Parliamentarians can have difficulty agreeing on the meaning of a rule they are studying for an organization whose rules are written in English. What are the challenges faced when the rules are officially bi-lingual?
The Official Languages Act of 1969 is an act of the Canadian Parliament that recognizes English and French as the official languages of Canada. This paper will analyze the Standing Orders Of The Legislative Assembly Of Ontario/Règlement de l’Assemblée législative de l’Ontario to identify any differences in interpretation that could arise when the French version of the rules as opposed to the English version is examined.
First of all, participants of the sessions of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Ontario may speak “in either English or French”.1 The Standing Orders make no other reference to language, yet all records of the proceeding are bi-lingual. Simultaneous translation of the debate is provided. The implication that confusion may arise from this simultaneous process will not be considered here. Also, because the vote of members of the legislature is often restricted by party affiliation, the language fluency of members is unlikely to be a factor when counting votes.
However, could the situation arise where in a free vote on a question arising from the need to interpret the rules the correct vote would be clear to all who are fluent in one language (the minority) and ambiguous to others (the majority)? Is language pertinent to decision making?
It does not take long to come up with examples. Starting with the title, one language may use a qualified word to express meaning e.g. “Standing Orders” where the other language uses an unqualified word e.g. “Règlement (Order)”. The only hint that we are dealing with a specific rule rather than a set of rules is the use of the singular in French rather than the English plural. The French version becomes identical when the text defines what is being considered and a qualified plural word is used i.e. ‘The rules of order applicable to… follow.”2
Another example of the misuse of the plural occurs when the English version entitles a Section: “Presiding Officers”3 (plural) when talking about the Election of Speaker (singular). Since only the title of the section is involved, there is no confusion. The word Speaker is used here in the sense of “One who is the mouthpiece of others” .4 The French uses the word President in the sense of “Who presides an assembly”.5 The distinctions that arise from the differences in the meaning of words in the two languages should not cause difficulties for anyone fluent in either language.
Also, the English word “Officers” is translated more specifically as “Functionaries”. Though the French is a more accurate description of the role being played, there is no practical difficulty with the English usage given the context in which the word is being used: “Officers and Servants of the House”.6
An example of the final kind of difference is the use of the English word “Hansard” for which there is no corresponding word in the French language. The French version uses words that are the equivalent to the definition of the word in English: “The Journal of the debates”.7
After reading both versions of the document completely, a reader who is fluently bi-lingual would not find any reason to raise a point of order based on the language of the document except in one case: Balloting procedure for the election of the Speaker. The French version says: “a ballot paper on which is printed the name of the member”. The English version says: “a ballot paper on which is printed the name of the candidate”.8 The implication of the French version is that a member may vote for any member not just those who have been properly nominated i.e. candidates. In all other instances, the French version uses the word “candidate” when the English version uses “candidate” and “member” when the English uses “member”. One cannot therefore argue that it is an error in translation. One is truly unable to determine which is the correct interpretation of this clause.
Now it gets interesting. The rules state that “questions shall be decided by the Speaker or Chair”.9 But the procedure in question is the election of Speaker at the opening of the first session of a Parliament. There is no Speaker at this moment to decide the question. The Clerk, who is not a member, at this point is following well laid out instructions in the rules to facilitate the election of Speaker. Is then the Clerk acting as Chair at this moment? Must the Clerk decide the question? The rules state that the decision shall be reached “in a manner that respects the democratic rights of members” 10 and “shall have regard to any applicable usages and precedents of the Legislature and Parliamentary tradition.”11
With no member in the Chair, it can be argued that the assembly should rule on this question. Then we are faced with respecting the democratic rights of members. If the answer to the question is absolutely clear in the language of the minority and unquestionably ambiguous in the language of the majority, are the democratic rights of the minority members being respected if a majority vote is taken? Should not the count of the vote on a question that depends for a correct vote on the language fluency of the voter take into account that fluency? In the Ontario Legislature, there would be three groups of voters based on language fluency: French only fluency, English only fluency, and fluently bi-lingual. A member could choose a ballot from three otherwise identical ballot forms each identifying one of these groups. When a vote is required that depends on language fluency, a multi-lingual majority would be required. This means that a majority would have to be achieved in each of the three language groups for the question to be adopted. This would of course be a majority of the members and it would help ensure that the impact of language on the question would be taken into account.
Ignoring the fact that veto power hardly makes the United Nations a democratic institution, would the use of a multi-lingual majority in the United Nations Assembly provide for more democratic decisions in that body?
Petit Dictionnaire Français (Paris, France: Librarie Larousse, 1936)
Standing Orders of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario/Règlement de l’Assemblée législative de l’Ontario (Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 1999)
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1960)
1 Standing Orders section VI, 22, (a).
2 Standing Orders section I, 1, (a).
3 Standing Orders section II.
4 Webster p 812.
5 Petit Dictionnaire p 543.
6 Standing Orders section XXIII.
7 Standing Orders section XXII.
8 Standing Orders section II, 3, (f) (i).
9 Standing Orders section I, 1, (c).
10 Standing Orders section I, 1, (b).
11 Standing Orders section I, 1, (c).