Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I am pleased to be with you this morning to present the remarks of the Association des juristes d'expression française de l'Ontario, the AJEFO, on the state of Canada's francophonie.
The AJEFO has been working to promote access to justice in French in Ontario since 1980. We are both a community and a centre of French-language legal expertise, and our more than 1,000 members include lawyers, judges, translators and students from across the province. Our organization is in fact the largest association of francophone justice professionals in Ontario.
We would like to contribute to your study this morning by providing some remarks on the francophonie, more specifically in the justice sector.
First of all, I intend to discuss the current issue of access to justice in French and the AJEFO's efforts in that regard. Second, we will outline our reaction to recent announcements by the Government of Ontario and the direct impact of those announcements on the Franco-Ontarian community. I am sure that will be of interest to you.
Allow me to begin with the current issue of access to justice. As you are no doubt aware, many studies and reports have been prepared in recent years on access to justice and concerns about that situation. It would appear from findings on the subject that litigants have little knowledge of their rights or solutions to their legal problems.
Studies also show that increasing numbers of people represent themselves before the courts in our judicial system. Lastly, the reports state that government support for access to justice, although significant, is not currently adequate. Access to justice in French, which is likely your greatest concern, is all the more difficult to achieve.
In its 2012 report, the Rouleau—Le Vay committee noted that proceedings conducted in French resulted in additional costs and took longer than those conducted in English. That situation is attributable to a range of factors, including the lack of bilingualism among players in the justice system.
There is also a lack of communication among the various players: judges, the Ministry of the Attorney General of Ontario, justice professionals and so on. In addition, litigants encounter procedural problems in exercising their language rights.
We are proud of the AJEFO's efforts to address these issues through its diversified projects. Those projects that have been implemented under the federal government's road map 2008-2013 provide legal information to litigants and are designed to equip stakeholders.
I cannot appear before you without discussing our various projects, which you are probably familiar with. I thought you would definitely be interested in hearing about them since they are funded by the federal government.
Two of those projects concern legal information. Their purpose is to provide information to litigants in clear and simple language to compensate for the fact that they cannot hire lawyers like me.
The first project is the Ontario Legal Information Centre in Ottawa. I invite you to go and visit it. It offers Ontario litigants 30-minute meetings with a lawyer in the language of their choice, English or French, thus providing them with access to legal information on problems they are dealing with.
Since it opened, the centre has responded to more than 8,000 service requests both in person and over the phone, which shows there's a genuine need for this kind of information. This represents an average of approximately 300 meetings a month. You can imagine the number of requests the centre receives.
Although services are offered in both languages, the centre's language of work is French. The centre really strives to offer services actively in French.
The second program, which you may have heard about, is also funded by the federal government. It's the cliquezjustice.ca website, which is intended for francophone minority communities across Canada. Its mandate is to provide the general public with clear and simplified information on their rights and obligations in various areas, such as employment law, wills and family law.
The website provides Canadians with a variety of resources and helps put litigants who can benefit from its service in touch with justice professionals. It also provides educational resources to teachers who want to teach their students about various justice topics.
In the last fiscal year, cliquezjustice.ca logged 400,000 visits, more than 50,000 a month. In November, the last full month for which we have figures, the site received a record 80,000 visits. Once again, that attests to a need among members of the public for information on their rights.
AJEFO's last key program actually focuses on justice professionals. Litigants need services, and so do professionals. There is a shortage of bilingual people in Canada who can serve this population. One of the reasons for that is that there are not enough French-language common-law resources for litigants.
The jurisource.ca website is an attempt to meet that demand. It is a virtual library that is made available, free of charge, across Canada, to professionals in the common law provinces. It provides teaching resources of all kinds, such as document templates and lexicons from all across the country. Our purpose is to expand access to justice in French and to cut costs. The last thing we want is to have to tell a client who comes to us for a will in French that we don't have one and that we will have to translate it and bill the client for it. The purpose of jurisource.ca is to remedy all that.
Lastly, we play an advocacy role, and that's why we are here before you this morning. We like making presentations, both in court and before parliamentary committees.
We recently intervened before the Supreme Court of Canada in Mazraani v. Industrielle Alliance, Insurance and Financial Services Inc., a case that may be of interest to you. The court rendered a decision in favour of language rights, reminding judges of their duty to promote access to justice in French and lawyers of their ethical duty in that regard.
I want to take this opportunity to thank our principal funder, the Department of Justice of Canada, for supporting these three projects. We are very pleased with the funding we receive. This past March, we were delighted to learn that the Action Plan for Official Languages 2018-2023: Investing in our future provides for a return to core funding for organizations representing the official language minority communities. We feel that funding is essential to ensuring the continued existence of the networks, communication among the various associations of francophone jurists and continued provision of services.
In my remaining time, I would like to talk about recent announcements by the Government of Ontario.
As the AJEFO is located in Ontario, it relies in part on funding from that province, for two projects in particular.
The Ontario Legal Information Centre has established a toll-free telephone line with funding from the provincial government. We also organize justice camps every year. Elementary school students come to us, and we give them resources and information on justice. The program is also funded by the provincial government.
