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Madeleine Meilleur drops bid to be Canada’s languages commissioner

Madeleine Meilleur at the Ontario legislature in Toronto on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.


Madeleine Meilleur has taken herself out of the running for the position of Canada's next commissioner of official languages amid accusations that her nomination by the Liberal government was blatantly partisan.

Ms. Meilleur, a long-time Ontario Liberal MPP who served in provincial cabinet posts including attorney-general and minister responsible for francophone affairs, sent a letter on Tuesday to Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly saying she no longer wanted to be considered for the job.

A day earlier, she had faced a tough grilling by senators who, along with MPs, must approve the nomination for the post. Even Liberal senators expressed doubt Ms. Meilleur could operate with the appearance of impartiality.

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"As you know, my nomination has become the object of controversy, which I regret very much," Ms. Meilleur said in her letter to Ms. Joly, which was written in French only. "I have concluded that my ability to fulfill these duties for all Canadians would have been greatly compromised."

Ms. Meilleur is an ardent Liberal who donated to the federal Liberals and to Justin Trudeau's campaign for the party leadership.

She told the official languages committee of the Commons that she spoke with Mr. Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford, and his principal secretary, Gerald Butts, when she was thinking about applying for the language commissioner's job. Ms. Joly said those conversations were not specifically about Ms. Meilleur's interest in the post, previously held by Graham Fraser.

Ms. Joly took some heat over the nomination after it was learned that two of her staff worked for Ms. Meilleur when she was an Ontario cabinet minister.

And Ms. Meilleur said several times that she applied to become a senator after leaving provincial politics last year, but was told that recent politicians were not wanted in the Senate, which Mr. Trudeau is trying to turn into a non-partisan body.

So, although MPs and senators agreed she was well qualified for the job, there was much discussion around why someone deemed to be too partisan to serve in the Senate could be appointed as an independent officer of Parliament and be called upon to denounce language slip-ups by the Liberal government.

Mr. Trudeau announced last year that he was bringing in a new process for cabinet appointments, including for officers of Parliament, that is open, transparent and merit-based.

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But opposition leaders said the government failed to meet its legal obligations to consult with the other parties in the Commons before nominating Ms. Meilleur. Instead of an opportunity for input, they said they received a letter before the announcement of her nomination telling them the choice had been made and asking for comments.

On Wednesday, after Ms. Meilleur's decision was made public, the opposition demanded to know whether future appointments – and especially that of the ethics commissioner, which will become vacant shortly – would be less partisan.

The qualifications for ethics commissioner are much stricter than those for language commissioner. The ethics commissioner must be a former judge, a former member of a federal or provincial board, commission or tribunal who has expertise in conflicts of interest, financial arrangements, professional regulation or ethics, or a former ethics commissioner. That makes it much less likely that the nomination would go to someone who is demonstrably partisan.

But opposition MPs still demanded assurances.

"Will the Prime Minister learn a lesson here and ensure that the next officer of Parliament, the ethics commissioner, will not be a partisan Liberal and will enjoy all-party support in this House?" Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer asked.

Mr. Trudeau replied that Canadians need a strong, independent appointments process and that is why his government implemented reforms.

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"We know that picking the best people for the job, regardless of their background, and people that reflect the full diversity of this country, is what Canadians expect," the Prime Minister said. "That's exactly what we're doing differently."

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