Franco-Manitoban claims charter violation after RCMP officer unable to speak French

When Antoine Hacault was pulled over for an alleged speeding infraction last year he didn't hesitate before speaking with the attending officer in his primary language: French.

"I greeted him that evening in my mother tongue, in French. He responded in English," remembers Hacault. "He did not offer to provide me any services in French."

Hacault was surprised by the language barrier because he was pulled over on Highway 59 in the rural community of St-Pierre-Jolys, a majority French area south of Winnipeg where RCMP officers typically speak the dominant language.

Mona Fallis, mayor of St-Pierre-Jolys, said she only had good things to say about the local detachment and all St-Pierre-Jolys RCMP officers can speak French.

"Occasionally, there may be unilingual members to fill in shifts or temporary staff shortage when necessary," she wrote in an email. "Public safety is paramount."

The RCMP told CBC it always provides bilingual services if members of the public request them.

But Hacault said his attending officer did not offer to provide a translator and simply proceeded in English, even writing the speeding ticket in English.

"Even though the titles [on the ticket] are bilingual …in the blanks was only in English," he said.

Hacault later learned the officer who pulled him over was not from St-Pierre-Jolys but based out of an English community, Selkirk, Man. and was only in town temporarily.

A recent investigation by CBC News found that eight per cent of Manitoba RCMP positions are currently vacant and the lack of officers is felt particularly hard in rural areas.

Out of 1,063 RCMP regular members in the province, there are 86.5 vacant positions, CBC News found. 

Brian Sauvé, a sergeant on leave from the RCMP who serves as co-chair of the National Police Federation said vacancies make it hard for officers to meet workload requirements.

Fighting for French in court

Hacault, who is also a practicing lawyer, said he is fighting his traffic ticket in court this coming August and plans to raise both charter and language law issues when he speaks before the judge.

"Under the Charter of Rights and the Official Languages Act, federal organizations or departments such as the RCMP have to provide bilingual services in areas that are specifically designated under that law as being bilingual," he said.

For their part, the Mounties deny having any problems providing French services to Manitobans and say they respect French speakers.

If an English-speaking attending officer is trying to communicate with a Francophone on scene they can always call a dispatch centre to provide translation over the phone or via radio, the RCMP said.

"In Manitoba, there are a number of different languages spoken, and the RCMP will always try and find someone to translate," said the RCMP spokesperson.

"If someone has a language preference, we encourage them to make that known to the officer so that arrangements can be made to receive their information in the official language of their choice."

Hacault thinks all officers serving in St-Pierre-Jolys or other Franco-Manitoban communities should be able to speak French with members of the public by default.

"It's good to have good RCMP presence but in the St-Pierre detachment area, [there] should be bilingual officers that come in that area," he said.