2015 AJEFO Congress
The Association des juristes d’expression française de l’Ontario (AJEFO) held its 36th annual congress last week – in an unaccustomed location: Lafayette, Louisiana. The congress’s theme was “Du Canada à la Louisiane : une justice multiple, un français vivant!” [from Canada to Louisiana: many justice systems, one living French language!]. Oh yes, French is indeed alive and well in Louisiana. In fact, it’s one of the first things you notice, as announcements in the Lafayette airport are made in French as well as English. Why Louisiana? As president François Baril wrote in his opening remarks, this year the AJEFO is joined by its colleagues from Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan and, of course, Louisiana: a unifying, motivating event built around high-calibre presentations.
The first panel discussion, held in the magnificent Federal Courthouse, was about access to justice in French. To quote Mr. Gauthier, from Lafayette, “I can be a lawyer, but not an interpreter at the same time,” in reference to the challenges of being able to argue cases in French in Louisiana – because, yes, it is possible to do so. Mr. Doucet, from New Brunswick, noted that with regard to bilingual decisions, it is the publisher who decides on the translation of court decisions in the public interest, rather than the judge or a panel of judges, with mixed results, of course. Judge Marianne Rivoalen, from Manitoba, explained that for her, one of the problems in having so few judges who speak and understand French is that lawyers know that if they ask for a trial in French, they will automatically find themselves in her court, because she is the only family law judge and the lawyers feel they know in advance how she’ll rule! Another challenge is that, in many cases, interpretation will be provided for the lawyers, even though everyone, including the judge, understands French. So interpretation makes hearings longer and more costly.
The Honourable Paul Rouleau, of the Ontario Court of Appeal, was the optimist in the group. And he’s right. The Ontario government takes very seriously the recommendations made in Access to Justice in French, the report of the committee he co-chaired. He also talked about the manifest good will of all stakeholders, including the various divisions in the Ministry of the Attorney General, court offices at all levels, judges at all levels, legal and community workers, the Law Society of Upper Canada, the provincial police and the law schools. For Mr. Rouleau, the important thing was to create the service and offer it actively so as to convince citizens that they are right to ask for service in French. Lastly, Ms. Tremblay, from the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada, summarized the key findings of the joint study conducted by the Commissioner and two provincial counterparts, the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick and me, on access to justice in both official languages. There is no objective assessment of what a court needs in terms of capacity to serve the public in both languages. Nor is there an objective assessment of the language skills of candidates for federal appointments to the judiciary. In her view, access to justice in French needs to become a priority for official language minority communities in the same way health and immigration have been in recent years. A truly interesting and promising idea.
The next panel discussion was on codes of ethics for practitioners and the difficulties associated with interactions between lawyers and unilingual citizens. Professor Rigaud, from Quebec, stated that the Federation of Law Societies of Canada (FLSC) had introduced a rule, similar to the one in Ontario, on citizens’ language rights and lawyers’ obligation to inform clients of those rights. So it’s no longer just a question of ethics but one of professional conduct, because it has to do with the lawyer’s competence, if he or she is unable to provide legal advice to Francophone clients. Aside from Ontario, New Brunswick, Manitoba and Saskatchewan now have such provisions in their codes of professional conduct. That is something.
Charles Larroque, executive director of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), Louisiana’s equivalent of our Office of Francophone Affairs, gave a touching, compelling, riveting, inspiring speech. “Liberty, okay. Equality, sort of. But fraternity, that we have!” he contended, referring to his state. He noted that, despite its poverty, it is Louisiana that gives the rest of the United States its soul, not just through language but also through the quiet resilience of its peoples and their indefatigable will to continue existing. I had the good fortune to spend an entire evening in his company. What a remarkable man! Full of wisdom, hope and wilfully fierce determination. He reminds me a great deal of the characters in songs by his compatriot Zacharie Richard. We promised to keep in touch, since there are many conversations to be had, on subjects as varied as telecommunications and networking of organizations representing youth or parents of French-immersion students.
In a panel discussion on education and language rights in Canada and the status of French in Louisiana schools, Mr. Mercantel, from the same state, began by pointing out that for many years in Louisiana, teaching French was not prohibited, but teaching in French was. Many citizens didn’t even know that you could read Cajun French, since they only spoke it. Now there are immersion schools where instruction is entirely in French. In fact, Louisiana has 26 immersion schools, with 166 teachers for nearly 5,000 students since 1983. And there is rapid, continuous growth. The interest is there and growing. Under a law passed in 2014, if there are 25 students willing to register from kindergarten on, the local school board has to provide a school. Understandably, some school boards are not happy with this new law, and Louisiana lawyers will not be surprised if it is eventually challenged. The law is revolutionary for the United States, since it gives parents the right to choose to educate their children in a language other than English.
Ms. Hammat, from Louisiana, told us that immersion schools are now competing with each other for excellence. This is not surprising since they can now be certified in immersion on the basis of points earned for the quality of their teachers, the number of hours taught in French, and so on. The vast majority of the teachers are still from France and Belgium, but it appears that a new generation of teachers from Louisiana’s immersion schools is ready to carry the torch. Naturally, as is the case here, studies show that immersion students do better in school, especially in mathematics!
Mr. Rouleau, from Ontario, who successfully argued the Rose-des-vents case in the Supreme Court of Canada very recently, summarized the facts concerning the school’s poverty. It’s like something out of a Victor Hugo novel. Students are not allowed to play ball in the schoolyard because it’s so small that students are likely to run into one another. The secondary school was actually built in that schoolyard outside the elementary school. The children regularly get lice because there isn’t even room to hang up their winter coats and hats. As a result, parents are pulling their children out of the school. To the disapproval of the Supreme Court.
Another panel discussion was about the history and future of the French fact in Louisiana. Participants were treated to a surprise appearance by a VIP guest, Stephen Ortego, a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives and a proud Cajun. He was so passionate about the French language in his state! Professor Barry Jean Ancelet, of the University of Louisiana, reminded us that “To have a future, you have to leave some traces behind.” For him, the question is not whether there is a future for French in Louisiana, but rather by what miracle French still exists in Louisiana, with the great obstacles it has faced. The shame in speaking French, the prohibition against teaching French and the fear of speaking a language seen as from another level socially and economically speaking. In fact, according to Professor Ancelet, if French survived into the 20th century, it was by neglect. “We want to be ourselves, in French.” He added, “In Louisiana, to write and speak French is to bet on the future.”
In closing, we should point out that Ontario was very well represented by the Honourable Madeleine Meilleur, Attorney General of Ontario and Minister Responsible for Francophone Affairs, who urged all Francophone lawyers to persuade their Francophone clients to request services in French in Ontario’s courts. The assistant deputy minister of the Office of Francophone Affairs, Kelly Burke, provided a detailed description of the pilot project on access to justice in French in the Ottawa region.
An exceptional congress. I would also like to take the opportunity to express my sincere gratitude and congratulations to all members of the organizing committee, of course, but also to the members of the small but no less energetic AJEFO team, for a congress that went like clockwork, with seasoned, relevant guest speakers and unforgettable activities. In a word, thank you.
Laissez les bons temps rouler!