moved that Bill C-208, An Act to amend the Supreme Court Act (understanding the official languages), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I am proud to rise for the third time in the House to speak to Bill C-208, which would require Supreme Court justices to be bilingual so that they can respond to Canadian citizens.
Thirteen years ago, on February 28, two hours before I made a speech in the House of Commons about taxes on mechanics' tools, I was thinking that my grandson Jonathan, who was born two days later, might one day use these tools if he decided to become a mechanic.
Today, as I wish Jonathan a happy birthday, I hope that my other grandson, Alexandre Matis, and my granddaughter, Lily Ève, will be able to be heard in the official language of their choice, which is French, if they ever need to go to the Supreme Court.
Today, my New Democrat colleagues and I are back with my Bill C-208, which would make being bilingual in French and English a new condition for appointing justices to the Supreme Court of Canada.
This is my third attempt to get this initiative passed. In 2010, this bill, known at the time as Bill C-232, was passed by the House of Commons. To my great disappointment, the Conservative senators used their majority in the Senate to block the bill. The bill then died on the order paper when the 2011 election was called.
The Conservatives have repeatedly shown their contempt for official languages by appointing two unilingual anglophone justices to the Supreme Court and by appointing a unilingual auditor general.
The NDP thinks that there is another way to do things. The NDP is the only party that is proposing concrete measures to promote and protect our official languages. Thanks to the NDP, the House recently passed Bill C-419, which corrects the Conservatives' mistake by ensuring that officers of Parliament will now have to be bilingual when they are appointed. It is time for us to make understanding both official languages an essential condition of being appointed to the Supreme Court.
I would like to speak to the importance of this bill. This is a question of access to justice. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the country, and it is very important that the justices be able to understand both official languages without the help of an interpreter. I have the utmost respect for the work of interpreters, but we know that interpretation has its limits. Numerous lawyers have noticed errors and omissions in the interpretation of their arguments before the Supreme Court.
I am thinking, in particular, about Michel Doucet, a law professor at the Université de Moncton, the former dean of the law faculty at the university and a language rights expert. He spoke to the issue when he appeared before the Standing Committee on Official Languages:
In the week after I had argued a case before the Supreme Court, I had an opportunity to hear the English version of my arguments on CPAC, and I understood why I had lost the case five to four. The translation did not allow me to understand my own words. I wonder how justices can fully understand the matter at hand when they have to go through translation in which significant aspects of a submission are missing. When you win 9:0, there is no problem, but when you lose 5 to 4, you automatically wonder whether you should not have argued in English.
There are many examples of questionable interpretation at the Supreme Court. A lawyer arguing his case before the court mentioned a Monsieur Saint-Coeur and the interpreter rendered it as “Mr. Five O'clock”. Even the Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser, has weighed in on the importance of understanding the arguments presented without the help of an intermediary.
In June 2009, he told members of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights:
Given the complexity and the extreme importance of the cases heard by this court, judges should be able to hear arguments presented to them without using an interpreter to understand nuanced and complex legal arguments.
According to Sébastien Grammond, Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa, interpretation may lead to “loss of precision which, in some cases, can even involve the omission of certain sentences”.
This loss of precision can also be found in the documents submitted by the parties to the proceedings. These documents are not translated by the court. Unilingual judges must rely on the briefs prepared by court clerks, who are often young lawyers with little legal experience.
The presence of unilingual judges on the bench of the Supreme Court also poses a problem during closed-door deliberations without an interpreter. Francophone judges must always express their opinions, ideas and knowledge in their second language. Therefore, there is a risk that they will be much less precise.
If the justices can function in both official languages, everyone can work in the language of their choice. The bilingualism of judges is therefore a question of the equality of francophones and anglophones in terms of access to justice.
The bilingualism of Supreme Court justices ensures the equality of both official languages.
We have to remember that the Supreme Court has recognized the equality of French and English.
Laws are drafted in both official languages. Both versions have the same weight and neither one takes precedence over the other.
Our language duality is part of our Canadian identity. We have to embrace it.
Is there substantive equality when a francophone appears before the Supreme Court? The Supreme Court is not there to reward ambitious lawyers or judges. It is there to dispense justice for all Canadians.
