Mr. Chair, distinguished members of the Standing Commons Committee on Official Languages, thank you for giving me this opportunity to meet with you and to introduce myself.
I first want to express how appreciative I am for being selected as a candidate for the position of Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada. It is a sign of confidence that touches me greatly, because, throughout my public life, the country's linguistic duality has been a source of inspiration and commitment for me.
I applied for the position of Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada with a great deal of interest and enthusiasm. I believe I have the recognized relevant knowledge, professional qualifications and personal skills to fulfil this role competently and effectively.
My professional career has enabled me to evolve and succeed in three different fields of competency: first as a nurse, then as a lawyer, and more recently as a provincial member of Parliament and minister. At the beginning of my career, I worked as a nurse in a hospital environment, in various specialized services, and I performed clinical teaching duties. After going back to school, I practised as a lawyer specializing in labour and employment law. I worked with both the union and employer communities, thus acquiring experience in mediation and conciliation. During my legal career, I also served as a municipal councillor for the City of Ottawa.
I served as a provincial member of Parliament and Ontario government minister for a period of 12 years. Throughout that period, I served as the minister responsible for francophone affairs. In that capacity I spearheaded important initiatives to ensure the development of the Franco-Ontarian community. Those initiatives included the establishment of the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner, the adoption of a more inclusive definition of francophones, the adoption of regulations on the delivery of French-language services by third parties on behalf of governmental organizations, the autonomy of the TFO television channel, and more recently, the setting of a 5% target for francophone immigration.
I can assure you that all the work I carried out in that capacity went beyond party politics and was always dedicated to the needs and interests of Ontario's francophone community.
During this time period, I also held a variety of other ministerial mandates. I served successively as the Minister of Culture, Minister of Community and Social Services, Minister of Safety and Correctional Services, and finally as Attorney General of Ontario. I served on the Treasury Board and the management board of the Government of Ontario for a number of years. I promoted a rigorous approach to fiscal control. Coming from a small business family, I treated public expenditure files with the same sense of prudence and foresight that I learned from my parents, recognizing first and foremost that these were financial resources entrusted to us by all Ontarians.
I also fulfilled ministerial duties that required a high degree of professional responsibility and public accountability. At the ministries of Public Safety and Correctional Services, Community and Social Services, and the Attorney General, I dealt with highly confidential and sensitive complex files.
As the Attorney General of Ontario, it was my responsibility to ensure that all bills and all legal decisions by the government complied with the letter and spirit of the Canadian Constitution. In that capacity, I also ensured that the rule of law was upheld in the exercise of authority. In my role as the legal advisor to cabinet, I always had to act in an objective and non-partisan manner.
In terms of official languages in Canada, I believe I offer unique expertise. Over my 12 years as Ontario's Minister Responsible for Francophone Affairs, I created and maintained collaborative relationships throughout Canada's francophone community, and I developed close relations with my colleagues from other provinces. Nationally, from 2003 to 2015, I participated in every single federal, provincial, and territorial Francophonie conference. Internationally, I attended three Francophonie summits. As part of the Canadian delegation, I contributed to the discussions and to the consensus that was reached by bringing to the table the unique and positive experience of Ontario, which is home to more than 600,000 francophones, an official language minority community that is increasingly diverse and dynamic. I am originally from Quebec, so I am also familiar with Quebec's English-speaking community, its challenges, and its aspirations.
Throughout my career I have made integrity and transparency the core values of my commitment to public life. My actions and decisions have been analyzed and scrutinized by the media, the public, and various political stakeholders. At all times, I have been able to publicly demonstrate my integrity. In my 25 years of public life, I have always adhered to the strictest rules of ethics and accountability associated with the positions I have held.
In closing, if I have the privilege of holding the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, my priorities will include: making Canadians aware of the Commissioner's role, their rights and privileges under the Official Languages Act and of the remedies available them to them to ensure their rights are respected; promoting and protecting the objective nature of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages; and promoting the active offer of services to Canadians in both languages.
Official languages minority communities grow through immigration. The federal government has set some goals related to the recruitment of French-speaking immigrants in provinces and territories other than Quebec, including their reception, their integration, their training, and their retention. The Office of the Commissioner will monitor how this file evolves to ensure that the department meets the objectives that it has set for itself.
