Mr. Speaker, this is the first time that I have risen on a question of privilege, and I am somewhat saddened to have to do so.
I care deeply about official languages. I rise today in the House to follow up on a recent incident by raising a question of privilege that warrants an official response. I believe that the Speaker is best equipped to deal with this matter.
Questions of privilege are of paramount importance to the democratic institution of Parliament, and the Speaker has ruled on these questions many times. I will try to explain what happened last Tuesday. I believe that the delay in raising this question of privilege is reasonable as this incident occurred just recently.
Members and senators were invited to a technical briefing on Bill C-23, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts, organized by the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, who is also the member for Nepean—Carleton. As we know, debate on this bill began yesterday and will undoubtedly continue today.
I will try to explain what happened last Tuesday and attempt to convince you, Mr. Speaker, that there is a prima facie breach of parliamentary privilege. I am referring to the privilege of receiving, in both official languages, information about bills introduced in the House when they are drafted and debated.
Briefings are crucial. They help members to prepare before debating and voting on a bill as complex as the one in question, which is 242 pages long. It goes without saying that technical briefings are very important for such massive bills that contain so many elements. It is not mandatory that ministers provide these briefings. However, this one was offered, and we noticed many issues with the interpretation during the briefing.
It seems that no one contacted the interpretation service in advance. The interpreter who arrived had not received the documents he needed to do his job. The interpretation was often inadequate, whether it was from English to French or vice versa. The interpretation from English to French was particularly poor. At times, there was little or no interpretation or it was of poor quality.
Many of the issues with the interpretation surfaced when the members were asking questions. Some of my colleagues were there. When members and senators used the microphone in the middle of the room to ask questions, the interpreter could not hear them. Obviously, he was not able to translate the questions.
That said, the Speaker will have to ascertain the facts to determine, based on the information he obtains or he receives from other members, whether there was a prima facie breach of privilege.
I would like to remind everyone of the classic definition of parliamentary privilege. I am sure you know it, Mr. Speaker. However, I will repeat it for the benefit of my colleagues. I am quoting from Erskine May:
Parliamentary privilege is the sum of the peculiar rights enjoyed by each House collectively...and by Members of each House individually, without which they could not discharge their functions.
This is a fundamental principle of our institution, as I mentioned at the start of my speech. The privileges of each individual parliamentarian as well as the collective privileges of the House of Commons must be respected at all times.
Today, the question of privilege is very important because it is entrenched in the Constitution Act, 1867. Section 133 sets out certain legislative guarantees for parliamentarians when it comes to the use of Canada's official languages. These include the right to use either language in legislative debates, the use of both languages in the official records and minutes of Parliament, and the use of English and French in printing and publishing acts.
While departmental briefings are not specifically covered by the Constitution Act, University of Ottawa law professor André Braën notes that the purpose of section 133 is to grant “equal access for anglophones and francophones to the law in their language” and to guarantee “equal participation in the debates and proceedings of Parliament”.
This leads me to conclude that this protection of official languages in the House is fundamental to ensure equality among all members. It means that those who do not understand French or English can be on the same level as other members.
For example, if we give a technical overview of a bill in English to a member who only understands French without providing interpretation, this member is at a disadvantage in the legislative process compared to others who understand English perfectly. He or she is not getting the same quality of information. I think that is a fundamental issue in Canada's legislative process.
Mr. Speaker, I hope you will conclude this is a prima facie violation of privilege. This Latin expression, which means “on the face of it”, is of course commonly used.
To summarize the events, members attended a briefing on Tuesday morning, at 10 a.m. The session included paper documents that, I must admit, were properly translated. Members had been promised a briefing session to help them better understand this legislation before debating it here. However, they barely had 24 hours to review 240 pages. That is not a lot of time. However, as I said earlier, there is no requirement to provide such briefings.
The officials from the Privy Council Office who were present acted in good faith. They tried several times to correct the situation and accommodate the participants in both official languages, but they failed to do so. Even my colleague from Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, who could perhaps elaborate on her own experience, had to leave during the information session because there was simply no interpretation service. Accordingly, she did not have the same rights as other MPs who understand English, like myself, since I understand it pretty well. Although there was no interpretation service, I understood what was being said in English. I can understand it pretty well, but not as well as I would have understood the French.
This has been examined in various cases, including Att. Gen. of Quebec v. Blaikie et al. Chief Justice Deschênes of the Superior Court of Quebec upheld the obligation to use English and French at the same time throughout the legislative process. Any disruption of that practice violates both the letter and the spirit of section 133. This substantiates my comments.
In October 2013, my hon. colleague from Skeena—Bulkley Valley also raised this question regarding Bill C-4, the budget implementation bill, for which a similar information session was held for the members. Unfortunately, the interpretation services were inadequate. If I remember correctly, there was no interpretation at all. As a result, the meeting was cancelled and held the next day. In that case, the breach of privilege was avoided.
In this particular case, which is very similar, there was a major difference that might prove there was a breach of parliamentary privilege. The meeting continued despite the fact that the interpretation service was having a lot of trouble. As I said earlier, one MP even had to leave because of the poor quality of the service. I am not saying that the people there were not acting in good faith; they tried to make the situation better, but it did not work.
The bill in question deals with electoral reform, and it is very important to Canadians. The least the government could have done was to provide a technical briefing in both official languages to ensure all the members of the House are on a level playing field when they have to debate the issue. That was obviously not done.
I think a situation like that is unacceptable because it prevents parliamentarians from doing their jobs and fully participating in debate. Mr. Speaker, I would like you to make a ruling confirming that this is in fact a breach of the privileges of members of Parliament.
I would be willing to move an appropriate motion if you ask me to do so. Mr. Speaker, I look forward to your decision on the prima facie breach of parliamentary privilege that may have taken place last Tuesday.