Designation of an area under the French Language Services Act in Ontario gives a community the right to receive services in French from the provincial government.
Although there are currently 26 areas, designation does not just happen by itself. It is obtained through the Office of Francophone Affairs (OFA), which is responsible under the Act for recommending or not recommending designation.
The OFA first has to carry out a statistical and operational analysis based on the Inclusive Definition of Francophone. That analysis determines whether the area to be designated has a Francophone population that either consists of 5,000 people in a so-called urban centre or makes up 10% of the local population. However, these two criteria are not in the Act.18
Then, based on the results of the analysis, the OFA either recommends or does not recommend that the Minister Responsible for Francophone Affairs proceed with designation, which is submitted to Cabinet and the Lieutenant Governor.
188.8.131.52. Evolution of the designation process
In 2012, the OFA introduced a new analytical framework for the designation process. This framework is intended to ensure more standardized processing of applications by communities in an effort to move toward qualitative rather than quantitative criteria.
The Commissioner welcomed this approach, but he had reservations. The new analytical framework has an additional criterion under the heading of “Community Support”. In addition to meeting the original criteria, applications for designation must include official letters of support from all local MPPs. This concept of community support and mobilization of the community would “give a helping hand” to applications that do not meet the statistical requirements. This approach bore fruit with the designation of Kingston.
To the Commissioner, this is similar to a general rule requiring unanimity. Some localities have strong community support, while that support is not fully reflected on the municipal council, which may, for example, have financial concerns, even though they are groundless in most cases. “Community support” thus becomes an additional responsibility placed on the shoulders of the community rather than the government.
184.108.40.206. Markham but not Oshawa
In the spring of 2015, the OFA held a consultation process on the designation of the Markham and Oshawa areas. This culminated in the designation of the City of Markham, which became the 26th area designated under the Act.
On the other hand, several years after submitting their applications for designation, some areas are still waiting, such as Waterloo, Niagara and … Oshawa! In Oshawa’s case, the application dates back to 2009. In fact, the entire Durham region wanted to be designated at the time. However, because some local elected representatives withheld their support, only Oshawa’s application was submitted. The government says it is still working toward the eventual designation of Oshawa. The fact remains, though, that the support of all local MPPs is now a requirement.
This situation is very inequitable in view of the efforts made by the community, and it must stop. The fate of an area’s application for designation cannot be left in the hands of a single recalcitrant elected representative.
220.127.116.11. The necessity of receiving services in French
Some people question the idea of designation in this technological era, when we can go online and renew our driver’s licence, register the birth of a child, complete a student loan application, and so on. Unfortunately, the reality is quite different.
Online services, though often very convenient, distance the government from the public. French-language services in an office, in person, are absolutely essential and appropriate today for all members of vulnerable groups. These people often need contact with a human being, not with a computer, to benefit from a government program or service. Not all services can be delivered online; examples include rehabilitation programs in hospitals, labour market integration programs, immigration programs, children’s aid programs and even access-to-justice programs. Francophone citizens need to receive these services in their language, especially when they are in a disadvantaged situation or a crisis.
Designation confers to the French-language services a greater level of permanence and forces providers to improve the quality of their services.
At the moment, more than 80% of Ontario’s Francophones are in one of the 26 designated areas. What about the 20% who are not? They regularly have to travel long distances to obtain service in French. That is a reality for senior citizens, among others.
18.104.22.168. Harmonization of legislation
It has now been four years since the report on Access to Justice in French19 was published in 2012. One of its conclusions was quite similar to what the Commissioner had been saying about the gaps and ambiguities in current legislation that impede access to services in French, particularly in the justice sector.
These gaps are in the two provincial laws that establish language rights in Ontario’s court system: the French Language Services Act and the Courts of Justice Act. As the Commissioner has noted, the 26 areas designated under the French Language Services Act and the areas designated under the Courts of Justice Act are not at all identical. This makes access to justice in French substantially and substantively more complicated for those who find themselves dealing with the authorities.
Yet, there is a ray of hope. In 2015, the Ministry of the Attorney General published a report entitled Enhancing Access to Justice in French: A Response to the Access to Justice in French Report.20 The report indicates that the Office of Francophone Affairs has taken steps to explore ways of harmonizing the two acts.
Making Ontario one large designated area would resolve the inequities caused by this lack of harmonization. For all the reasons mentionned above, the Commissioner recommends that the Minister Responsible for Francophone Affairs propose the designation of the entire province of Ontario under the amended French Language Services Act.
18 In fact, these statistical criteria are taken from the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which advocated the establishment of bilingual districts where the three levels of government would be required to serve the public in both official languages.
19 Available online: www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/english/about/pubs/bench_bar_advisory_committee/ (page consulted in May 2016).
20 Available online: www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/english/about/pubs/fls_report_response/index.html (page consulted in May 2016).