Mr. Speaker, as Liberal critic for official languages, following my colleague, the hon. member for Charlottetown and the Liberal justice critic, I am pleased to second Bill C-208, An Act to amend the Supreme Court Act (understanding the official languages), introduced by our colleague, the member for Acadie—Bathurst.
This bill would require that in the future anyone appointed to the Supreme Court have a command of both official languages and be able to understand them without the assistance of an interpreter. The bill is not retroactive and therefore sitting judges would remain on the bench.
Under the Official Languages Act, every federal court is required to ensure that the language chosen by the parties during proceedings is understood by the judge, or other officers who hear any given proceedings, without the assistance of an interpreter. There is one exception, though: the Supreme Court. In practice, this bill would put an end to this exception.
The Liberal Party has been a long-time champion of language rights, linguistic duality and the exercise of the Official Languages Act.
The Liberals also have no problems supporting this bill given that we introduced a similar bill ourselves, in 2007-08, during the 39th Parliament. This was Bill C-548, amending the Official Languages Act to extend the requirement to understand both official languages to justices of the Supreme Court of Canada. The bill was introduced by the hon. member for Bourrassa at the time, the Hon. Denis Coderre, the new mayor of Montreal. I recall that bill as I had the honour of being the leader of the official opposition at the time.
More than five years later, let us hope that this time will be the right time and that this Parliament will give French-speaking Canadians the assurance that they will be understood by the nine most important judges in our legal system.
And why would this Parliament not give that assurance to the country's francophones? Is it not high time to do so, 45 years after the Official Languages Act was passed?
Those who oppose this bill claim that the selection of judges must be a matter of competence only. However, adequate command of both official languages is precisely part of the competence required to be fully able to treat all Canadians fairly.
Both the Commissioner of Official Languages and the Minister of Justice confirmed that we now have a big enough pool of bilingual jurists from across the country who fully meet the appropriate standard of merit and legal excellence to appoint bilingual judges to the Supreme Court. Clearly, this pool will grow bigger every year if Parliament sends young Canadian lawyers the message that bilingualism is a requisite if they wish to reach the top of the Canadian legal system.
Our judges must always prove their worth in terms of knowledge of the law, judgment, work habits, ability to write and communicate, honesty, concern for fairness and social conscience, but they must also be bilingual.
We are not here to criticize the unilingual judges of the past, some of whom were great legal minds who did wonderful things for the cause of French and official language minorities in Canada. At one time we had British judges and they too did great things, but that did not stop us from wanting Canadian judges.
It is therefore reasonable to say that the judges of the past would have been even better equipped had they been able to understand the language of Molière or Vigneault.
The need is there. About 30% of the documentation that Supreme Court judges need to study is in French. Judges who cannot read French have to rely on the summaries provided by clerks, who are often talented but of course have neither the skill nor experience that a judge has.
During hearings, unilingual judges have to follow debate using simultaneous interpretation. No matter how good it is, there can be errors, misunderstandings or inaccuracies. When judges speak among themselves about cases before them, only one of them needs to be unilingual for all the discussions to, inevitably, be held in English, even for cases where most of the documentation is in French. In practice, French-speaking judges are required to write their drafts in English.
Opponents of Bill C-208 who state that requiring bilingualism would undermine the competence of judges must know that this is precisely the argument that was used against the adoption of the Official Languages Act. Parliament of 1969 did not let this objection stop it, and everyone takes the credit today. Therefore, let us be inspired by the wisdom of the members who came before us.
Not surprisingly, support for this bill is coming in from all sides.
Of course, the National Assembly of Quebec, the Commissioner of Official Languages, Mr. Graham Fraser, the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, and the Quebec Community Groups Network all support Bill C-232. Also the Canadian Bar Association adopted a resolution in support of institutional bilingualism at the Supreme Court of Canada during its annual meeting in August 2010.
L'Association des juristes d'expression française du Canada de common law adopted a resolution in 2010 affirming its support for Bill C-232. The Quebec Bar Association supports this bill. In 2010, the president of the Young Bar Association of Montréal stated:
Functional bilingualism must be a minimum competency and not limited to being simply a consideration…
I would like to provide other support, but my time is short.
Voting for this bill is betting on Canada, a country that is lucky to have two official languages that are international languages, big windows on the world; a country that is lucky to have two legal systems, the civil code and common law, which allows it to share the legal traditions of 80% of countries around the world.
With this bill, we will ensure that this increased strength that our bilingualism and bijuralism bring us will become part of the highest court in our legal system and will help our Supreme Court become one of the most respected in the world.