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Justice Minister David Lametti

Bill to amend Official Languages Act highlights bilingualism in courts

Tuesday, June 15, 2021 @ 12:36 PM | By Amanda Jerome

On June 15, Mélanie Joly, minister of economic development and official languages, supported by Jean‑Yves Duclos, president of the Treasury Board, and David Lametti, minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, introduced Bill C-32, an Act for the Substantive Equality of French and English and the Strengthening of the Official Languages Act.

According to a government release, if the Act is adopted by Parliament, the “legislation would promote substantive equality between French and English.”

Proposed amendments to the Act include:
  • recognizing “that the French language requires a special approach, including in Quebec, in order to foster substantive equality between the two official languages and continue to protect the rights of linguistic minorities;
  • explicitly state that the Act will not undermine the status, maintenance or enhancement of Indigenous languages while including the important concepts of reappropriation, revitalization and strengthening that are specific to Indigenous languages;
  • focus on the importance of learning in our two official languages throughout a student’s school career, across the country;
  • amend the Act so that the obligation imposed on federal courts to ensure that judges can directly understand the official language chosen by the parties without the assistance of an interpreter also applies to the Supreme Court of Canada;
  • recognize the duty to promote and protect the use of French as a language of work and service in private companies under federal jurisdiction in Quebec, as well as other regions of the country with a strong Francophone presence;
  • strengthen the powers of the Commissioner of Official Languages to ensure compliance with the Act, in particular by giving permission to publish recommendations, findings and investigation summaries. The commissioner would also be mandated to receive complaints about language of service and language of work from employees of private companies under federal jurisdiction in Quebec and in regions with a strong Francophone presence. The commissioner could refer complaints on language of work to the Canada Industrial Relations Board if resolution through the Office of the Commissioner is not possible; and
  • give the Treasury Board Secretariat the powers necessary to fully enforce the obligations of federal institutions under the Act.”

 Justice Minister David Lametti

Justice Minister David Lametti

“Canadians need to be able to interact with the legal system in the official language of their choice,” said Lametti, in a statement.

“This bill affects many facets of the federal linguistic framework. It aims to improve access to justice in both official languages and has a major impact on how we administer our legal system and our courts. More than 30 years have passed since the last Official Languages Act reform. Our government is delivering on its commitment to modernize and strengthen the Official Languages Act,” he added.

Bill C-32 would amended the Official Languages Act to create a “commitment to financially support a body independent of the government of Canada that would be responsible for administering a program, such as the Court Challenges Program, whose purpose would be to provide funding for test cases of national importance relating to language rights to be brought before the courts.”

The amended Act would also “state clearly that final decisions of federal courts that establish a precedent in a given area of law would be made available to the public in both official languages simultaneously.”

Joly called it a “historic day” and that the government is “taking an important step for language rights in this country.”

“By working together, we can make progress toward true equality of English and French. Because the French language needs additional support, our government firmly intends to play its part in strengthening it, while protecting the rights and vitality of official-language minority communities,” she added.

According to the release, Joly conducted cross-Canada consultations on the modernization of the Official Languages Act, from March to May 2019, which concluded with a National Symposium in Ottawa. In February 2021, Joly “tabled her reform document in which she outlined the government of Canada’s vision and intentions for modernizing the Official Languages Act. The document sets out 56 proposals that affect almost all parts of the Act; 33 of them are legislative amendments.”

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