Politics

Former candidates for bilingualism post criticize nomination process as harmful, divisive

After losing their bid to become Canada’s next bilingualism watchdog, former candidates say the government’s nomination process has divided the country’s official language minority communities and undermines the office of the official languages commissioner.

Critics say flawed nomination process has tarnished Madeleine Meilleur's legitimacy

Embattled official languages commissioner-designate Madeleine Meilleur faces questions from critics, who say the nomination process has divided the very communities Meilleur would be asked to serve. (The Canadian Press)

After losing their bid to become Canada's next official languages commissioner, former candidates say the nomination process has divided official language minority communities and undermines the office of the bilingualism watchdog.

"Unfortunately, it's become too political at this point," said Michel Doucet, a law professor at the Université de Moncton. "I'm certainly preoccupied that this might have caused irreparable harm to the official languages commissioner's position."

Doucet was among 10 candidates who completed further tests after interviewing for the commissioner's job in March. He eventually lost out to former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister Madeleine Meilleur, whose nomination earlier this month has sparked controversy over her Liberal ties.

Michel Doucet, an official languages expert at the Université de Moncton, says the nomination process for the official languages commissioner is flawed and should be fixed to avoid future controversies. (Jacques Poitras/CBC News)

Opposition parties have fiercely criticized the appointment, after Meilleur said she spoke with two of the prime minister's top advisers about wanting to become a senator or a commissioner. The Liberal government maintains that Katie Telford and Gerald Butts never discussed the languages commissioner nomination with Meilleur.

Meilleur took another hit this week, with reports that two of her former employees from her time at Queen's Park now work for Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly — the same minister who conducted the final round of interviews for the commissioner's post. Joly said the two staff members were not involved in the commissioner selection process.

Conservative and New Democratic MPs renewed their attack in the House of Commons Friday, peppering the government in question period.

"When is the minister going to realize that Ms. Meilleur has already lost all credibility before day one, and that it's high time the selection process was started again in an honest and apolitical way?" asked Quebec Conservative MP Sylvie Boucher.

Kelly Cryderman, Althia Raj, Aaron Wherry and Paul Wells dig into the whether or not it is appropriate for the government to appoint a former Ontario Liberal Cabinet Minister to a non-partisan federal position 9:24

Both the Conservatives and the NDP say they were not properly consulted on the appointment, as required by the Official Languages Act.

"Nobody has attacked Ms. Meilleur herself, but people have been asking questions about the process," said Doucet. "I believe [the process] can be improved in the future to ensure that this political brouhaha doesn't happen again."

Nomination splits francophone communities

Doucet's comments come after more than 120 members of Ontario's francophone community signed an open letter to the Heritage Minister endorsing Meilleur's candidacy.

"We believe the selection committee made the right choice," the letter says in French. "Throughout her different careers, [Meilleur] has demonstrated professionalism, judgment and especially, integrity."

Speaking on behalf of the letter's signatories, Ronald Caza, former director of Ottawa's francophone Montfort Hospital, said the nomination has become "unnecessarily political."

He defended Meilleur's career with the Ontario Liberal Party, saying her work to defend francophone rights as a provincial cabinet minister directly contributed to her nomination.

But it's precisely Meilleur's recent political history that has another former candidate worried about how the nomination is being received in francophone communities.

"Some people will take a certain stance, because of their political affiliation," said Marie-Claude Rioux, one of 12 candidates interviewed from a pool of 72 applicants. "They don't see the bigger picture of what is best for the Acadian and francophone communities. For me, that's the saddest part of this situation."

Marie-Claude Rioux, executive director of Nova Scotia's Acadian Federation, says she wonders what role Meilleur's Liberal affiliation may have played in her selection as Canada's next official languages commissioner. (CBC)

Several groups representing official language minority communities — including the Fédération des communautés francophone et acadienne and the Quebec Community Groups Network — initially congratulated Meilleur on her nomination, but now worry that the appearance of partisanship might influence her ability to act impartially.

Access to PMO officials

Rioux wonders what role Meilleur's political connections may have played in her selection.

"It's not as if I can go to Ottawa every day and have a coffee with Gerry Butts," she said, referring to Meilleur's exchanges with the prime minister's principal secretary.

"Whether or not that made a difference in her selection, I don't know — but one can ask questions," Rioux said.

Meanwhile, Yvon Godin, a former New Brunswick NDP MP, says Meilleur's recent political history seriously undermines the legitimacy of her candidacy.

"If she doesn't qualify to be a senator because she isn't independent enough," asks Godin, "how can [the Liberals] claim she's independent enough to be the commissioner of official languages?"

Earlier this month, Meilleur revealed she initially hoped to land a seat in the Senate after leaving provincial politics in June 2016, until Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told her he would not appoint politicians who had recently left office to the Red Chamber.

Former New Brunswick NDP MP Yvon Godin says Meilleur's recent political past should disqualify her from becoming Canada's next bilingualism watchdog. (The Canadian Press)

Godin, who served on the Standing Committee for Official Languages for 17 of his 18 years in the House of Commons, submitted a formal complaint to the interim commissioner of official languages earlier this week.

"We never had a problem for 45 years, until Mr. Trudeau decided to put one of his friends there," Godin said. "I'm just sick and tired of partisanship. I just want the process to be right."

Meanwhile, Rioux said it's up to Meilleur to prove she can be non-partisan, neutral and independent.

"I've turned the page. I'm somewhere else right now," she said. "Quite frankly, I wouldn't want to be in her shoes. It's not fun to start a mandate without a clean slate."

The Senate will hear from Meilleur on Monday evening as it deliberates on her appointment.

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