Bilingualism and the Supreme Court

As reported by the Globe and Mail, a bill requiring that all future Supreme Court justices be bilingual was passed last week and now awaits Senate approval. The private member’s Bill C-232, tabled by NDP language critic Yves Godin, was harshly criticized by former Supreme Court puisne judge John Major on CBC’s “The Current” radio show.

Major argued that the only way to uphold the Rule of Law in Canada is to have the most competent people in the Supreme Court, not to put the emphasis on linguistics. Since there is far more bilingualism in the East, requiring bilingual Justices from the West would lower the grade of the talent pool. Major noted that both Parliament and the UN use translators. He said that in his 13 years on the Court there was never a single case where he didn’t fully understand the case, between translators and extensive case preparation. Major argued that “fluently bilingual” is a very high threshold to achieve, and most justices only learn French after they are appointed. Interestingly, Major criticized several times former justice minister Irwin Cotler and former lawyer Bob Rae for their support of the bill.

While Godin argued that Harper broke a fully bilingual Court by appointing Rothstein (who is currently taking language lessons), Major countered that it’s actually only two or three current Justices who are truly bilingual. Godin’s primary concern was that someone arguing a case before the Court would not be fully understood, a concern that Major effortlessly debunked.

Phil Fontaine, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, called the bill is “elitist” because it does not fully reflect the diversity of Canada. I would call it elitist because it is only a small subset of Canada’s English-speaking population that has access to quality French-language instruction at a young age.

2 Comments on "Bilingualism and the Supreme Court"

  1. I agree that we need the best judges–not just the best bilingual judges.

    I think that most of the Supreme Court judges will have some knowledge of both official languages that they will be able to understand the nuances of legal texts in both English and French.

  2. While this is a good idea in theory, it is not one in practice. Officially Canada is a bilingual country but how many of us actually speak both English and French? I live in Toronto and of the people I know who speak are bilingual, the second languages vary from Mandarin to Farsi to Greek. The only people in Toronto I’ve ever met who speak French are the teachers who taught it to me in school. Certainly justices should reflect our country, but that does not necessarily mean they all need to speak French.

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