Don't legislate Supreme bilingualism

Cour suprême: le bilinguisme des juges

Should bilingualism - real bilingualism, we mean, true fluency in both English and French - be a requirement for membership on the Supreme Court of Canada?
At first glance, the idea has some appeal. But in practice, although true bilingualism will we believe become the norm for our high court, imposing a formal rule to that effect would be a mistake.
The temptation is natural. Canada is supposed to deliver services equally in both official languages. Our laws are on the books in both, and as New Democratic Party MP Yvon Godin rightly says, neither version takes precedence over the other.
Godin, a New Brunswick francophone, is the author of a private member's bill to require that nominees to Canada's highest court be so bilingual that they do not require a translator or interpreter. Despite unanimous Conservative opposition, his bill passed the Commons, and is now before the Senate.
This would be a fine time for senators to do their celebrated duty and impose some sober second thought on this issue.
Godin argues that Supreme Court judges must understand "the subtleties of the law in both official languages, as well as the parties involved in proceedings, without the assistance of an interpreter so as to avoid being prejudicial."
But how are interpreters prejudicial? The Supremes naturally take the time to examine each case in great detail; there can't be many, if any, examples of mistaken meanings.
Appointment to the court is already hedged about with qualifications; it's a matter of finding fine legal minds who are from the different regions of Canada, and who vary by gender and sometimes ethnicity or religion. Adding another requirement would make sense if it were really essential, but this standard is not.
It's worth noting, as blogger Norman Spector did this week, that both Pierre Trudeau's Official Languages Act of 1969 and Brian Mulroney's amendments 20 years later exempted the Supremes from bilingualism requirements imposed on the rest of the government.
Nor is such a rule a good idea now.
Increasingly, bilingualism is the standard for all positions with pan-Canadian importance - in the law, the civil service, the military, the private sector, Crown corporations, NGOs, everywhere. That's good, and overdue.
And it is true that francophones have historically carried an unfair burden in bilingualism. French-speakers have always known that if their ambitions led them beyond the borders of Quebec or New Brunswick, they must learn English. There was no point wishing that boards of directors in Ontario or out West would switch to French to accommodate a unilingual French-speaker from Quebec.
But French teaching continues to improve across Canada. And a new generation of ambitious Canadians knows that bilingualism is becoming a de-facto requirement for success.
Full untranslated bilingualism on the Supreme Court is on its way, we believe, without coercion being needed in the form of a private member's bill or any other form. It will happen because potential candidates understand the country well enough to see the need to know both languages.

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