Are we bilingual, or aren’t we?

If Canada is a bilingual country, the people sitting on the Supreme Court bench should speak both French and English. If it's not bilingual, then someone should say so.

If Canada is a bilingual country, the people sitting on the Supreme Court bench should speak both French and English.

If it’s not bilingual, then someone should say so. Then we can abandon this long experiment in nation building and come up with something else.

The whole language issue has been stirred up by Bill C232, legislation that makes bilingualism part of the job description if you want to become a Supreme Court justice. The legislation is currently being reviewed by the Senate.

It’s an oil-and-water type of issue, which makes for spirited debate.

Those lining up against the initiative argue we don’t need bilingual judges on the bench. They’ll say a translator will bridge the language barrier.

They’ll argue English is the world’s default language, and that’s just the way the world is – so why force our Supreme Court justices to speak French?

They assert it is foolishness to prevent people from sitting in the nation’s highest court simply because they can’t speak French. In doing so, you may be forced to hire a bunch of second-stringers.

And they’ll say people in small-town Canada, where it’s more difficult to speak French, will be barred from sitting in the top court.

But those are simple rationalizations based on arrogance, fear and defeatism.

It boils down to the We’re Bilingual Enough argument.

But are we?

Canada is built on a foundation of French and English heritage. And for decades we have fostered and promoted bilingualism among its leaders and institutions.

As a country, we’ve fought to preserve the French culture and language in a continent dominated by English.

So, is it too much to ask its top judges, asked to interpret and rule on its laws – written in English and French – to speak both languages?

Is it plausible that, in a country with 33.3 million people, we can’t find nine clever lawyers who can speak English and French? Really?

Is it really a sound argument that, in a country with English and French education in virtually every community, small-town Canada can’t produce someone with the smarts to be a Supreme Court justice?

Such arguments sell rural Canadians short. And, if in fact that’s the case, the problem isn’t bilingualism on the bench, it’s shoddy education in rural Canada. And the nation should take steps to address that.

But c’mon, that’s not really the issue.

Despite all the progress Canada has made towards bilingualism, there are still plenty of people who resent it.

They would do well to remember Canada has fought a couple of emotional referendums to keep Quebec in Confederation.

We fought them for good reason. English Canadians instinctively know the nation is better, richer, tougher and far more interesting with the French culture than without it.

Same goes for the Supreme Court – or any other federal institution.

Sure, it takes effort and money and intellect and perseverance to learn French. And, by the way, English.

But speaking both is an ideal, a shared vision for the nation. Something to strive for.

Progress doesn’t come through pandering to the status quo, or doing things the easy way. You reach goals by setting the bar higher.

So, when it comes to legislating bilingualism on the Supreme Court bench, the questions really boil down to:

Are Canadians not up to it?

And if not, why not? 

Are we, as a nation, too stupid?

Too complacent, or lazy?

Too poor?

Do we simply lack the will and the resources? The population?

Or, do we just not care? Is a multicultural Canada, as a goal, just not important anymore?

We should consider our answers carefully, because they will lay out whether this grand experiment in balancing two founding cultures is a failure.

It may be. And if so, we should be honest about it. That way, Quebec can make its tough decision and English Canada can start fashioning its new identity – its new dream, sans subtitles. (Richard Mostyn)

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