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Friday, April 30, 2010

Supreme Court Bi-lingual Issue in Canada


En francais, s'il vous plait -- and skip the translation

Here's a thought for those, like columnist Lorne Gunter, who are tremendously upset about Bill C-232, which would mandate that Supreme Court justices be fluently bilingual, so as to be able to hear cases in either of Canada's two official languages without simultaneous translation. Suppose that anglophones were the minority in this country, with French being Canada's most widely spoken official language. Suppose that French pundits across Canada were painting all kinds of doomsday scenarios because of a bill that would require Supreme Court justices to be fluently bilingual so they could hear cases in English without simultaneous translation. Now, suppose critics of the bill were arguing that the eligible candidates for a position on the Supreme Court would be coming overwhelmingly and unfairly from Alberta.
I can just picture the reverse outrage here in the West. Albertans would fume that they were being treated like second-class citizens -- and rightly so. But when circumstances conspire to make French-Canadians feel like second-class citizens, why is it perfectly acceptable?
Writing in the Herald on Tuesday, Gunter argued that Bill C-232, which has passed the House and gone to the Senate, would "restrict appointment to a very small number of bilingual legal scholars and lower-court judges." He claims this elite little cadre would be drawn mainly from "a narrow strip from Ottawa, through Montreal and Quebec City, and into Moncton." It would be difficult for Canadians outside that strip to "ever be appointed to the court that has the final say over how the charter will be interpreted and what rights we may have." Nonsense.
Gunter makes it sound as if the justice system west of the Manitoba-Ontario border is a vast unilingual prairie. I'm not sure how he can possibly know, or even guesstimate, the level of French fluency among all western Canadian judges. Is he personally acquainted with all of them? Has he ever heard of the illustrious Monnins of Winnipeg -- Michel of the Manitoba Court of Appeal, his father, Alfred, who also served on the appeal court, and his brother, Marc, chief justice of the Court of Queen's Bench of Manitoba?
Sounds to me like Gunter's real worry is that more liberal-thinking folks from the East would be interpreting the charter in ways he, as someone who leans largely to the right, would not approve of.
I don't see why French-Canadians, whose taxes support the Supreme Court as much as do the taxes of anglophones, should be told that simultaneous translation is good enough for them, and they should shut up and live with it. Anyone who speaks more than one language knows that translation is never a word-for-word, black and white matter.
One need only pick up several versions of a classic foreign novel, such as Flaubert's Madame Bovary, or Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, rendered by different translators into English, to see how widely translations can vary, and how the subtleties of phrases in other languages can be interpreted. You really have to know French or Russian fluently yourself so that you can read the works in their original language to grasp intuitively the sometimes untranslatable shades of meaning.
Senator Claudette Tardif made that same point when she told CTV that court interpretation could be good, but it's never perfect and that litigators have a right to have their first language used.
Tardif, who is from Edmonton and is bilingual and served as dean of the University of Alberta's faculty of French, said: "The stakes are too high when you're at the highest level of the land, your last court of appeal. That is an injustice that some citizens have to put up with, that others don't."
And she said, "We have to remember the Supreme Court, as a federal institution, has the mandate to serve the citizens of the land and not those aspiring to sit on the Supreme Court bench."
Tardif also neatly shoots down Gunter's fears of a narrow slate of candidates when she says that if passed, the bill "would send an important signal to different universities and faculties of law and they would certainly prepare the students accordingly."
Exactly. Even if the field were as narrow as Gunter claims, which is doubtful, it would widen over the years as the requirement for bilingualism was incorporated into law school curricula.
Among the bilingual current justices is Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, who hails from Pincher Creek -- far from Gunter's mythical strip of francophonie far to the east. Morris Fish -- a non-francophone name, if ever there was one -- taught a course called Les crimes economiques, at the University of Ottawa; and also taught Droit penal, at the Universite de Montreal. Thomas Cromwell, formerly of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, is fluently bilingual. Manitoban Marshall Rothstein is the only non-bilingual Supreme Court justice.
Justice needs to be seen to be done. It also needs to be heard -- and at the highest court in the land, it should be heard in both official languages without resorting to simultaneous translation.
French deserves equal status with English -- and that means more than relegating it to the other side of the Cheerios box.

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