moved that Bill C-232, An Act to amend the Supreme Court Act (understanding the official languages), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin by thanking the hon. member for Skeena—Bulkley Valley for supporting my bill.
The government has been refusing for far too long to establish an appointment criteria based on language proficiency for Supreme Court judges, thereby interfering in an alarming way with individual rights.
The consequences have been human rights violations which Canada cannot tolerate.
I am confident, however, that change is on the way because in 2009, year of the 40th anniversary of the Official Languages Act, Canadians have decided to join forces and take action.
In an unprecedented move, francophones and anglophones from all backgrounds are coming together to support my bill, Bill C-232, to introduce a new requirement for judges appointed to the Supreme Court to understand English and French without the assistance of an interpreter. This requirement will not apply to currently sitting judges.
We share the same goal: to restore a fundamental right of all Canadians, that is, the right to a fair and equitable trial.
Allow me to outline the context. As the hon. members probably know, the statutes of Canada are not written in one official language, then translated into the other. They are drafted bilingually, neither language taking precedence over the other. Both versions are equal in law. Canadian law is written in two inextricably interlinked languages.
The Official Languages Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ensure that the historical progress achieved in this regard is preserved.
To understand the subtleties of the law and apply it integrally, one must, at the very least, understand both official languages. One must also be able to listen to the parties without the help of an interpreter to ensure that all rulings are completely impartial and objective. Otherwise, the outcome could be very detrimental to the parties.
To ensure that our rights are protected, Supreme Court justices must understand the law as written in both English and French. Simultaneous interpretation and translation are not good enough: they result in interpretations that often differ from the original meaning.
More and more Canadians agree that a judge on the bench of our country's highest court must not be partial or restricted to knowing only half of the law because he or she knows only one of the official languages.
Members of Parliament and Canadian citizens may one day find themselves before the Supreme Court of Canada. Some may find themselves living with the consequences of its rulings.
How would it feel to be the victim of injustice simply because one was not well understood?
What would happen if a judge could not get clarification as needed because of delays due to translation or interpretation?
What would happen if judges were to discuss the fate of individuals in a place not equipped with translation or interpretation services?
What might the consequences be?
As the Commissioner of Official Languages put it so well, “it's not through interpretation that we're necessarily going to understand all the aspects of the debate prior to a case being brought before the Supreme Court”.
The government must therefore pay closer attention to judges' skills. Certainly, all judges must have a good knowledge of the law, but language skills are just as important.
The Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser, stated the following:
—it seems to me that knowledge of both official languages should be one of the qualifications sought for judges of Canada’s highest court. Setting such a standard would prove to all Canadians that the Government of Canada is committed to linguistic duality. I find it essential that an institution as important as the Supreme Court of Canada not only be composed of judges with exceptional legal skills, but also reflect our values and our Canadian identity as a bijural and bilingual country.
On a related note, according to the Official Languages Act, every federal court has the duty to ensure that the language chosen by the parties is understood by the judge or other officer who hears those proceedings, without the assistance of an interpreter. The only exception to that rule? The Supreme Court.
It is not fair that the law applies to federal courts such as the Federal Court of Canada, the Federal Court of Appeal and the Tax Court of Canada, but not to the Supreme Court of Canada. Why the exception? The law should be the same for everyone. Consider this example. Judges have been appointed, even though they are not bilingual, to the Federal Court of Canada, the Federal Court of Appeal and the Tax Court of Canada. Everyone can have their trial in the official language of their choice, and the judge must be bilingual. The Tax Court of Canada has more than one judge, but only one judge is needed for the hearing. At the Supreme Court of Canada, however, certain cases require all nine judges. Those nine judges should therefore be able to understand the arguments in the client's language of choice.
The Supreme Court ruling handed down on February 5, 2009, in the Caldech case reminded the federal government of its constitutional duty to provide the public with services of equal quality in both official languages.
As the commissioner explained, this is an important principle that clarifies the scope of the Official Languages Act.
This ruling establishes that a broad view must be adopted when looking at equality, and that the government must consider the nature and purpose of the service in question when defining its linguistic obligations.
In Canada, French enjoys equality of status and use with English. No litigant, whether francophone or anglophone, should therefore be heard through interpretation or other measures before Canada's highest court.
Let us recognize the importance of making ourselves understood without interpreters or other interventions.
