There is a standoff brewing in the Senate that could soon turn into an all-out war over the issue of making Supreme Court judges bilingual.
Liberals in the Senate are telling the Conservatives that if they want help passing legislation they find important then they better be ready to deal with the top Liberal priority, bill C-232. The bill originated in the House with New Democrat Yvon Godin and passed last spring with the full support of the Liberals and Bloc.
The bill would add a short amendment to the Supreme Court Act by saying that a person, “may be appointed a judge who understands French and English without the assistance of an interpreter.”
Supporters of the bill claim it would only require a reasonable level of bilingualism. Critics, including a former justice of the court, claim it would severely restrict who could be appointed.
Retired justice John Major told me last spring that only three of the nine judges currently on the bench would have qualified if this rule were in place when they were appointed. Major, who speaks some French and is married to a Francophone, told me that the complexity of the cases heard by the Supreme Court means that to hear tax cases, criminal code cases and constitutional cases without the need of an interpreter would mean every appointee would need to be flawlessly bilingual upon appointment.
In Major’s eyes this would severely limit the pool of potential judges and make bilingualism more important than legal skills.
Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin was not bilingual when she was appointed to the court in 1989 but has since learned French and lived in a bilingual environment long enough that she is bilingual. I have been told that Justice Marie Deschamps, a French Quebecer would not have been qualified to sit on the court either under this law because she has needed translation assistance with English cases.
Supporters, including Graham Fraser the Commissioner of Official Languages, have said that this is the right move for Canada if we are to live up to our promise as a bilingual country.
The issue is highly emotional on all sides and will prove divisive what ever happens.
The Liberals have been accusing the Conservatives of stalling on the bill for months, a charge the Conservatives deny although it is clear they oppose passing the measure into law.
Unless the Conservatives stop putting up speakers on the bill and agree to pass C-232 the Liberals are threatening to hold up bills dealing with issues the Conservatives view as priorities such as C-35 formerly called Cracking Down on Crooked Consultants and C-31 the bill to take away Old Age Security payments for prisoners.
There is another bill the Liberals have put forward aimed at expanding bilingualism in the public service and government appointments, bill S-220. It will be interesting to see if they tie support for that bill in with the court issue.