Federal Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly was under pressure from an angry opposition on Thursday to cancel the appointment of Madeleine Meilleur, the Liberal government's pick for official languages commissioner, after revelations that two of Ms. Joly's staff members used to work for Ms. Meilleur.
Ms. Joly was on the defensive yet again over the Trudeau government's choice for the bilingualism watchdog, a position that is expected to operate independently of the government and report directly to the House of Commons and the Senate.
Both the Tories and the NDP have complained about the partisan Liberal background of Ms. Meilleur, a long-time Ontario MPP who served in a variety of cabinet posts, including attorney-general and minister responsible for francophone affairs. She also donated to the Liberals and to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's leadership campaign.
On Wednesday, The Globe reported that three members of Ms. Joly's staff worked for the Ontario Liberals while Ms. Meilleur was in office, with two of them reporting directly to Ms. Meilleur.
Ms. Joly said her employees, which include her director of communications and scheduling assistant, had nothing to do with Ms. Meilleur's appointment, and a "clear firewall" was set up between her office and the selection committee. The Liberals insist that Ms. Meilleur's selection was based on merit, experience and a track record of defending francophone rights.
"All measures were in place to ensure that any employees who had contact with Ms. Meilleur in the past were excluded from the process," she said.
"We are extremely proud of our candidate for the official languages commissioner."
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said the issue is not Ms. Meilleur's professional qualifications.
"What is at question is the Prime Minister's competence. This appointment process has turned into a fiasco wrapped in a dumpster fire," he said.
"When will the Prime Minister take responsibility, cancel Madame Meilleur's nomination, and launch a new, non-partisan process?"
Mr. Trudeau, who recently returned from a working trip to Europe, was not in the Commons on Thursday to face Mr. Scheer for the first time since the Conservative MP won his party leadership. Instead, Mr. Trudeau held a question-and-answer session with summer students.
Ms. Joly was on her feet repeatedly during Question Period to answer to the appointment of Ms. Meilleur, who previously testified at the languages committee that she spoke with two of Trudeau's top aides before she was nominated.
Ms. Joly repeated her explanation that Ms. Meilleur never spoke specifically about the post of official languages commissioner with Mr. Trudeau's chief of staff Katie Telford, or his principal secretary Gerald Butts. The opposition has accused the minister of misleading the House.
Ms. Meilleur said in her testimony on May 18 that she met with Mr. Butts and expressed her interest in an unspecified position, and was told there was an "open and transparent process" and to go through the process. She also said she had a coffee with Ms. Telford and asked her whether "I could offer my service."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair also urged Ms. Joly to cancel the appointment.
"Does the minister not understand that the more she defends the partisan appointment made by the Prime Minister the more she loses credibility? Will she do the right thing and recommend that Madame Meilleur be now removed from consideration as commissioner?" he said.
He pointed out that Mr. Butts was the principal secretary to then-Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty when the provincial Liberals cancelled their nomination process in Ottawa-Vanier and appointed Ms. Meilleur as their candidate. "Who pulled the strings so she could be parachuted into a riding? It was none other than Gerry Butts," he said.
When asked whether Mr. Butts was involved in Ms. Meilleur's 2003 nomination, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office said, "No, he was not."
"We're going to continue to stand by the fact that the person most deserving of the post has received the nomination, and not turn this into a political football, which is what the opposition is doing," said PMO spokesman Cameron Ahmad.