Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Translating the Laws of Canada: 1841-1935

Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Translating the Laws of Canada: 1841-1935

Article excerpt

The first Parliament of the Province of Canada was called into session in June 1841. It was not altogether clear that the laws would be translated. The Union Act provided that: "... from and after the said Re-union of the said Two Provinces ... all Writs and public Instruments whatsoever relating to the said Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly ... shall be in the English Language only ...". While no rules actually prohibited translation, the Act did stipulate that "... no such Copy shall be kept among the Records of the Legislative Council or Legislative Assembly, or be deemed in any Case to have the Force of an original Record." The process of translating the laws thus got off to an inauspicious start, but the practice would develop over time and become better organized. This article looks at the establishment of a translation process that has become a model for countries having more than one official language.


The Parliament of Great Britain and Ireland promulgated a law on July 23, 1840 that served to unite the provinces of Upper Canada and Lower Canada and to give a constitution to this new political entity, the Province of Canada. This statute was known as the Union Act. The Union Act made English the only language of legislation and Parliament. When Parliament convened in June 1841, both of its houses--the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly--appointed French and English translators. This was necessary because French was the only language understood by a large portion of the Canadian population. Several years later, when the Parliament of Canada adopted a resolution asking the British Parliament to amend this provision of the Act and to permit the use of French, the argument was in fact made that all government documents were translated into French from the very first Session and the use of French was allowed during debates and before the courts. (1)

Translating the Laws

The Bill proposed by Etienne Parent, member for Saguenay, relating to translation of laws received Royal Assent on September 18, 1841. Henceforth the Laws of Canada would not be in English only! The preamble of the Act to provide for the translation into the French Language of the Laws of this Province ... defines the capabilities and skills a translator must possess. Such an individual must be a "... competent person, versed in legal knowledge and having received a classical French education, and possessing a sufficient knowledge of the English language ..." The Act was adopted without great debate in either the Assembly or the Legislative Council.

The following December a contract was given for the translation of the laws for 1841 to Joseph Edouard Turcotte, lawyer and member for Saint-Maurice in the Legislative Assembly. Born in Gentilly in October 1808 Turcotte pursued his classical education in the Nicolet seminary. He had initially planned to enter the priesthood, but was seriously injured during a visit to a sawmill during his summer vacation in 1831 and suffered the loss of his right arm. Under Church Canon 984, an individual who has lost an arm can no longer be ordained as a priest. Turcotte then turned to the law and began articling in Quebec City. He was called to the Bar in 1836. Turcotte also tried politics and defended "patriots" following the 1837-38 rebellion. In 1839, he left Quebec City and settled in Trois-Rivieres, stood as a candidate and was elected in Saint-Maurice during the first elections to the Assembly. Since Members of Parliament were not allowed to accept remunerative employment while serving in the Assembly, Turcotte was obliged to resign his office. He did so, but ran again in July 1842 and was re-elected. Using his left hand, Turcotte translated the statutes of the Province of Canada for 1841, 1842 and 1843.

Organization of translation in the Assembly

In 1842, the first statutes were translated only after they had been enacted, but from that date, draft legislation was translated as well. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.