French Language Services Commissioner Kelly Burke today is urging the province to improve the planning for the provision of French language services across the government. She recommends that each ministry produce French language services plans.
In her first annual report, released today, Commissioner Burke notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted shortcomings in the provision of services in French, as demonstrated by the complaints received by the French Language Services Unit, which she leads at the Office of the Ombudsman.
The cases indicate that a lack of services in French is generally related to a shortage of human resources, the absence or lack of knowledge of policies and procedures, and the unavailability of material resources such as templates in French.
“The majority of the complaints we dealt with could have been resolved if adequate planning for the provision of French language services had been done. The pandemic has exacerbated these issues and has highlighted the need for the government to assess how planning for the provision of French language services is being carried out,” said the Commissioner.
“The complainants told us that they were concerned about not having access to essential information in French to respond adequately,” she said. “I strongly believe that special planning is required to address these shortcomings and the resulting breaches of obligations.”
Her main recommendations call on the government to require each ministry to produce a plan for the improvement of French language services. She also recommends that the Minister of Francophone Affairs report annually on the implementation of these plans, starting in the spring of 2022.
The Commissioner notes that under the French Language Services Act, each deputy minister is accountable to the Executive Council regarding the availability and the quality of French language services within his or her ministry. The Act also provides for French language services coordinators to support deputy ministers in meeting their obligations. Research by the Commissioner’s team indicates that there is currently no standardized process to assist deputy ministers to meet their obligations.
The capacity to offer services in French for frontline services must also be regularly evaluated and improved, she points out. To this end, her other recommendations focus on the proper management of human resources, regular verification of staff capabilities and knowledge, and strategies for the simultaneous provision of information in both languages.
The Commissioner’s annual report presents details of some of the 431 complaints received by the French Language Services Unit from May 1, 2019 – when the powers of the Office of the Ombudsman were expanded to include oversight of French language services – to September 30, 2020. (Future annual reports will cover a 12-month period from October 1 to September 30.) Complaints were categorized into two areas: Communications and government services.
The report recounts numerous cases where the French Language Services Unit and the Commissioner succeeded in resolving complaints quickly and often proactively in many areas, including non-jurisdictional areas. In the non-jurisdictional areas, the report highlights the Unit’s proactive outreach to the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health to find solutions to the lack of French language information about COVID-19 on the websites of many regional public health units. The report also notes how approaches to Cabinet Office resulted in the use of bilingual signage on cabinet ministers’ lecterns at public announcements.
“I am very proud to report that we have seen results that confirm our work has already had an impact on the lives of many Franco-Ontarians,” notes the Commissioner. “I remain committed, ready to work with the government, Ontario’s Francophones and all the people who have an interest in protecting and preserving our province’s Francophonie.”
The Commissioner stressed that the Office of the Ombudsman is uniquely positioned to resolve issues related to the implementation of the French Language Services Act, and that going forward, it will examine the thousands of complaints handled each year to identify opportunities to strengthen French language services in all areas. “I have been able to assess the advantages to working within the Office of the Ombudsman, with its vast jurisdiction,” she writes. “We are laying the foundation for a unique pillar of oversight in Canada.”
About the Office of the Ombudsman: The Ombudsman is an independent and impartial officer of the Ontario Legislature, who reviews and resolves complaints from the public about provincial government agencies, as well as French language services, child protection services, municipalities, universities and school boards. The Ombudsman does not overturn the decisions of elected officials or set public policy, but makes recommendations to ensure administrative fairness, transparency and accountability. The Ombudsman’s recommendations have been overwhelmingly accepted by the government, resulting in numerous reforms.
About the French Language Services Unit: Ontario’s French Language Services Act has been in effect since 1989. It guarantees the language rights of Franco-Ontarians through the provision of French language services by the provincial government in head offices and in designated areas of the province. The role of the French Language Services Commissioner was established in 2007. In 2019, new legislation transferred the Commissioner’s responsibilities to the Ombudsman, requiring the Ombudsman to appoint a Deputy Ombudsman, called the French Language Services Commissioner. The Commissioner leads the French Language Services Unit – a team of Early Resolution Officers, Investigators and research staff that is fully supported by the Ombudsman’s Legal Services, Communications, Finance, Information Technology and Human Resources teams. The Commissioner and the Director of Operations, French Language Services Unit, are members of the Ombudsman’s Executive Management Team.