by Raquel Fletcher
After an eight-year battle to have French recognized in Alberta courts, Gilles Caron had a lot to say about the status of French in Western Canada.
Caron was a guest speaker at a conference on this subject sponsored by the Institut Francais of the University of Regina and the Association des juristes d’expression française de la Saskatchewan on February 19 and 20.
A truck driver from Edmonton, Caron received a traffic ticket in 2003 for making an unsafe left turn. He spent five years arguing that the ticket was invalid because it was only written in English. In 2008, the provincial court found Caron not guilty because the traffic law was not issued in French, but Alberta Justice is appealing the decision. The motion will be heard this month and the case could wind up in the Supreme Court.
Caron was surprised at the amount of support he received in Saskatchewan. After delivering his address, the 160 conference delegates gave him a standing ovation.
“The francophones are sending a clear message to the government; hopefully the courts will hear us that we really need an interpretation of the law…where the minority will be protected. In Alberta, the province is doing the opposite,” he said.
Caron recalls an Eskimos home game against the Montreal Alouettes where the Canadian national anthem was only sung in English. If this is any indication of the value Alberta puts on the nation’s bilingualism laws, Caron’s struggle doesn’t seem too surprising.
“We can’t talk about language rights without talking about our history,” said Graham Fraser, the federal Commissioner of Official languages in his address.
“French in the West has deep roots,” said Peter Dorrington, director of the Institut Francais.
“French in the West has official status; it was a language of governance, a language of justice, a language of commerce. It wasn’t just a language that the Métis inhabitants of Rupert’s Land spoke at home,” Dorrington said. The Institut Francais has helped conduct some of the research done for Caron’s defense, as well as aided the defense financially.
A similar case in Saskatchewan influenced Saskatchewan’s language laws. In R vs. Mercure, Father Mercure of North Battleford proved that the speeding ticket he received in 1980 was invalid because the North West Territories Act of 1877 that recognized French as an official language still applied in Saskatchewan. The 1988 Supreme Court decision ruled that the provinces have the power to decide their own language-rights legislation. Because of this ruling, the province changed their language law so that in matters under provincial court anyone can speak either English or French.
No one can say if Caron will have the same success in Alberta as Mercure did in Saskatchewan, but Dorrington is certain that the case will undoubtedly have great consequences for Canadians. “Even whether we win or lose, it will demonstrate that French in Western Canada is a legitimate thing. It’s not something that Quebec has imposed on us. It’s not something that Pierre Trudeau has imposed on us. It’s something that’s very real that began here a long time ago.”