Madam Speaker, I am so pleased to rise in support of Bill C-203, an act to amend the Supreme Court Act. I salute my colleague from Drummond for his tireless work in this regard, following in the footsteps of, I dare say, the famous Yvon Godin, who was passionate about this in many Parliaments in the past.
I want to talk about what the bill would and would not do. The bill does not even require technically functional bilingualism. All it requires is that a justice understands the other official language without the assistance of an interpreter.
I congratulate the Liberals sincerely for their current policy, which requires functional bilingualism as a condition. When former prime minister Kim Campbell was asked to chair the advisory board that led to the appointment of our first justice from Newfoundland and Labrador, I was pleased to see that process in action. The committee could only consider those who were functionally bilingual, and Mr. Justice Rowe demonstrated that aptitude very clearly.
This issue has long been championed by the New Democratic Party. We introduced similar bills in 2008, 2010, and 2014. This is our fourth time trying to see this legislation pass. Each iteration of the bill has aimed to promote positive measures to protect official languages through legislation.
The government representative today quite properly pointed out, with pride, that the functional bilingualism requirement was merely a matter of policy, and perhaps with unintended arrogance said that was fine so long as the Liberals were in power. Things change even in Canada. Sometimes we have other governments and therefore no longer would this be something we could point to with the pride that the Liberals obviously take in the initiative they passed in the last while. The policy is good, but it does not mean it will necessarily be in force in the future.
It was also pointed out by our colleagues opposite that the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Nadon judgment was somehow an excuse, dare I say a smokescreen, for not proceeding with legislation. I point out that Professor Sébastien Grammond of the University of Ottawa has written persuasively, at least to this lawyer, that if we have requirements, as we do for number of years at the bar before eligibility for appointment, there is no reason why we cannot have requirements for language proficiency for that appointment.
We are talking about six people in Canada. Three of those judges are required by law, for understandable excellent constitutionally relevant reasons, to come from the province of Quebec where there is a civil law system. I can assume that three of those nine will speak both languages or certainly be proficient in the French language. There has never been a justice on the Supreme Court who only spoke French. The six left of the nine are all the people we are talking about.
I taught law at the University of Victoria for over 12 years, the farthest west one can get in our country. I can assure the House that students understand the reality of the country. They understand, since bilingualism and biculturalism a generation ago, that we have a commitment as Canadians to respect each other's official languages. That is why we have an Official Languages Act and a commissioner. It is high time we have our courts at the highest level reflect that reality as well.
I had many students whose first language was Punjabi or Mandarin. Some even spoke indigenous languages. They understand that in this day and age, being one of those six people drawn from predominantly English speaking provinces, that speaking the other official language is not exactly a radical step in 2017.
To their credit, the Liberals understood that with their policy of functional bilingualism. For reasons I cannot fathom, they somehow are afraid to put that commitment into law. That is all this bill would do. I could even argue that the bill does not go as far as the Liberals' current policy. Their current policy requires functional bilingualism, which to me connotes being able to speak and understand the other language. All Bill C-203 would do is require that a judge understand both official languages without the assistance of an interpreter. It seems to me a necessary first step to do this, and the Liberals reluctance is quite frankly disturbing.
It has also been said that somehow this is inconsistent with the rights of indigenous people. We can certainly ensure at committee that there is no such intent or effect in the law. This law would confirm that indigenous rights that are guaranteed under section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982 remain in full force and effect and are in no way derogated by the legislation that would be enacted should the bill proceed.
I do not believe therefore that there is a practical problem with a bill of this sort. My colleague from Drummond made reference to a number of organizations that have supported this over the years. I did not hear the Canadian Bar Association protest when the Liberals brought in a functional bilingualism requirement. It is a fait accompli in the 21st century that people would understand this reality of our country.
It is particularly relevant for Canadians who are members of language minority communities that they feel comfortable using the official language of their choice before our highest court of the land. Professor Grammond and Mark Power captured this conundrum in a paper they provided to the Institute of Intergovernmental Relations at Queen's University. They wrote, “Francophone litigants before the Supreme Court face a challenge that is not shared by their Anglophone counterparts: to attempt to persuade judges who do not understand the language in which arguments are presented.”
It is crucial that the Supreme Court serve all Canadians, and that they believe their arguments were truly understood by the justice who heard them. It is not acceptable that they would argue that they lost a particular case on the basis that they were not truly understood. That cannot be right in a country committed to bilingualism and biculturalism, such as ours. That cannot be just. We all feel when we lose a case in the court that it must be because we were not understood. I understand that argument. However, that a number of senior scholars and lawyers would go in print and say they are concerned about this should be of concern to all Canadians.
The time has come for us to essentially go beyond policy and do what has been sought so many times in previous parliaments, by Mr. Godin, and now by the member for Drummond. It is something that the late Jack Layton, leader of the NDP, was passionate about and made many speeches about. It is something that has been the subject of resolutions at conventions in our party, and of course in platform commitments we have made over the years.
It is time for the government to re-evaluate its position, not hide behind a smokescreen of a Supreme Court decision, and decide that it truly is committed to bilingualism at the highest level of our courts so justice can truly be done for all Canadians from coast to coast to coast.