Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-13, which is fairly technical. It deals with the language of juries, procedures for service of documents and also, the aspect that interests us most, the whole issue of official languages and the provision of trials in the official languages. Consequently, it addresses access to justice by minority groups.
We support this bill and are in favour of the amendment tabled by our Liberal colleagues. If I have understood correctly, this amendment clearly recognizes the responsibility of a judge to inform the people before him in a court of law, the people who will be participating in a trial—whether or not they are the accused—that they have the right to a trial in either official language, naturally in the language of their choice. This ensures that justice will be served.
In general, I would like to remind the House that Bill C-13 initially proposed that an accused who does not speak the same language as the majority of a group of accused should not be penalized. It suggested as well that it would be possible for a judge or the chief court coordinator to ensure that a co-accused who does not speak the same language as the majority appears before a bilingual judge or has a separate trial. That is part of our constitutional guarantees. It is also in the Criminal Code and is one of the factors we should always remember as parliamentarians, that is to say, people must always have access to justice in their mother tongue.
For example, when francophones outside Quebec are put on trial—especially when the trial involves multiple charges or there are several accused at the same time—there is always a danger that they will be assimilated because the majority rules, and obviously that is not what we want. The bar expressed its concerns in committee that justice could be denied to minority groups at various points in our current trial procedures.
In regard to linguistic rights, the current system provides that at the request of the accused, a judge will order a preliminary hearing. We all remember that the preliminary hearing is the stage before the trial itself when a judge assesses the evidence that the Crown has and commits the accused to trial. It is a very important stage. The legislation currently provides that, at the request of the accused, a judge will order a preliminary hearing and trial before a judge alone or a jury that speaks the official language of the accused. There is always a concern, therefore, that no one in a minority language situation should be denied knowledge of the evidence against him and the legal procedure or prevented from interacting with the officers of the court and the judges, so that there is always the possibility of ordering a trial in the language of the accused.
I also want to remind the House of similar concerns surrounding the entire question of legal documents. When an accused asks to have his trial in the official language of his choice, in accordance with section 19 of the bill, the Crown must have the documents containing the charges, the information and the indictment translated into the official language of the accused or the language that he best understands. After everything is translated, if that would help the accused understand it better, it is turned over to him.
Changes have also been made in regard to the examination, cross-examination and preliminary hearing. I mentioned that the preliminary hearing is very important because it is here that the Crown reveals its evidence. This is when it is determined whether or not there is enough evidence to proceed to trial.
It should be noted that witnesses can use either official language at the preliminary hearing and the trial. Clause 20(2) of the bill enables the prosecutor, if authorized by the judge and if the circumstances warrant, to examine or cross-examine a witness in the witness’s official language.
Let us look at the case of a francophone accused of a crime. For example, suppose the member for Québec, a francophone, were accused—let us imagine the worst—of having killed her husband. She is ordered to trial and there is a person who saw her kill her husband, Mr. Lemieux, a man who gave her more than 20 years of his life, a veritable saint of a man. If the person who saw her kill her husband is an anglophone, he or she will be summoned to testify as a witness. In this case, the crown prosecutor is bilingual. One may ask in what language the prosecutor will ask questions of the witness. Thanks to the amendments to Bill C-13, it will be possible for the person conducting the examination of the witness, even if he or she speaks a different language than that of the accused, to communicate directly with the witness, thereby avoiding the need for interpreters. Thus, the member for Québec, a francophone, kills her husband; an anglophone witness is called to testify and the prosecutor who laid the charge is bilingual. The cross-examination could be conducted in the language of the witness. In my example, I referred to my colleague, the member for Québec, but honourable members will recognize the fictitious nature of my example because the member for Québec is well known as a peacemaker, without excess of any kind, far removed from anger and possessing total self-control.
That said, I want to say a few words about the amendments that the other place, the Senate, has proposed.
In my opinion—it was a recommendation of the Senate and it is a recommendation of the Liberal opposition—it is desirable that the judge should personally ensure that the person who appears before the court, whether at the preliminary inquiry stage or during the trial on the merits of the case, is clearly aware of his or her linguistic rights, including the right to request a trial in either official language. In a case were there are co-accused, one accused person can even ask for a separate trial when necessary.
Obviously, there are many people involved in the trial proceedings who could inform the accused that his or her linguistic rights must be respected. The prosecutor or the accused’s attorney could do so, or others. In my view, it is a wise move to make certain the judge is able to do that.
Our colleagues in the other place, the senators, have also asked that the legislation be reviewed in three years. This kind of review mechanism, I believe, is now quite common in our bills.
Of course, the Bloc Québécois supports this amendment. The Senate has submitted different cross-referencing provisions, particularly with regard to Bill C-2, the omnibus bill tabled by the government. I have been told there was a bit of a delay in the Senate, which provoked some anger from the parliamentary secretary. As I recall, Bill C-2 was a combination of five previous bills, namely, C-9, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (conditional sentences), C-10, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (minimum penalties for offences involving firearms) and to make consequential amendments to another Act, the bill on dangerous offenders, the bill on reverse onus in bail hearings and a bill dealing with impaired driving and the new charges that could be laid.
