Francophonie: not just one day

By Chantal Gagnon

The international journée de la Francophonie on March 20, is a great opportunity to gather and celebrate the French language and culture, similar to Franco-Ontarian day, a more local event which happens every September 25.

As a government agency, it’s one thing to say that you have an obligation under the French Language Services Act to provide French language services. It’s yet another to build a culture in an organization that truly embraces this. Encouraging the spirit of Francophonie is vital for any organization serving Francophone clients.

I don’t celebrate my Francophonie one week a year. I celebrate it every day. I say “bonjour” to everyone I see, and I proudly encourage people to speak French, to learn French, and to read French. I live French culture all the time, as much as I can.

Francophonie matters for legal services

For LAO, Francophonie matters because Francophones face a particular set of challenges when it comes to accessing justice in Ontario. The legal system is complicated for clients in any language; it’s even more complicated when it wasn’t designed to support your language or culture.

Francophones have the right to access French language services in Ontario, but many people don’t know that these rights exist or what they mean. It can be complicated, because these rights can vary depending on where you are in the province and who’s providing services.

Even service providers won’t necessarily know how it all works.

And, there are simply fewer services available in French. Unfortunately, because it can take longer to get services in French, some Francophones might forgo their right to services in French for a faster outcome.

How FLS services improve experiences in the justice system

To increase access to justice, it’s crucial that we offer direct services in French as much as we possibly can. Moreover, we need to make sure Francophones understand their rights.

We talk often about the principle of “active offer” of services. This means that it’s up to us as service providers to offer French language services, because many people won’t ask for them. In a time of crisis, no one wants to feel like they’re asking for ‘special treatment’. They aren’t, of course, but it can add stress to an already difficult situation. And people in a stressful situation will revert back to their mother tongue or, in the case of some immigrants, to their preferred second language.

In any legal situation, it’s critical that people can understand what’s happening around them and can make themselves understood. But when you consider the areas of law that we work in-criminal, family, refugee—it’s inevitable that misunderstandings could have potentially huge consequences in someone’s life.

The law is clear that even if we offer the services of an interpreter, that’s not the same as delivering French Language Services. By its very nature, interpretation can be imprecise, adding to the service challenges. And that’s far from the only potential difficulty. For example, many of our clients are French-speaking immigrants, for whom English or French is not their first language, but is a common language or second language. In recognition of this fact, in June 2009, the Ontario government introduced a new definition of the province’s Francophone population that better reflects the evolution and diversity of Ontario’s Francophone communities.

Increasing access to justice for Francophones

At LAO, we work to make sure that we meet not only the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law when it comes to French language services.

In Ontario, parts of the province are designated as Francophone, but this is not easy to understand, and these areas can change over time. We make sure to respect the provision of services in all 26 designated areas, and we allocate the highest capacity there. Beyond that, we try to provide services with bilingual capacity in varying degrees everywhere throughout the province.

In our recruitment policies and capacity development, we place a strong emphasis on French language skills. We’re very committed to developing legal capacity in French, and we offer a lot of opportunities for articling students and paralegals. Likewise, we participate in justice sector-wide French Language Services Strategic Planning at the Ministry of the Attorney General.

Francophone-led projects

We also work on a variety of special projects designed with Francophone clients in mind.

Our Francophone summary legal advice lines are a great example. This is advice provided by 4 clinics over the phone for regional catchment areas in the province. And it was designed in consultation with community stakeholders, so it closed specific, identified gaps.

Another example was a Francophone youth-oriented legal information project.

We work with the Association de Juristes d’Expression Francaise (AJEFO), the Centre Francophone de Toronto (CFT) and Justice for Children and Youth (JFCY) primarily. Firstly, we worked to make JFCY’s website fully bilingual. And, together we ran surveys in Francophone high schools to assess legal knowledge, and created tools especially for youth and people working with youth. These are available now on cliquezjustice and the JFCY and CLEO sites.

How anyone can embrace Francophonie

To encourage Francophonie, it’s important to have fun around French, and to do things that aren’t strictly business deliverables. In our department we design activities, games and contests to engage LAO staff in French language and culture. It’s a way to make French part of peoples’ day to day lives and to create an environment where French is present instead of an afterthought. I think it’s very important for an organization’s culture.

Outside of work, there are many ways for any Ontarian to take advantage of and support Francophonie. If you’re a Francophone, it is important to speak the language at home and keep it alive within your family. Watch French TV and DVDs; listen to French radio. And for anyone, fluent in French or not, consider getting involved with your local French clubs, French associations, French schools, and participate in events and social media gatherings, for example.

If we don’t embrace the culture and support the resources that do that, it could disappear.
But together, we can keep this rich heritage and these vital services alive.