Madam Speaker, with all due respect, I would like to remind my colleague, the member for Acadie—Bathurst, that unlike the Olympics, in order to be understood, it is not the speed of speech that is essential. But more practically, it is to be understood that is paramount.
To start, I would like to make something clear. On this side of the House, we have implemented a number of measures to protect and advance the issue of bilingualism in this country. I believe that languages can be used as a bridge or as a wall between peoples. In the House, these languages are often used both ways. I think that we need a lot more bridges.
After I was elected, I started studying to better communicate in French. However, I must admit that for an anglophone, it is a rather daunting task.
Today, in the House, we are debating a private members' bill from the member for Acadie—Bathurst, Bill C-232.
Bill C-232, An Act to amend the Supreme Court Act (understanding the official languages), would amend the Supreme Court Act to require that, as a condition of appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada, a candidate understand both English and French without the assistance of an interpreter.
I would like to repeat that the government is committed to enhancing the vitality of English and French linguistic minorities in Canada, and fostering the full recognition and use of both English and French in Canadian society. Let me assure everyone that we are equally committed to maintaining the highest quality of judicial appointments to ensure that our judiciary continues to enjoy the respect and confidence of all Canadians.
The Government of Canada recognizes the importance of supporting and assisting the development of official language minority communities. To that end, in June 2008, the government announced the “Roadmap for Canada's Linguistic Duality 2008-2013”, which is an unprecedented government-wide commitment with a budget of $1.1 billion based on two pillars: the participation of all in linguistic duality and support for official language minority communities in the priority sectors of health, justice, immigration, economic development, and arts and culture.
The composition of the court, including the number of judges, is established by the Supreme Court Act, which provides that at least three of the justices must come from Quebec. The recognition of the civil law tradition of the province of Quebec makes it necessary that there be representation of Quebec judges on the court reflective of the bijural traditions of Canada.
However, it is important to recognize that the court has historically also reflected the regional composition of our country. The current practice is one which is based, by statute and historical practice, on the recognition of Canadian legal pluralism, as well as the regional diversity in the appointment process.
As a matter of long-standing practice, the composition of the Supreme Court of Canada has reflected regional representation with three judges appointed from Ontario, one judge from Atlantic Canada, one judge from the Prairies, and one from British Columbia. Given its status as the final court of appeal for all Canadian jurisdictions, it is of key importance that the government be in a position to draw upon qualified jurists from all regions of the country when making appointments to the Supreme Court of Canada.
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 without the assistance of an interpreter.
To date, the government has made over 300 judicial appointments to Canadian courts. We are proud of each and every one of those appointments since they reflect the tangible embodiment of the principles of legal excellence and merit. The government will continue to make future appointments on this basis.
The overriding consideration in all judicial appointments is legal excellence and merit. Further criteria include proficiency in the law, judgment, work habits, writing and communication skills, honesty, integrity, fairness and social awareness. While bilingualism remains an important criterion considered in the nomination process, it is not, and should not be, an overriding factor in the appointment of judges to our highest court.
Our current process allows the government to take into account the bilingual capacity of candidates and to address the need for access to justice in both official languages. We are committed to ensuring that the federal judiciary's linguistic profile provides equal access to justice in either official language.
I would also point out that before making an appointment, consultations with the chief justice of the relevant court are taken into consideration to determine the court's needs, including linguistic capacity. The chief justice is well positioned to understand the needs of the communities served and to identify particular needs where vacancies arise. We also welcome the advice of any group or individuals on considerations which should be taken into account when filling current vacancies.
To ensure a rich pool of bilingual judicial candidates, the government continues to invite the French-speaking jurist associations and French-speaking communities to identify and encourage individuals, with the necessary qualifications, to apply and to share their recommendations with the Minister of Justice.
While we fully agree that linguistic ability is an important factor when a specific need is identified, merit remains the central and overriding consideration in making judicial appointments. The government is committed first and foremost to appointing the best qualified candidates. The government will continue to appoint excellent and committed candidates reflecting gender balance, cultural diversity and bilingual capacity.
The Supreme Court of Canada plays a fundamental role in our democratic society, particularly as the ultimate guardian of the values enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is important that its members be jurists of great distinction and ability. For that reason, every care is taken to ensure that the best persons, by knowledge, experience and social awareness, are chosen to fill vacancies in the court.
The appointments to the Supreme Court over the past 130 years have proven to be successful in producing judges of the highest calibre for the court. Among the qualifies sought in potential candidates are outstanding intellectual capacity, superior ability in judgment writing, the capacity for innovative thinking on emerging legal issues, and sensitivity to the diverse values enshrined in the charter.
The eminent constitutional scholar, Peter Hogg, has offered the following description of the professional capacities and personal competencies of a Supreme Court of Canada judge as follows:
1. He [or she] must be able to resolve difficult legal issues, not just by virtue of technical legal skills, but also with wisdom, fairness and compassion.
2. [She] must have the energy and discipline to diligently study the materials that are filed in every appeal.
3. He must be able to maintain an open mind on every appeal until he has read all the pertinent material and heard from counsel on both sides.
4. [She] must always treat the counsel and the litigants who appear before [her] with patience and courtesy.
5. He must be able to write opinions that are well written and well reasoned.
6. [She] must be able to work cooperatively with [her] eight colleagues to help produce agreement on unanimous or majority decisions, and to do [her] share of the writing.
Canada can take pride in the quality of its judicial system and in the steps its taken to ensure its citizens have access to justice in either official language. The Supreme Court of Canada is a model of institutional bilingualism, which reflects the intent of Parliament that our national institutions be bilingual while not requiring bilingualism from each individual Canadian.
The government remains committed to ensuring quality and impartiality under the law. An important way to ensure such equality and impartiality is to continue to be guided by the principles of merit and legal excellence in the selection and appointment of judges to Canada's provincial, superior and federal courts and to the Supreme Court.
The risk of overriding merit for the sake of bilingualism is unnecessary. 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 court provides all of 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 pleadings.
Ongoing language training is available to all members of the court. High quality interpretation and translation services are available during hearings before the court and all judges have the assistance of at least one or more bilingual law clerks.
The current composition requirements of the Supreme Court of Canada Act, together with the historical practice of regional representation, allows us to preserve our important commitment to legal pluralism--