Politics

'I've always been fully impartial': Madeleine Meilleur says she'll put languages post ahead of party politics

Madeleine Meilleur faced her critics in the Senate Monday evening, defending her integrity and vowing to put the position of languages commissioner ahead of her Liberal partisanship.

Acadian rights group seeking judicial review of former Ontario Liberal's appointment to $300K-a-year job

Madeleine Meilleur, a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister, has been nominated as the country's official language commissioner. She must be approved for the job by the House and Senate, but is facing questions about her Liberal partisanship. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

Madeleine Meilleur faced her critics in the Senate Monday evening, defending her integrity and vowing to put the position of language commissioner ahead of her Liberal partisanship.

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 on a later date, to be determined by the government's representative in the Senate, Peter Harder.

Meilleur said that although she met with two of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's top lieutenants — Gerry Butts and Katie Telford — after leaving her cabinet job in the Ontario Liberal government, she said they did not give her a leg up during the "rigorous" application process.

She said it was the current official languages commissioner, Graham Fraser, who suggested she apply for the $308,600-a-year job.

The conversation with Telford was "general, generic," and they simply talked about how to get more women involved in public service, Meilleur said. "In no way was I trying to upset the process, I was just told there is a process and it's rigorous."

Meilleur said she knew Butts, the prime minister's principal secretary, and Telford, Trudeau's chief of staff, because they had both worked for former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty. "When I left politics I placed a call or two because I thought it be might be useful to get together with [Butts and Telford]. I had left the public domain, but I still wanted to serve."

Heritage Minister Melanie Joly has insisted in question period that Meilleur never met with either Butts or Telford to discuss the languages posting.

"I would like to clarify the fact that Telford and Butts never discussed with Madeleine Meilleur the fact that she would become Official Languages Commissioner," Joly told the House in French last Wednesday. "This discussion never took place."

Meilleur​ initially sought Senate seat

Despite the barrage of criticism from opposition MPs, Meilleur said she has always been impartial even when serving in a Liberal cabinet. "I always put Franco-Ontarians first, their rights were beyond partisanship," she said in French. "In my prior positions, I have always been fully impartial."

Meilleur had initially sought a Senate seat, but said Monday she bowed out after she realized it would be "impossible" given the government's new nonpartisan merit-based application process for the upper house. Conservative Quebec Senator Ghislain Maltais asked whether the language posting was a booby prize for failing to meet the criteria for a Senate appointment.

It's not a consolation prize, it's the golden apple.- Madeleine Meilleur

"It's not a consolation prize, it's the golden apple and I get to work on francophone rights as I have done for 25 years," Meilleur said.

Now, Meilleur will have to rely on those who made it through that Senate nomination process to back her bid for language commissioner.

The longtime Ottawa-area MPP said she served as francophone affairs minister for 12 years and knows well the challenges facing francophone minority communities in Ontario and across the country.

She said she helped boost francophone immigration levels to the province, fought to separate the provincially owned French-language television network TFO from its English equivalent, TVO, and pushed to provide judicial services in French. Meilleur said she did this despite opposition from some of her fellow Liberal colleagues, who weren't all "Francophiles."

Conservatives, Independents question appointments process

Conservative Senate Leader Larry Smith said he did not doubt her qualifications for the job, but rather took issue with a process that smacks of partisan backslapping. "The problem that exists in my simple mind is that you haven't done anything wrong, but the process is in question," the former CFL footballer said.

"There's an optics issue that exists today and that challenges the credibility of the executive," he added.

Meilleur said she understood the criticism, but defended her appointment by saying her application process was much more strenuous than the "very light" one Fraser went through when he was appointed by former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Conservative Senate Leader Larry Smith says Meilleur is qualified for the job, but there is a problem of optics with the appointment of a Liberal partisan to an officer of Parliament position. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Meilleur also faced tough questions from members of the Independent Senators Group (ISG), many of whom were only recently appointed by Trudeau. Both Independent Quebec Senator Eric Forest and Independent Ontario Senator Lucie Moncion asked Meilleur what she would do to reassure Canadians that she would be an objective officer of Parliament after meeting with top Liberals ahead of the job application.

"I'd prefer to be judged on my actions, and convince you and others that as a politician, I've always put interest of community first," she told Forest. "I want the position, I have a lot of ideas, I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about what I'll be doing for minority groups." Meilleur said that she was prepared to rule against the Liberal government if it breaches the rights of minority-language communities.

Acadian rights group to seek judicial review

La Société de l'Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick, a group that defends the rights of Acadians in that province, announced Monday it is seeking a judicial review of the government's pick, because it says the process did not adequately consult members of the opposition and the Senate.

"Ms. Meilleur's appointment was a process strongly influenced by partisanship, something that undermines the credibility and the influence of the office. There is increasing evidence that the nomination process and the selection process is deeply flawed," society president Kevin Arseneau said in a French statement sent to reporters.

"Impartiality and integrity of the officers of Parliament cannot be tainted in any way," he said, calling for a new process to pick another commissioner. "The SANB will file an application for judicial review in Federal Court in the coming days."

As CBC News reported Saturday, other finalists for the job believed they were passed over because they did not have strong ties to the Liberal Party. "I'm certainly preoccupied that this might have caused irreparable harm to the official languages commissioner's position," Michel Doucet, a law professor at the Université de Moncton, said in an interview.

Joly has defended Meilleur against such criticism, citing her advocacy for French-language services in the province of Ontario, and her fight against the closure of the Montfort Hospital in Ottawa, as proof the longtime member of the Ontario Legislature is uniquely qualified to protect language rights.

Canada's heritage minister was forced to defend her government's plan to appoint Madeleine Meilleur as Official Languages Commissioner including whether she is being put forward because she was an Ontario Liberal MPP. 0:40

"She has the expertise and the experience," Joly said. "I would like, also, to remind my colleagues that 95 leaders of the francophone community called upon this House to stop the political games and make sure to support Madeleine Meilleur because she is a very good candidate."

The repeated defence of Meilleur has done little to put critics at ease.

"The Liberals have managed to do the impossible," said Ontario Conservative MP John Brassard in question period Monday. "They've turned this election of a non-partisan appointment into one of the most divisive issues in years among Acadian and francophone communities."

Brassard also attacked the government's nomination as political patronage, pointing to Meilleur's record as a donor to the Liberal Party of Canada.

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

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

With files from the CBC's Marc-André Cossette