Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bilingualism and the Supreme Court of Canada

The National Post gets it right on Bill C-232, which will amend the Supreme Court Act to require that all future appointees to the Court be functionally bilingual in French and English, Canada's two official languages:

If Bill C-232--a private member's bill that passed in the House of Commons last month -- is approved by the Senate, future seats on the Supreme Court of Canada will be reserved only for judges who are fluently bilingual. Judges who speak only French or only English will be barred. This puts the linguistic cart before the judicial horse and makes language skills more important than legal acumen. It also ensures that in the future our top court will be dominated by judges from Quebec and small pockets of bilingualism in Ottawa and New Brunswick.

If Mr. Godin's bill were already the law of the land, only two of the current sitting justices would have qualified for their current posts; none of the English-speaking judges would have. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, for instance, would not have made it, despite being one of the most competent chief justices in recent history. Are she and the other half dozen unilingual French or English judges unfit as a result of their unilingual ability? Is the need for judges to have arguments translated really threatening justice at our highest court?

...According to the last census, 42% of francophones claim fluency in both official languages, while just under 10% of anglophones do. But only tiny fractions of both bilingual populations would ever be fluent enough to make it to the court. Should Mr. Godin's bill pass the Senate, the Supreme Court would become so unreflective of this country's people it would rapidly lose credibility as a national institution.
The Bill, which is now before the Senate after passing Third Reading in the House on March 31, 2010, provides:
An Act to amend the Supreme Court Act (understanding the official languages)
1. Section 5 of the Supreme Court Act is renumbered as subsection 5(1) and is amended by adding the following:
(2) In addition, any person referred to in subsection (1) may be appointed a judge who understands French and English without the assistance of an interpreter.
It is difficult to envision how the proposed change will result in a more qualified and competent Supreme Court of Canada, at least based on today's Canadian demographics.

This vital judicial institution should not be compromised on the altar of feel-good politics.

The proposed amendment is a truly bad idea that should be dropped.
- Garry J. Wise, Toronto

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