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Judge says ‘non’ to English-speaking club asking for French trial to fight COVID tickets

A judge has ruled that a Prince George club that was repeatedly ticketed for flouting COVID-19 rules does not have the right to a trial in French.

Learn to Earn Bartending School and Consulting, which operated the Lambda Cabaret in the city’s downtown, applied for a bilingual or French-language trial as it contests two tickets for flouting COVID-related health measures.

An accused person in Canada is entitled to a trial in one of the two official languages, English or French, if they can direct counsel and follow proceedings in that language.

A video still shows a number of people dancing in a dark club in front of a sign that reads "Lambda."
Video posted by Lambda Cabaret to its Facebook the morning of Feb. 13, 2022, shows a large indoor crowd dancing and drinking without masks in defiance of public health orders. (Lambda Cabaret/Facebook)

But the owner of the club, Linda Allen, is a monolingual English speaker. Provincial court Judge Martin Nadon said there was no evidence the corporation being fined did any business in French.

“It is the court’s view and consistent with the law that the person making an application to have a trial in French must have some competency in that language,” said Nadon.

“The application is denied.”

A sign is posted next to the front door of the then-Lambda Cabaret stating COVID-19 vaccines or passports are not required.
The front door of Prince George’s Lambda Cabaret is pictured in 2022. To the right of the door is a sign that states the club is not requiring COVID-19 vaccine passports or mandatory masking. (Kate Partridge/CBC News)

‘We have supporters in Quebec and Alberta’

Learn To Earn is fighting two $2,300 tickets issued in the winter of 2022 for non-compliance with health measures designed to contain the spread of COVID-19.

At the time of the alleged infractions, Lambda was known as an LGBTQ2-friendly nightclub in the northern B.C. city. It has since changed its name to Club 1177. Visible outside of the building Tuesday were flags of The United People of Canada, a group with alleged Freedom Convoy connections.

Closed nightclub doors in Prince George. Red and white flags of The United People of Canada flags are flying outside: a white tree on a red field.
Club 1177, formerly Lambda Cabaret, now has The United People of Canada flags flying above its front doors. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Defence lawyer Saron Gebresellassi, who is representing Learn to Earn, says the trial should be held bilingually.

She says it has drawn intense interest across Canada, including from people who’ve flown in from Ontario to hear the case. She says the case is, in part, about dancing and freedom of expression.

“You have supporters from the Acadian community right in Prince George … that are concerned about the case,” Gebresellassi said. “We have supporters in Quebec and Alberta.”

A woman standing outside leaning against a black brick wall.
Saron Gebresellassi is the lawyer representing Learn to Earn. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

“It’s a public interest case for both English Canadians and French Canadians.”

Nadon says as there is expected to be expert testimony from a witness who does speak French, an interpreter could be provided. Gebresellassi says that is a good start, but in the interests of time and linguistic minority rights, a bilingual trial would be better.

‘That’s why Canada has appeals’

Gebresellassi said she respectfully disagrees with the denial of a bilingual trial.

“That’s normal, and that’s why Canada has appeals,” Gebresellassi said. “Courts make errors of law or errors of fact all the time.”

She says the matter is an opportunity to protect Canadians’ rights to access to government services and courts in both official languages and to protect the equality of both official languages. 

“I’m really enthused and looking forward to continuing to ensure that the Constitution is upheld and continues to uphold language rights in Canada,” she said.

Gebresellassi says she will be inviting government leaders from across Canada and Francophone diplomats to observe proceedings.

According to the B.C. Prosecution Service, there were 59 requests for French proceedings in 2021 provincewide, and 28 led to a trial or other resolutions.

The club previously contested, successfully, eight individual tickets related to COVID health measures.

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