A discussion between Commissioners Kosseim and Burke about the challenges and opportunities of reaching out to Franco-Ontarians in Ontario, including outreach and networking tips and potential future collaborations between their offices to engage this unique audience and increase awareness of their rights when it comes to language, access, and privacy. (Recorded in French)
Welcome to another episode of Info Matters. Thank you for joining us. Today we celebrate the Franco-Ontarian population on International Francophonie Day. Here in Ontario, we are blessed with a vibrant and dynamic Francophone community. More than half a million people in our province identify French as their first language, while more than one and a half million call themselves bilingual.
It is with great pride, therefore, that we consider ourselves Franco-Ontarians. The French Language Services Act recognizes the French language as having played a historic role in Ontario and specifies that French has the status of an official language before the courts in education and in the Legislative Assembly. Francophones in Ontario have the right to receive public services in French. In addition to these language rights, they also have rights related to access to information and the protection of their privacy. Promoting these fundamental rights among the Franco-Ontarian population is not an academic matter. It matters, and it really matters.
My guest today is Kelly Burke, Deputy Ombudsman and French Language Services Commissioner of Ontario. A lawyer by training, Ms. Burke has held senior positions in several ministries during an illustrious career with the Ontario government. In January 2020, she became the first person to be appointed French Language Services Commissioner in the Office of the Ombudsman. Don’t let her name fool you. She is a proud and active member of Ontario’s Francophone community and a passionate advocate for Francophone rights. Commissioner Burke, welcome.
Thank you, Patricia. A great pleasure to be here with you today.
It’s really a great pleasure for me too to have been able to arrange this interview with you, especially on this International Francophonie Day. This is a milestone anniversary to highlight the importance of the French language and Francophone culture. I know that you have played a significant role in the past, Kelly, which has contributed to increasing its relevance to the people of Ontario. Can you tell us a little bit about that history?
Yes. First of all, I’d like to acknowledge International Francophone Day and give you an overview of how this day was created in 1988. It is a day dedicated to the French language by the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF). The French language has an important place among languages. It is a symbol of culture and creativity and a vector of democracy and humanism, according to UNESCO.
The OIF places French culture and language at the foundation of any sustainable effort for peace and development. Canada has been a member of the OIF since 1970 and Ontario has been an observer member since 2016. I had the great privilege, when I was Assistant Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Francophone Affairs, of working to secure observer membership in the OIF. The symbolism that represents the Francophonie of the province of Ontario is identified by the monument in Queens Park, which was dedicated to Franco-Ontarians and represents a legacy of the commemoration of 400 years of French presence in the province of Ontario. The colours on the north side of the panels are inspired by the flags of Francophone countries.
But the Journée internationale de la francophonie is more than a symbol in Ontario, Patricia. It’s a celebration that allows Francophones around the world to express their diversity and reaffirm their pride in their identity.
Very interesting. I can’t wait, the next time I drive by Queens Park, to look for that monument and observe it carefully in the light of the beautiful description you gave us. So, thank you for that history, Kelly.
It’s also interesting to note on a personal level that we had a similar career path that led you and I to our current roles as commissioners in Ontario, one of the things we have in common, of course, is the importance of the French language in our training as leaders and in the various senior roles that we’ve been able to perform in the public service over the years. Do you agree with me, Kelly?
Yes, absolutely, and I’m in very good company with you, Patricia, both Commissioners, members of the Ontario Bar and we provide leadership in both official languages of the country. What a privilege! You couldn’t ask for more. I have always wanted to practice my profession in French. Being able to work in both official languages of the country is a source of pride for us in our work. At the beginning of my career, I was a teacher in French immersion programs. Later, I was a lawyer, who worked for a long time in the field of labour and employment. But one of my priorities has always been to promote access to justice in French, as a lawyer, as a senior official, as an Assistant Deputy Minister and now as Commissioner.
An ability to work in both languages has really been an asset for me. It is part of who I am as a person, as a Franco-Ontarian and as a Canadian. I encourage young people to continue their studies in French and to continue their post-secondary studies in French. This is the next generation that we rely on to provide services in French in the future and to protect the language and culture for future generations.
