News | Bilingualism is key to access to justice in Canada

French has improved among judges

Justice Pierre Dalphond of the Court of Appeal of Quebec called for strengthened bilingualism in federal and Quebec courts, while he spoke to a small crowd of students gathered for SSMU’s Francofête’s inaugural event at the Faculty of Law on Wednesday.

“Access to justice means being able to be heard in one’s language and to be understood in it,” said Dalphond, one of 25 judges sitting on Quebec’s highest appellate court.

Both Quebec and Canada have strong constitutional protections to ensure that citizens have the right to bring cases forward, to be heard and to testify before courts in either English or French.

While bilingualism has greatly increased among Canadian judges in recent years, institutional unilingualism was prevalent in the Supreme Court of Canada until just a few decades ago, according to Dalphond. In 1979, a majority of the judges sitting on Canada’s highest court were unilingual anglophones. Today, the court is composed by and large of bilingual or functionally bilingual judges, with a few exceptions. “Federal Courts, the Federal Court of Appeal, the Tax Court of Canada are all able to ensure that its judges understand its proceedings without an interpreter.”

Nonetheless, he stressed there is still room for improvement.

“The Supreme Court of Canada stands alone in having non-functionally bilingual judges hearing cases in both official languages. Ideally, we’d have [all] bilingual judges,” said Dalphond.

Dalphond’s sentiments were echoed by Liberal Party MP Denis Coderre’s proposal prior to Parliament’s prorogation last December to require Canada’s top court be functionally bilingual prior to appointment.

Dalphond also commented on lagging bilingualism within Quebec’s judiciary.

“We in Quebec cite cases coming from English Canada all the time, but since most of our judgments aren’t translated in English, coupled with Quebec’s distinct civil law tradition, most anglo-Canadian jurists are kept in the dark.”

As a means to disseminate Quebec’s jurisprudential contribution, Dalphond proposed that translations of Quebec’s most relevant cases be made available in English, though he recognizes that the province has a legitimate desire to project a staunchly francophone identity.

“I understand that the easiest route to spread Quebec’s legal thinking would be simply to translate cases. But out of principle, there ought to be greater initiative from judges from the rest of Canada to be open to the French language,” said Hughes Doré-Bergeron, the event’s organizer and a member of SSMU’s Commission des affaires francophones.

Kay Turner, SSMU President, who helped put on Francofête, emphasized the importance of francophone events at McGill.

“Sometimes francophones feel excluded from events on campus…. It’s really nice to have a series of events that celebrate franco culture, and sharing it with other students,” she said.

– with files from Shannon Kiely