Delays in confirming funding for these programs have caused problems for the centre, which is unable to meet rising demand for its services. I gave you some figures on the requests it receives. As for the justice camps, we will unfortunately have to consider terminating that program if funding from the province is not forthcoming.
The AJEFO has maintained a good relationship with the provincial government in recent years, more particularly with the Ministry of the Attorney General of Ontario. We were encouraged by some initiatives the ministry recently took, unveiling a Franco-Ontarian monument in Toronto to celebrate the 400-year francophone presence in Ontario, passing a motion to indicate linguistic identity on provincial health cards and consulting francophone entrepreneurs.
We saw that the government seemed intent on promoting access to justice in French and French-language services in Ontario. It also made promises to modernize Ontario's French Language Services Act.
That's why, on November 15, the AJEFO, like so many other organizations in Ontario and the rest of the country, was shocked by the provincial government's announced budget cuts, which had a direct and very serious impact on Ontario's francophone community.
We at the AJEFO denounced that serious blow to francophones' status, particularly the elimination of the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner, the issue that concerns the AJEFO as an organization in the access to justice field.
Although the provincial government announced one week later, on November 23, that the commissioner's office would be attached to the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman, we believe that proposal is still unsatisfactory.
Financial arguments cannot serve as a pretext for undermining francophones' rights. That principle was confirmed in the Montfort affair, with which you are very familiar. The Court of Appeal for Ontario confirmed at the time that the government could not rely solely on arguments of administrative convenience or vague funding concerns to justify closing Montfort Hospital.
We are seriously concerned about what's currently happening with the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner. It won't be news to you that the Franco-Ontarian community has a rich history but has also faced many obstacles. It has overcome those obstacles—and I believe it will do so again this time—and it did so by making very significant gains for the community. Those gains have been erased by the elimination of the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner.
Ontario's French Language Services Act is 30 years old. That's why the government said it intended to modernize the act and add new elements, and now, a few weeks later, we are faced with announcements such as the one you heard.
I'd like to close by saying that we want the community's gains to be restored. That's what the AJEFO wants. We want to restore the integrity of the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner. That's our objective.
I'm prepared to answer your questions regarding our concern over the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner in particular. We feel the independence of that office is under serious attack.
Mr. Chair, honourable members of the committee, good morning.
First, I would like to acknowledge my associates here: Ghislaine Saikaley and Pierre Leduc, assistant commissioners, and Pascale Giguère, general counsel.
I am appearing before you today with not a little apprehension. Given the current trend that is spreading across the country, I am more than concerned about the events that have been making headlines in recent weeks. l'm sure that the situation has you troubled, as well, which is why l'm bringing it to you so promptly. We all have a part to play and we all need to ask ourselves what we can do.
Here are a few examples of the worrisome events that have taken place throughout the country: the Government of Manitoba announced that it had changed the status of the Bureau de l'éducation française within the Department of Education; it also announced that it was eliminating 11 full-time translator positions; and the Federal Court dismissed the application of the Fédération des francophones de la Colombie-Britannique. Plus, there is a lot of uncertainty about the future of linguistic duality in New Brunswick following the most recent provincial election.
Let's move on to the current crisis in Ontario. Now, while I appreciate the provincial government's spirit of openness in moving the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner to the Ombudsman's office, I have to state that the decision does not even come close to meeting the needs of the Franco-Ontarian community. This compromise weakens the role of the Commissioner by eliminating his ability to strengthen the public's right to French services in Ontario, to suggest improvements and to ensure the development of French-speaking communities.
Right now, Ontario has a commissioner who has made a real impact. He has been instrumental in ensuring respect for and compliance with the French Language Services Act. The creation of the office of the commissioner, with a head reporting directly to the Legislative Assembly, made it clear to Franco-Ontarians that there was real value in having both the office and the commissioner.
As for the decision to abandon the plans for a French language university in Toronto, I believe that this is a major setback that shows a lack of vision on the part of Ontario's elected officials. This was a project that brought hope and that was to fulfill an essential need of the Franco-Ontarian community, the largest French-speaking community in Canada outside of Quebec.
Deficits should not be reduced by sacrificing the rights of Canadians and of official language minority communities. When I see setbacks like the ones we've seen over the past few months, I really have to speak out. Even though my mandate is federal, I am responsible for the language rights of all Canadians and for ensuring the development of both English and French linguistic minority communities.
As I said recently, it's astonishing to see language issues of this magnitude back in the spotlight nearly half a century after the first Official Languages Act was passed. The act is part of Canadians' collective memory and represents the very foundation of the social contract that unites us. How can something that defines our identity be considered to be a remnant of the past, especially when linguistic duality is such a powerful symbol of openness, empathy and respect? When we remove the stones one by one from the base of the building, do we not risk bringing down the very foundation of Canadian identity?