This year, Canada is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Confederation. While the celebrations are expected to reflect both official languages and the history of our country's two founding peoples, the Office of the Commissioner must ensure that departments and agencies take their language obligations fully into account in the activities and services they offer to the public.
The Official Languages Act will turn 50 soon, in 2019. It will be very important for the office of the commissioner to collaborate fully with the President of the Treasury Board and with the Minister of Canadian Heritage to modernize the act and use new technologies to extend government services to a broader public in both official languages.
Access to justice in both official languages, early childhood development, and bilingualism in the public service will be other subjects that will command the attention of the office of the commissioner.
I have just discussed the key areas of focus that lie ahead for the office of the commissioner and that will require leadership, experience, openness and impartiality. Therefore, it is with confidence, fully aware of the challenges but resolutely focused on the future, that I am prepared to assume the role of commissioner of official languages.
Thank you for your attention. I would be pleased to answer your questions.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Good morning, Ms. Meilleur. Thank you for joining us this morning.
With your long experience as a politician and a lawyer, you certainly have the skills necessary to hold this position. But that is not the question on everyone's lips at the moment; it is rather about the process that led to your appointment.
You must be aware that the contributions you made to the Liberal Party of Canada, in the past, during the party's leadership race, and in the election that Mr. Trudeau won, are publicly known. The amounts you have contributed to the Liberal Party have somewhat cast a shadow on your application, in the sense that they can be seen to be partisan.
In your remarks, you said the following:
In my 25 years of public life, I have always adhered to the strictest rules of ethics and accountability associated with the positions I have held.
Do you consider that the accountability and the ethics associated with the voluntary political contributions you have made are acceptable?
Those financial contributions were made when I was a member of the legislature and a minister. In my new position, if I become commissioner, it goes without saying that I will be non-partisan.
I would prefer people to evaluate me on what I will do. I cannot erase my 13 years of politics, of partisan politics, as a minister. That said, I feel that it is been very clearly demonstrated that my objective and my passion, as Minister of Francophone Affairs, has always been to stand up for francophones.
Since that was the objective that was always foremost in my mind, it never was about being partisan. Moreover, I was the only francophone in cabinet and I stood up for the rights of francophones. I never let my affiliation to a political party blind me to the reason for my presence in cabinet. I spoke for francophones.
I understand that this issue bothers some people, but, as I told you, I am passionate about the official languages. For 25 years, I have worked for the advancement of the francophonie, in Ontario, in the city of Ottawa, and later, inside the Government of Ontario. That is what I commit to do. I certainly recognize that the position demands the utmost integrity, I commit myself to never be partisan. I am perfectly comfortable with that.
Welcome, Ms. Meilleur. I am very happy to welcome you. As a Franco-Ontarian, I have seen your career and the important role you have played for the francophonie in Ontario.
I reread some articles that appeared when you resigned a year ago. Let me tell you about some of the comments that were made.
On June 12, 2016, Gilles LeVasseur wrote in Le Droit:
However, we have had an excellent representative of francophone reality in the Government of Ontario and a channel for francophones and francophiles.
In an article that appeared in Le Droit on June 10, 2016, François Pierre Dufault wrote about Madeleine Meilleur's legacy. He wrote:
Today, francophones have a French language services commissioner who has complete political independence and can advocate for their causes in the provincial legislature. They have a public broadcaster, TFO, that is completely independent from its English-language sister station TVO.
I have been on the TFO board. The broadcaster has the wind in its sails, precisely as a result of that decision about its independence.
I am really very proud of everything we have accomplished in Ontario in the area of francophone affairs. But I want this to be very clear; I did not do this alone. I did it with Franco-Ontarians, with members of the opposition, and with my community. I was alone in cabinet, but I felt the presence of 600,000 Franco-Ontarian men and women behind me. That gave me the strength.
You mentioned France Gélinas, with whom I have always worked in close cooperation. She is also a great defender of francophone rights in Ontario and she chairs the Ontario section of the Assemblée parlementaire de la Francophonie. Recently, I received the Order of la Pléiade. She sent me a lovely card that I wish I had brought for you today. I want to publicly thank her for the work she has done.
When I began work as a minister of francophone affairs, of course, I did not have a whole list of tasks to accomplish. Even though I had been active in the area of francophone affairs, I was new to government. It was the people who helped me to accomplish what was on my agenda, the things I wanted to get done.
