Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Election Day, language politics and tobacco trials

Tuesday is election day in the province of Quebec, where Canada's largest class action suit has been at trial for 6 months. (The court did not sit on Monday as it was Labour Day).

Those who struggle to understand why French language rights are still a hot topic in this province would do well to come and sit for a spell in the courtroom where this trial is being heard. A half century after the political reforms of the Quiet Revolution, English still appears to have bumping rights over the official language of the province.

In a war of words, mother tongue can only be a tactical advantage

Despite the fact that the class action represents Quebec smokers, who are mostly (80%) French-speaking, despite the class being represented by French-speaking lawyers, despite the fact that the case is being pursued in Quebec courts, and despite the fact that the company on the hot seat has been based in Quebec for over 100  years, the bulk of the proceedings are in English.

The Charte de la langue francaise/Charter of the French Language says that "either French or English may be used by any person in, or in any pleading in or process issuing from, any court of Québec." But the practical application of that law in this particular instance seems to be that the trial is conducted in English. The plaintiffs are often working in their second language and the tobacco industry lawyers are mostly able to work in their mother tongue.

On two occasions last week, tensions over language rights came to the surface.

Deborah Glendinning
The first instance came early in the day on Tuesday, August 28th. Deborah Glendinning began to negotiate with the judge about how many Imperial Tobacco documents from another Canadian case (Spasic) would be given to the plaintiffs.

She didn't make it easy. Following her explanation was a little like trying to keep your eye on three walnut shells in the hope you remembered which one had the pea under it.

Plaintiff lawyer André Lespérance may have been concerned that some of the desired material would disappear in the confusion, and so began to express his concerns. As is his right, he spoke in French. He did not get far before being told to Maybe say it in English. 

Some looks were exchanged, but nothing was said and the morning moved on.

[Justice Riordan's comment "Si vous pouvez le dire en anglais peut-être" can be found on page 16 of the transcript.]

The second occurrence happened two days later, when a former Imperial Tobacco employee, Mr. Pierre Leblond, was called to testify. Both Mr. Leblond and the lawyer who would spend the day asking him questions, Mr. Philippe Trudel, have French as a mother tongue.

Philippe Trudel
But before the testimony could begin, Deborah Glendinning stood to report that the witness had decided to testify in English. Mr. Trudel's attempt to push for an explanation of this choice was shut down by Justice Riordan, who emphasized the entitlements of unilingual English speaking lawyers in the court. (A modestly edited version of the exchange appears below, the original can be read in the day's transcript).

Over the day, the witness stopped more than once to mentally translate from French to English and occasionally forgot himself and switched momentarily to French. Mr. Trudel was obliged to compose his follow-up questions in a language whose syntax he occasionally finds challenging. At at least one point, the meaning of the testimony was not clear to the judge. Justice Riordan confused the terms 'pyrolosis' with 'paralysis' - they sound a little alike when spoken with a French accent.

Maître chez nous?

Fifty years ago, the rallying cry "Maître chez nous" - masters in our own house - entered the Canadian political lexicon as a way of capturing the ambition of French Quebecers for greater power and autonomy in their province and a lessening of the power of Upper Canada/Toronto. ("Maître" is also the honorific used for lawyers practicing in Quebec.)

Are Montreal's maîtres yet masters of their own home?  From this courtroom, it often doesn't look that way.

Edited transcript from Thursday, August 30, 2012

Philippe Trudel:  Bonjour, monsieur Leblond. When did you tell Mrs. Glendinning that you preferred to be examined in English?

Pierre Leblond: It was last week that we had a meeting.

Philippe Trudel: Can I ask why?

Pierre Leblond: Because almost all of the documents I've read are in English...

Deborah Glendinning: Objection. I mean, if the witness has a right to be examined in either language, what difference does the reason make?

Philippe Trudel: But I'm just going to say, isn't it Mrs. Glendinning that asked you to testify in English?

Pierre Leblond: No.

Justice Riordan: What difference... if the witness wants to testify in English, it's fine.

Philippe Trudel:  That's his right, Mr. Justice.

Justice Riordan: And, look, you've got English speaking only lawyers here...

Phlippe Trudel: From Toronto, yes.

Justice Riordan : I can understand it. They've got the right. The law permits them to be here.

Philippe Trudel  From Toronto, yes. But that's my editorial

Deborah Glendinning:  Do you have a problem with Toronto...

Justice Riordan: They could be from Timbuktu.

Philippe Trudel:  Yes.

Justice Riodan: If the law allows them to be here, then they're welcome in this Court, and if they have a witness that wants to accommodate them, then I'm willing to do it.