In 1877, the North-West constitution was amended to provide for the publication of all statutes, or ordinances, in both English and French. In 1905, this provision was carried over into the newly-created provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan; it was not repealed until 1988, shortly after the Supreme Court's ruling in the Mercure case. At the present time, however, there remains only scant evidence that this constitutional guarantee was ever respected: very few French language ordinances are extant. Were the great majority of the ordinances never printed in French? Or, were they printed in French but then destroyed?
This article examines the Canadian North-West's experience with legislative bilingualism from 1870 until 1895, and the circumstances surrounding its rise and subsequent demise. During the early years of territorial government, when responsibility for the publication of the ordinances was vested in a lieutenant-governor appointed by the Canadian government, perfunctory attention was paid to the language guarantees: the French language ordinances were printed, but with a considerable delay, and then they often went undistributed. After 1894, when authority was transferred to an executive committee directly responsible to the legislative assembly, the language guarantees were completely ignored: the French language printings ceased altogether. Minority rights succumbed to majority rule. The North-West experience provides an abject lesson in the failure of a constitution to protect minority language rights, when faced with determined opposition from an unsympathetic majority-controlled government.