The government, federal institutions, the courts and a great number of civil society stakeholders have all helped to shape Canada's linguistic landscape into a very different entity from the one it was before the Official Languages Act was passed. Through their efforts, linguistic duality and official languages have become embedded in Canadians' consciousness and deeply woven into Canada's social fabric, and English and French are now the languages of the national conversation. Setbacks like the one we've just seen in Ontario call that social contract into question.
The language rights enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are a reflection of the importance that Canadians place on the development of official language communities and on the equal status of English and French in Canadian society, in Parliament, in the Government of Canada and in federal institutions.
Looking at events that are happening across the country, I can only conclude that provincial leaders have lost sight of constitutional principles like language rights.
This is not unlike the controversy surrounding the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism and the harsh criticism it came under between 1963 and 1969. But despite the difficulties they came up against, commissioners Laurendeau and Dunton persevered to come to a consensus on the issue.
The B&B Commission left us a very important legacy. lts recommendations led to policies on official languages and multiculturalism, and it laid the foundations of both linguistic duality and cultural diversity as Canadian values.
lt also created a framework of language rights at both the federal and provincial levels that shaped both the Official Languages Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, establishing as quasi-constitutional Canada's language regime.
Language rights are ingrained in our history and show the promise of our future. There are many examples of significant and sometimes controversial developments in the history of linguistic duality since the Official Languages Act was passed.
In 1970, French was restored as a language of instruction in Manitoba, a status it had held until 1916. In 1991, the official languages regulations on communications with and services to the public were adopted. In 2003, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick opened its doors, and in 2009, the DesRochers decision was a major legal victory for linguistic duality.
The trend we're seeing now is compromising our fundamental values. Canada must continue to be a leader and a beacon for linguistic duality and support for official language minority communities. This is an opportunity for Canadian Heritage to foster the development of linguistic duality at a national level. The government has already unveiled its action plan for official languages, which is part of 's mandate. But in light of recent events, I wonder whether it's enough.
I encourage the government to explore the other ways to promote linguistic duality. The Department of Canadian Heritage Act requires the minister to strengthen and promote “Canadian identity and values, cultural development and heritage.” Why not develop a promotional campaign and enhance some existing Canadian Heritage initiatives?
I would add that the provinces and territories also have an important role to play in protecting official language minority communities by making sure that linguistic duality is always on the agenda.
lnvesting in the future, in young Canadians and in our communities ensures the vitality and longevity of Canada's official languages.
I will be calling on all of our elected officials to set aside their political affiliations in order to protect the gains we have made in terms of language rights.
With half a century of experience and expertise in all matters related to the Official Languages Act, my office is in the best position to make recommendations. I submitted a special report to Parliament last May that proposed a principled approach to the modernization of the Official Languages Regulations. Next spring, I will be presenting my position—and my recommendations—on the modernization of the Act.
As parliamentarians and as members of this committee, you are in an ideal position to support the implementation of my recommendations to study the draft regulations, which will have a major impact on official language minority communities, and to influence the government's decisions on the modernization of the Official Languages Act in order to ensure legislation that is relevant, dynamic and strong.
Given the current situation and considering that the Official Languages Act is about to turn 50 years old, I think it's time for the government to take action and establish a dialogue with the provinces and territories, perhaps in the form of a federal-provincial-territorial summit, in order to discuss the future of linguistic duality and of official language minority communities, and to come up with concrete and sustainable solutions.
Thank you for your attention. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them in the official language of your choice, and I'll be happy to answer them.
I want to welcome Mr. Théberge, the Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada.
Commissioner, I can't help but note the symbiotic relationship that exists between you and this committee as a result of a basic element of the Canadian identity, the Official Languages Act.
You also said something that we entirely support: no one may cite limited financial resources as a reason to penalize or undermine linguistic minority communities. As Mr. Samson has said, the animals look at each other differently when there's less water in the lake.
Mr. Théberge, I want to ask you something this morning. We'll be hearing from you once again on the modernization of the act, but we're currently facing a very troubling situation: the Franco-Ontarian community and its institutions have been weakened. We've decided to conduct this special or urgent study to find some quick solutions. We went out into the streets last Saturday, and on Sunday in Quebec City, but now we want solutions.
I want to ask you what you think of this.
Benoît Pelletier, constitutional expert, professor in the law faculty of the University of Ottawa and former Liberal minister, is a highly respected man. Here's what he had to say about the federal government: "If it wants to make a special offer of funding for the Université de l'Ontario français, then it's normally up to Ottawa to make that offer."
The president of the Assemblée de la francophonie de l'Ontario told this committee that the university was a nearly $90 million project and that the federal government could offer to fund it for the the next four years so the project could continue. The university already has its president and is already on its way.
That brings me back to part VII of the Official Languages Act. I won't reread it in full because you're familiar with it. It states, for example, that the federal government's role is to support and assist the development of our communities and that "every federal institution has the duty to ensure that positive measures are taken."
You use the word "crisis". We're about to put the cap on the pyramid of Ontario's educational system; we're just about there. What can the federal government do? Your role as commissioner is to defend official languages and provide advice. What advice would you give the minister? I'd like to hear what you have to say on that subject.