Trudeau’s language requirement at Supreme Court discriminates against Indigenous judges: Justice Harry LaForme

Retired First Nations judge compares Trudeau’s rule to assimilation policy of residential schools


Justice Harry LaForme was the first Indigenous judge to sit on an appellate court in Canada.

When he retired from the Court of Appeal for Ontario in 2018, after more than a decade on the bench, he was the only one to have done so.

So being appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada seemed like a logical step for LaForme, considering there’s never been one.

But that never happened.

And LaForme, 74, believes it was because he didn’t speak French, one of the two official languages in this country, and something adopted as a requirement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after the Liberals were swept into power in late 2015

It’s become an issue once again as there will soon be an opening on the country’s highest court and the search is on for a replacement.

There’s been calls for it to be an Indigenous judge.

One potential candidate recently said on Nation to Nation that there should be three Indigenous judges, not just one, much like Quebec has.

Only LaForme continues to believe that Trudeau’s language rule discriminates against Indigenous people and severely limits potential candidates.

In fact, he compared it to the assimilation policy of Indian residential schools on N2N Thursday.

“When the whole policy behind that was if you want to join us in Canada and be part of the decision-making process in Canada you first have to get rid of that Indian in the child,” he said.

“And then once you become like us then you can be one of us and you can get into that decision making.”

LaForme said Indigenous judges should be elevated to the Supreme Court in part because of their lived experience.

“Their lived experiences will inform them about decisions, especially on reconciliation and Aboriginal title issues and rights … I mean who better to understand those than Indigenous people who have lived under that oppression,” said LaForme, who is from the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation near Brantford, Ont.

While it may have been a policy adopted by Trudeau, as the prime minister appoints judges to the Supreme Court, his government is now looking to make it officially law, as reported in the National Post.

It’s part of a push to increase French across Canada with more than 50 proposed changes by the Trudeau government.

Official Language Minister Mélanie Joly is quoted in the Post saying she wants to remove the section of the Official Languages Act that exempts judges from the country’s highest court from having to understand both languages without an interpreter.

“Let’s all be clear here: if you’re a judge in a Superior court across the country, you have access to free French classes. So if you want to become bilingual, you can actually become bilingual if that’s a priority for you because you want to become a Supreme Court justice,” Joly said.

LaForme admitted, while he was never taught French as a child, that he could have learned it as an adult, but if he was going to pick a another language to learn he would have chosen his own language of Ojibwe.

Justice Minister David Lametti’s office said despite the strict language requirement set by his boss there’s still a push for diversity in Supreme Court appointments.

“A consideration for candidates now includes their knowledge of Indigenous legal traditions,” said a spokesperson in a statement.

“While there is currently no Indigenous judge serving on the Supreme Court, we are confident that this historic day will come.”

Lametti’s office clarified the person has to be “functionally bilingual”  in both official languages.

According to the Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs Canada that means: “The Supreme Court hears appeals in both English and French. Written materials may be submitted in either official language and counsel may present oral argument in the official language of their choice. Judges may ask questions in English or French. It is expected that a Supreme Court judge can read materials and understand oral argument without the need for translation or interpretation in French and English. Ideally, the judge can converse with counsel during oral argument and with other judges of the Court in French or English.”

Lametti’s office said its also trying to increase diversity in the lower courts, like appellate and Superior courts, as we well as the Federal Court of Canada.

In the last two years it says it’s appointed 114 judges and five of them are Indigenous.

Just yesterday, it named two Indigenous justices to the bench, one on the British Columbia Court of Appeal, the other to the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court.

Environment racism bill passes second reading

Nova Scotia Liberal MP Lenore Zann’s private members bill, C-230, survived a second reading vote of 182 yeas versus 153 nays.

During her speech before the House of Commons Tuesday afternoon, Zann said racialized communities often have long-standing structural inequities that cause poverty and lead to unstable housing and food insecurity.

“(And) a disproportionate number of racialized communities are located in areas that have been exposed to major polluters emitting toxins associated with cancer, respiratory illness and birth defects,” she said.

Called a national strategy to redress environmental racism, some of the things the proposed legislation would do is examine the link between race, socio-economic status and environmental risk; collect information and statistics relating to the location of environmental hazards; and compensation for individuals or communities.

The Aamjiwnaang First Nation is an example of a community affected by environmental racism.

It’s located in the city limits of Sarnia in southwestern Ontario, surrounded by dozens of industrial facilities, such as Suncor and Shell.

It’s an area nicknamed Chemical Valley.

N2N host Todd Lamirande asked long-time Aamjiwaang environmental activist Ada Lockridge if legislation like C-230 could have helped her community.

“How do you put a price on that? We do not know some of these chemicals just keep building up inside your body, some leave” she answered.

“And the suffering from when you’re scared and don’t know what’s going on. And (your body is) shaking and that. How do you put a price on that?”

Lockridge, along with Ron Plain, once sued trying to stop Suncor from increasing production.

C-230 will now be sent for study by the House’s standing committee on the environment and sustainable development.

Another bill that didn’t fare so well was Manitoba NDP MP Leah Gazan’s C-232.

Called a climate emergency action framework, it would have recognized having the right to a safe, clean and healthy environment as a human right.

Conservatives and Liberals united to defeat the bill at second reading, 272 nays to 61 yeas.

In a statement, Gazan called the vote shameful.

“Canada has not met a single climate target that it has set – not a single one,” she said.

“It is a slap in the face to science and will not allow us to meet climate targets.

Watch the full episode of N2N below.

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