Serving on the Supreme Court is not a right, but having fair access to justice is a right. Remember that the court is there to serve Canadians, not the interests of the judge.
The issue of requiring Supreme Court judges to be bilingual has been debated for several years.
I think it is wrong for francophones to have to make themselves understood by unilingual judges through the filter of interpretation, especially before the highest court in the land.
If Canada's two official languages are to be truly equal, it is important that bilingualism be an essential requirement when judges are appointed to the Supreme Court.
Lastly, my bill would ensure that the Supreme Court can serve all Canadians equally, whether their mother tongue is English or French.
The Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser, who is highly respected by all Canadians, has said several times that he supports requiring Supreme Court judges to be bilingual.
The Barreau du Québec has supported this bill for years now:
The Barreau has always believed that functional bilingualism should be among a Supreme Court judge's required skills in order to ensure equal access to justice, and it deplores that even today federal legislation has no provisions requiring that the nine Supreme Court judges be proficient in both official languages.
Many stakeholders in the official languages community support my bill, particularly the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne and its members:
The FCFA believes that all citizens have a right to be heard and understood before the highest court of Canada in their official language of choice, without the assistance of an interpreter.
Lastly, various linguistic rights experts have spoken out in favour of my bill, including Sébastien Grammond, Dean of Civil Law at the University of Ottawa, Gérard Lévesque, a very well-known lawyer for language rights, and Serge Rousselle and Michel Doucet, both law professors at the Université de Moncton.
Let me remind members that the NDP is the only party that proposes concrete measures to advance Canada's linguistic duality.
Bill C-419 on the mandatory bilingualism of officers of Parliament, introduced by my colleague, was passed by the House of Commons in 2013.
Let us not forget that the Quebec City marine rescue sub-centre remained open thanks to the pressure that my NDP colleagues and I put on the Conservative government, which intended to close this centre, the only French-language marine rescue centre in Canada.
The Conservative government has not shown any respect toward our official languages. I want to remind the House that it is the Prime Minister who appointed two unilingual judges to the Supreme Court. It is also the Conservative government that appointed a unilingual Auditor General to Parliament. Even the minister responsible for official languages is not in favour of my bill. Her riding of Saint Boniface, in Manitoba, includes thousands of francophones. What an insult to that community.
I also want to remind the members opposite that this former bill, Bill C-232, was passed by the House of Commons in 2010.
All the Conservative members voted against that bill, even the members from Quebec and those who have francophone communities in their ridings, such as the members for Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe and Madawaska—Restigouche. Despite the opposition of the Conservative members, Bill C-232 was passed by the House of Commons; however, the unelected Conservative senators, including a number of francophones, held up the bill until the 2011 election was called.
The majority of the members in the House of Commons, who were elected by Canadians, voted in favour of this bill, but the unelected senators defeated the bill. Do not try to tell me that the Senate stands up for linguistic minorities.
In closing, I ask the members of all the parties to support this bill so that it can move along and be considered at the Standing Committee of Justice and Human Rights. We must protect the equality of our two official languages and equal access to justice.
In particular, I am calling on the Conservative members from Quebec and the members who have francophone communities in their ridings, such as the members for Madawaska—Restigouche, Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, and Saint Boniface, to pressure their colleagues to support my bill, which seeks to ensure that the Supreme Court judges are bilingual.
If the Conservatives thought that bilingualism was necessary for becoming an officer of Parliament, then there is no reason why they should not do the same for the judges who sit on the benches of the highest court in the land.
The bill is a matter of justice and equality.
It is a matter of justice and equality.
Canadians have the right—it is more than just a privilege—to appear before a judge at the Federal Court of Canada and be heard and understood in the language of their choice. The same applies to the Federal Court of Appeal. It should also apply to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the country.
I was at the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights this week, and I asked officials from the Department of Justice whether there are enough bilingual judges in each province. If Canadians were to read the committee minutes, they would see that the response was yes. I then asked whether there are a lot of judges, and they said that there are enough.
I am waiting to hear the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice tell us that the pool is not big enough, even though officials from his own department clearly told us in committee that it is a big pool. They told us that there are enough bilingual judges in every province.
I hope that the Conservatives will support my bill and bilingualism in Canada.