Proposed official languages commissioner surprised by controversy
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OTTAWA — The new proposed official languages commissioner says she had contact before the nomination process with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's two closest advisers to express her interest in the job.
Madeleine Meilleur told the Commons official languages committee Thursday she recently spoke on the telephone with Trudeau's principal secretary, Gerald Butts, and had coffee with Katie Telford, the prime minister's chief of staff.
Opposition parties, who were already trying to block Trudeau's decision to choose Meilleur, jumped on her comments as further evidence of partisanship in the selection process.
"It's a sham process, one of mere consultation," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair later told reporters.
"That's what we've learned today."
Meilleur, a member of the Ontario legislature between 2003 and 2016, told the committee about her conversation with Butts.
"I spoke to Gerald Butts, who I know well because he worked for Mr. (former Ontario premier Dalton) McGuinty in Toronto and I knew him," she said. "So I expressed (my interest)...I was told there was a process and that I had to go through that process, which I did."
Later in her testimony, Meilleur described her encounter with Telford.
"I had a coffee with Katie," she said. "I asked her if I could serve Canadians...I just told her I would like to continue to serve."
Meilleur seemed to find her appearance before the committee a difficult one.
"I knew it wouldn't be easy," she said after her testimony. "It's tough when they're questioning my integrity."
Earlier, she and Mulcair had heated exchanges during the hearings.
When the NDP leader grilled her about her closeness to the federal Liberals, as well as her financial donations to the party and to Trudeau's leadership campaign, Meilleur replied she cannot "erase 13 years of partisan political life."
That, Mulcair fired back, "is precisely the problem."
"You do not have that critical distance," he said. "You are too close to the Liberals."
Meilleur argued she has the requisite qualifications for the job as she defended her impartiality and her ability to be non-partisan.
On Wednesday, the NDP and the Conservatives asked Commons Speaker Geoff Regan to review the process by which the Liberals chose Meilleur to replace Graham Fraser. They also object to the fact Trudeau did not consult them ahead of time.
NDP House Leader Murray Rankin said his party's opposition to Meilleur isn't "personal."
Heritage Minister Melanie Joly, meanwhile, has defended Meilleur's nomination, saying she is the "most qualified" for the job.
Joly said the nomination process was "open and based on merit" and she dismissed the accusations of partisanship.
Meilleur is a longtime francophone rights advocate who represented the riding of Ottawa-Vanier. Her various cabinet portfolios over the years in the Ontario government included responsibility for francophone affairs.
On Thursday, Trudeau's office continued to defend the process that led to her selection.
"The decision to nominate Madame Meilleur is the result of an open and rigorous process based entirely on merit," Cameron Ahmad, Trudeau's press attache, said in an email.
"After numerous evaluations, Madame Meilleur emerged as the most qualified candidate for this important position."
The nomination must be approved by the Commons and the Senate.
The commissioner is appointed to a seven-year term and is charged with promoting the two official languages and protecting language rights.