Diversity is on a collision course with bilingualism at Canada’s top court

Tend to agree:

Should all Supreme Court of Canada judges — or at least the next one — be bilingual? Should the next vacancy go to a Black, brown or Indigenous jurist, whether they are bilingual or not, to reflect Canada’s population in all its diversity?

It’s a legal dilemma wrapped up in a language debate, tinged with electoral politics, and an existential question about what kind of country Canada is.

The Trudeau government has kicked off both.

On the same day it announced the launch of a search for an Ontario jurist to take the seat of soon-to-retire Justice Rosalie Abella, the Liberal government said it plans to put into law Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s practice of appointing only “functionally bilingual” judges to the top court.

It was a campaign commitment, and with a whiff of a possible election in the air, Trudeau is ticking off political boxes.

But the “how?” he proposes to do it is less clear. And advocates of greater diversity say mandatory bilingualism will block many qualified candidates from being elevated to the Supreme Court.

Six months ago the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers wrote an open letter to the Trudeau government urging swifter action to address systemic anti-Black racism throughout the justice system and noting “only three Black judges have been appointed under the Trudeau-led government.”

Raphael Tachie, senior counsel for TD Financial Group and president of the association, in an interview said the top court should be a bilingual institution but the requirement “that each individual justice be bilingual disqualifies a lot of really qualified Black and racialized jurists that we think would be great appointments to the court.”

Many practising outside Quebec have not been exposed to French language or training, or “come to the language later on in life and might not always be as proficient as they ought to be. That’s the challenge,” he said, adding “I think the court can compensate for that,” using translators and interpretation. He urges Trudeau to look beyond the Ontario Court of Appeal to lower courts and the bar: “You need to elevate your talent,” he said.

Brad Regehr, the first Indigenous lawyer to lead the Canadian Bar Association, says the same is true for Indigenous candidates who “already face systemic barriers in terms of achieving that proficiency in official languages.” Regehr says it’s time for Trudeau to name someone who is Black, Indigenous or a person of colour to the Supreme Court.

A member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in Saskatchewan who lives and practices law in Winnipeg, Regehr argues that Canada is “not just a bijuridical state where there’s English common law and French civil law; Indigenous legal traditions form part of the law of Canada and that seems to be forgotten or ignored and the only way you’re going to get any perspective on that is by having an Indigenous judge.”

Both want Trudeau to walk his progressive talk, and do something concrete to promote reconciliation and diversity.

Right now, the Supreme Court of Canada is the only federally-appointed court that is exempt from the Official Languages Act which says all Canadians must be able to access services in federal courts in either English or French. In other words, it puts the onus on federal courts to provide bilingual services, not on prime ministers to appoint only bilingual judges. The Liberals propose to drop the exception.

Trudeau does not intend to change the Supreme Court Act which sets out the eligibility criteria for judicial appointments to the top court.

Rachel Rappaport, a spokesperson for Justice Minister David Lametti, says the bilingual services exemption for the Supreme Court “was never intended to be permanent.”

In 1988 Conservative justice minister Ray Hnatyshyn said during debates on the Official Languages Act that, “It is probably in the national interest at this time that we not put any constraints on the court in the way in which it does its business.” He said that “until we reach a more developed stage of bilingualism across the country,” governments should be able pick from among “the best people who are unilingual, in both languages.”

There have been at least 10 bills introduced over the past 10 years to require top judges be bilingual, according to Jean-Christophe Bédard-Rubin, a doctoral candidate at University of Toronto’s faculty of law. None has passed.

But unilingualism has had an impact, says Bédard-Rubin, who with a colleague has done the first empirical study of the impact of unilingualism on the Supreme Court’s operations. They analyzed cases from 1969 to 2013. In an interview, he said, “There tends to be a linguistic separation of labour at the Supreme Court.”

Despite access to interpreters and translation, anglophone judges “will sit more and write more in cases argued in English and francophone judges will sit more and write more on cases argued in French. And this is regardless of their areas of expertise,” he said. Unilingual judges are less assertive on cases argued in another language and litigants “might lose that expertise” where unilingual judges stand down or just “go with the flow.”

“The general picture that emerges is that language proficiency superimposes itself as another kind of legal specialization in the inner-working of the court,” he wrote.

There’s another twist. Some legal scholars suspect that the Liberals are trying to do through a back door (via the Official Languages Act) what they may not be able to do through the front door (via the Supreme Court Act): that is, rewrite the eligibility rules for judges. That’s because in 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Parliament “cannot unilaterally modify the composition or other essential features of the court,” saying it requires a constitutional amendment.

Gerard Kennedy, assistant professor in the faculty of law at the University of Manitoba, said it’s debatable whether making bilingualism mandatory is the kind of “essential” characteristic that is protected by the Constitution. And if the Liberals took that route, he said it would quickly become very divisive. “By amending the Official Languages Act, it draws less attention to it.”

But the government seems to have allowed itself some wiggle room — at least for the next appointment. There is one Ontario vacancy coming open on July 1, and another one within two years when Michael Moldaver will turn 75.

The languages law reform document states in drafting the change, the government is weighing the appointment of Indigenous judges to the Supreme Court of Canada along with case law on the court’s “composition and eligibility criteria.”

Meanwhile, the Liberals are using their plan it as a “political chip” as Bédard-Rubin calls it, part of a political strategy to paint the Conservatives as soft on bilingualism.

Trudeau challenged Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole outright in the Commons two weeks ago to commit to naming only bilingual judges on the top court, claiming Conservatives do “not support bilingualism in Canada.”

Conservative justice critic Rob Moore declined an interview request but in an email said, “Conservatives expect appointments to the Supreme Court of Canada are based on competency and legal excellence. Bilingualism or a commitment to learn or improve one’s French will also be a key principle in appointments to the Supreme Court for a future Conservative government.”

The NDP and the Bloc Québécois have long called for bilingual Supreme Court judges.

It’s not clear if the latest proposal will come to pass before a federal election, whenever it comes.

Source: ANALYSIS Diversity is on a collision course with bilingualism at Canada’s top court

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

One Response to Diversity is on a collision course with bilingualism at Canada’s top court

  1. Robert Addington says:

    Federal judges should have a working knowledge of both official languages, but full bilingualism should not be a requirement.

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