Justice Should Not Fall on Deaf Ears

 Canada has officially been bilingual since the signing of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. Prior to this, the Constitution Act of 1867 established that all proceedings in this country may be conducted in French and English. The Act states that both English and French can be used within our governments, records, journals, and, just as importantly, our court system. However, there seems to be a fundamental flaw in the manner in which judges are appointed in Canada which has become a hot-button issue for supporters of a bilingual country.

Bill C-232 recently passed through the House of Commons, and has just completed its second reading in the Senate, but not without much debate and fervor from both sides of the argument. The bill, which was introduced by NDP MP Yvon Godin, would establish a requirement for all future judges appointed to the Supreme Court to be able to understand both official languages without the assistance of an interpreter. The bill received full support from all opposition parties, with contention coming only from the Conservatives.

Requiring judges to speak both official languages in Canada makes sense from a judicial standpoint. Some argue that the requirement would limit the number of eligible judges who could be appointed, and would also prevent some exceptional talent from being considered for such an appointment. However, many judges appointed to the Supreme Court, historically speaking, have been unilingual, English-only speakers who have required the assistance of an interpreter to hear cases of those who could not speak English.

Nova Scotia, which has a strong francophone community, currently has only one bilingual judge appointed to their Supreme Court. What if a translator misheard or misquoted a French-language individual during a trial? Canadians have a constitutional right to be heard and understood in a court of law. Justice may be blind, but it certainly should not fall on deaf ears.

Requiring bilingualism in our judges is vital within our judicial system. The only thing that would tie potential appointees to the Supreme Court would be a language barrier. It’s not easy to learn a new language, but putting this requirement in place will ensure that all Canadian citizens are treated fairly and equally in our courts.

The requirement for judges to be able to speak both French and English is not the only issue facing Canadian bilingualism. In the first volume of an annual report by the Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser has stated that the Conservative government has done little to support or encourage bilingualism in Canada. Fraser states that the current government has taken a “laissez-faire” approach to bilingualism in this country. In an article in the Montreal Gazette, Fraser had stated that the Treasury Board has dramatically reduced the support of official languages in federal institutions, saying “managers don't realize that maintaining a work culture that, in many cases, is totally unilingual hinders the public service's efforts to offer quality bilingual services to the public."

Bilingualism is strong throughout Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing, and indeed across Canada. It is a part of our national heritage and national identity. Ensuring that all levels of judicial and federal institutions support bilingualism is essential to the fabric of Canada.