Mr. Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to speak to Bill C-203, an act to amend the Supreme Court Act, which deals with the understanding of official languages.
I would like to start by congratulating and thanking the member for Drummond for introducing Bill C-203. He has taken up a cause once championed by Yvon Godin, our former colleague from Acadie—Bathurst, who introduced the same legislation in 2008, in 2010 and again in 2014. This just goes to show that principles matter. On those three separate occasions, the NDP voted in favour of the bill, and the Liberal members, too, three times voted in favour of this very same bill we are discussing today.
That said, some of the speeches I have heard coming from the Liberal benches lead me to believe that they may not do so again. I wonder, if the Liberals believed this legislation to be sound on three separate occasions over a 10-year period, why would they cease to think so now that they are in government? It should be noted that this bill is very similar to one that passed in the last Parliament, a bill that was sponsored by Alexandrine Latendresse, then member for Louis-Saint-Laurent, and dealt with the language skills of officers of Parliament. Some of the points argued by my Conservative colleagues remind me of some of the ones I heard back then, when we were debating this same bill that would have required officers of Parliament to be bilingual.
The same applies today. The issue of the bilingualism of Supreme Court judges is a fundamental one. It involves not only sitting judges and those who may one day be called to the bench, but also the right of every Canadian to be served in their language of choice when appearing before our country's highest courts. It is one thing to be able to plead one's case in a given language, another thing entirely to be understood in that language.
To my mind, bilingualism is not an asset but rather a required skill, which is why the words “understanding the official languages” appear in the bill's title. This is about a specific skill among judges that will be called upon to hear cases in English and in French.
I will only read two quotes in my 18 allotted minutes. The first one comes from Serge Rousselle, former law professor at the University of Moncton, currently serving as the member for Tracadie-Sheila and Minister of Education in the Liberal government of New-Brunswick. I have known Mr. Rousselle since my days at the University of Ottawa. I know him very well, and I know how committed he is to advocating on behalf of francophone minorities.
This former law professor and dean of the University of Moncton's faculty of law said the following:
Bilingualism is a required skill for Supreme Court judges. To fully grasp an oral argument in a field where the subtleties of one official language or the other can be critical, the importance of being understood directly by the members of this court, without the assistance of an interpreter, seems obvious.
Moreover, how can one fully grasp a case in French when many documents have not been translated in English and cannot be directly accessed by unilingual anglophone judges?
This is a fundamental question that runs counter to what my colleague for St. Albert—Edmonton mentioned moments ago. From a logistical standpoint, it can be difficult to ensure the availability in both languages of all of the documentation needed to hear a case while sitting on the country's highest court. This is not only about translating documents, but also interpreting oral arguments. As competent as interpreters are, when they are called upon to interpret arguments that sometimes rely on extremely technical language, that can lead to disagreements over the meaning of what was said. I could quote several members of the legal profession who are of the belief that interpretation simply failed to reflect their arguments' level of sophistication.
That is entirely understandable. Interpreters are only human. Though I may consider myself to be bilingual, I do not envy them their work, which is extremely difficult. That said, the fact remains that some cases that end up before our country's highest court, the court of last resort, are inadequately heard by some Supreme Court justices.
Michel Doucet, a most esteemed law professor at the University of Moncton specializing in linguistic rights, said the following not too long ago:
I have had the opportunity to appear before the Supreme Court on at least seven occasions. I've also gone before a number of tribunals. I believe that my specific experience in the courts has enabled me to see to what extent it is important for judges to be able to directly understand the submissions made by the various parties.
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.
These words from a highly respected legal expert should be reason enough for us to want to study, at the very least in committee, the amendments that our colleague from Drummond proposes in Bill C-203.
I am asking government members and even my Conservative opposition colleagues to at least give the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights the opportunity to debate this fundamental issue. It is not enough for government members to say that the issue is resolved because we have bilingualism programs for lower court judges that are ultimately supposed to help put more judges in superior courts. Nor is it enough to say that the problem will go away because the current government has a process to appoint bilingual judges. The same argument could have been used in the context of the bill on language skills for officers of Parliament.
If the government is going to appoint bilingual judges, why do we need a bill? Because it is not enough. We need to enshrine this requirement, this recognition in law to make sure it really happens and to make sure the changes stick. I do not know if other Liberal members will be speaking to this bill, but I would urge them to consider some of the facts I mentioned, which I will now recap.
First of all, while in opposition, the Liberal Party supported this same bill three times in the past 10 years: in 2008, 2010, and 2014.
Did their principles change when they were elected? I certainly hope not. It is not enough that this government is wiling to appoint bilingual judges to the Supreme Court; we need to enshrine this principle in the law. Otherwise, there is no guarantee that a future Liberal, Conservative, or NDP government, or any other governing party, will be able to guarantee bilingualism within the Supreme Court, thereby guaranteeing that francophone and anglophone litigants will be understood in the same way and provided an equal playing field.
Equal access to justice in both official languages is a fundamental principle. In this country, our laws are not written in English and then translated into French. Laws introduced by francophone members are not drafted in French and then translated into English. Both versions are equally valid. This principle matters when interpreting legislation. That is why we must enshrine it in law.
Now, we are the first to admit that this bill may not be perfect, as I know the member for Drummond is aware. For instance, there is the issue of whether it may create barriers to the appointment of indigenous judges. On this side of the House, by which I mean me, the member for Drummond and the rest of the NDP, we are open to amendments that would allow us to address this issue. Such amendments could be moved in committee, for example.
The bottom line is that the House should not dismiss the member for Drummond's proposal out of hand, because it touches on a fundamental element on which the Liberals and the NDP have agreed for 10 years.
Let us pass this bill at second reading so we can tweak it in committee with a view to affirming the principles of providing justice in both official languages and of equality between both official languages in this country, and to ensuring that no case in Canada is lost, or suspected of having been lost, because a judge failed to understand the legal arguments presented because of the language in which they were presented.
I urge the House to vote for Bill C-203 so we can have this important discussion in committee and then return the bill to the House.