Politics

Bilingualism watchdog nominee never discussed post with Trudeau's top advisers: Joly

Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly said her government's pick to be the next Commissioner of Official Languages never spoke with two of the prime minister's top advisers about her nomination.

Opposition hammers Heritage Minister on official languages commissioner appointment

Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly says the government's pick for the position of official languages commissioner, Madeleine Meilleur, did not speak with two of the Prime Minister's closest advisers about the post. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly said her government's pick to be the next Commissioner of Official Languages never spoke with two of the prime minister's top advisers about her nomination.

Joly made the comments Wednesday in question period, prompting a broadside from the opposition benches over the decision to nominate Madeleine Meilleur, a former Ontario Liberal  MPP and provincial cabinet minister, as the country's bilingualism watchdog.

Conservative and New Democratic MPs hammered away at the Heritage Minister, who rose no less than 13 times in the House of Commons to respond to accusations that the appointment process is flawed, partisan, and rigged.

"Nobody believes that Madeleine Meilleur is objective," said Ontario Conservative MP John Brassard. "She's a donor to the Liberal Party, [she has] given money to the prime minister's leadership campaign, and [she's] a former Liberal cabinet minister."

Madeleine Meilleur has been nominated as the country's official languages commissioner. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

A longtime Ontario Liberal and advocate for francophone rights, Meilleur retired from politics last June after representing the provincial riding of Ottawa-Vanier for 13 years.

She was formally nominated as the country's official languages commissioner earlier this month, but the proposed appointment has been embroiled in controversy over Meilleur's Liberal affiliation.

Meeting with PMO advisers

During question period Wednesday Joly was asked if Meilleur had ever met with senior PMO staffers Katie Telford or Gerald Butts to discuss the possibility of taking the position of official languages commissioner. 

Joly responded by saying that neither Telford nor Butts had spoken to Meilleur about taking the position. 

Conservative MP Mark Strahl quoted from a transcript of a May 18 parliamentary committee hearing in which Meilleur said she had, in fact, spoken to Butts about the job. 

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

"On May 18, at the official languages committee, the leader of the NDP asked, 'Who in the Liberal Party did you speak to about wanting to become a senator or commissioner?' Madam Meilleur said, 'I spoke to Gerald Butts.' Why did the minister of Canadian heritage call Madam Meilleur a liar?" Strahl asked.

An examination of the transcript appears to show that Meilleur had asked Butts about the job but was told she had to apply through the process. 

"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, replying to Strahl's question. "This discussion never took place."

Languages post was never discussed: PMO

In a statement issued later in the day a spokesperson for the Prime Minister's Office said "the position of commissioner of official languages was never discussed during the meetings with members of the Prime Minister's Office that Ms. Meilleur mentioned."

According to the statement, Meilleur twice met informally with members of the prime minister's team whom she knew from her time as a minister. These meetings took place "well before the selection process for a new commissioner of official languages was launched," said the statement.

The statement also said another meeting with Meilleur took place at the request of the Prime Minister's Office, but only for the purpose of discussing the issue of Ottawa as a bilingual city.

Rocky appointment process

The Liberals took office promising to institute a new government-wide appointment process that would be open and merit-based.

During question period, Joly defended Meilleur's 30-year record as a champion for the protection and promotion of official languages, pointing to her role in saving Ottawa's francophone Montfort Hospital as well as her work to launch the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner in Ontario.

"We know that the candidate that came out of this thorough, merit-based process is a good candidate," the Heritage Minister said.

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