The new Action Plan to enhance the bilingual capacity of the judiciary in the superior courts

With the words of the Franco-Ontarian anthem Notre place ringing out across Ontario, Franco-Ontarian Day was marked by the pride and unity expressed by participants. Celebrations flying the green and white demonstrated the strength of this Francophone community and its rich and diverse culture and language.

The celebrations also provided the ideal opportunity for the Minister of Francophone Affairs to announce some good news: Marie-France Lalonde has launched a new community fund that will provide $3 million over three years to support Ontario’s Francophonie. This is excellent news for Francophone organizations. On the federal side, the Minister of Justice of Canada also wanted to take part in these festivities and made an announcement that will benefit Francophones and Anglophones in minority communities. Of course, I am talking about the federal government’s action plan to enhance the bilingual capacity of the judiciary in the superior courts.

I welcome this new action plan with hope and enthusiasm. We had been impatiently awaiting these new measures for several years. Nonetheless, this is an important step forward for access to justice for all Canadians. The plan is in response to the recommendations made in 2013 by my counterparts at the federal level (Graham Fraser, at the time) and in New Brunswick (Katherine d’Entremont) and myself.

The Action Plan provides that the evaluation of candidates for the judiciary will be improved in two ways:

  • two additional questions will be included in the questionnaire used for evaluating candidates for the judiciary; and
  • the advisory committees will be asked to check the language proficiency of candidates who self-identify as bilingual.

The Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs is also now authorized and encouraged to do spot checks of candidates’ language proficiency.

In addition to a more in-depth assessment of language proficiency, the Action Plan provides that the advisory committees and members of the judiciary will have access to a wider range of information and training concerning language rights.

I am also very happy to see that the federal Minister of Justice will be able to consult the provinces and territories in order to learn the interests and priorities of the Canadian public in relation to access to the superior courts in both official languages. The Department will also be working with them to assess the existing bilingual capacity of the superior courts.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the first two recommendations in our 2013 report: that the Department of Justice Canada take measures, in conjunction with its provincial and territorial counterparts, to ensure appropriate bilingual capacity at all times and also to establish a memorandum of understanding with the attorneys general and the chief justices of superior courts of each province and territory. Those recommendations were not included in the Action Plan, but they are nonetheless important. I am committed to raising this question again with the Attorney General of Ontario and encouraging him to discuss it with his colleagues across the country.

I congratulate everyone who has contributed to these achievements, in whatever way, since the result will be to encourage better language skills development for judges and candidates for the judiciary.

Access to justice in French in Ontario is a priority for our office: there is still a shortage of French language services in a number of courts, and people regularly bring this to our attention. This new Action Plan could prove to be an excellent tool for ensuring better management of how language skills are assessed and providing training about language rights for members of the judiciary. As we said in our 2013 report, it is important to “ensure that all Canadians can fully and freely exercise their language rights in their dealings with Canada’s superior courts, in particular the right to be heard in the minority official language.”

This action plan is definitely a BIG step in the right direction.

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