Mr. Speaker, I rise today to discuss the second reading of Bill C-208, An Act to amend the Supreme Court Act (understanding the official languages), put forward by the member for Acadie—Bathurst.
The bill would amend the Supreme Court Act. It would introduce a new requirement for judges appointed to the Supreme Court to understand English and French without the assistance of an interpreter.
The English and French languages have shaped Canadian society. Both linguistic communities are at the heart of our national identity.
The Government of Canada recognizes the importance of supporting the development of its official languages minority communities. To that end, in June 2008 the government announced the Roadmap for Canada's Linguistic Duality 2008-2013, a government-wide commitment with a budget of $1.1 billion, based on two pillars: the participation of all in linguistic duality and the support of official languages minority communities in the priority sectors of justice, health, immigration, economic development, and arts and culture.
This initiative has been followed by the Roadmap for Canada's Official Languages 2013-2018: Education, Immigration, Communities, which provides a renewed investment of $1.1 billion over five years, with clear priorities to protect, celebrate, and strengthen our official languages across Canada. One of the road map initiatives under the education component is an investment in training, networks, and access to justice.
I first want to say that our government is strongly 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
I also want to assure the House that our government is committed to maintaining the tradition of excellence that is the hallmark of the judicial appointment process, so that Canadians continue to trust and respect our judicial system.
Canadians take pride in the judicial system and in the steps taken to ensure 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.
The government remains committed to preserving a fair, unbiased legal system. To that end, we intend to continue to be guided by the principles of merit and legal excellence in the selection and appointment of judges to the superior courts of the provinces, the federal courts and the Supreme Court.
To date, our government has appointed 400 judges to various Canadian courts. We are proud of having appointed these highly competent judges and lawyers. Our appointments embody the principles of merit and legal excellence that will continue to guide our decisions in the appointment of judges.
Merit and legal excellence are the foundation of the judge appointment process. The other criteria are knowledge of the law, judgment, work habits, ability to write and communicate, honesty, integrity, a concern for fairness and a social conscience.
Bilingualism is another factor we consider. Our government can take candidates' linguistic abilities into account to ensure that Canadians have access to justice in both official languages. We are determined to create a federal legal system that provides equal access to justice in both official languages.
I would also like to point out that, before each appointment, we consult the chief justice of the court in question to find out the court's needs, including its need for specific language skills. The chief justice is in an ideal position to understand the needs of the communities the court serves and to identify specific needs when positions become available. Our government also listens to the advice of various expert groups and individuals about factors to consider when filling vacancies.
To ensure that we have an ample and balanced pool of bilingual candidates for the bench, our government asks associations of lawyers and francophone communities to identify and encourage people with the necessary skills to apply. We also ask them to inform the minister about these people.
We are not denying the importance of language skills, particularly when a specific need is identified. However, merit remains the primary and most important factor that must be taken into account in appointing judges.
First and foremost, our government is determined to appoint the best-qualified individuals. We will continue to appoint competent and dedicated people, and adhere to the principle of gender equality, cultural diversity and bilingualism.
The Supreme Court of Canada plays a fundamental role in our democratic society, in particular as the ultimate guardian of the values entrenched in the Constitution.
It is therefore essential for its members to be selected from among the most distinguished and most competent of jurists. That is why when filling vacancies in the court, we take great care to select the best candidates, both in terms of knowledge and experience and of social conscience.
The judges appointed to the Supreme Court for the past 130 years have been among the best justices the court could have had. The qualities we look for in a candidate include outstanding intellectual capacity, superior ability in judgment writing, the capacity for innovative thinking on emerging legal issues, and a demonstrated sensitivity to the diverse values enshrined in the Constitution. All these qualities go hand in hand with regional representation. It is important that the Supreme Court represent all Canadians. That is why we must take this important factor into consideration.
This is how Peter Hogg, a renowned constitutional scholar, described the professional and personal qualities that a Supreme Court of Canada justice must have:
A judge has to be able to resolve difficult legal issues, not just by virtue of technical legal skills, but also with wisdom, fairness, and compassion.
A judge must have the energy and discipline to diligently study the materials that are filed in every appeal.
A judge must be able to maintain an open mind on every appeal until he or she has read all of the pertinent material and heard from counsel on both sides.
A judge must always treat the counsel and the litigants who appear before him or her with patience and courtesy.
A judge must be able to write opinions that are well written and well reasoned.
...a judge must be able to work cooperatively with eight colleagues to help produce agreement on unanimous or majority decisions and to do his or her share of the writing.
Whereas the Supreme Court is the final court of appeal in Canada, it is essential for our government to be able to select qualified jurists from all regions of the country when appointing justices to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Passing BIll C-208 would mean giving greater importance to linguistic considerations than to merit, by reducing the pool of otherwise highly qualified candidates, particularly from parts of the country where there may be fewer judges who are capable of handling cases in both official languages.
Indeed, the Supreme Court already respects the right of all Canadians to be heard and understood in the language of their choice. All Supreme Court services are provided in English and French, and all communication already takes place in both official languages.
In addition, anyone who has to make written submissions to the Supreme Court may do so in either English or French. A large majority of the judges currently sitting on the Supreme Court are proficient in both official languages and are perfectly capable of handling cases in either language without the use of simultaneous interpretation.
Supreme Court judges also have the option of taking language training; indeed, they are encouraged to do so. High-level and very high-quality translation and interpretation services are provided for Supreme Court hearings. Furthermore, all judges are supported by at least one bilingual law clerk.
The current composition requirements of the Supreme Court Act, together with the historical practice of regional representation, allow us to preserve our firm commitment to bilingualism.
The extraordinary expertise and commitment of the current Supreme Court judges clearly demonstrate just how seriously our government takes these appointments, as did previous governments.
Bilingualism is an important factor to consider in the selection of Supreme Court judges. However, this factor must not overshadow the merit and excellence of judges from a legal standpoint, or the importance of regional representation.
For all of those reasons I just mentioned, we cannot support Bill C-208 in its current form.