Commissioner’s Blog

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François Boileau
French Language Services Commissioner

The Official Languages Act: The vanguard of cooperative federalism

Two weeks ago, on November 29, we testified before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages in Ottawa. The purpose was to provide MPs with our expert views and present a brief on the important issues that need to be considered in the process of modernizing the Official Languages Act (OLA), which will be 50 years old next year.

The idea of modernizing the Official Languages Act has been approved; what remains to be determined is how to change it. Modernization is necessary because the roles and responsibilities of official languages actors have changed substantially, as have the official language minority communities. In this regard, I had the opportunity to draw an initial parallel with my recommendation to the Ontario government to modernize the French Language Services Act.

Our appearance before the Committee gave me the chance to talk about the new Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations, unveiled on October 25, which now require that community vitality be taken into account in planning the delivery of services. Under the new Regulations, as I recommended, elementary and secondary schools are now important vitality indicators, which will have an impact on the measurement of demand. What needs to be done now is to ensure that the new Official Languages Act embraces the same vision as the Regulations and is based on an inclusive and qualitative definition of significant demand.

I also recommended that Parliament amend the Official Languages Act to include a possibility to adopt a regulation on active offer. A more robust active offer obligations regime, with objective requirements, is particularly essential when the population group concerned is vulnerable, especially in the health sector. This was my second parallel with the changes that we are proposing for the French Language Services Act in Ontario.

In addition, I emphasized the importance of making a central agency responsible for implementing the Official Languages Act. I argued that the real work of implementing this OLA should fall to Treasury Board and that the OLA should be amended accordingly. I concluded with an explanation of my vision of a language commissioner’s role.

Statement by the Commissioner regarding the adoption of the Restoring Trust, Transparency and Accountability Act, 2018

Yesterday evening, the Legislative Assembly adopted a statute that abolishes the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner and, at the same time, an institution that is vital to the development of the Franco-Ontarian community. This decision, hard to justify in terms of budgetary efficiency, violates the language rights of the Francophone population and is a prima facie setback for all of Ontario. As my federal colleague, Commissioner Raymond Théberge, quite rightly pointed out, “A commissioner who is not independent is no longer a commissioner”.

Since my elevation to the position of Independent Officer, I have devoted a large part of my work to advising ministers and other senior officials on the best application of the French Language Services Act. The Office of the French Language Services Commissioner has proved again and again that it is an effective and credible actor in creating and implementing public policies. By relegating the Commissioner to a position under the authority of the Ombudsman, the government is sacrificing an important advisor, without legitimate justifications.

By meeting with the people of Sarnia, Casselman, Chapleau, Sudbury, Welland, Cornwall and Thunder Bay, and countless other cities and villages, the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner was able to hear and understand the Franco-Ontarian community, its realities, its challenges, its aspirations. In the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner, they find an impartial advocate of their rights under the French Language Services Act. A Commissioner who is not free to act proactively to protect the language rights of these populations loses all effectiveness and credibility.

I had the opportunity to appear before the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs last Monday, where I made this speech. I took the opportunity to also file a brief that was more exhaustive than the five minutes allotted for speaking.

A Commissioner who is the employee of the Office of the Ombudsman will never have the independence required to carry out all of the tasks of the mandate conferred to him or her by the French Language Services Act. By adopting the Restoring Trust, Transparency and Accountability Act, 2018, the government of Ontario unquestionably undermines the statutory scheme of language rights in a province where, just yesterday, it was leading the way.

That being said, the legislator has spoken and, as an Officer of the Assembly, I will respect its voice, even if important questions concerning the compatibility of the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner and the Ombudsman’s respective enabling statutes and mandates remain. In addition, regardless of the circumstances, the Ombudsman of Ontario, Mr. Paul Dubé, in whom I have the utmost confidence, can count on the professionalism of our office in ensuring a transition that is as smooth and harmonious as possible. He is lucky to suddenly find himself with a team that is made up of devoted, engaged, extremely competent, and fully bilingual professionals!

François Boileau

French Language Services Commissioner

 

 

Update – 2018 Symposium: Looking Ahead, Getting Ready

Further to today’s news about the announced demise of the Commissioner’s Office, we are writing you to confirm that the 2018 Symposium, Looking Ahead, Getting Ready, will be going ahead as planned on Monday, November 26, at the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto.

