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French Trial in Alberta?

Scope of Language Rights in Criminal Proceedings

While Alberta has only adopted English as its official language, it is not exempt from having legal obligations to provide certain legal services in French. The right to a trial in the official language of one’s choice is one of these obligations that was initially implemented in 1985 by way of s 530 of the Criminal Code. Furthermore, s 4(1) of Alberta’s Languages Act protects the right to make an oral intervention in front of the Provincial Court of Alberta, the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta, and the Court of Appeal of Alberta in either of Canada’s official languages.

Section 530, which entitles the accused to a trial in the official language(s) of their choice when faced with criminal charges, was interpreted for the first time in R v Beaulac by the Supreme Court of Canada. This landmark case established that language rights should be subject to a broad interpretation, and so provincial tribunals have a legal obligation to be institutionally bilingual, even in a minority context. In addition, the right to a trial in the chosen language is granted when the accused has a “sufficient” attachment to the language (paragraph 34).

As for the application of s 530 in Alberta, R v Vaillancourt reaffirms the Beaulac principles and adds that judges must play an active role in protecting an accused’s language rights by informing the accused of their right to a trial in the official language of their choice. It was decided that the time required to organize a trial in French would not constitute of an exceptional circumstance as described in R v Jordan.

Two years have passed since the publication of the Vaillancourt decision. How has the Alberta justice system adapted to ensure this never happens again?

French-Speaking Population of Alberta

French Trial in Alberta?Before diving deeper in the meaning and consequences of s 530, it may be surprising to evaluate the imprint that French has left on Alberta. For example, did you know that French was the first European language spoken in Alberta?  This means that French has been spoken in Alberta for over 200 years!

According to the 2016 Census, more than 268,000 Albertans speak French (6.7% of Alberta’s population) representing a 12% increase compared to the 2011 Census. Alberta has the third largest francophone community living in a minority context in Canada after New Brunswick and Ontario.

Steps Taken Towards Institutional Bilingualism in Alberta

Under the leadership of Chief Justice Mary T. Moreau, the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta published a bilingual order to inform the legal community of new procedures such as written notices, signage and oral questions, to confirm that the accused accepts or waves their right to choose the language of the trial.

The same court also took measures to ensure its institutional bilingualism by adding a webpage with French resources, creating a steering committee, hosting meetings for bilingual Bar members and assigning a Counsel for French and Interpreter Services. Presently, 38 judges are taking French classes and seven judges are now able to hear French cases in Alberta.

The Provincial Court of Alberta’s website contains information about trials in French, which is being updated, including development of a form similar to the one created for use in Court of Queen’s Bench.

Currently, 12 Provincial Court Judges are receiving training in legal French, nine of whom hear proceedings in French.

There is still much to be done in terms of access to justice in French in Alberta, but the initiatives taken by both Courts to advance the cause are admirable and provide hope that the Albertan justice system can better serve its French-speaking population.

Submitted by the Association des juristes d’expression française de l’Alberta (AJEFA) under the direction of Paul M. Bourassa.