Supreme Court Appointments: “Québec” Reacts

Here in la belle province, the announced appointment of an apparently unlingual Supreme Court justice has met with some consternation and criticism. The Barreau de Québec has officially (by letter – linked here) asked the Prime Minister to reconsider his choice.

The Director of the Québec Bar, Mtre Claude Provencher, made the following comments to a French-language blog (my rough translation):

“Bilingualism must be a required competence. It’s a question of equality before justice for all Canadians, regardless of their mother tongue.”

“We request that the government and the parliamentary committed charged with examining these recommendations not name a unilingual judge. We also again request that the government review the federal legislation in order to enshrine an obligation for the nine Supreme Court justices to master both official languages.”

Do you think the Supreme Court should be fully bilingual – if so, to what degree? How bilingual can someone be who was raised in English their whole life?



  1. I do not think all Supreme Court justices need to be bilingual. Until there is mandatory French immersion in Canadian schools, asking that all SCC judges be bilingual means that you will rule out MOST of the qualified English lawyers/judges. Once French immersion (and English immersion in French-speaking areas) is mandatory in schools and everyone in the country knows both languages, then this question can be open to discussion.

  2. Until Quebec becomes fully bilingual and accepts English as an official language, they have no right to chastise any issue regarding language use in Canada.

  3. It would be interesting to see the reaction that would accompany the appointment of even a single Supreme Court Justice who only spoke French.

    I would suggest that the same people who now say that it is alright to speak only one of the two official languages would be outraged at the idea that a Justice of the Supreme Court could not speak English.

    If you aspire to become a Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, become bilingual. Don’t expect exceptions to be made on your behalf because you are an elite member of the legal profession.

  4. Gary, je suis completement d’accord.

  5. In a perfect world back bacon would be kosher, too.

    Seems to me that if we’re going to make fluency in the major dialects of both Canadian English and French – fluency at a level sufficient to understand legal argument without translation – a precondition for eligibility for the SCC, then we’re morally obliged to also make fluency in the major dialects of the “Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada” a precondition, too.

    As to whether any leading Quebec lawyer or jurist who isn’t comfortable in English has been ever included on the short list, or offered a position: I don’t know if that’s ever occurred. (That, If I knew, I wouldn’t be entitled to say one way or another is a separate question.) Is anybody prepared to claim they know better?

  6. Worth reading is an article in today’s issue of The Law Times (Monday October 24, 2011) by Richard Cleroux under the banner “The Hill:One unilingual judge on the SCC bench enough”.

    According to Cleroux, “The law is clear. It stipulates that in Canada, everyone has the right to a hearing before the top court in either official language. The joke is that it doesn’t say that the person who is heard has to be understood by the judges.”

    The article goes on to say that “There’s one unilingual judge on the court right now, Justice Marshall Rothstein. He still hasn’t learned French as he promised to do when he took the job. That causes a bind for his fellow judges when they get together to discuss cases. One unilingual judge on the bench is enough.”

    There is no shortage of suitable bilingual candidates for the Prime Minister to appoint to the Supreme Court. When it is clearly not the right thing to do, one has to wonder why the appointment was proposed in the first place. Perhaps Justice Moldaver should consider withdrawing his name from consideration.

  7. I have a lot of sympathy for the desire for bilingual judges on the Court. There may be a number of potential candidates for an Ontario appointment. But it is hard to develop and maintain a knowledge of French at a level that one can understand and ideally participate in a legal debate, in an area where one scarcely hears a word of French from one year to the next – i.e. in most of Canada west of St Boniface. Ditto east of Moncton. Yes, one can get CBC radio and usually TV in French, but that’s not really enough to maintain fluency of the required competence.

    So what’s an ambitious lawyer in those areas to do? Sure, spend a year or two in Quebec or France, or maybe in the federal government, but then if one goes ‘home’ to practise law for 20 years, how does one keep up one’s French without opportunities to speak it, and not just at a ‘bonjour, ça va?’ level? Ce n’est pas évident, as they say.

  8. It’s worth wondering (but not asking) how Mr. Cleroux knows that Justice Rothstein’s lack of French “causes a bind for his fellow judges when they get together to discuss cases”. He provide the slightest hint about how he comes by that knowledge. We can assume he hasn’t bugged the SCC’s discussion rooms. Also, according to Justice Binnie, most of the “getting together” is by memo, at least after the initial meeting.

  9. I had wondered the same thing – especially since there is (as I had understood) simultaneous interpretation at the Court for arguments, and translation for documents. OTOH in decades past I know some francophone lawyers would make their oral arguments in English, just because they figured they would be better understood in that language. Counsels’ English was better than the judges’ French. That’s not ideal either.

    But the question is not what the ‘ideal’ is, we know that. The question is how close the practice should be compelled to come to the ideal, either by law or by sensitive selection.