Bill C-232: Should Bilingualism be Required at the SCC?

On Monday, March 23rd, the House of Commons debated Bill C-232, an NDP impetus to require that Supreme Court justices have knowledge of English and French. The bill, tabled by New Democrat Official Languages Critic Yvon Godin, proposes that section 5 of the Supreme Court Act ( R.S., 1985, c. S-26 ) be amended to add that “any person referred to in subsection (1) may be appointed a judge who understands French and English without the assistance of an interpreter.”

In an emailed press release sent to, Mr. Godin is quoted as predicting that the bill will be passed. He explained that the bill “has received unprecedented support from a wide range of Anglophones and Francophones, because they understand that it could be detrimental for a Supreme Court justice to be unilingual.” The press release went on to clarify that rather than being drafted in one language and translated to the other, Canadian statutes are drafted independently in English and French. This means that in order to understand the subtleties of the law, justices must understand both languages.

Mr. Godin also said that “the interpretation of the law must never depend on simultaneous interpretation, although I have the utmost respect for the work of interpreters. The parties’ right to a fair trial is at stake. Simultaneous interpretation and translation are not sufficient for judges since the resulting meaning is often different from the original … [f]or years the government has refused to make language skills a criterion for the appointment of Supreme Court justices. The government is out of touch with people and their needs and this must be corrected. New Democrats insists that all parties must be able to be heard in conditions that do not put them at a disadvantage in relation to their adversary.” Mr. Godin concluded by encouraging all MPs and the public to support his bill.

Mr. Godin expressed these views during last Monday’s House of Commons debate over Bill C-232, placing particular emphasis on the potential injustices that could occur simply because one was not properly understood during their trial. But while several members commended the tabling of Bill C-232, some members voiced their disagreement with the proposed bill. Conservative Party member Steven Blaney (Levis-Bellechasse) noted that the appointment process already recognizes Canadian diversity; the Supreme Court Act requires that at least three of the SCC’s judges must be from Quebec, effectively recognizing Quebec’s civil law tradition, and the SCC selections are based on the recognition of legal pluralism and regional diversity. Also, due to the availability of legal proceedings in both official languages and the fact that our national institutions are bilingual without requiring every individual to be bilingual, the Supreme Court is a “model of institutional bilingualism” (1120).

Conservative Mike Allen (Tobique-Mactaquac) echoed Mr. Blaney’s argument that the Supreme Court already demonstrates bilingualism by providing all its services in both languages and allowing parties to use either language in written and oral proceedings. He added that all but one of the current SCC judges are able to hear cases in either official language without the aid of an interpreter; as well, high-quality interpretation and translation services are available during the court’s hearings, and ongoing language training is available to the members of the court. Like Mr. Blaney, Mr. Allen also noted that the Act requires at least three SCC judges from Quebec, honouring the country’s bi-juridical nature, and that the court must demonstrate a broader legal pluralism by ensuring that its judges are drawn from all regions of Canada.

These Conservative critiques did indicate the importance of maintaining competence in both official languages, but de-emphasized the primacy placed upon bilingualism to the perceived detriment of pluralism. Whether this opposition will be strong enough to defeat the bill is a matter that will be watched closely by in the coming weeks. Given that 2009 is the 40th anniversary of the Official Languages Act, the renewal of this debate could not have come at a better time.

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