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Bilingualism ‘critical’ for leadership candidates, Supreme Court judges: Languages czar

By Chelsea Nash      

'If any candidate requires interpretation, it is almost an insurmountable handicap.'

Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser sits in his office in front of framed political cartoons, mostly of him. He keeps them there as a reminder that 'this was an issue that Canadians could laugh about.' The Hill Times photograph by Chelsea Nash
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It’s crucial for both judges on the Supreme Court and political party leaders in Canada to know both French and English, says Canada’s official languages commissioner.

The Hill Times sat down with Graham Fraser before he wraps up his decade in the job at the end of his current term on Oct. 16. Though language tensions have died down in Canada over the past decade, Mr. Fraser says there’s still some politically charged issues crossing his desk, including questions over whether or not the next appointed Supreme Court judge needs to be bilingual or not.

They should be, he said, going on to explain how bilingualism is the only area where, in the public service at least, you can get hired and then be offered training to acquire what he calls a “critical skill.”

The prime minister announced a new process for appointing Supreme Court judges Tuesday. An independent panel is set to give the PM a short list of candidates, who are required to be functionally bilingual, among other criteria. An opening in the court traditionally saved for an appointee from the Atlantic provinces is coming due in September.

Knowledge of both English and French is also critical if you want to lead a political party, says Mr. Fraser. With a few unilingual individuals possibly looking to lead their party to a win in 2019, they could be missing out on crucial relationships with unilingual Canadians who speak the other language. You can’t expect to communicate with constituents in an essential province through translations alone, says Mr. Fraser.

In a July 27 interview, Mr. Fraser talked about everything from the current state of the Quebec separatist movement to why federal government needs to turn its attention to more funding for immersion programs, his plans for the future, and his experience living at Rideau Cottage, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family now reside.

As he speaks, it’s hard not to notice on the wall behind him in his crisp, clean office a framed collection of cartoons, mostly of him. They’re a nice reminder that language debates, while sometimes deadly serious, are also at times something Canadians can laugh about.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Some people say it’s not entirely fair to exclude judges from Newfoundland and Labrador from Supreme Court nominations because they don’t speak French. What’s more important: representing all of Canada, or bilingualism?

“Here I think comes the question of what are the professional skills required to do the job? One-third of the references that come from provinces to the Supreme Court come from Quebec. They’ve been argued in French, all of the documentation is in French. So when a case from Quebec comes before the Supreme Court, there’s a huge pile of the previous decisions, of the factums, of the arguments that have been presented by the lawyers on both sides. All of it in French.

“So a unilingual English-speaking judge is at a serious disadvantage, and those lawyers are at a serious disadvantage, if there’s even one judge who has not been able to understand the material that is presented before the court. It’s one of the critical requirements to do the job. All the arguments against the idea of requiring bilingualism from Supreme Court judges are exactly the same arguments that were used against the Official Languages Act in 1969.

What did you think of the recent Senate Official Languages Committee report, which recommended more funding for second-language education?

“We have a situation where in some provinces, like in British Columbia, parents still either line up all night, or when school boards find that having places allotted like Rolling Stones tickets is a bit too embarrassing for the school board, they do it by lottery.

“Well, this is just not an appropriate way to allocate educational resources. If that was how we allocated the teaching of algebra, there would be a quite understandable revolt across the country that this was discriminatory, that it was unfair to whole districts.

“This is just not an appropriate way to allocate educational resources. If that was how we allocated the teaching of algebra, there would be a quite understandable revolt across the country.”

“We’ve had a 50-year history of immersion. It’s proven to be one of the great and successful innovations in Canada. It should not depend solely on the property-tax capacity of certain school board districts to be able to finance. So I think it’s entirely appropriate for the federal government to be looking at ways in which they can create more opportunity.

“And it also makes financial sense. The federal government, since the [Official Languages] Act was introduced in 1969, has been spending millions of dollars on language training for public servants. The reason that it continues to have to spend millions of dollars on language training is there is not an equitable regional access to language training. And so to come back to your point about Newfoundland, people who go to school in Newfoundland don’t have the same kind of access.”

What do you think of the levels of bilingualism in the House of Commons?

“I take quite a different view of bilingualism in the House. I think that it’s the nature of our democratic process that every Canadian has the right to vote for whoever they choose, whatever their language skills. I actually think that it is important for a cabinet minister, when they are in the House, if a cabinet member is bilingual, and has the ability to answer a question effectively with the same nuance in French as in English, well that’s terrific. It means that Canadians, when they follow events and watch television, are going to be able to hear that government policy clearly and without benefit of interpretation.

“But, I think there have been cases where ministers have made the mistake of using their second language and what that often does is put them at a disadvantage. They are less articulate in their second language than they are in their first, and that can sometimes create an impression or a reputation that is unfair. I can think of a number of cases, of ministers who, despite their good intentions of answering a question in the language it was asked, created a quite unfair impression of themselves because they simply weren’t as articulate.”

What about leaders of political parties? There’ve been a few unilingual candidates announce their intention to run for the leadership of their party. What do you think of that?

“I think that what we now have is an unwritten rule that it is an essential qualification. It’s an essential leadership competency, to be able to understand Canadians, and be able to communicate to Canadians in both official languages.

“Think about it. I can’t think of another major, developed democracy where a political leader in an election campaign has to do a two-hour debate in English, followed by a two-hour debate in French, on television. And, in fact, in the last election there were five debates: two in English, two in French, and one in both languages. It is one of those, if any candidate requires interpretation, it is almost an insurmountable handicap. That is now the political expectation. The writing is on the wall.”

Do you think that it’s impossible for a unilingual politician to be successful as leader?

“I think now there are 78 seats in Quebec. Any political leader who is unable to communicate with voters in those 78 seats starts off at a very serious disadvantage. I’m not just formally non-partisan, I really am non-partisan, but I just see this as a critical leadership competency. Either in the public service, or in public life, [it’s critical] to be able to communicate with all Canadians in both official languages.”

You lived in the Rideau Cottage with your wife, correct? So you basically shared real estate with our prime minister?

“Until the prime minister moved in, it’s been the residence of every secretary to the governor general since I think 1870. My wife was secretary to the governor general from 2000 to 2006, so we rented out our house and had to move in.

“For her, it was a bit like living above the store. For me, it was all upside. I lived in a beautiful house surrounded by beautiful grounds. One of the things that’s been amusing is that I was at The Toronto Star at the time [working as a journalist], and a couple of times, we had sort of office receptions before the press gallery dinner. So people would come with their guests to our place before going down to the Hill. So since the prime minister moved in, I’ve had a number of former colleagues saying, ‘thanks to you, I’ve been in the prime minister’s house!’”

Can you take the temperature of the Quebec separatist movement for me?

“We’ve done a poll, which we will be publishing in September. And while I won’t go into any details on it, I can tell you that what we’ve found is very strong, positive support for official languages across the country. There has been a steady progression up since the 1990s, the early 1990s.

“That having been said, there is an ongoing anxiety, if you like, about the future of the French language, in Quebec and in the rest of Canada. And it is understandable. And I think because English has become, to a very significant degree, the international language of tourism, of research, of commerce, of business. But that pressure is universal. It applies just as much to French in France or to Italian, or the Scandinavian languages, or to German. That pressure on the French language comes from the international pressures of globalization; it does not come from the English minorities in Quebec.”

What are your plans post-mandate?

“My short-term plan is to take a break, do some travelling, and catch up on some reading. Longer term, we’ll see. I have some book projects, I’ve had some very informal conversations with universities about the possibility of doing something, but I won’t have those serious conversations until the mandate’s over.”


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