Justice Deschamps and the bilingual question

This past week, we have seen a couple of different interviews with outgoing Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps, and there is something that both touched on, which was the selection of future justices. In particular, the question of bilingualism has been brought up, and Deschamps, a Quebec justice, is well placed to give her take on What It All Means in the context of her experience and role.

Think back for a moment to the last round of Supreme Court appointments, when the issue of bilingualism again reared its head, as it has periodically for the past few years. The NDP have had private members’ bills on the issue (one of which died in the Senate during the last election), and the Bloc made a big deal of it when they were still a relevant force in the Commons, but the momentum to formalise this requirement never picked up enough steam to get it into law.

And so, when the last round of appointments happened, and MPs went through the window dressing of having an ad hoc committee hearing to “get to know” the two new justices (not that the decision was ever up to MPs, since the Prime Minister was going ahead with the appointments regardless), the NDP members on the committee decided to push the issue. There can be little doubt that their renewed zeal for this was part of their attempt to out-Bloc the Bloc in the quest to consolidate their Quebec gains, but regardless of motive, they made a spectacle of the issues and themselves, even going so far as to be insulting to Justice Moldaver about it.

And so what does Madame Justice Deschamps say on the issue? Bilingualism helps, but it’s not the end-all or be-all of the job, and it didn’t diminish the work she did when other Justices couldn’t speak in French well enough, or when her own English wasn’t as good as she had initially thought it was going to be. Which is of course the flipside of the issue, about francophone judges being able to communicate well enough in English (as Deschamps herself admits she had some difficulty with), and yet we never seem to hear that particular argument come forward.

For the upcoming appointment, it will be another Quebec judge, and it will likely be a woman in order to maintain the gender balance on the Court – something Deschamps singled out as being important, more than the language issue. And the issue of a francophone judge’s English should be addressed if bilingualism is the issue that the NDP – or the Bloc for that matter – seem to believe it is. But if that subject isn’t broached, it will showcase how transparent the attempt to pander to a certain Quebec constituency the one-sided bilingualism debate really is.

Yes, bilingualism matters in a bilingual country, and it’s important that there be that capacity in the Court – but it’s not like we haven’t operated for as long as we have in an illegitimate or incompetent fashion. Accommodation has always been made for the linguistic duality on the Court, so the current push for enforce bilingualism doesn’t have any particular crisis point to precipitate this sudden level of concern. We also can’t forget that these justices do take bilingualism far more seriously these days as well and if they aren’t fluent enough in the other language, then they work on improving their proficiency, English or French. Madame Justice Deschamps spoke about how other justices improved their French as much as she improved her English. It’s an organic process within the Court itself, and it doesn’t seem to require Parliament getting involved to impose its own vision of bilingual engagement upon the Court.

Of course, if the proponents of a bilingual court really wanted to take their arguments to the logical end, will they then insist on ensuring that their parties only nominate and elect fully bilingual MPs? After all, if they want to properly scrutinise and vote on the laws that the Court will then interpret, considering that bills are drafted simultaneously in English and French (as opposed to being translated outright), should they not fully understand both linguistic nuances if they want to understand it before they vote on it and pass it into law? Considering how many unilingual MPs there are amongst both the NDP and the Bloc, and how much attention goes to actually scruitinising bills in the Commons lately, obviously not.

Given Madame Justice Deschamps’ dismissal of the issue, one can hope that the MPs will get the message and focus on competency. But given the linguistic politics of appealing to the Quebec electorate, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.