French-speaking lawyers, judges, staff necessary for success of North Bay initiative, says lawyer

Ontario plans to improve French-language court services in North Bay, Ont.

French-speaking lawyers, judges, staff necessary for success of North Bay initiative, says lawyer

The Ontario Government announced a new initiative to improve French-language court services in North Bay, Ont., a plan that will be difficult to implement without French-speakers among the private bar and judiciary, which – outside of Eastern Ontario – is lacking throughout the province, says Lee Akazaki.

“The ability to have these Ontarians serviced in the court system in Northern Ontario is welcome,” says Akazaki, who serves clients in French and English and is a certified civil litigation specialist and partner at Gilbertson Davis LLP.

“The situation has been quite dire for many years. And I suppose any commitment to improve it, even if it's for one judicial district, is welcome.”

Home to Canada’s largest French-speaking community outside of Quebec, there are 1.5 million French speakers in Ontario, with 620,000 identifying as Francophones, according to the Ministry of the Attorney General.

“To the extent that Francophones should be allowed to feel like Ontario is their home, the level of services that are offered by our government, in both official languages, needs to be improved,” says Akazaki.

On Dec. 10, Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General introduced the North Bay French Language Action Plan, in which the province will work with the Ontario and Superior Courts of Justice in North Bay to enhance French language services. North Bay is in the district of Nipissing, where at least 10 per cent of the population is Francophone, making it a designated area under the French Language Services Act and the Courts of Justice Act.

The action plan is aimed at identifying barriers in accessing justice in French, developing new methods for improvement and enhancing “the active offer of French-language court services,” the MAG said in its announcement.

The initiative will mirror those taken in Sudbury and Ottawa, which produced practices such as displaying language rights in key areas of the courthouse and giving court staff training on French language service tools.

While the French Language Services Act and Rules for Professional Conduct promote the use of French in the legal profession, the attitude towards using French in practice is “spotty, if not sometimes hostile,” says Akazaki.

“The law requires that services be provided on an equal basis to Francophones, and the implementation of that is quite another story,” he says.

The challenge, he says, in implementing the letter and spirit of the French Language Services Act is that there are not enough judges and court staff sufficiently fluent in the language.

“You can have a goal of having French language services implemented across Ontario,” he says. “But it's very much a patchwork, most of which is concentrated in the Ottawa and Eastern Ontario region.”

“When a member of our society goes to the courthouse, and the courthouse can be a very daunting place for people who are not lawyers, they want to feel welcome – that this is a place where they will receive a fair hearing and that the court actually belongs to them, as opposed to being some kind of external agency,” says Akazaki.

Ontario has a “rich and vibrant Francophone history,” and increasing French-speaking counter staff, judges, clerks and lawyers will help further integrate the community into the province, he says.

“The question of the survival of this community will depend largely on how welcome and at home Francophones feel in Ontario as they are going about the daily business, including serious matters like going to court.”

The MAG’s plan was introduced the same day French Language Services Commissioner Kelly Burke made an announcement that showed the gap in access for French-speakers is present throughout Government services. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the difficulty Francophone Canadians experience when trying to access services in French, Burke said. From May 1, 2019 to Sept. 30, 2020, the French Language Services unit received 431 complaints, many related to public information on COVID-19.

Burke recommended that each provincial ministry produce a plan to improve French language services and that the Minister of Francophone Affairs – currently Caroline Mulroney – produce annual reports on their implementation.

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