Politics

Letter backing bilingualism watchdog nominee signed by key Liberals, Conservatives say

Conservatives say signatories to an open letter last week from prominent members of the francophone community in support of Madeleine Meilleur's candidacy for languages commissioner include many Liberal partisans with a vested interest in seeing a fellow Liberal take the top job.

'All of those people, they signed because they believe in Madeleine Meilleur,' letter's author says

Madeleine Meilleur, a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister, has been nominated as Canada's next official languages commissioner. But opposition parties and official language minority community groups have criticized her appointment as a case of political patronage. (The Canadian Press)

Conservatives say signatories to an open letter last week from prominent members of the francophone community in support of Madeleine Meilleur's candidacy for languages commissioner include many Liberal partisans with a vested interest in seeing a fellow Liberal take the top job.

Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly twice cited the letter in question period this week as evidence the government's nominee enjoys support within the francophone community.

"We believe the selection committee made the right choice," the 94 signatories said in the letter. "Throughout her different careers, [Meilleur] has demonstrated professionalism, judgment and especially, integrity."

But the Conservatives said many of the letter's signatories have made donations to the Liberal Party of Canada and thus it is little surprise they would back Meilleur.

Ontario Conservative MP John Brassard said it is a further sign that Meilleur's nomination has been tainted by Liberal party politics.

"It just deepens the partisan aspect of this appointment," Brassard said. "There shouldn't even be any semblance or sense that this is partisan."

Nomination doesn't pass smell test: Brassard

CBC News found that 42 of the 94 names on the letter appear to be donors to the federal Liberals, according to analysis of Elections Canada data.

The signatories and donors include not only several prominent Franco-Ontarian leaders in the areas of business, law and culture, but also people who have worked for the federal or Ontario Liberal parties. They include Pierre Cyr, the Ontario Liberal Party's operational vice-president of organization, and Noble Chummar, who previously worked for former Ontario Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty and former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin.

"I'm not surprised the minister is holding up letters signed by Liberal donors," Brassard told CBC News in an interview. "Ms. Meilleur was a Liberal donor herself."

Since 2009, Meilleur has donated more than $3,000 to the federal Liberal Party, its local campaigns, and Justin Trudeau's 2013 leadership race, according to analysis of Elections Canada data.

Ontario Conservative MP John Brassard says Madeleine Meilleur's nomination as official languages commissioner has been tainted by partisanship. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The appointment process has become too political for Meilleur to take up the position with any credibility, Brassard said.

"It's one thing to wave a letter of support in the House of Commons," Brassard said. "But the reality is that not everybody within the francophone, the Acadian and even the anglophone community is supporting this appointment."

Several organizations representing official language minority communities initially congratulated Meilleur on her nomination, but have since withdrawn their support in light of the debate as to whether the process was above board.

Earlier this week, the Société de l'Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick — a group that defends the rights of Acadians in New Brunswick — announced it will seek a judicial review of the appointment process.

'They believe in Madeleine Meilleur'

Ronald Caza, the Ottawa lawyer who rallied Meilleur's supporters to write the open letter to Joly, said he's surprised by the backlash against her nomination.

"All of those people, they signed because they believe in Madeleine Meilleur," Caza said. "We just wanted the [Canadian heritage] minister  to know that Madeleine does have all this support in the francophone community and that we're all very happy she's been nominated to play this role."

Caza, who has previously served as counsel to former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, said he wanted to give voice to those in the francophone community who know Meilleur personally and believe she's best placed to advance the interests of official language minority communities.

"Everyone who signed that letter — that's what they want," he said. "Whether they're Liberals or not is irrelevant."

Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly is defending the process that led to Meilleur's nomination as open, rigorous and merit-based. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

A spokesperson for Joly, Pierre-Olivier Herbert, said "the experience, expertise and integrity of Ms. Meilleur has been recognized by many in the official languages community across Canada."

Since Meilleur's nomination was announced on May 15, the government has had to fend accusations from the opposition that Meilleur benefited from her ties to officials in both the Prime Minister's Office and Joly's office.

Joly told the House of Commons last Wednesday that Gerald Butts and Katie Telford — two of the prime minister's top advisers — never discussed with Meilleur her nomination as official languages commissioner.

Joly has also said that none of her employees who previously worked with Meilleur or had contact with her were involved in the selection process.

Meilleur testified before a special sitting of the Senate Monday evening, defending her record and promising to put the languages post ahead of party politics. Under the Official Languages Act, a language commissioner must be approved by a vote in both the House of Commons and Senate before he or she can start the job.

A vote in the Senate will be held at a later date.

With files from the CBC's John Paul Tasker

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