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Lysiane Gagnon
Lysiane Gagnon

Lysiane Gagnon

When fluency in French matters Add to ...

Many names have been put forward as possible successors to Governor-General Michaëlle Jean, but most of them, from Rick Hansen to Wayne Gretzky to several prominent native leaders, lack an essential attribute: They're not fluent enough in French.

Now, I'm not one of those French Canadians who wants every major federal post to go to a bilingual person. I'm totally opposed to a bill tabled by NDP MP Yvon Godin that would call for all future Supreme Court of Canada appointees to be bilingual. This is an unrealistic idea that is dangerous to boot, since it would greatly diminish the pool of qualified candidates and virtually exclude candidates from the Western provinces. The bill was adopted by the Commons and is now being examined by the Senate, which will hopefully reject it.

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"We have 33 million people in Canada", says Mr. Godin, "and if we can't find six who are bilingual, we're in trouble." This is a terribly simplistic view, to say the least. Of course one can find six bilingual lawyers in three minutes (especially in Montreal), but the elevation to the Supreme Court - arguably the most important institution in Canada, considering the importance of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in our legislation - requires a host of other exceptional qualities that are much more important than the knowledge of a second language. Excluding an excellent candidate because he or she doesn't master French to the degree expected from a higher court judge would be self-defeating.

The Supreme Court has fine legal translators, and its decisions can be read in both languages. As for the so-called right of citizens to be directly understood in their native language by all the members of a Supreme Court panel, this is bogus. There is not a high-level tribunal in the world that goes by such a rule, neither at the UN nor at The Hague or the European Union. That's what interpreters are for. Lower courts should accommodate, when possible, the desire of the accused to be tried in his native language, but the Supreme Court is an appellate court that studies written material and where most representations are made by lawyers. In any case, the matters that land in front of the Supreme Court are so complex that the level of bilingualism required would have to be extraordinarily high - to a degree that a large majority of functionally bilingual people can never reach.

The case of the governor-general is entirely different, because it is a mostly symbolic function. Contrary to Supreme Court judges, governors-general are not required to be exceptionally learned. It's good enough that they are intelligent, sensible and well-travelled, and at ease with ordinary people and the military as well as with visiting dignitaries. Among the qualities needed for the position, bilingualism comes at the very top because the governor-general is akin to the head of state of a bilingual country with a large francophone minority.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Prime Minister Stephen Harper would like the post to go to a Westerner, and it's true that it's the turn of someone from outside central Canada. Yet it's difficult to find a fluently bilingual potential candidate in provinces where French is hardly spoken.

Personally, I would nominate L. Ian MacDonald, a columnist I've known for years but who is not a personal friend. (I didn't ask for his opinion before writing this column and I don't have the slightest idea whether he would be interested in the job.) Mr. MacDonald, who was Brian Mulroney's speechwriter, would be acceptable to the Tories. He has international experience (he was in charge of public affairs at the Canadian embassy in Washington). He is bright, charming, with a great deal of social skills. And he's perfectly at ease in both languages. The drawback is that he would be the third journalist after Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean - and another Quebecker. On the other hand, he is a white male of British ancestry, which would be somewhat exotic in an era where symbolic functions often go to women or visible minorities.

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