Should Canadian Supreme Court justices be bilingual? That question is the latest battleground in the enduring debate on language rights and representation in Canada.
The Supreme Court Act requires that at least three of the nine Canadian Supreme Court Justices come from Quebec, which has historically been the heart of Canada’s French-speaking community. Justices from Quebec (and New Brunswick) have for the most part tended to be bilingual but appointees from elsewhere have not.
This perhaps helps explain why federal Member of Parliament Yvon Godin has introduced a bill mandating bilingualism on the Supreme Court of Canada.
A few weeks ago at the end of March, the House of Commons approved that bill amending the Supreme Court Act to make bilingualism a requirement for future Supreme Court justices.
The battle lines were drawn quite sharply on this bill: the governing Conservative Party did not support the bill but the opposition parties—namely the Liberal Party, the NDP, and the Bloc Québécois, which together constitute a majority in the House—threw their full weight behind it.
The bill is now in the hands of the Senate.
As the Senate begins its deliberations, many observers have expressed their opposition to the bill. Perhaps the most notable among them is John Major, a former Supreme Court justice, who suggests that bilingualism may come at the expense of competence: “To think you can get nine people fully bilingual–you might find them but you’re not going to find the most competent candidates,” says Major.
Another influential commentator—Phil Fontaine, former head of the Assembly of First Nations—has called the bill “elitist” because it is not, in his view, attentive to the richness of the diversity of Canada.
Returning now to the fate of the bill in the Senate, party affiliation cannot help us predict how the Senate will vote on the bill for at least two reasons. First, Senators tend to exercise more independent judgment than their counterparts in the House of Commons, who are often constrained by the convention of Cabinet and party solidarity. Moreover, as an institutional matter, party affiliation in the Senate does not reflect the composition of the House of Commons: the Conservative Party holds 51 Senate seats, the Liberal Party holds 49 seats, the Progressive Conservative Party (which is not represented in the House of Commons) holds 2 seats, while two Senators have chosen to designate themselves as “independent” and another remains unaffiliated.
It therefore remains unclear, for now, what the future holds for the Supreme Court bilingualism bill in the Senate.