Mr. Speaker, I am very proud to rise today to speak to Bill C-208, which was introduced by the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst. I know how important official languages are to him and to the vast majority of francophones from one end of this country to the other, myself included.
To begin, I would like to congratulate him for bringing back this bill. I would also like to thank him for how passionately he defends our shared mother tongue and our country's official language minority communities.
This bill would amend the Supreme Court Act and introduce a new requirement for judges appointed to the country's highest court to understand both official languages without the assistance of an interpreter.
For the NDP, this bill is primarily about equality—equal access to justice and the equality of our country's two official languages.
As my colleagues have said, the NDP is the only party that is proposing meaningful action to promote and protect the equality of Canada's two official languages. It is also the only party that is proposing initiatives to enhance the vitality of official language minority communities.
Not only is this the member for Acadie—Bathurst's third attempt to get Parliament to ratify this principle, but this initiative is also closely aligned with Bill C-419 on bilingualism requirements for officers of Parliament, which was introduced by my colleague from Louis-Saint-Laurent and received royal assent last June.
I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate my colleague from Louis-Saint-Laurent on this unprecedented victory and all of his hard work on this file.
I hope the Conservative members have finally understood the importance of protecting language rights, and I hope they will support this important bill despite what we have heard today.
This is the third time that my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst has introduced this bill since 2008. The last time we debated it in the House, members passed it on March 31, 2010.
Why are we debating it again today? The answer is simple but distressing. Unelected, unaccountable senators in the Conservative caucus who do not represent Canadians blocked this bill for a full year until the March 2011 election. As a result, Bill C-232 died on the order paper.
That is another good reason to abolish that archaic and completely undemocratic institution. To all those who argue that the Senate and senators serve the interests of Canada's linguistic minorities, well, we can forget about that.
One important fact is that when Bill C-232 was passed in the House of Commons in May 2010, the Conservatives had a minority government. All the Conservative members, including the francophone Conservative members, voted against the bill. That is shameful. However, since the opposition voted to support the bill, it managed to pass in the House.
I do not need to paint a picture to explain to people that, considering that outcome, someone must have received a call from the Prime Minister's Office instructing the government's friends in the upper chamber to do everything in their power to throw a monkey wrench into the plans and obstruct the democratic will of this House, which is filled with the elected representatives of the Canadian people. Accordingly, we are trying again.
Many groups and individuals have expressed their support for the amendment to the Supreme Court Act that is proposed in Bill C-208.
Graham Fraser, the Commissioner of Official Languages, is one of them. When he released his annual report on November 7, 2013, he stated:
There have also been a few outcomes during my tenure that I would characterize as conspicuous failures. For example, the government failed to see the importance of having bilingual Supreme Court judges. I have given my support to Bill C-232, which sought to amend the Supreme Court of Canada Act, as I firmly believe that any litigant appearing before the Supreme Court should have the right to be heard and understood by all the judges in either official language without the aid of an interpreter.
Other stakeholders, such as the Barreau du Québec, the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, the Fédération des associations de juristes d'expression française de common law, the Association des juristes d'expression française du Nouveau-Brunswick, and Sébastien Grammond, dean of the faculty of law at the University of Ottawa, have said they support my colleague's bill.
They all agree that this is a matter of equal access to justice, and they acknowledge the importance of being understood in the official language of our choice by the highest court in the land, without a third party interpreting our words, which can lead to interpretations that are inconsistent with what was really said.
As a Quebecker, I would like to add that it is particularly important to my constituents that the highest court in the land understand both our national language and our civil law tradition.
I am troubled by the comments made by those who oppose this bill. Some believe that the condition of understanding both official languages without the aid of an interpreter would be an obstacle to appointing the best people to fill this role, those who merit the position the most. That argument would suggest that there are not enough qualified bilingual judges to serve as Supreme Court judges. That argument is simply wrong.
A study conducted in 2011 by professors Mark Power and Sébastien Grammond showed that, even if Quebec is excluded, 25% of the 124 judges who serve on provincial appeals courts and the Federal Court of Appeal can hear a case in French without the aid of an interpreter. Are we not capable of finding a judge in that group worthy of serving on the Supreme Court?
The NDP believes that to become a Supreme Court judge, one must have all the necessary skills, including the ability to understand Canada's two official languages.
Not only did the members opposite vote against Bill C-232, but the Conservative government appointed two unilingual judges, Justices Moldaver and Rothstein, to the Supreme Court. I do not know if that was out of partisanship or contempt for francophones, but it is clearly unacceptable, not just to us, but to all francophones in Canada, whether they are Quebeckers or members of a francophone minority community.
Even the new Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages has said that the appointment of bilingual judges to the Supreme Court of Canada is not essential.
As Chantal Hébert rightly said in an article entitled “Bilingualism at the Supreme Court for dummies” published in the April 2010 issue of L'actualité:
The fact is that refusing to make the ability to function in both official languages a selection criterion for Supreme Court justices makes English the main language of an institution...at the heart of public life in Canada...
If the Prime Minister had not been able to address Canadians in both official languages and had not rectified the situation in a timely manner, he never would have been elected Prime Minister. That might have been better for the country, but we will talk about that again during the election campaign.
The same is true for the Minister of Industry and the Minister of Employment and Social Development, since they are both in the running to replace the current Prime Minister after he loses the election in 2015.
I am already hearing grumbling from my colleagues opposite, who will probably try to claim that under the current system, a unilingual francophone judge could also be appointed to the Supreme Court. My response to that is simple. In more than 145 years, not once has a judge who speaks and understands only French been appointed to the highest court in the country. Never.
Never in Canada's history have we nominated a French unilingual judge to the Supreme Court of Canada. Never.
At this point, Mr. Speaker, through you, I would like to address my colleagues who need an interpretation to understand what I have been saying in my mother tongue.
First, the laws of this country are not written in English and then translated. They are written simultaneously and independently in both languages.
Second, the Supreme Court of Canada is the very last legal recourse that a person has.
Third, as highly qualified as interpreters are, and here I would like to salute the House of Commons interpreters for their difficult and professional work, every language has its subtleties, particularly legalese.
Let me give an example. At a recent event, someone used the phrase “invités de marque”, which I would translate as important visitors or VIPs. It was translated as “Mark's guests”. That type of mistake, which completely changes the meaning of the sentence, could be costly in a court of law, particularly when it is one's last recourse.
I hope that my Conservative colleagues from Quebec will listen to reason this time and will remember where they come from. With the bill on bilingualism of officers of Parliament, they have already shown that it is possible to work together to promote Canada's official languages.
It is possible to do the same with the bill to require that Supreme Court justices be bilingual.