The Fédération des associations de juristes d'expression française de common law or FAJEF is of the opinion that the current method of appointing federal court judges, including Supreme Court judges, does not pay enough attention to language rights. According to the FAJEF, the fact that there is no mechanism for assessing candidates' language proficiency is evidence that it is not considered an important requirement when judges are appointed.
The right to use a language in court also includes the right to be understood directly in that language. What good is it to have the right to use your own language if the people you are speaking to cannot understand it? Each party must be able to be heard in conditions that do not put him or her at a disadvantage compared to the opposing party. That is the purpose of my bill.
To ensure that the Supreme Court makes fully informed decisions and that Canadians have the right to fair, equitable trials, I invite you to support my bill, Bill C-232. No one wants a misinformed judge to determine his or her future.
Make history by joining me and the following organizations, as well as all Canadians who have come out in favour of such a measure: the Canadian Bar Association, the Association des juristes d'expression française du Canada, the Young Bar Association of Montreal, the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, the Quebec Community Groups Network, the Commissioner of Official Languages, the Fédération franco-ténoise, the Fédération acadienne de la Nouvelle-Écosse, the Société nationale de l'Acadie, the Société de l'Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick, the National Assembly of Quebec, the Premier of Quebec and the Bloc Québécois, which wrote me to say it will support this bill. I certainly appreciate that gesture.
Without radically changing the current system, my bill will, in the long run, prevent appointments that go against the spirit of the law and the charter. In this way, we will more effectively honour language communities' rights, promote their equality and enhance their vitality.
I am also asking Parliament, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party to truly ensure that people's language rights are respected. For example, when the Supreme Court was established—or any other court or institution for that matter—it was created for citizens, for Canadians as well as for Quebeckers. The court was not set up to pit citizens against judges, it was set up to serve citizens. The service provided to citizens really should be in their own language.
I have a great deal of respect for our interpreters and the great work they do for us. I wish to thank them for it. However, the Supreme Court of Canada is the court of last resort, where judges will hand down a ruling that could impact our lives, that could change them forever. So, just imagine if the judge did not fully understand the arguments.
Mr. Michel Doucet, a lawyer, of the University of Moncton said:
When you win a case by a nine to zero decision, that's far from being a dramatic situation, but when you lose a case in a five to four decision, as happened to me at one point, and you've pleaded that case in French, you then go home and listen to the English interpretation that was made of your argument before the court in which three judges didn't understand French. As the judges had to listen to the argument through the English interpretation on CPAC, you wonder about what they understood.
Just imagine, that is what a lawyer had to say about his arguments. He also said:
I listened to the English interpretation of my argument, and I understood none of it.
This is what he said before the Standing Committee on Official Languages, here in Ottawa. Michel Doucet added:
I have a lot of respect for the interpreters and the work they have to do. It must be quite complicated to do it in a political context; I can imagine what it must be in a judicial context, where every word counts—
When I was a union representative, a lawyer taught me how to conduct myself during arbitration arguments.
Sometimes, it is all about how you present yourself to the judge or the arbitrator and whether you can make an impression on them. However, how can you do that when you are presenting arguments about a law if he does not understand?
In Canada, in this country, there has been sufficient reflection about this.
In our country now, people have come to understand that if we are going to have two official languages and if the law is written in English or in French, not interpreted, how could we accept that after going to court the interpretation may come from someone else on the same law that we do not accept in the House of Commons?
I will repeat this part because it is important. The law is written in French and in English. This Parliament has decided that legislation would not be translated. It is drafted in both official languages. At the Supreme Court of Canada, interpreters can translate legislation for a judge, but this is not permitted in Parliament. Supreme Court judges have the fundamental responsibility of enforcing and interpreting the law. If the law is written in French as well as in English, I think that the judge does not have a choice. He has to be able to understand it in both official languages. That is what is requested, and it is important.
The language that we speak does not matter. When a lawyer makes representations before the judge, with all due respect, the interpreter can make mistakes because the lawyer is like the member for Acadie—Bathurst and speaks so fast at times that the interpreter does not have enough time to translate everything he says. How many times have I risen in the House to make a speech and had interpreters comment that I gave them a hard time? Imagine now the judge who is trying to understand a lawyer making a presentation.
For these reasons, I am requesting the support of the House of Commons so that, finally, the next judges appointed to the Supreme Court, the highest court of the land, will understand both official languages. That is really important. I will count on the understanding of my hon. colleagues, where this matter is concerned, on behalf of all Canadians. The court is there for the citizens, not the judges.