Commissioner of Official Languages—Madeleine Meilleur Received in Committee of the WholePublished on 5 June 2017 Hansard and Statements by Senator Serge Joyal
Hon. Serge Joyal:
Ms. Meilleur, I want to say before this chamber that you and I have already crossed paths during the fight to keep the Montfort Hospital open and when you were fighting to ensure that CBC/Radio-Canada be a better reflection of francophone minorities across the country.
I can only sing your praises. However, as you know, our responsibility as senators is of a different nature. We have a duty to ensure the integrity of the Commissioner of Official Languages as an institution. When I talk about the integrity of the institution, this has nothing to do with you in particular, but rather the status of the Commissioner of Official Languages.
This afternoon I reviewed the powers granted to the Commissioner of Official Languages by the legislation, and I imagine you have read them also. You fill a role, or you are being called to fill a role, as Commissioner of Official Languages, that is quasi-judicial.
Under section 62 of the act, you have the power of a superior court of record. You have the power to summon and swear in witnesses. You have the power to receive affidavits. You even have the power to enter the premises of any federal institution and conduct an investigation. You therefore have judicial powers.
In addition, under section 78, as part of your investigative duties, you have the powers of a prosecutor. To assume this responsibility, your status is equivalent to the privileges of a judge and the privileges of a crown prosecutor, all for the purposes of enforcing the Official Languages Act. You also exercise these powers on behalf of Parliament, and therefore, you must be independent of the executive and the government, free from the yoke.
The powers of the Auditor General of Canada simply don’t compare — I checked. Compared to the other six officers of Parliament, you have tremendous judicial power.
Here is my question. You told us that you are a politician who recently left your seat in the Ontario government. How can you go before Canadians and claim that you have the impartiality to exercise your tremendous power under the law independently?
I would add that you were the Attorney General of Ontario for two years. In that capacity, did you ever appoint or recommend that Cabinet appoint one of your former colleagues in government for a position such as a judgeship? Do you see the impossible situation your appointment has put us in? I know that you have studied law, so you understand that the presumption of impartiality is as important as the desire to be impartial. Parliamentarians must be fully confident that you would be able to take action against the government, the Minister of Justice or the Minister of Canadian Heritage if necessary in the exercise of your duties. How can we be assured that you have the impartiality required to carry out this extremely demanding duty, as you have seen in previous reports from the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages?
Ms. Meilleur: As I said at the outset, I served as Attorney General of Ontario. I had a duty to be impartial in my opinions, and apolitical in my actions. I would add that, in some countries, the position of Attorney General is not even a cabinet position, because the Attorney General needs to demonstrate such a degree of impartiality.
In addition, I felt completely comfortable giving opinions that were not always popular, I can assure you. I would give those opinions to my fellow ministers and even my premier. That was my responsibility, and I always fulfilled it.
Judges who have been politicians in the past are appointed. I believe it was Justice L’Heureux-Dubé who said that when these judges are appointed, they demonstrate this impartiality and deliver excellent decisions. I understand why these questions are being raised, but as I said earlier, I would rather be judged by my actions than hear that I might not be impartial. As part of my duties in the past, I have proven myself capable of being impartial. In all of the various ministries in which I served, I always fulfilled my obligation to be impartial in order to represent the individual who needed help or who needed support from a Government of Ontario program.
What I can tell you is that I was the Attorney General for two years and several months and that I carried out my duties independent from cabinet. I gave legal opinions in keeping with the law and the Constitution.
Senator Joyal: As I mentioned, we are not questioning your status as Attorney General of Ontario or the fact that you carried out those duties impartially. The problem that we have is that you are leaving a ministerial position within an elected government and you are asking us to give you responsibilities that would require you to take legal action against a government or ministers and carry out in-depth investigations under the act of a government that you have many direct connections with. You have not had the time you need to develop the neutrality or the distance that would allow you to convince us today that you are able to carry out your duties as Commissioner of Official Languages independently. Those are the issues that we have on our minds as we speak with you this evening.
Ms. Meilleur: I want to reiterate what I said. Yes, I was in politics for 25 years, including 13 years in active politics. I am very proud of my accomplishments. I have advocated and stood up for Franco-Ontarians with my peers, who did not always agree, but I was able to convince them of the merits of my proposals. Independence has always been important to me. For example, when the French Language Services Commissioner reported to me for a period of three or four years, he said time and time again that he always had the independence he needed to take action because I never interfered in an attempt to influence his decisions. That was important to me. It became much easier when I proposed that he be given legislative independence so that he could become an officer of Parliament, a proposal that received unanimous support.