(TORONTO – December 7, 2023) French Language Services Commissioner Carl Bouchard today called on Ontario government ministries and agencies to train all frontline staff on how and why they are required to provide services in French. They should also ensure their social media accounts are in French as well as English, the Commissioner recommends in releasing his 2022-2023 Annual Report.
The Commissioner’s report reviews the 386 cases received by the French Language Services Unit within the Office of the Ombudsman of Ontario, between October 1, 2022 and September 30, 2023. This represents a 40% increase in complaints and inquiries over the same period last year, and is the highest yearly total since the Ombudsman’s Office was given responsibility for monitoring compliance with the French Language Services Act in 2019.
“Francophones in Ontario are increasingly turning to the French Language Services Unit within the Ombudsman’s Office to resolve issues in accessing government services in French,” the Commissioner writes in the report. “This report is full of examples showing how the application of the Ombudsman approach to resolving complaints has made it possible to improve services in French and effectively promote language rights in Ontario.”
Mr. Bouchard was appointed Commissioner by Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé on Monday, December 4, after serving as Interim Commissioner for the past nine months, and Director of Operations of the French Language Services Unit since February 2020. (The report refers to him by the “Interim” title, as it was completed prior to this appointment.)
A key theme of his report is the “tangible results” that the French Language Services Unit and the entire team at the Ombudsman’s Office have achieved for Francophones. These include individual examples of service improvements that will benefit French-speaking Ontarians in future, comments from complainants and public servants who were positively affected, and proactive efforts by the Unit to address persistent problems.
This proactive work led to the four new recommendations Commissioner Bouchard makes in the report. (Under the French Language Services Act, the Commissioner makes recommendations annually to improve government services in French.)
For example, after Regulation 544/22 came into effect in April, setting out the requirements for the “active offer” of all provincial services in French, the Unit flagged the fact that many government agencies’ social media accounts were in English only. The Commissioner recommends the Ministry of Francophone Affairs develop guidelines for all agencies to ensure their social media accounts comply with the regulation.
He also recommends improved training so that all frontline staff are aware of how to handle requests for French language services. In many of the cases that the French Language Services Unit resolved, “the real issue was not that service in French was not available; it was that staff either did not know how to provide such service or were unaware they were required to do so,” he writes in the report.
Commissioner Bouchard urges Treasury Board to direct government ministries and agencies to train and regularly remind frontline staff about their French language services obligations. “These recommendations draw on cases we have handled and are meant to address the underlying issues, thereby preventing similar occurrences in the future,” he writes.
He also provides an update on all 30 recommendations made by the Office since 2020. These include 11 recommendations in Annual Reports and 19 in the 2022 investigation report Strengthening the Designation, regarding Laurentian University’s cuts to French-language programming during its financial restructuring in 2021.
The government has accepted all of these recommendations and has made great strides in implementing them, he reports. For example:
Each ministry now plans its French language services in a systematic and standard way;
All of the government’s general public job postings on its website will be required to be in both English and French in the coming months; and
The Ministry of Francophone Affairs has developed a plan to update the list of organizations designated under the French Language Services Act in Regulation 398/93.
“These steps in the right direction give us good reason to be optimistic about things to come,” the Commissioner writes.
The three organizations that were the subject of the most cases were:
The Ministry of Colleges and Universities (35.8%)
The Ministry of Transportation (6.7%)
The Ministry of Public and Business Service Delivery (6.1%)
Several of the successful case resolutions will have lasting benefits, the Commissioner notes. For example:
The Ministry of Transportation implemented a new system for information about driving conditions as a result of a driver’s complaint about garbled messages in French.
The resolution of a patient’s complaint about the lack of services in French in the emergency room of a hospital (which was designated to provide them under the FLSA) prompted reminders about the hospital’s emergency services protocol for Francophones.
Commissioner Bouchard also launched a systemic investigation on his own motion in July, in response to complaints about the lack of French in government billboards and other out-of-home advertising. That investigation is still in progress.
Engaging with Franco-Ontarians to hear about their experiences and concerns has been a priority for the Commissioner, who met with more than 60 organizations and hundreds of individuals over the past nine months at a wide range of events across the province. The groups ranged from those in education, health care, business and law sectors, to others representing seniors, women, the 2SLGBTQ+ community, newcomers and various community organizations reflective of the plurality and intersectionality of Ontario’s Francophonie, as well as local and regional associations.
“I am committed to staying connected with Francophones to ensure that calling our Office becomes a reflex for them whenever they find their language rights are not respected,” he says in the report.
About the Office of the Ombudsman: The Ombudsman is an independent and impartial officer of the Ontario Legislature. Under the Ombudsman Act, the Ombudsman reviews and resolves complaints and inquiries from the public about provincial government organizations, 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 investigations have benefited millions of Ontarians and prompted widespread reforms, including better newborn screening, a more secure lottery system, more tracking of inmates in segregation, and improvements to the Landlord and Tenant Board.
About the Commissioner and French Language Services Unit: The role of the Commissioner is to monitor compliance with the French Language Services Act (FLSA) by government agencies and institutions of the Legislature. As part of the Ombudsman’s Office, the Commissioner is completely independent of government, political parties, individual complainants and interest groups. The Commissioner has the power to investigate on his own initiative and to make recommendations to improve the delivery of French language services. The French Language Services Unit is a team of Early Resolution Officers and Investigators that is supported by the Ombudsman’s Legal Services, Communications, Finance and Information Technology and People and Culture teams.
For more information, please contact:
Communications Manager, French Language Services and Children & Youth Units
Communications Officer, French Language Services Unit