, it was in 2005, when I was still counsel for the federal Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. I was responsible for a huge study we were undertaking on the entire question of modernizing the Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations. We had conducted a Canada-wide series of consultations, but we had also had the privilege of meeting with people whose opinion we knew would be critical to our project.

Gretta Chambers was someone you simply could not ignore.  She was not only endowed with rare analytical abilities but also capable of comprehending the arguments on both sides of an issue, which made her well-informed opinion especially valuable. I had the good fortune to meet with her at her home. She welcomed me with an elegance worthy of her outstanding reputation. With her wisdom and experience, she could easily have told me quite simply what to do and write, and I would happily have accepted all of her points. However, that was not her approach. Inquisitive and curious, she first wanted to know what our purpose and goals were, and how we were going about achieving them. As a tactician, she was actually much more interested in how we would get there than in what we would write. As a visionary, she had a very thorough understanding of Canadian society, including and especially Quebec society, in all of its complexity. As she was obviously in love with her Quebec, she spoke with the authority of someone who had seen a thing or two and whose wisdom left no doubts. She symbolized harmony between Canada’s two great language communities and had no time for the “two solitudes.”

Since her passing, I have felt as if there is a great void in Canada. It is now up to others to follow her example. Thank you, Ms. Chambers. Your remarkable contribution made Canada and Quebec much better societies. It is hard for me to imagine us without you.

On behalf of the team at the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner, we extend our most sincere condolences to her family, friends and loved ones.

My 10th anniversary as Commissioner

On September 4, 2007, I arrived alone in Toronto to start a two-year term at the helm of the new Office of the French Language Services Commissioner of Ontario (OFLSC). Fortunately, the terms are now five years; two years is much too short to prove oneself effectively. Staff in the Office of Francophone Affairs (as it was then) had rented an office for me in a commercial office building near Bloor and Yonge. A computer, with no access to the government intranet, and therefore no access to vital information, a chair and a few blank pieces of paper – that’s all I had to work with! The OFA’s orders from the Minister (the Honourable Madeleine Meilleur) were to leave me be; the staff took her at her word.

Since I had already received a few complaints sent to my private email address even before starting my term, it was clear that my first priority would be to set up a process to receive complaints and to staff the OFLSC with people qualified to deal with them. To me it seemed like a huge undertaking, but I wasn’t concerned about it, since I had already had experience as the first leader of a brand-new entity when I was the first director of the now defunct Court Challenges Program in Winnipeg. However, what kept me awake at night – and still does on occasion – was the possibility that I might disappoint an entire people, a community that was counting on me to halt the decline and, to the extent possible, make a few gains along the way.

In fact, to keep myself from worrying excessively, I set just one goal for myself: make life easier for my eventual successor. That’s how I was able to lay the foundation of the Commissioner’s Office at a leisurely pace. I made sure that the organization would have a reputation for effectiveness based on attention to detail and on the desire to make a difference, while carrying out its work with as much independence as possible. I can say, very humbly, that I believe I achieved my goal.

Seven months later, I submitted my first annual report, entitled Paving the Way. It was 28 pages long and contained three systemic recommendations, including the one concerning the Inclusive Definition of Francophone. I also remember very clearly the reactions of senior officials, especially their astonishment. The report was part of a strategy of asserting the Office’s independence, for the benefit of all Ontarians.

So today I am filled with a profound sense of gratitude for all the progress we have made. Never – not in a million years – could I have accomplished all this without the outstanding cooperation of dedicated employees, three of whom have been with me since they started here in February 2008. Incidentally, the current members of our team are exactly the kind of people I wanted for the Office: they are competent, efficient, empathetic, professional, passionate, and eager to make a difference every day. I am grateful to them for this.

But I am especially thankful to all the people in Ontario who opened their doors to me. I have travelled around just a bit! Whatever people may say about my time in the Commissioner’s Office, they can never say that I didn’t go out and meet the people. I accepted every invitation. Every one. That brings a story to mind. Early in my term, when I was the Office’s one and only employee, I received an invitation to attend a local event in Southern Ontario. I was happy to accept. A few weeks later, someone called me to cancel the invitation, as the organization had found someone local who was better known. As I hung up, in stitches, I reminded myself how much work there was to do! And believe me, we have worked hard over the last 10 years. We’ve celebrated some victories, and we’ve had a few disagreements with the government, but that hasn’t stopped us from persevering. If you want examples,  please read my most recent annual report, the 2016-2017 report, in which I look back over the 10 years of the OFLSC’s existence.

We still have much to accomplish, and as we have pointed out in recent months, we have developed a new strategic plan. So I can assure you that I’m going into this second decade full of confidence that we will be able to continue making a difference every day.

A look back on the saga surrounding the closure of Penetanguishene General Hospital.

Yesterday was a day full of interviews following the submission of our brief to the Minister of Francophone Affairs, the Honourable Marie-France Lalonde, as well as her Ministry and the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. The purpose of the brief was to point out that the process of revoking Penetanguishene General Hospital’s designation constituted a violation of the French Language Services Act. I certainly didn’t mince my words, but I had to do it because, after all, it is the patients who have been suffering the consequences all these years. The process set out in the Act was quite simply ignored. It’s an undeniable fact. I therefore recommended a series of measures to prevent future violations of this kind.

I also stated in the brief that we had been receiving complaints since early 2017 concerning the French-language services provided at Georgian Bay General Hospital (GBGH). I’d like to thank the hospital administration for acquiescing and requesting designation, even if it was partial, under the FLSA. Since July 1, GBGH has been partially designated under the FLSA, and we should be pleased about that. It means that, technically, admission services and ambulatory services must be available in French.

I’d like to salute the efforts of the hospital’s senior management and bilingual employees, as they are working very hard to provide the area’s Francophones with quality services. The Commissioner’s Office acknowledges the hospital’s efforts and is working with its staff to address the non-compliance problems. Since designation, we’ve received a few complaints, but they are not about systemic issues.

You can rest assured that the Commissioner’s Office will continue to work with all parties concerned to improve the delivery of designated services by GBGH for the benefit of Francophone patients. In this regard, the Minister of Francophone Affairs’ initial response shows that the government is receptive to making changes, and that is a good sign.