Manitoba’s French-English language conflict has aroused blistering invective and bitter passions for years. Only four months ago it provoked a political stalemate that shut down the provincial legislature. Then, last week the issue of language rights in Manitoba went before the Supreme Court of Canada, and there was a prospect of an ultimate settlement. Both sides in the dispute proposed complex solutions that would make Canadian legal history—and test the authority of the Supreme Court itself. After listening to three days of arguments the seven judges reserved their decision—probably until the fall.
The court heard two cases last week, both resting on the same question: whether Manitoba’s English-only statutes are invalid because they violate the province’s constitutional guarantee of bilingual legislation. In the first case, Roger Bilodeau, a francophone lawyer from Winnipeg, was appealing a 1980 speeding conviction on the grounds that the police issued the ticket under laws passed only in English. His case had been postponed since 1981 while the Manitoba government and the provincial francophone community tried to reach a political compromise that would have made the province officially bilingual and extended French-language services. After that attempt died in a legislative deadlock in February the federal government referred the whole issue to the Supreme Court. In the second case Ottawa, which supported Bilodeau’s appeal, requested in a separate reference the court’s opinion on the status of all of Manitoba’s English-only laws—more than 20,000 pages of statutes and regulations passed since 1890.
As Bilodeau watched from the back of the crowded court, the federal government’s lawyer, Pierre Genest, charged the Manitoba government with “continuous and deliberate” violation of the language guarantees of the Manitoba Act. Even after the Supreme Court in 1979 struck down the 1890 provincial law declaring English the only official language in the province, Manitoba had begun translating legislation at “an unacceptably leisurely pace,” Genest said. Indeed, about half the bills passed since 1980 are available in both languages. Declared Genest: “They need a bit of encouragement.”
Genest asked the court for a ruling that all its unilingual laws are invalid, a proposal that clearly disturbed several judges, who raised the prospect of a
province suddenly caught with hardly any of its laws in force. Genest suggested that the court could prevent legal chaos by invoking a “doctrine of necessity” to provide a period—perhaps two years—in which the unconstitutional laws would be treated as valid while the province completes enactment of all its laws in both languages. Said Madam Justice Bertha Wilson: “This would be a new venture in Canadian law.”
Manitoba’s counsel, 51-year-old Kerr Twaddle of Winnipeg, warned that the
legislature and Parliament might not be able to agree in time on an amendment to the Manitoba Act that would make the offending unilingual laws legal. Said Twaddle: “One would then have a state of lawlessness in Manitoba.” Instead, he asked the court to rule that Frenchlanguage guarantees do not mean that English-only laws are invalid. The province, he said, would then be left to translate existing laws at its own speed, adding, “The province now knows its obligations.”
Manitoba’s brief to the court acknowledged that the province must respect French-language rights but it argued, “The wrongs of our forefathers should not result in the present-day citizens of Manitoba having to pay excessive costs
for the translation of 90 years of laws.” After hearing all of the arguments the judges adjourned to consider a possible solution.
In the meantime a decision of another kind came from Ontario Premier William Davis, who refused again last week to make French an official language of his province, although he pledged that Ontario would continue its policy of extending services in French to the province’s francophone minority. One example: earlier this year the Ontario
legislature passed a bill that made French official in the province’s courts. Davis’s decision last week was in response to a final request from an aboutto-retire Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who had written to the premier urging the change. But Davis’s office released a copy of the premier’s answering letter, in which Davis declared, “When the people of Ontario, of whatever mother tongue, witness the rancor and disruption which has, unfortunately, accompanied language legislation in neighboring provinces, they conclude that the approach in Ontario is sound.” Because bilingual rights are already bound into their Constitution, Manitobans cannot avoid the issue as easily.
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