The creation of the position of French language services commissioner was the biggest step forward in ensuring the permanence of services in French. It was established in two stages. Recently, I gave a speech about the creation of the position. Not everyone is in favour of the appointment of an independent and unelected officer of Parliament.
There were objections; they did not just come from the opposition but from a good number of my colleagues as well. So we set about reassuring them. In the first stage, the position was not independent. It reported to me. I was not very happy with that. I actually wanted it to be independent from the start. But a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, as they say. Although he reported to me, Commissioner Boileau always had all the independence he needed. He said so regularly in his addresses. The second stage consisted in handing over that independence to the commissioner.
TFO is a superb achievement, whose impact is felt not only in Canada, but also in the United States and elsewhere in the world. At the moment, the CEO of TFO is in South Africa to promote the channel. It is a model not only in Ontario but also for the world.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Ms. Meilleur, it's a great pleasure to have you here.
I'll go back to what you said last. You say you can't wipe out 13 years of political life. Please don't erase the effectiveness: the work you did to defend the French minority in Ontario was exceptional.
I was so touched by your application. I see that your work in defence of the Francophonie in Ontario will now extend to the whole country. How lucky to have someone who has worked so hard, who has defended the francophone and Acadian cause in Canada, and who will now be able to continue this work, but across the country. This is an exceptional thing, and I am extremely pleased that you have applied. It was a very transparent, open process, and if you had not done it, it would have been a loss to us, in my view.
There is something else I'd like to raise. I always say that the quality of a leader is not measured by political stripes. The quality of a leader is measured by the state of the situation that person is leaving and not by the situation as it was when the person arrived. That's why I'm so happy. I think that for five or seven years—I believe the mandate is seven years—if you are the successful candidate, the influence you will have on the Francophonie and in a minority setting in Canada can be very interesting.
I have two questions for you. First, what priorities do you think a Commissioner of Official Languages should have at the national level? Second, I would like to touch on education. I spent 30 years in that environment, including the past 11 years as executive director of the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial de la Nouvelle-Écosse. These are schools that have emerged from the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and continue to try to improve their service offerings. How can minority education systems continue to progress with our help, even if they fall under the jurisdiction of the provinces? How important is our government to education? Could you provide a few comments on that?
I am a great admirer of the Acadians. I always say that it is easier to speak French in Kiamika, a small village of about 250 people near Mont-Laurier, in the Laurentians, than in Acadia. If you're not familiar with Kiamika, know that no one spoke English there when I was born there or in all the years I was growing up and studying there. I came to Ontario only to study nursing and learn English, because my father thought that bilingualism was important. Because he only spoke French, it was difficult for him to conduct his activities in the business world.
That being said, the act clearly sets out the commissioner's role. However, I want to talk to you today about a very important issue: education. Minorities, both anglophones in Quebec and francophones in the rest of the country, must have a strong and accessible education system because it's the only way for them to slow down assimilation and to be able to continue speaking their language, which justifies all the investment and work that the office can do, in collaboration of course with the federal government and the Department of Canadian Heritage, both of which have a great role to play in helping minority communities.
The role of the Commissioner of Official Languages is to promote access to education and encourage the development of a good education system for all, even for minority communities where the challenges are much higher than anywhere else. This can be achieved by targeting francophone immigration, for instance, which is why Ontario has set itself a target of 5%.
When I was a minister in Ontario, I always worked very closely with the government and with the Commissioner of Official Languages to ensure not only the survival of the minority language and the promotion of linguistic duality, but also the increase in the number of francophones. There are more than 600,000 francophones, and there are different ways to increase this number.
Take, for instance, newcomers to Canada whose mother tongue is neither English nor French, but who speak French at home. We were frustrated that they weren't counted in the census. We have changed the definition of "francophone" in Ontario. The number of francophones in Ontario then rose to 50,000 because these newcomers wanted to be part of the francophone community. They did not want to be excluded because their mother tongue was not French.
Good morning, Ms. Meilleur, and welcome. We are pleased to have you here today.
You said earlier that you're from Kiamika, in the Upper Laurentians. I proudly represent the riding of Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, in the Lower Laurentians, which includes Deux-Montagnes, Saint-Eustache, Boisbriand and Rosemère. I would point out that Deux-Montagnes and Rosemère both have a minority anglophone community.
