Justice Canada

Justice in Official Languages: A Cornerstone of Canada's Linguistic Duality

By Françoise Trudeau-Reeves

OTTAWA – Thanks to recent court decisions and revised federal government policy, there is no longer any turning back on the road toward the full recognition of the rights of Canada's official-language minorities – including in the area of justice.

The Roadmap for Canada's Linguistic Duality 2008-2013: Acting for the Future, the Government of Canada's official-languages strategy led by the Department of Canadian Heritage, now recognizes justice as one of five "essential service areas for official-language minority communities."

Between 1982 and 1990, specific provisions on the use of English and French in the justice system were enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Official Languages Act and the Criminal Code.

But in 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada turned a new page in the evolution of language rights, when it ordered a new trial for Jean Victor Beaulac, a Francophone from British Columbia accused of murder, because he had been refused a trial in French.

"The Court conclusively abandoned the restrictive interpretation of language rights that it had previously adopted in the 1980s," explains Andrée Duchesne, Senior Counsel at the Department of Justice Canada."Since then, language rights must be interpreted in a broad and liberal manner as all other rights recognized by the Charter."

Duchesne heads the Justice in Official Languages (JOL) Unit, which is part of the Department's Office of La Francophonie, Justice in Official Languages and Legal Dualism.

The JOL Unit has a dual mandate: to coordinate the promotion of access to justice in both official languages; and to coordinate the implementation of section 41 of the Official Languages Act, which concerns the development and vitality of official-language minority communities, and the promotion of full recognition and use of English and French in Canadian society. Since November 2005, Part VII of the Act, including section 41, has been justiciable, which means that the Government of Canada can be sued if it fails to meet its obligations.

Together with its provincial and territorial partners, as well as various institutions and community-based organizations, the Department has worked to improve the ability of the justice system to offer services in both official languages, as well as to increase awareness among members of official-language minority communities of their rights to legal services in their language.

Since 2003, the Department has been providing funding through its Access to Justice in Both Official Languages Support Fund for information, education, awareness and legal information activities across the country, which target, among others, the elderly, immigrants and youth. For 2008 to 2013, the Fund has received a $41-million investment.

However, in order for the justice system to offer services in both official languages, it became clear that it was necessary to offer language training to key participants. The Canada-Wide Analysis of Official Language Training Needs in the Area of Justice, conducted in 2009, has allowed the Department to direct its efforts and actions toward meeting those training needs.

To that end, the Centre canadien de français juridique, established in Winnipeg in 2010 by the Fédération des associations de juristes d'expression française, currently offers targeted training for provincial probation officers, court clerks, and Crown prosecutors – groups identified by the Analysis.

The JOL Unit. Front row : Anik Sauvé, Ellyce Wright; second row:  Linda DuPont, Mathieu Langlois; third row: Andrée Duchesne, Suzanne Poirier, Diane Brazeau; back row: Marie-France Gauthier, Lise Sarault, Parnel Dugas. Photo: Pat Walton for the Department of Justice
The JOL Unit. Front row : Anik Sauvé, Ellyce Wright; second row: Linda DuPont, Mathieu Langlois; third row: Andrée Duchesne, Suzanne Poirier, Diane Brazeau; back row: Marie-France Gauthier, Lise Sarault, Parnel Dugas. Photo: Pat Walton for the Department of Justice

"Our goal is for clerks to be able to record decisions of the court in French, and for judges to be able to do the same when preparing judgments," says JOL legal counsel Linda DuPont.

Justice Victor T. Tousignant, Assistant Chief Judge in the Family and Youth Divisions of the Provincial Court of Alberta in Calgary, has taken a language training session funded through the Department's Support Fund.

"Because of the French training, I have been able to hear applications or mediate disputes in French. My participation in the training has therefore provided greater access to justice for parties who would have been helpless and hopeless without the presence of a French-speaking judge," he said.

Illustration: Kaméléons & Cie
Illustration: Kaméléons & Cie

The Department's policies on access to justice in both official languages are supported by analyses, studies and research conducted with the help and participation of several partners. For example, the Justice and Security Network is a new group that includes partners from federal institutions, and aims to better understand the issues faced by youth in official-language minority communities who come into contact with the legal system, and to meet their needs.

The Department has also established mechanisms for cooperation and consultation with official-language minority communities.

JOL legal counsel Mathieu Langlois, is responsible for the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Working Group on Access to Justice in Both Official Languages.

The working group has a mandate to identify issues related to access to justice and to "exchange information on services that will ensure that language rights within the Criminal Code are available to all Canadians," he says.

The Department also has in place a network of coordinators who are responsible for implementing section 41 of the Act, and who establish and maintain close links with community organizations and coordinators in other departments. "Our regional coordinators are our ears on the ground, and allow us to better ascertain the needs of those who are going before the courts, so we can plan our efforts to improve access to justice," says JOL policy analyst Anik Sauvé.

JOL also supports the recruitment and training of bilingual young Canadians who show an interest in justice-oriented careers. An Ontario-based initiative called Careers in Justice will be launched across the country to do that.

According to Duchesne, promoting careers in justice, including in minority language communities, will ultimately promote the development of these communities, as well as of Canada's linguistic duality. "It's using society's forces to answer the needs," she says.

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