“The roots of our future will bury themselves in the ground and a canopy of hope will reach into the sky.”
Wangari Muta Maathai
Nobel Peace Prize Winner
It is a stroke of extraordinary good fortune to experience in one’s career an event so momentous that it leaves an indelible mark not only on one’s memory but also on one’s community. That is the good fortune that I had when, on January 1, 2014, following the adoption of Bill 106, the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner left the government and became an independent body reporting to the Legislative Assembly.
Today, therefore, the Commissioner’s Office is an integral part of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Today, Francophones have a permanent voice in Parliament. Today, an institution that operates in French for the French language is putting down roots in the highest ground in the province. An institution of which Francophones can be proud for years, even generations, to come.
This doesn’t mean that the tree wasn’t already sturdy – witness the abundant harvest of past recommendations, complaints processed, and systemic changes undertaken by the government. Yet there was always the risk that it would become merely ornamental, or worse still, that it would fall victim to wholesale cuts, at the mercy of fluctuations in political power.
Not anymore. This institution is solidly planted, like the Francophone community it represents, which, need I remind you, is about to celebrate the quadricentennial of its presence in Ontario.
The continued existence of the Commissioner’s Office, Franco-Ontarians’ great ally, is indispensable to the full development of a rapidly growing Francophone community. For while the community is expanding in number and diversity, while the rate of transmission of French from parent to child is climbing steadily, while French-language schools today are highly rated, while Francophone immigration is being encouraged more than ever, this wonderful vigour will be slightly diminished if the mechanisms that welcome and support those who wish to communicate in French with their government – and the agencies it funds – are broken.
Ontario has the official mechanisms to give French the status it deserves as a heritage language. The French Language Services Act comes immediately to mind, but we also have the Courts of Justice Act, the Education Act, the Regulated Health Professions Act, the Child and Family Services Act and a number of other laws and regulations that set out the government’s obligations with regard to services in French. This fertile legislative ground has nurtured countless other mechanisms – regulations, directives, policies, programs, reports, recommendations, etc. – in support of both the provision of French-language services and the full development of Ontario’s Francophone community.
While some mechanisms are well oiled, others need to be fine-tuned, overhauled, or beefed up. Still others, notable for their absence, clearly need to be created. When such gaps are brought to the attention of my team, or if we suspect they exist, I intervene to the extent that I am able to do so.
As French Language Services Commissioner, I am responsible for conducting investigations and making recommendations to ensure the proper delivery of French-language services in Ontario and the full development of the Francophone community in our province.
However, it is not my duty to see that all of the government’s projects and communications take Francophone needs into account from the planning stage on. Nor do my functions involve making sure that members of the public are actively and systematically informed of their right to service in French, or that there are government employees in place, on a permanent basis, who are able to serve French-speaking Ontarians respectfully.
This responsibility belongs to the government. Moreover, it is incumbent on the government not only to carry them out diligently, proactively and intelligently but also to report any impediments to the delivery of high-quality French-language services and the full development of the Francophonie in Ontario, whether those impediments are explicit, implicit, procedural or regulatory.
Government employees must play an active role in resolving specific situations, such as the case of the mother who is unable to obtain service in French from a Children’s Aid Society, the litigant whose language rights are denied by the judge assigned to hear his case or the elderly Francophones who receive critical post-operative instructions in English only.
The government must also play an active role in building a prosperous, sustainable future for Ontario’s Francophonie. It must ensure that Francophone patients in Ontario receive integrated, high-quality care in their language, that government-funded agencies have iron-clad obligations regarding French-language services, that French-speaking immigrants are provided with proper guidance after their arrival, that updates of government programs do not downplay the importance of participation by Francophones in managing their own needs, and that Francophone citizens who depend on the system are not marginalized or further disadvantaged because they speak French.
It is this message about taking responsibility that I intend to continue sending to the government through my annual reports (including the one you are currently reading), my investigations and my recommendations; in short, everything at my disposal to improve the well-being of Ontario’s Francophones, from the spring to the winter of their lives.
Obviously, I cannot do all this by myself. I would therefore like to recognize the indispensable support of the members of my team who decided to follow the new Commissioner’s Office. I am deeply touched by the extraordinary commitment of my staff, and I extend my heartfelt thanks to them, with the promise that I will try to live up to their expectations. As an independent Commissioner, I plan to build this new Franco-Ontarian institution in conjunction with this exceptional team.
I am very hopeful that the new home of the Commissioner’s Office in the Legislative Assembly will make it easier to assimilate this message, whose outcome, I maintain, can only benefit the whole of Ontarian society