Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House to speak to Bill C-232, An Act to amend the Supreme Court Act (understanding the official languages). The bill would create a requirement that all individuals appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada be able to understand the proceedings before them in both English and French without the aid of an interpreter.
Our government is committed to promoting the use of both official languages in Canadian society. Canada's bilingual nature is a fundamental aspect of our national identity. As Canadians, we pride ourselves in our country's bilingual institutions. This is particularly the case with respect to the Supreme Court of Canada, which plays a fundamental role in our democratic society as the ultimate guardian of the values enshrined in the Canadian Bill of Rights and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The Supreme Court's mission statement, as set out in its public website, is to serve Canadians by leading the development of common and civil law through its decisions on questions of public importance. In the context of this mission, the court has declared its commitment to the rule of law, independence and impartiality, and accessibility to justice.
There is no doubt that the judges of our Supreme Court faithfully pursue these important goals on a daily basis. Indeed, the court consistently provides all Canadians with the highest quality of justice they expect and deserve.
Hon. members are well aware that the Supreme Court of Canada is recognized nationally and internationally as a model of collegiality, professionalism and superior capacity. Canadians may take tremendous pride in the stature that our judges hold around the world.
In light of the important role of the Supreme Court, as the pinnacle of our justice system, the government's overriding consideration in the appointment of judges to the court is, and must continue to be, merit based on legal excellence and personal suitability. Bilingualism remains an important factor in the assessment of candidates considered among other factors, including proficiency in the law, judgment, honesty, integrity, fairness, work habits and social awareness.
The composition of the court, including a number of judges, is established by the Supreme Court Act, which provides that at least three of the justices must come from Quebec. As a matter of long-standing practice, the composition of the Supreme Court of Canada has reflected regional representation with the remaining judges appointed from Ontario, Atlantic Canada, the Prairies and British Colombia.
The practice of ensuring regional representation guarantees that the most qualified and deserving candidates across the country are appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada. Bill C-232 proposes to circumvent this exemption, which would in fact hinder regional representation to the court.
We must draw a distinction between institutional bilingualism and individual bilingualism. Institutional bilingualism is a fundamental and historic component of the government's responsibilities in ensuring that both official language communities can be served in either English or French. Individual bilingualism, which is improperly advocated by Bill C-232 as a requirement, would undermine that component.
Currently, the Supreme Court, as an institution, provides services of the highest quality in both official languages. The proposed amendment would make bilingualism a pre-condition to appointment. Given the extraordinary complexity and the importance of the cases heard by the court, this would require the highest level of linguistic capacity necessary for understanding the most refined and difficult judicial arguments, based on extensive factual evidence in both official languages.
There are subtleties of language that many of our best legal minds across Canada may not have fully mastered, and the stakes are high. Our most important rights hang in the balance. It is the government's position that the proposed amendment is not necessary to ensure access to the court in either official language.
The court provides all its services and communications in English and French. In addition, every individual who appears before the court is free to use either English or French in written and oral proceedings. The court's decisions are issued in English and French, thereby also contributing to a growing case of bilingual case law that is accessible to all Canadians and others worldwide.
The goal of ensuring the rights of Canadians to be heard and understood in the language of their choice is already being fully met by the court. The current composition requirements of the Supreme Court Act, together with the historical practice of regional representation, allow us to preserve our important commitment to legal pluralism, while at the same time ensuring that Canadians are served by judges of the highest distinction and ability. It has provided Canadians with a strong and independent judiciary that is the envy of free and democratic governments throughout the world.
The effect of Bill C-232 would be to have linguistic considerations override the central consideration of merit by reducing the pool of otherwise highly qualified candidates in some regions of the country where there may be fewer lawyers and judges capable of hearing a case in both official languages. We recognize that there must be sufficient linguistic capacity in our courts to provide equal access to justice in both English and French. The government has been and will remain vigilant in seeking competence in both official languages to achieve this goal.
Thus, bilingualism will remain an important criterion in the process of selecting judges to Canada's Supreme Court. However, such a factor should not eclipse the overruling consideration of merit and legal excellence in maintaining and nurturing the fairest justice system in the world.