University of Alberta

Barbara Kay: Of course Justin Trudeau wants bilingual judges: he’s the product of bilingual privilege

Justice Russell Brown

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s seventh appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada is Justice Russell Brown, of the Alberta Court of Appeal, who will replace Justice Marshall Rothstein upon his Aug 31 retirement. Holding a doctorate in juridical science from the University of Toronto, and a member of the bars of both B.C. and Alberta, the 50-something Brown is domiciled in Edmonton, where he also serves as an appeal judge for the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Brown, respected alike by lawyers and prosecutors of all political stripes, would seem to be an impeccable choice, and, apart from his overtly conservative views – including a belief in property rights being enshrined as part of the Charter of rights and Freedoms, a gaping lacuna in the eyes of economic-liberty conservatives everywhere – beyond partisan criticism on his record. In addition to his excellent professional credentials and experience with aboriginal populations, Brown now joins Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, in representing western Canada.

Bilingualism came to (Justin Trudeau) as a gift, with no effort. How lucky is that? In this country: very very very very very lucky.

But wait! Is Russell Brown fluently bilingual? The announcement by the PM did not specify. According to present requirements, it is considered desirable, but so far not absolutely necessary. For justices not up to snuff in either of the two official languages, courses are made available, and most justices end with a certain amount of fluency. All documents and official arguments are aided by translation of the highest quality, it should go without saying.

That is not good enough for Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who has recently laid out his position, which is complete bilingualism as a prerequisite for appointment to the SCC. In a Global interview, Trudeau reasons thus:

It’s not just a question of symbolism of being a bilingual country and expecting that our prime minister and our most important adjudicators and judges be bilingual.

It’s more than that.

Imagine a situation in which those nine judges are in their chambers discussing a case as regularly happens, the fact is that if all of them are to be able to understand each other in their desired mother tongue, they have to be able to follow along that conversation without having to have the inference of translation and all that.

I understand deeply how much when you’re in a room where everyone speaks English but nobody or only a few people speak French, how the French speakers end up having to use their second language and can be at a disadvantage. And we want to make sure that the message of Canada being a country in which French and English are truly the official equal languages that anyone can be reassured that all the arguments will be properly understood by everyone on the Supreme Court.

Never in my writing career have I found greater inspiration for the old cliché: “Easy for you to say!” And not only easy for Justin Trudeau to say, but to say with complete fluency in both official languages. And you know why? Because Justin was born with the linguistic equivalent of a silver spoon in his mouth (though he got that other one, too). Justin was raised by an anglophone mother and a father raised in a fully bilingual and indeed bicultural home. Bilingualism came to him as a gift, with no effort. How lucky is that? In this country: very very very very very lucky.

It means that Justin, without lifting his little finger, has always found easy entry into situations that – along with his name – permit him to leapfrog over thousands of Canadians who, linguistically unlucky in their geography and/or parentage, can’t even break out of the starting gate – for example, in getting civil-service jobs in Ottawa, let alone aspiring to leadership of a federal political party.

Sure, you can achieve fluency in a second language in adulthood (kudos to Stephen Harper on that score). But unless you have a special aptitude for languages – and some of us are built the other way, with a special DISaptitude for learning second languages (I’m looking at you, Ed Broadbent) — achieving fluency of the kind Justin is demanding is something else.

I had a great education in French growing up in Toronto, but it only gave me grammar and reading comprehension, since we rarely spoke to our teachers or each other in French. When I settled in Montreal, I tried very hard to achieve oral fluency, even though my social circle and work were entirely English, not to mention that Montreal francophones are usually bilingual and prefer speaking English to suffering through anglos’ French learning curve. I spent weeks in French immersion in Quebec City, read French newspapers, watched French TV and all the rest. The result is I am fluent in reading, but orally only functional in French.

So what Justin is proposing is that a certain elite group who, like himself, have come by their bilingualism through lucky family circumstances or who are from Quebec or Ottawa or New Brunswick, where real bilingualism is easy to come by, should be the beneficiaries of affirmative action, even if it means sidelining many more highly qualified unilingual jurists who have not had the hundreds of thousands of hours necessary as an adult to becoming fluent in their second language. There are two big problems with Justin’s position that only true bilingualism can ensure every SCC member’s ability to function at full intellectual capacity at all times.

Justin was raised by an anglophone mother and a francophone father who was himself fluently bilingual. Bilingualism came to him as a gift.

One is the obvious inequality one I have mentioned, which can only be rectified by the government demanding that every single Canadian kid comes out of school bilingual, or close enough to be fluently bilingual with a few weeks of immersion, so that no child without #BilingualPrivilege is left behind in his or her ambitions.

The other is that, following Justin’s logic to its obvious end, the SCC’s decisions have up to now been corrupted by the group’s collective lack of complete bilingualism. If that is the case, none of these decisions should be trusted. If they can be trusted, though, it means the system – communication as the SCC has managed for all these years – is good enough, with the aid of translations for the actual documents and official arguments. And if that is the case, then there is no need to impose Justin’s draconian measures.

Once again, Justin has wandered into a perfectly peaceful meadow with a basket of mines over his arm, which he has cheerfully strewn in his own path. What’s it to be, Justin? The strong possibility of missing out on first-tier judges (which would include the admirably well-endowed new appointee, Russell Brown, if he is not bilingual) for the sake of linguistic correctness, or what Trudeau père so vigorously resisted, “cramming French down the throats” of every Canadian, whether or not 99.9% of them will ever need it. Neither option will prove popular, so you can’t win on this one, Justin. My advice is to back slowly away.

National Post