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Making Canada’s Constitution bilingual

It’s time for Ottawa to engage provincial and territorial governments and begin negotiations.

Image of the Supreme Court alongside the Ottawa River
Some rights reserved by Vince Along

The CBA national President and the President of the Quebec Branch are modelling behaviour for the federal, provincial and territorial governments to follow by joining forces in the service of a worthy cause – a bilingual constitution.

The Constitution of Canada guarantees the equal status of French and English but the majority of constitutional documents are only in English. Section 55 of the Constitution Act, 1982, requires that French versions of constitutional documents be prepared and enacted “as expeditiously as possible.”

Those French versions were completed in 1990, but have never been presented to Parliament.

The problem isn’t simply that successive governments have defined “expeditious” differently than you or I might do, as the CBA President acknowledges in a letter to the Justice Minister.

“The federal government attempted to begin negotiations with the provinces to adopt a French version of the entire Constitution in the late 1990s. It did not go through with the process at the time because of Quebec’s refusal to participate, which was deemed necessary. The issue has not been addressed since.”

Following on the CBA’s 2018 resolution to promote compliance with section 55, President Ray Adlington and Audrey Boctor, the President of the Quebec Branch, have written to federal Justice Minister David Lametti and to Quebec Justice Minister Sonia Lebel, respectively, to suggest it’s time to get on with it.

In his letter, President Adlington says, “the failure to provide a fully bilingual Constitution undermines the rule of law and access to justice. While we appreciate the complexities involved with constitutional amendment, with the current political landscape in Canada it may be an opportune time to make the Constitution officially bilingual.”

The CBA urges the government to “take the initiative and engage with the provinces and territories to put forward for enactment an official French version of the Constitution.”

In her letter, President Boctor acknowledges the historical reasons for not having a fully bilingual constitution, but points out that it is a problem not only for Quebec, but for all of francophones across the country.

“Given the current context in which the rights of Francophones outside Quebec are increasingly threatened, Quebec must be a leader in ensuring respect for bilingualism in our most fundamental texts. It is for this reason that we ask you to commit to taking all action practicable so that official, complete and consistent versions of the constitutional documents exist in French.”