Problem of unilingual ombudsman isn’t going away

I’ve been mulling this issue of Ottawa’s new Federal Ombudsman not being able to speak French. I believe the problem is bigger than I first considered. Apparently others in the country agree as both an MP from New Brunswick and a member of Quebec’s opposition party have weighed in on the subject.

While not agreeing with Yvon Godin that the appointment is “immoral”, I do believe it seriously compromises the interests of 25% of the Nations victims, if not more.

The strongest voice in this debate thus far has been Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, leader of Quebec’s victims association. AFPAD. The ranks of the association’s membership has swelled recently to 350 victims of murder (or missing persons), making it the largest association of its kind in Canada.

Think about it; the largest victims group in the country does not have access to its national Ombudsman.

One could argue that some of those victims are anglophones. This point is irrelevant. In using myself as an example in the case of my sister’s murder in Quebec, yes, my mother-tongue is English, but dealing with the bureaucracy of agencies in Quebec made it necessary for me to at the least have rudimentary reading, writing and speaking knowledge of French. The same is true for the Federal Ombudsman. An anglo from Quebec could come to the Ombudsman with a problem concerning a victim. In order for the Ombudsman to address the problem they would have to possess the knowledge and capacity to ask questions and get answers from Quebec agencies – who all speak French.

Currently Quebec is in dire need of a Federal Victims Ombudsman, there are issues concerning early parole, mental health, police accountability that could all use assistance at the Federal level, but the person appointed by the government to lend aid to this issues is useless to their resolution because he doesn’t speak the language.

Perhaps a compromise could be reached. AFPAD, could work in conjunction with the Ombudsman to ensure the effective communication between parties. Workable, but impractical; you would have, in effect, AFPAD doing the Federal Ombudsman’s job.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson has told critics that the Ombudsman will improve his French and has been given the necessary resources to do it. Maybe. But the horse is already out of the barn. This should have been a condition before any agreement was made. Rather French proficiency should now be made a condition of the Ombudsman’s performance evaluation. At the end of one year, test the Ombudsman’s French; If the country’s French membership do not feel it is up to par, then he should be replaced.

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MP decries hiring of unilingual ombudsman

Apr 27, 2007 09:34 PM
Karine Fortin
Canadian press

OTTAWA – A New Democrat MP says the appointment of a unilingual anglophone to a federal ombudsman’s office is illegal.

New Brunswick MP Yvon Godin said Friday the hiring of Steve Sullivan, the first federal ombudsman for victims of crime, violates public employment laws.

The Acadie-Bathurst MP also said Sullivan’s hiring is “immoral” because he can’t represent francophones adequately.

“The victims will finally have an ombudsman to file a complaint, but the entire Canadian francophone community can’t speak to him,” said Godin.

“It doesn’t make any sense, absolutely no sense.”

He said francophones are already poorly served by the system.

Godin wrote to the prime minister and filed a complaint with the official languages commissioner, Graham Fraser.

Sullivan, a longtime advocate of victims’ rights, was appointed on Monday.

He is the former director of research with Victims of Violence and a former president of the Canadian Research Centre for Victims of Crime.

Godin, meanwhile, is not alone in decrying Sullivan’s unilingualism.

Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu of the Murdered or Missing Persons’ Families’ Association said services for francophones have not been improved with Sullivan’s hiring.

Bloc Quebecois MP Real Menard said he has no doubts about Sullivan’s “competence and compassion,” but believes the ombudsman’s nomination is “inadmissible” because of his lack of functional French.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told critics Sullivan will improve his French and has been given the necessary resources to do it.

Meanwhile, languages commission spokesman Robin Cantin confirmed Godin’s complaint was received Friday.

The commission will evaluate it over the coming weeks to determine if a deeper investigation is necessary, he said.

In addition to his complaint, Godin sent a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in which he explained his amazement over learning who the new ombudsman is.

The federal office of the ombudsman for victims of crime was created by the Conservative government in March.

It has a budget of $52 million over four years and a mandate to guide victims of criminal acts through available support programs.

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