So, for those listening today, can you describe the mandate of your office and what you do on a day-to-day basis?
Absolutely, with pleasure. Like you, we protect the rights of citizens. My mandate is to protect language rights. The role is to ensure that Francophones have access to the French-language services to which they are entitled. The rights are prescribed by the French Language Services Act and the important role I am called upon to play is to monitor the application of the French Language Services Act. I have the right to deal with complaints about the quality and delivery of French language services by the government, its agencies and third parties.
Our goal is to improve the offer, delivery and quality of French language services. So, my recommendations in my annual report are aimed at improving the delivery of services in French. I am motivated by a simple phrase: equivalent service without delay, please. The related roles that I play are obviously the educational role for the population and the government, a liaison role between the community and government agencies. I conduct investigations, monitoring an important role that I do, I report on an annual basis and finally I make recommendations to improve French language services in the province of Ontario.
So, for my part, Kelly, as you know, as Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, I have a mandate to protect the rights of Ontarians to access information and privacy. And like you, we are educating Ontarians about these rights. We receive complaints from people who believe that public institutions, for example, in Ontario have violated their rights and we investigate them, as you do.
In fact, at the beginning of my mandate, I made a commitment to reach out to Ontarians and particularly to Franco-Ontarians, since I am the first Information and Privacy Commissioner in Ontario to be bilingual in at least several decades. That is part of the reason why I wanted to speak to you today, to learn more about the Franco-Ontarian population and, as you surely know better than I do, it is here in Ontario that we have the largest Francophone minority in Canada. But I would much rather ask you to paint a richer, more nuanced portrait of Franco-Ontarians as a people and as a cultural community. Who are they, after all?
The French presence has existed in Ontario for over 400 years. There are more than 622,000 Francophones in Ontario and the Francophonie represents 4.7% of the total population of Ontario. So, it is the largest population in Canada outside of Quebec in terms of the number of Francophones in the province. Eighty percent of Francophones live in designated regions in the province of Ontario, and the regions with the highest concentration of Francophones are in the east, in the north and, increasingly, in the centre of the city of Toronto.
The Francophone community is a vibrant and committed community. There are newcomers too, many newcomers who are looking for French services in Ontario. Seniors in long-term care homes, families looking for services in French in the health sector. Citizens who see a kiosk at ServiceOntario that offers them services in French. A truck driver looking for French signage on the highway. Our efforts are helping to promote this Francophonie.
I’ve given you a very small flavour of what exists in our Francophonie, but it’s a perspective that I take into account when I do my daily work.
Thanks, Kelly. Obviously, most Franco-Ontarians live outside the Greater Toronto Area, although that’s starting to change, as you rightly point out. But your office and my office happen to be in Toronto, that’s the reality. So how do you reach Francophones to make them aware of their language rights, especially in a predominantly English-speaking society? What methods have you used or are you using to reach the Francophone public in Ontario and through what networks, Kelly, are you successfully meeting this challenge?
Well, as you said, Toronto is becoming more and more of a centre for newcomers, and Francophones who have been here in Ontario for a long time are heading for the big cities. I think we have to distinguish between what happened before the pandemic and what has happened since. My preference, of course, is to meet the Francophone community in person as much as I can. In January 2020, I went out to meet Franco-Ontarians all over the province, in Sudbury, in Ottawa, in Mississauga. Since then, of course, we have been using only remote communications during this pandemic. But there are so many ways now, Patricia, that we can communicate. It’s amazing how we’ve been able to reach out to the community during this time when we’re working remotely.
We have messages and press releases that are posted on our website. Press conferences that are broadcast on YouTube. This is the way I sent my messages when I filed my annual report in December. We have created videos also on our own initiative. I shot videos on what the Commissioner does on a daily basis, so the Commissioner’s minutes, in the autumn, which enabled us to reach our target audience.
Subsequently, we have also, at the request of external organizations, shot videos and I did this last month for Black History Month. There are monthly bilingual electronic newsletters from the Ombudsman’s Office. There is also participation in events, events that affect the entire province, such as the Centre francophone de Toronto, which sets up initiatives from time to time and in which I participate. There is always the possibility of speeches. As I mentioned, yesterday, during the session of the Société économique de l’Ontario, I was able to make a presentation and highlight the work that francophone women entrepreneurs in the province are doing. I also made presentations in the fall to the Retraités en action in Ottawa and the Regroupement francophone d’Ottawa, which also welcomed me to describe the work I do as Commissioner.
