Meilleur could be best official languages commissioner we never had

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Madeleine Meilleur was bullied out of the job last week simply because she recently stepped down as a member of the Liberal cabinet of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.


First published on Monday, June 12, 2017 in The Hill Times.


OTTAWA—Former Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield is called the best prime minister we never had.

Madeleine Meilleur could follow his lead as the best official languages commissioner we never had.

Meilleur was bullied out of the job last week simply because she recently stepped down as a member of the Liberal cabinet of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Former Conservative cabinet minister Lawrence Cannon went right from government to an ambassadorial position, as did former New Democratic Premier Gary Doer. Both nominees served with distinction, and were able to set aside their partisan histories in the interest of the country.

Meilleur, a respected francophone, would have been a fantastic official languages commissioner.

The commissioner’s job is not as high profile as that of ambassador, but it requires a devotion far beyond any diplomatic posting.

I was approached about the same appointment by prime minister Stephen Harper many years ago, when a mutual friend got in touch to test my interest.

I replied that I would rather stick pins in my eyes than assume responsibility for official language laws across the country. It is a tough job but somebody has to do it.

Most people understand the role of ambassador. Few Canadians have a clue as to what the official languages commissioner even does.

It involves devoting all your energy to fighting an uphill battle against federally-regulated bodies that regularly flaunt official bilingualism.

Meilleur is a diehard minority defender. She would definitely have put the survival of her people ahead of any political loyalty.

In her early life, Meilleur was an emergency room nurse, at the Montfort Hospital, Ottawa’s only uniquely French-speaking institution. She subsequently went on to study law, and her legal background stood her in good stead when she worked with the local community to save the Montfort from closure by the Ontario Health Services Restructuring Commission.

More than 10,000 supporters gathered to protest against the decision, in a movement called SOS Montfort. To this day, it remains one of the largest minority language rallies in the history of Canada.

During that time, Meilleur was a well-respected Ottawa city councillor, representing the largely francophone ward of Vanier. Vanier also happened to include some of the poorest postal codes in the country. Meilleur was their champion, as she served on the French Language Services Advisory Committee. She even received a United Way award as a community builder.

Throughout her career, she has been recognized as one of those politicians who is always more interested in public policy than in scoring political points.

When her candidacy for the official language commissioner post was reviewed by parliamentarians, even her most vocal opponents had only one reason to oppose her, that of political affiliation.

Had Meilleur not stepped aside, she would have been an excellent commissioner. In her 13 years in provincial politics, she was beloved by her constituents, being easily re-elected by increasing majorities.

While in cabinet, she was popular and respected. She was never associated with any whiff of controversy, and she piled up successful records in multiple ministries. Meilleur eventually rose to become Ontario’s first francophone attorney general.

By any standard, the 68-year-old former politician could have basked in her retirement freedom. But it was her passion for francophone advancement that lead her to apply for this challenging position.

The federal government will be hard pressed to find any replacement with the qualities and qualifications of Meilleur.

The biggest losers in this fiasco are anglophones in Quebec and francophones across the rest of the country who have lost an extremely effective defender of their rights.

From the establishment of French language education across the country, to the full provision of English language federal government services in Quebec, it is the role of the commissioner to help hold governments to account.

The former Harper Conservative government didn’t even bother to consider the importance of bilingualism when filling important judicial and governor in council positions.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, borne into a bilingual family, believes deeply in the need for minority language protection. Meilleur would have been a tour de force in making sure that reality was reflected across all government services.

Most commission work is focused on reviewing Crown corporations and government agencies that attempt to bypass official language laws. French language in Canada ‘s aviation system, and public service offerings in both languages are standard fare for complaint and examination.

Meilleur would have been an incredible commissioner. Her resignation is a huge loss, especially for minority communities in Canada.


Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.