Duty to Offer French-Language Services

Some regulators have a duty to provide their services in French. There are also proposals to expand this duty to all regulators of professions in Ontario. There is debate as to whether providing services through translation is sufficient to meet this obligation. There has also been discussion as to how broad or narrow a statutory exception, where providing services in French is not feasible, should be interpreted. In Bélanger v. College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, 2021 ONCS 5132 (CanLII), https://canlii.ca/t/jh6mf, the Court emphasizes that French language dealings with the regulator without translation should be the norm and that the exception should be given a narrow interpretation. In Bélanger, a physician sought to have a discipline hearing in French (not with the use of interpreters). The discipline panel declined to do so on the basis that there were insufficient number of French speaking Council members to constitute a quorum of the hearing panel. The Court said that a generous interpretation of the duty to provide services in French should be taken.

The Court set aside the discipline panel’s decision, holding that the practitioner had a presumptive right to a hearing before a panel that could understand and speak French. There was an insufficient basis for the panel to decline the request. There was no evidence that the regulator had asked the government to appoint French-speaking public Council members. The panel had also not done an assessment of whether holding the hearing in English, with interpreters, was reasonable in the circumstances of the specific case and whether a delay in holding the hearing would place the public at risk.

The Court acknowledged that exceptions could still be made in extraordinary circumstances. The Court sent the matter back to the panel to determine whether there were reasonable limits – in the particular circumstances of this case – to deny the practitioner’s right to a hearing before a bilingual panel. The Court also expressed its preference for the government to appoint a bilingual Council member so that this issue could be avoided.

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