I participate in several panels. The University of Toronto, for example. Massey College, which invited me in September to celebrate Franco-Ontarian Day. Today’s podcast is a concrete example of how we can communicate, even if we work at a distance. Social media also help us: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, which also reach Francophiles. It is important to emphasize the importance of Francophiles in the work we do. Interviews with the media, Radio-Canada, L’Express de Toronto, Le Métropolitain, ONFR+, Le Droit. And in the future, we plan to develop a poster to distribute to describe the work we do and to summarize some of the items in our annual report.
So, means, it requires resources certainly, but it reaches our target audience and I encourage anyone who would also like to communicate to use these methods which are quite effective in sending your messages.
Thank you, Kelly. What a great range of methods you’ve used. You know, before COVID, and I mentioned this to you, my office was also travelling across the province from east to west, north to south, as part of our Meet Ontario outreach program, to meet people face to face, to educate them about their rights and to make presentations about our work. I was very hopeful that in the near future our offices would be able to team up to organize such an event in a francophone community. But in the meantime, as you pointed out, there are so many great methods that are available and that have captured our imagination since the pandemic. I dare to believe that we will be able to take advantage of them and I also hope to be able to do so in collaboration with you and your office.
So, another thing I would like to explore with you is my intention or my desire to improve the accessibility of our French-language services. I am prepared to increase our translation budget to do this, of course, but accessibility, as you know, goes far beyond simple translation. Can you describe what you mean by providing an equivalent service?
Yes. Reflected in my annual report, that’s the vision that I really identified for my mandate as Commissioner. It is to promote equivalent services and without delay and at the end please. It is now time for the government to recognize the equivalence of services that is required under the French Language Services Act. As you mentioned, equivalence is an equivalence between the service provided in French and the service provided to the general population in English. This is done through the translation of documents, of course, and simultaneous interpretation, which is what we’ve seen with the Prime Minister’s press briefings since the pandemic took hold in Ontario.
A service in French. And it has to be at the same time. I’m looking for quality of service and a service that is not only delivered at the same time, but also that it is of high quality. This is always a challenge in the province of Ontario.
There are also specific services such as signage. Signage in the courts, for example, is expected to be in both languages, and signage on the highway throughout the province, especially in designated regions.
I believe that the equivalent presence is becoming more and more evident in the digital space. What we are seeing right now, and especially during the pandemic, is that the government is well positioned to offer services in French online. Service at the counter remains a point where we still have to identify how we can improve this service, but I think that basically it comes down to questions of hiring, how the government positions itself for service at the counter, how the employee expresses himself in French to offer this service, whether it’s at ServiceOntario, at the Drive-Thru Centre, at the LCBO? In the end, what it takes is good planning, strategic thinking about how to meet the needs of the company and at the same time the Francophone clientele.
So that’s what I encourage in my annual report, that organizations that want and need to offer services in French start planning and that will surely lead to concrete results for the Francophone community.
What excellent ideas! I’m taking note of them. I really appreciate your good advice, which will help me to be a commissioner for both the Francophone community and Anglophones in Ontario. So, I really appreciate your good ideas and advice.
You mentioned your annual report. I know that in that report, which was the first report of your office, you made recommendations to improve French-language services in Ontario. Can you tell us a little bit about those recommendations?
Yes, the annual report was submitted in December 2020. So, you mentioned that. The French Language Services Act provides for the Commissioner to make recommendations to improve the delivery of French language services on an annual basis. There are eight recommendations in our annual report this year. The recommendations apply to all departments, with a strong emphasis on planning and accountability. They stem from the complaints and observations noted during the pandemic. What the recommendations really focus on is planning around communications. Press briefings were very much a part of the complaints we received. We’re also looking at health information and how that information is planned to be provided simultaneously.