The topics we are planning to cover at the Symposium are more relevant than ever. The non-partisan defence of the Francophone community and its diversity, which has motivated us for more than 11 years now, along with our thorough and determined, yet pragmatic and realistic efforts, and of course our victories – all this will last, thanks to the French Language Services Act.

Rest assured that our team will continue to work tirelessly to make the Symposium enriching, constructive and hopeful, even under such circumstances.

If you have any questions about the Symposium, please contact Emmanuelle Bleytou, Lead, Strategic Communications, by email at emmanuelle.bleytou@csfontario.ca or by telephone at  416 847 1515, ext.107.

We are looking forward to welcoming you to what will no doubt be a convivial day of meetings and discussions.

A happy ending: Welcoming services for Francophone immigrants at Pearson Airport

Following a request for proposals issued by the federal government on June 18, 2018, to select a new Francophone agency to provide French-language services to immigrants arriving at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, the long-awaited official announcement has just been made: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has given the Centre Francophone de Toronto the contract, starting in March 2019, to provide guidance to immigrants on where to get assistance in finding their first job or a school for their children, and to address the special needs of Francophone newcomers.

After about 10 years during which these needs have been neglected, we can expect a substantive improvement in the settlement and integration processes for Francophone immigrants, with the provision of support and guidance in their first hours on Ontarian soil after getting off the plane at Pearson.

Some 2,500 Francophone newcomers arrive at Pearson International Airport every year, which is significant. This is a big responsibility for the future of the Francophonie, particularly in Ontario, as I noted in my latest annual report, in view of the demographic issues facing Francophones over the next 10 years.  It is expected that newcomers will receive all the information they need to make their move a success, whether they are settling in Toronto, Sudbury, Windsor, elsewhere in Ontario, or in another part of Canada.

The announcement made by IRCC was just one of several positive developments for National Francophone Immigration Week.

La Cité, one of Ontario’s two public French-language colleges, will be the primary point of contact for Francophone newcomers starting in January 2019, and four regional partners will provide province-specific settlement services under an $11 million five-year collaborative partnership between French-language settlement service providers in keeping with a genuine Francophone Integration Pathway. We are told that in the coming weeks, as many as 14 communities across Canada will be selected as part of the Welcoming Francophone Communities initiative to create a space where French-speaking newcomers will feel welcome. We hope that three of these welcoming communities will be selected in Ontario, but we will see what the federal government  ultimately decides. It is important, now more than ever, that our governments align their efforts to benefit from a pooling of strategies, means of action and resources.

Last but not least was the announcement of the addition of a second French-language testing agency for economic immigrants, which is a very positive step because it will make testing more accessible in terms of locations and dates. It may even encourage bilingual people to take their test in French. We can also hope that a bit of competition between service providers will allow for  the costs of the tests to be lowered. People have been requesting this for a number of years. In addition, this month will see the launch of an expression-of-interest process to obtain proposals from organizations interested in delivering language training for Francophone immigrants and allophone newcomers who have declared French as their official language of preference, in Francophone minority communities.

Providing Francophone newcomers with better welcoming process, guidance, support and information services so that they can in turn contribute to the vigour and vitality of Ontario’s Francophone communities is something to look forward to!

 

Official Languages: A Modernized Regulation that Meets Expectations

There was some great news yesterday afternoon: after months of consultations, Ministers Mélanie Joly and Scott Brison unveiled their plans to amend the Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations.

The Regulations are an important official languages document: they specify where and how the federal government provides services to the public. They spell out what “significant demand” means – in other words, who can request services in the minority language.

The last revision of the Regulations dates back to 1991, and Canada has changed a lot in nearly three decades. This modernization is certainly welcome. In fact, it seems as if legislatures have been swept up in a wave of renewal: Alberta has adopted a French Policy; Prince Edward Island has modified its French Language Services Act; and modernization of the federal Official Languages Act and Ontario’s French Language Services Act (FLSA) is on the horizon. I’ll come back to this point later…

The new method of calculating significant demand in the Regulations is more inclusive and allows more Canadians to receive services; previously, a large portion of the population was excluded. Significant demand will grow, and so too will the number of government offices that will have to serve people in the language of their choice.

In my first annual report, I put forward an important principle that should be part of all new and revised laws concerning languages: the Inclusive Definition. In my second annual report, after the Ontario government adopted the new definition, I wrote that I hoped the new definition would spread to other provinces and to the federal government. My wish has been granted.