So, Bill C-2 impacts on Bill C-13, and the Senate has presented cross-referencing amendments.
Of course, the Bloc Québécois supports Bill C-13 and the amendments proposed by the Liberal opposition. However, I cannot conclude without talking about the court challenges program.
How sad it must be for all parliamentarians to see how this government has taken an insensitive measure. I thought the Minister of the Environment would join his voice to that of the Bloc Québécois and defend francophone minorities. If I am not mistaken, he was responsible for this issue when he was a member of the Mike Harris cabinet. Mike Harris will not be remembered as one of the most progressive parliamentarian in history, but I thought that the Minister of the Environment wanted to follow the philosophical saying to the effect that taking the middle road is doing the virtuous thing. How can one support abolishing the court challenges program and thus move away from the middle road and virtue?
As members know, the Bloc Québécois is a very responsible opposition party. It is the number one political force in Quebec, and it will continue to be so, if such is the wish of Quebeckers. So, the Bloc Québécois brought forward an amendment at the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, and also at the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, to resurrect the court challenges program. Unfortunately, we were disappointed by the Conservatives' response. The Conservative Party can no longer be called “progressive”. The fact that they removed the word “progressive” from their name is quite telling.
So, the Bloc Québécois brought forward an amendment in both of these committees. As we know, had it not been for the court challenges program, the French fact outside Quebec—for which our ancestors fought—would not be what it is now. And the Minister of the Environment must raise his voice in cabinet, regarding this French fact.
It is being said that the Minister of the Environment is part of the progressive wing of cabinet. How could he have supported this decision? I will have to tell the member for Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, because I believe he has some influence with this man. I believe that the member for Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie will have to make the Minister of the Environment understand that he has failed in his responsibilities by not crossing party lines and by leaving francophones outside Quebec to be denied an extremely important tool in this way.
Why is this important? Take the example of school boards. In Quebec, we call them commissions scolaires, but outside Quebec they are conseils scolaires. Governments have not always spontaneously decided to grant resources and equip francophones in some communities with all institutions, from Prince Edward to Alberta, and including Saskatchewan. By using the court challenges program, with public funds, they were able to bring challenges in the courts. The case went as far as the Supreme Court of Canada and forced the establishment of school boards in francophone communities outside Quebec, which are of course minority communities.
How bizarre, not to say stupid, is the reasoning of this government, which claims that it never enacts or introduces unconstitutional laws? Well, I have been sitting in this House for 14 years and I have seen legislation and regulations repeatedly challenged and held to be invalid. Remember that the tobacco regulations, for example, were declared invalid by the Supreme Court. A number of decisions that have been made have been held to be invalid. It is not simply a matter of laws being ruled invalid, it is a matter of getting new ones recognized.
For example, Michael Hendricks, a resident of Montreal, used the court challenges program to have same-sex spouses recognized.
Today, people whose sexual orientation is homosexual can marry, can have proper weddings and experience the joys of marriage—and of course sometimes also the anguish of divorce. Had it not been for Michael Hendricks and his spouse, René Leboeuf, we would never have moved so speedily toward full recognition of rights for the gay and lesbian community. So you can see that the court challenges program has served both francophone communities outside Quebec and gay men and lesbians well.
When we come to examine the Conservative government’s record, the debit side will include the insensitivity it has demonstrated. I can only mourn the fact that no one in the Quebec caucus of the Conservatives felt the need to stand up for francophones outside Quebec. In fact, I say “francophones outside Quebec”, but there is nothing in the court challenges program that made the anglophone minority automatically ineligible to use it. Of course I will be told that the National Assembly has long made sure to respect the anglophone minority in Quebec. In the plan he put forward before the 1995 referendum, Jacques Parizeau said that it was a founding minority of Quebec.
In Quebec, the constitutional rights of anglophones were recognized, and still are. For instance, anglophones have access to learning institutions from kindergarten to university. Even though Quebec is not officially bilingual, a whole range of programs and measures is available to anglophones outside Quebec.
Valéry, a famous name in history, wrote that one can measure how great a civilization is by how it treats its minorities. Of course, in Quebec, we have every reason to be proud of how we have treated the anglophone community. We are equally proud of how we have treated our aboriginal communities. It is well known that René Lévesque was the one who gave recognition to aboriginal communities. Indigenous languages are still used by aboriginal people, and mechanisms maintained by the state allow them to assert themselves as founding nations of Quebec.
In summary, we support this bill. It deals with a number of technical details, but where language rights are concerned, we feel that it is a good piece of legislation, particularly with respect to the right of the co-accused to be tried in the language of the minority, provided that it is one of the official languages. We also support the Liberal amendment that will see the judge presiding at the preliminary hearing or trial be put in charge of recognizing the rights of those appearing before him or her and having them recognized.
In addition, we condemn the Conservative government's insensitivity to minority communities. Hopefully, by the next election, the government will have had a burst of conscience and lucidity and restored the court challenges program.
Finally, I hope that the Minister of the Environment will rise and put a question to me.