Ottawa: Little fairness in language battle

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Aug 28 12:58:05 UTC 2006

    August 27, 2006

Little fairness in language battle

They call themselves Canadians for Language Fairness.  Some fairness. To
date, they've already cost city taxpayers more than $240,000. And
counting. The non-profit group is fighting the constitutional validity and
application of the city's bilingualism policy. "A great deal of factual
and legal research and preparation was undertaken as well as obtaining
various archival information since this legal challenge was largely
without precedent," city solicitor Rick O'Connor wrote in a memo to city
council this week. The skyrocketing legal bills, hand in hand with the
premise of the legal challenge itself, has some city councillors shaking
their heads in dismay.

"It's really unfortunate. It's unfortunate we have to spend that kind of
money on something like this when the money could be better spent," said
Rideau-Vanier Coun. Georges Bedard. Absolutely, councillor. "This is a
bilingual city and we have a bilingualism policy. It's too bad we have to
spend that kind of money fighting Neanderthals." Love a councillor who
speaks his mind. Rednecks would have worked too.

(But be prepared for the backlash, even Neanderthals know how to fire up
their computer and fire off nasty e-mails. And I speak from experience.)
Unfortunately for taxpayers, they can expect the $240,000 bill to go even
higher. The group is saying they're prepared to take the fight to the
Supreme Court of Canada. Yippee.

More money wasted fighting a fight that was won a long time ago.
Unfortunately, this group apparently still has a hard time accepting it.
And that, despite the rhetoric, is at the heart of this matter. Knowing
the pot they're stirring, the group has adopted a name so ambiguous, so
righteous sounding, it doesn't come close to revealing the real motives
behind their raison d'etre. When the hearing was held in May, the group's
lawyer Arthur Cogan told the court the city's bilingualism bylaw is a form
of social engineering. Please.

Cogan insisted at the time it isn't a case of racism or pitting French
against English. Of course not, Mr. Cogan. Instead, Cogan said it was
about a policy that designated jobs as bilingual not because it's
warranted, but simply for bilingualism's sake. They say that's bad. "We
have never taken issue with the right of the municipality to offer
services in French and English on an equal basis," he said in the spring.
Huh, thanks Mr. Cogan. That's mighty nice of you. Not only does the group
argue against the city's bilingualism policy, but it objects to defining
the character of the nation's capital as being bilingual.

Time to get over that one. Past time. Apparently Cogan is living in a
different nation's capital than most of us -- a nation's capital which
boasts a rich and varied culture. Bay Coun. Alex Cullen said it's not
surprising the legal fees are nearing the $250,000 mark, but it's
discouraging. "It's a steep number, which isn't good to see," Cullen said.
But Cullen is hopeful that when all is said and done -- and the city is
successful in fighting the group -- that Ottawa taxpayers are reimbursed
for the city's legal costs. "These people need to know they can't take the
taxpayer for a free ride,"  Cullen said.

Of course, the $240,000 is only what's been doled out to the outside law
firm of Heenan, Blaikie. That figure doesn't even take into account the
staff time spent on this issue. Affidavits have been prepared and filed on
behalf of numerous witnesses, including, of course, city staff, "in an
effort to provide as comprehensive a defence as possible to this
challenged." A decision on the case is expected later this year. The city,
of course, has no choice but to defend its policies when they're taken to
the courts. Likewise, the taxpayer has no choice to determine whether they
want their hard-earned cash fighting such a battle.

"That's what democracy is all about," said O'Connor.


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