We also have a question regarding planning for emergency alerts and we are looking at human resources, how does the government assess its capacity to provide services in French? Finally, training for front-line staff. What are the policies and practices that these employees must follow in providing services in French? We strongly believe that planning will greatly improve the provision of French language services in the province.
Let’s move on to the complaints process. The complaints that our office receives relate to privacy and access to information and are made against public institutions, whereas your office receives similar complaints, but about language rights. What are the most common complaints your office receives and particularly in which areas do you find there are the most complaints?
The areas are identified in the annual report. It’s direct face-to-face services in the first instance, online services, although there are improvements with the systems at the moment that allow for more and more improved online communication. There are telephone services, government communications, social media, signage, both in offices and on roads and highways.
These are the broad categories, let’s say, of complaints that we have received and increasingly we see that the government is responding to these complaints. I am very happy to point out to you today that a large part of the complaints we received last year are resolved with lasting solutions.
You know, Kelly, we started our mandates in the same year or so. I’m in the process of formulating my strategic priorities and articulating my vision for the next five years and I hope to be able to do that in the next few weeks. For your part, have you articulated a vision for French-language services in Ontario and can you tell us what you hope to accomplish as Commissioner over the next five years? Do you have a five-year mandate like I do?
There is no term limit for the Commissioner.
Oh, right. So, the mandate you have for an indefinite time, let’s say. You have more flexibility than I do. So, what does your vision look like, Kelly?
Well, I often look at the vision question, and equivalent service without delay always comes up as a priority. I certainly won’t be able to achieve equivalent and timely service overnight, Patricia. We know that the fight for French-language services is ongoing and that it will always be something I will strive for during my time as Commissioner.
What I also put a lot of emphasis on is making customer service efficient and outstanding, integrated with an ombudsman’s office that makes it easy for the community to complain and get service from us. Promoting French language services throughout the province is another priority, especially in designated regions. Quality means a lot to me. Education, of course, to enrich the language. Preparing our students for the job market. Positioning students to work in French. The emphasis on a qualified Francophone workforce. I’m putting a lot of emphasis on this to address the issue of labour shortages in the province of Ontario at the moment in all sectors.
What I also seek to do is to develop a model for navigating a very complex ecosystem in the public service, which allows me to partner to find sustainable solutions with those with whom I partner. I recommend best practices to government that will be accepted and implemented. (This is) A vision, a priority for me. So, of course, (this includes) French language services in the province for today and for future generations. The work we are doing right now is making a difference in the lives of Francophones, as we already know from the results we have achieved in the past year. I hope to continue to aim for this goal of making a difference for someone seeking French language services in the province.
What a great vision, Kelly. Good for you. As I said, in the next few weeks, I hope to be able to share with you my vision for the next five years as well and we can compare our priorities and look for other future collaborations together.
Yes, I do.
I dare to believe that there will be many, and I hope that this interview is only the first in a series of future collaborations between our offices with the ultimate goal of reaching Franco-Ontarians to raise awareness of their language rights as well as their right to access to information and privacy.
What a pleasure it is to be able to start this great collaboration with this episode of our podcast to celebrate the Journée internationale de la francophonie. I really appreciate the time you have given us. I like your Commissioner’s Minutes and here you are giving us 30 of them. So, we are very fortunate to have you here today. Thank you all for joining us.
Those who would like to know more about privacy and access to information in both English and French can visit our website at ipc.on.ca and to learn more about your right to receive services in French, I also invite you to visit the Ontario Ombudsman’s website at ombudsman.on.ca in the French language services section.
So, thank you again, Commissioner Burke, it was a great pleasure. To all of our Francophone listeners who have joined us today, thank you very much and see you next time.
This is Patricia Kosseim, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, and you’ve been listening to Info Matters. If you enjoyed this podcast, leave us a rating or comment. If you’d like to suggest a topic for a future episode, contact us. Send us a tweet at icpinfoprivacy or an email at [email protected] Thanks for joining us and I hope to see you soon. When it comes to privacy and access to information, if it matters to you, it matters to us.
Info Matters is a podcast about people, privacy, and access to information hosted by Patricia Kosseim, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. We dive into conversations with people from all walks of life and hear stories about the access and privacy issues that matter most to them.
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This post is also available in: French