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PEOPLE
Meet Senator Josée Forest-Niesing
November 26, 2019

Senator Josée Forest-Niesing practised law for 20 years in Sudbury, Ont., specializing in family law, estate law, civil litigation employment law. A proud Franco-Ontarian, she promoted access to justice in both official languages during her career as a lawyer and contributed to her community in various roles, including as a board member of the Art Gallery of Sudbury, the Ontario Arts Council, the Carrefour francophone de Sudbury and the University of Sudbury. She was appointed to the Senate on October 11, 2018.


 

Who inspired you or what inspired you to get involved in public life?

That’s an easy one: I am the daughter of two incredible Canadians. My father spent a lot of his time doing community work in addition to running a very busy legal practice so I certainly admired him. I ended up becoming a lawyer and joining his practice. My mother was also a devoted volunteer. Like them, I was also inspired to contribute to the community. Through community involvement, you develop a love for those you’re serving and a desire to do more — as a result the call to the Senate was quite natural.

What is one thing Canadians might not know about you?

I spent my entire life believing that my family’s roots were in Normandy, France, and so on. At the moment of my paternal grandmother’s passing, members of the extended family were doing a bit of family history and genealogy searches. A marriage certificate belonging to my maternal great-grandmother was discovered.  

Back in the days, people on reserves and people in small rural communities would get married kind of in a makeshift ceremony. Then the priest would do the rounds and would register the marriage certificate.

So the priest wrote a little description. In the case of my maternal great-grandmother, the description — and it’s terrible — was “sauvage,” or “savage” in English, which we know was a term used by people years ago and is no longer acceptable.

Senator Forest-Niesing chairs a mock Senate session with Grade 6 students from the Ottawa region on May 17, 2019.

So, this gets everyone wondering: what is this?  It came to light through this discovery that my grandmother’s mother was Abenakis and therefore, my grandmother was Métis. As a result, I applied to become a member of the Ontario Métis Association. I was thrilled to discover this part of my family heritage, which I am embracing with great enthusiasm given my lifelong admiration for the richness and beauty of Indigenous culture.

How did it make you feel to learn this about your family?

It made me sad to realize that my grandmother had denied that part of herself and had not been able to fully embrace her own culture. We turned it around to see it as an opportunity to journey into that culture as we try to learn more about it.

Senator Josée Forest-Niesing with Julie Moskalyk, science director of Science North, during a visit to the museum in her region of Sudbury on July 9, 2019.

Why do you think more Canadians should care about what happens in the Red Chamber?

To the same extent that Canadians care about what happens in the House of Commons, they must care about what happens in the Senate. Nothing happens in one chamber without it involving the other. I cannot overstate the level of respect I have for the elected individuals representing us in the House of Commons. I certainly consider that whenever a bill comes before the Senate. Given that we are not elected and that our input and ultimate vote on a bill doesn’t impact us personally or put us at risk of not being re-elected, it gives us the freedom to allow our conscience, our life experience and our knowledge to guide the decisions with a long-term vision of their impact.

We bring an added element of reflection and consideration of the impact of bills on some of the members of our respective communities that don’t have a voice or whose voice cannot be brought forward as forcefully as it should. So, given that we’re not elected officials, we can bring these very important points of view to the forefront when a final decision must be made with respect to a bill and its impact on the communities it is intending to improve.

Is there something that you have worked on in a Senate committee that you’re particularly excited about or proud of?

I was on the Senate Committee on National Finance and on the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. The work of both committees is fascinating. In the social affairs committee, I got involved with some amendments that I felt were important for Bill C-81, An Act to ensure a barrier-free Canada, which aimed to break down barriers within federal departments that offer services to the public. I’m particularly proud of the fact that after hearing some of the witnesses that came to share their expertise with us at the committee, we discovered that sign language interpretation had been overlooked in the French language.

Given that we were also in the Senate working on Bill C-91, An Act respecting Indigenous languages, which had recently received Royal Assent, it occurred to me that perhaps Indigenous sign language should be included with respect to its availability for any individual with a hearing impairment who is of Indigenous background. So, we proposed the amendment and I was happy that my colleagues agreed and it has now been included in the bill. I’m quite proud of that.

What is a hidden gem in your region that more Canadians need to know about? 

You must go to Science North. The museum has a very special architecture that’s in the form a snowflake. It’s beautiful. On the inside is an interactive science museum that is conducting tremendous research and is collaborating with other science museums to accomplish great things. Because of the geology of the Sudbury area, which has a very rocky terrain and a fault line that astronauts came to study, it really has a lot to offer as far as geological research is concerned. It offers a wonderful experience to families who choose to include it on their passage to Sudbury. 

Name a guilty pleasure song that always makes you smile.

I love the music of the 70s. One of my favourites is Stevie Wonder’s Superstition. The intro to that song brings me right back to my teenage years. When I hear that first “do-do-do-do-do-do-do,” I’m brought back to a time in my very early teenage years when I would go roller-skating. There was an arena called Roller Country in Sudbury. It was a place where everybody knew my name, that place where you feel you belong. The minute school was out on Friday I would be there, and again on Saturday and Sunday all day, skating and socializing. The Superstition intro would get me up and on the rink immediately. Even today, if it’s on the radio, if it’s on at a party, I hear that intro and I stand up just because I need to dance.

Senator Josée Forest-Niesing was inducted into the University of Ottawa’s Common Law Honour Society in 2013. She was also appointed to the Ontario Arts Council in 2018.