I have a question for you that has more to do with anglophones. I understand very well that there is a lot of talk about francophones, but in Quebec, there is a mirror effect when it comes to the anglophone community, which represents 14% of the population, or about a million anglophones in Quebec.
I talked about my riding, and my colleague Mr. Samson talked a lot about francophones. Based on your experience in Ontario with respect to the challenges of francophone minorities—I'm thinking in particular of the health issues you have identified with respect to the Montfort Hospital—would there be practices in Ontario that could be applied in Quebec In terms of health care or access to justice? What is your view on this for the English-speaking minority in Quebec, given that there are still differences in Quebec?
I'll start with the last ministry where I worked. Access to justice in both languages was a priority for me. When I was the Attorney General, I appointed bilingual judges because I wanted to fill that gap in Ontario.
Indeed, justice delayed is justice denied.
I tried to get this process started.
I also appointed, for the first time, a Franco-Ontarian woman chief justice of the busiest court in Canada, the Ontario Court of Justice.
First of all, I want to tell you that I know the English-speaking community of Quebec, but I would like to know it better. We have a house in Gaspésie, and I know the anglophones in that region. Nevertheless, I will book my first visit to Quebec anglophones because I know they want to meet the new commissioner
Furthermore, I was invited to a gala where we presented the Goldbloom award. I was told that people wanted to see Ontario adopt a 5% immigration goal. People would like to see the same thing in Quebec. The decline in the demographic weight of anglophones in Quebec is of concern to them.
Thank you, Ms. Lapointe.
Welcome, Ms. Meilleur. Congratulations on your background, which I had little knowledge of.
I'm an Acadian from New Brunswick, and I live as a minority, if you like, in a majority environment. I had the opportunity to do my studies, from kindergarten to law school, in my maternal language, the language of Antonine Maillet, thanks to dedicated people like you in New Brunswick, who, in the past, had understood that education was the first thing that enabled official language minority communities to be vibrant and promote themselves.
I'm not asking a trick question, but let's look at the Official Languages Act that you had to study. As you say, you met with the previous commissioner to see how it worked, what the framework was. I'm sure you've looked at all the parameters of the position, even though your duties have yet to be confirmed.
Section 52 of the act allows you to surround yourself with experts. Darrell Samson often refers to education. Since the francophone immigration objectives are pitiful and since minority communities in majority environments should be more vibrant, do you think a change could be initiated? I know you haven't yet taken office, but is there a role you could play as a new commissioner? Could you go and listen to experts who come from elsewhere, perhaps more than those who have been traditionally consulted?
I would like to commend Senator Chaput, who introduced a very ambitious bill. I hope it will be adopted one day, but it already represents a step forward.
We must not only consider the number of people in a community, but its vitality. We all have a role to play in ensuring the vitality of communities, where culture, education and health care are concerned. There are some greater challenges in this last field, because it is difficult to recruit francophone health professionals. However, we have to work at it.
I also know the communities and small villages of Ontario. I do not know the small villages of Manitoba well, with the exception of Fisher Branch, but I do know those in Ontario.
Most of the francophones in Ontario live in small villages. How can we help them to preserve their language, through funding programs or studies? I know that Mr. Fraser also carried out a study on the francophone media, more specifically on community newspapers.
We have to continue in this direction, and see to it that his recommendations are acted upon.
The called you herself. I see absolutely no reason for the Minister of Justice to be involved in the appointment of the commissioner of official languages, on the contrary, in fact. The commissioner has to go to court to defend the rights of francophones outside Quebec and the English-speaking minority in Quebec against the government, against the justice department.
So it is very worrisome for us to learn that the herself informed you of your new position, when she is not your ally. She is a person you will be required to hold to account.
I would like to end with a quote that I consider extremely important. It is from a decision by Justice Martineau, of the Federal Court of Canada. He repeated the words of the commissioner at the time, Mr. Fraser, who described his role as follows:
“As an officer of Parliament, I provide parliamentarians with unbiased advice based on objective and factual information to help them fulfill one of their important roles—that of holding the federal government accountable for its stewardship of the equal status of English and French in Canada.”
This requirement to hold the government to account is the commissioner's primary responsibility. With all we have heard today, far from being reassured, we are more convinced than ever that, based on both the form—as to the lack of consultation so clearly laid out by my Conservative colleagues—and the substance of this supposed consultation, that it would be a mistake and would undermine the credibility of the role of the commissioner of official languages to approve this appointment.