Ontario French Language Services Commissioner Kelly Burke said her office received 351 complaints related to accessing French language services, a 15 per cent increase from the previous year.
Burke released the numbers in her second annual report tabled on Tuesday morning. The report covered the period from Oct. 1, 2020 to Sept. 30, 2021 and said the complaints show French services are "often not equivalent to those offered in English" and regardless of whether or not French services are offered, "the experience Francophones have with them is not always positive."
The report also included a recommendation for the Ontario government to evaluate its provision of French language services using a tool Burke proposed called the "French Language Services Commissioner’s Compass (FLSC Compass)."
In her 2020 report, Burke recommended the government require ministries to make plans outlining how they'll improve the provision of services in French and report on this yearly starting in spring 2022.
"In this report, the Commissioner recommends an assessment tool to support the government in measuring the success of these plans," Tuesday's report stated, listing four criteria included in the tool:
- Fairness: Is the service in French equivalent to what is offered to the general population?
- Logistics: Is service in French available and provided to people all the time?
- Services: Is the experience of Francophones with the service positive?
- Communication: Is the service in French well identified, communicated and known within the community?
"Using this compass, the government can develop its own performance indicators and proactively monitor its performance in implementing the French Language Services Act, as well as the quality of services offered by its ministries," said Burke, speaking in French, at Queen's Park on Tuesday morning.
Her report noted that some of her previous recommendations were included in a government bill that proposed amendments to the French Language Services Act (FLSA). The FLSA outlines people's right to access services in French from government ministries and agencies at head offices and in 26 designated areas.
The government announced the proposed changes to the FLSA as part of its fall economic statement, with Francophone Affairs Minister Caroline Mulroney saying the update "would substantially improve access to French-language services for francophones."
Burke, who welcomed the move, said she was particularly interested in provisions that would require ministers to report on how they are implementing the act and a provision that people "receive services in French according to the principle of 'active offer,'" which Burke said "suggests an equivalent offer of services in French, without delay."
When it comes to the the 351 complaints received, Burke's office said 68 per cent have been resolved. Some were related to organizations that don't fall under the FLSA. Of the organizations that do, the Ministry of Health accounted for 15.4 per cent of the complaints, the largest number among ministries, with many about hospital services. The report stated ServiceOntario remains a "major source of complaints about in-person services."
The sector that prompted the greatest number of complaints was post-secondary education (27.4 per cent), with the office receiving 60 complaints related to cuts to French-language programs at Laurentian University. Burke's office has launched an investigation into this and plans to release a separate report once the investigation is complete.
Burke said the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccine rollout revealed the "devastating impact" of the FLSA's limitations. She pointed to public health units in particular, which are exempt from the FLSA.
"We received many complaints about the COVID-19 vaccination clinics administered by local public health units," said Burke, adding that several of the issues were solved by working with chief medical officer of health and some municipalities.
"But the fact that we cannot directly deal with complaints about public health units limits our power to act and the quality of the solutions we can achieve," she stated.
Providing an example of where progress was made, Burke noted a recommendation in her 2020 annual report for the government and the Ontario Provincial Police to "ensure equivalent services in French, without delay, when issuing emergency alerts."
"Amber Alerts are now issued simultaneously in both languages," Burke said, calling this a "crucial achievement" for the Ministry of the Solicitor General.
Burke's team, the French Language Services Unit, falls under the office of the province's ombudsman. This follows a decision by the Progressive Conservative government to shutter three standalone offices for independent officers of the legislature, including the French language services commissioner in 2019.