A group of Quebeckers has filed a legal challenge of the appointment of Mary Simon as Governor-General on the grounds that her inability to speak French violates constitutional requirements for official bilingualism.
The move follows months of controversy in the province about the fact that the Queen’s representative in Canada only speaks one of the country’s official languages. Ms. Simon is the first Indigenous person to serve as Governor-General and speaks Inuktitut, as well as English.
The Quebeckers who filed the court challenge in Quebec Superior Court on Wednesday are following in the wake of a successful attempt by Acadians in New Brunswick to have the appointment of that province’s unilingual anglophone Lieutenant-Governor declared a violation of the Constitution.
The lawsuit argues that the nomination of Ms. Simon violates the sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that give Canadians the right to interact with institutions of the federal government in either French or English, and give both languages equal status within the Government of Canada.
The person serving as governor-general is uniquely synonymous with the office she occupies, because of the highly personal nature of the position, the suit argues, meaning that the bilingualism required of federal institutions should also be required of Ms. Simon herself.
Her inability to express herself in French is not only unconstitutional but offensive to francophone Canadians who feel disrespected in a majority-English country, said Frédéric Bastien, a former Parti Québécois leadership candidate who is leading the court challenge.
“It’s another injustice for French Canadians in a long string of injustices,” he said. “Every time I go into a restaurant in Montreal and I can’t be served in French, it’s a humiliation, and it’s a daily thing. Now the example is being set from above.”
Ms. Simon is Inuk and was raised in the northern Quebec region of Nunavik, but educated at a federal day school where students were taught in English.
She delivered part of her first Throne Speech in French, but prominent figures in Quebec, including Premier François Legault, have criticized her grasp of the language. Ms. Simon has said she is “firmly committed to learning French.“
Her appointment last year as vice-regal representative prompted an outcry in Quebec and a torrent of more than 1,000 complaints to the federal Commissioner of Official Languages, who opened an investigation into the nomination. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended Ms. Simon at the time by citing the lack of French instruction she was offered in school.
Commissioner Raymond Théberge ultimately cleared the Privy Council Office, which advised the Prime Minister during the appointment process, of violating the Official Languages Act.
The issue was revived in April when a New Brunswick Court of Queen’s Bench judge ruled that the appointment of a unilingual anglophone Lieutenant-Governor for Canada’s only officially bilingual province violated the Charter. The federal government is appealing, arguing, among other things, that the relevant language protections in New Brunswick apply to institutions not individuals.
Chief Justice Tracey DeWare based her decision on the Charter’s specific linguistic provisions for New Brunwsick, but they are close enough to the articles about English and French at the federal level that Mr. Bastien was motivated to launch a similar legal challenge. He is joined by the advocacy groups Justice pour le Québec (of which he is president) and the Association de défense des droits individuels et collectifs du Québec.
The New Brunswick ruling did not invalidate the appointment of Brenda Murphy as Lieutenant-Governor, noting that doing so would create a crisis by casting doubt on the laws she has signed. Instead, the judge left it up to the federal government to decide how to fix the situation.
The Acadian Society of New Brunswick, which launched the original legal challenge, is calling on the federal government to require future lieutenant-governors of New Brunswick to be bilingual. The group’s president, Alexandre Cédric Doucet, said that while vice-regal representatives have largely ceremonial roles, they also have important functions that require them to understand both of Canada’s official languages.
“If they’re not able to understand the laws they’re signing, we’re beyond symbolism,” he said.
The federal challenge is seeking to render Ms. Simon’s appointment “invalid” under Canadian law. It would be up to the courts to decide how to manage the implications for recent federal legislation, Mr. Bastien said.
The fact that Ms. Simon is Canada’s first Indigenous Governor-General does not excuse her inability to speak French, he said, adding that there are possible Indigenous candidates for the post who speak both English and French.
Anglophones should reflect on how they would feel if the linguistic roles were reversed, Mr. Bastien said.
“It’s totally and completely unthinkable for the Governor-General not to be able to speak English,” he said.
The offices of the Prime Minister, the Governor-General and the Minister of Justice did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
In a statement, Privy Council Office spokesperson Pierre-Alain Bujold said: “We have received the claim and will be reviewing it closely. Since her installation almost a year ago, Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General, Mary Simon, has represented Canada abroad, received world leaders in Canada, honoured the accomplishments of members of the Canadian armed forces and had the opportunity to meet Canadians from across the country who represent our diversity. The Governor General has done a remarkable job and shown great leadership in discharging the duties of her office.”
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