Mr. Speaker, it is a huge privilege to co-sponsor the bill introduced by my colleague and, I would even say, my friend, the member for Acadie—Bathurst, and to speak to it today.
This bill would require that all Supreme Court justices be bilingual, which goes to the very heart of our democracy. Equal access to justice for all is a fundamental aspect of democracy. To ensure that everyone, without exception, has equal access to justice, justices of the Supreme Court—the highest court in this country and the court of last resort—must be able to hear arguments and read documents associated with a case or the evidence without the help of interpreters or translators.
Let us be clear. I have the utmost admiration for interpreters. Listening to something and interpreting it has to be one of the hardest jobs in the world. I have a particular fondness for translators, since I used to work in translation.
That said, even a translator would say that translation is the art of fudging. It is not an exact science. I have some real examples. Michel Doucet, a law professor at the Université de Moncton and an expert in language rights, argued a case before the Supreme Court. A few weeks later, by chance, he heard the arguments he had made in French being played in English on CPAC. Here is what he had to say about it:
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.
It is essentially a matter of principle. Canada's laws are not written in one language and then translated into the other. They are drafted at the same time in both official languages, and neither version takes precedence over the other. I think it is important for Supreme Court justices to be able to hear francophones in their own language, to read the law in that language and also to understand the tradition of civil law in Quebec.
We in the NDP are not the only ones saying so. The Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser, has said several times that he believes that Supreme Court judges should be bilingual. When he released his 2012-13 report, 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.
The Barreau du Québec has also repeatedly reiterated its support for the bill on bilingual judges:
Bilingualism...should be among a Supreme Court judge's required skills in order to ensure equal access to justice, and the Barreau du Québec’s position in this regard is categorical.
I mentioned Bill C-232 and said that the Barreau du Québec has repeatedly reiterated its support for the bill on bilingual Supreme Court judges because this is not the first time this subject has been discussed.
Indeed, in 2008, my hon. colleague from Acadie—Bathurst introduced a similar bill, Bill C-232, which I mentioned a few moments ago, also calling for a bilingualism requirement for Supreme Court judges. This has been quite a battle. I did not have the honour of representing Laurier—Sainte-Marie at the time, when the Conservatives had a minority government. Finally, in 2010, despite the obstruction and opposition of Conservative members, including those from Quebec or ridings with large francophone populations, the bill passed. However, when it was sent to the Senate, the senators quashed it. I would like to make a very important point in passing in that regard.
Every time I hear that story or a similar one, it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart when democratically elected members vote in favour of a bill, then the Senate, whose members are appointed rather than democratically elected, has the gall to defeat the bill on purely partisan grounds, even though it deals with an issue as crucial as access to justice for all. This is fundamentally wrong and should not be allowed. It is yet another reason to abolish the Senate. The Senate is supposed to represent the regions, but how well did it represent Quebec and other regions where there are many francophones when it made that decision?
Finally, I would like to point out that this bill espouses the same logic as the bill on bilingualism for officers of Parliament put forward by my colleague from Louis-Saint-Laurent. I must say, in fact, that I take some pride in being a member of the only party that goes beyond empty rhetoric and takes concrete steps to better protect and promote our country's official languages.
Promoting and protecting official languages goes beyond the appointment of Supreme Court judges. If we send the message that people do not have to be bilingual to hold a senior position in the federal system, that being unilingual is perfectly all right, how does that encourage young Canadians to learn the other official language? Such a message would discourage, rather than encourage them.
What fate awaits that bill now, I do not know. The comments I have heard from the other side of the House have me very concerned. There have been other attempts to push for the bilingualism of Supreme Court judges. As my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst pointed out, if it does not work this time, we will make it work in 2015 when we form the government.