OTTAWA — The Supreme Court of Canada says Alberta is not constitutionally required to enact its laws in both English and French.
In a 6-3 split decision, the court ruled that the arguments in favour of bilingual legislation brought forward by two appellants were inconsistent with the historical documents they relied on.
The ruling ends a legal fight that has spanned more than a decade, beginning when Alberta’s Gilles Caron received a traffic ticket in 2003.
Caron ended up merging his legal challenge with that of another driver, Pierre Boutet, who was also charged with a traffic offence.
The men argued legislative bilingualism extended to modern Alberta based on an assurance given by Parliament in 1867 and in the 1870 order which led to the creation of the province.
They won their case in provincial court, but that ruling was overturned on appeal.
The majority of the Supreme Court found Caron and Boutet’s position would require the court to believe the status of legislative bilingualism in Alberta was fundamentally misunderstood by “virtually everyone” involved in the Commons debate when the province was created.
“The legislative history post-1870 cannot support an inference regarding the 1870 order that is helpful to the appellants,” the court said. “Furthermore, the provincial judge’s legal conclusion based on these arguments is in error.
“There is simply no evidence that this joint administration was part of the implementation of a constitutional guarantee. The evidence is, in fact, entirely to the contrary.”
Roger Lepage, a Saskatchewan lawyer who has handled Caron’s case from the start, said he was disappointed with the outcome.
He took some solace in the fact that three justices agreed with the arguments.
“We were able to convince three of the nine judges that there was a solemn promise that had been made and it was a constitutional guarantee,” Lepage said. “Having said that, the majority rules. It is disappointing for us in Western Canada.”
Lepage said he finds it unacceptable that Canada protected the anglophone minority in Quebec but chose not to protect the francophone minority outside Quebec.
He urged the new Liberal government to act.
“The Trudeau government now should fund the Saskatchewan and Alberta governments to make sure that all the laws are now translated.”
Graham Fraser, the federal commissioner of official languages, said the decision wasn’t the one he hoped for.
“It is the end of a legal saga that gave Canadians an opportunity to know how deep French roots are in Western Canada,” he said in a statement. “However, provincial governments could make their own decisions to move toward equality for the two language groups.”
He suggested Ottawa could work with both Alberta and Saskatchewan to improve the bilingual capacity of the justice system.
In a 1988 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada found the power to legislate language belongs to both the federal and provincial levels of government, under their respective legislative authority.
The same year, Alberta passed its Languages Act which says “all acts and regulations may be enacted, printed and published in English only.”