I’m delighted that the definition is now entrenched in the new Regulations, and that Ontario was able to play a leading role, however minor, in this change.

However, this exercise is more than a mathematical calculation: the vitality of the official language minority communities (OLMCs) must be taken into account when the government studies where services are to be provided in both official languages. In my annual report on the revision of the FLSA, I made precisely that point: any new method of calculating significant demand absolutely must include an assessment of the communities’ vitality. I highlighted that the number of minority-language schools is an important indicator of that vitality.

So I’m happy to see that under the new Regulations, OLMCs’ vitality will also be considered in the planning of services. Elementary and secondary schools will be important vitality indicators and will have an impact on the calculation of demand.

It’s also noteworthy that the Regulations now include the obligation to consult. Since my appointment as Commissioner, I’ve emphasized the importance for the government to consult the public each time they implemented a new policy or program. The decisions made by government bodies affect the public first and foremost, and members of the public should certainly have the right to voice their opinions on those decisions, especially when they deal with fundamental rights like language.

At the beginning of this blog post, I listed all the jurisdictions that have taken a step forward on official languages. Language rights fall within the purview of both the provincial legislatures and the federal Parliament, and all levels of government have a duty to advance them in their respective areas of jurisdiction.

In the case of Canada and Ontario, however, that step has only been announced, not taken.

The two governments recently promised to begin modernizing their respective legislation. So this is the perfect time to be innovative and work toward harmonizing the federal Official Languages Act and the FLSA. In areas such as the inclusive enumeration of potential users of services, intergovernmental co-operation on service delivery, and even the framing of transfer agreements, the governments can make sure that the two laws are consistent and complementary, for the sake of Ontarians.

Ultimately, harmonization of these laws could help to avoid interjurisdictional disputes and reduce the flaws in the public system.

The new Regulations echo a number of the points I have raised over the course of my term as Commissioner. Their adoption confirms the relevance and validity of my recommendations, one of which was the pressing need to modernize the FLSA, sooner rather than later.

So I congratulate Ministers Joly and Brison on producing modernized Regulations that reflect official language minority communities current realities, but also that support the crystallization of their legitimate aspirations.

Linguistic Variable for patients: the OHIP card could become smart!

The OHIP card as a tool for identifying Francophone patients, I’ve dreamt of it, we have all dreamt about it for several years, and the Ontario Legislative Assembly and its members have put it on the agenda!

Taking into account the linguistic variable has long been recognized as a critical issue in the patient and family experience. In their 2013 Joint Position Statement on the Linguistic Variable and in their report, Ontario’s French Language Health Planning Entities emphasized that the lack of evidence-based data “significantly limits the ability to analyse the health needs of francophone individuals and communities and hinders sound planning of health services that meet the needs of the population”.  They clearly outlined that establishing “Linguistic Identity” is critical in addressing this issue and filling the gaps.

That is why the motion tabled on October 4 by MPP Amanda Simard, who is also Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister Responsible for Francophone Affairs, asking the government to add linguistic identity to the data contained in the OHIP card, is in my eyes a capital gesture. Especially since it was adopted unanimously! This represents a milestone in the prolonged effort that has involved a number of stakeholders, including the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner, and resulted in the selection of the Registered Person Database (RPDB) as a tool for collecting linguistic identity data, maximizing gains through the use of digital systems.

In my last 2017-2018 Annual Report, I underline that the use of big data for public service planning requires the creation of this linguistic identifier to meet the challenges of our time (growth and aging of the population, costs of health) and to provide appropriate health services. Of course, it will be essential to take into account the Inclusive Definition of Francophone (IDF) when choosing the questions to determine linguistic identity. We will be on the lookout not only for the questions that will be asked, but by whom, when and in what context, when the time comes. The game is not yet won and will require everyone’s cooperation, starting with public servants, but also with the French-speaking public who will have to be informed about the need to identify themselves as francophone. It will be necessary to convince this public that to identify themselves as francophone will not mean longer wait-times for services!

The benefit of this identification will remain individual. For example, a senior’s vulnerability reduces their confidence and ability to seek care in French. This new enhanced OHIP card would speak for them.

Beyond this immense benefit for the patients themselves, the inclusion and collection of linguistic variables will enable the government to measure, take into account and respond to the needs of Francophones to be served in their language: planning, anticipating, and allocating services more efficiently. Obviously, with this approach, we can only hope for a concrete implementation of the capital concept of active offer.