Speeches | Bilingual Supreme Court Judges

12 May 2010

Honourable senators, I am pleased to speak at second reading of Bill C-232, which has to do with the linguistic qualifications of Supreme Court judges.

I very much appreciated Senator Tardif's clear and inspirational speech on equal rights in Canada. I also found Senator Carignan's speech very interesting.

When Senator Carignan spoke yesterday, I imagined him as a lawyer, pleading a case in French before the Supreme Court. Ironically, he might not be understood at the Supreme Court, because some judges do not speak French.

This issue is interesting on two levels. The first is regarding the administration of justice and the distressing number of candidates who will have the legal and linguistic qualifications. The second is the issue of the fundamental principles of an officially bilingual Canada.

These are two solid arguments, and they are important and valid. It is clearly essential for Supreme Court judges to have very high qualifications. Our fear is that there will not be enough candidates who have these qualifications. In western Canada, specifically, there is a feeling that there will not be enough lawyers who understand French.

However, the idea of judges who understand both official languages is tied to the — perhaps less practical, but more important — principle of Canadian values.

We have made progress since 1969, when we declared Canada to be a bilingual country. We can be proud of our progress. But we still have work to do. We have to keep looking for ways to improve bilingualism. The Supreme Court is an institution that is essential to our nation. Not promoting bilingualism would be a serious mistake.

We need to do what leaders must always do: make a list of priority issues, figure out which one is the most important and work on solving the problems. I think we should give bilingualism precedence over qualifications. I believe that fear of bilingualism will disappear once it is clear that expectations have changed.

Yes, I realize that some lawyers and many law students will have to learn a second language, and I know that is hard to do, as those of you listening to me now can tell.

But Canadians are often called upon to defend and promote this country's principles and values. I do not think it is too much to ask if we want to achieve our greatest hopes for this country and its judges. This is a question of fairness and justice for all Canadian citizens.

I should continue in French, perhaps, but I can express myself more clearly if I switch to English.

It is a question of competing priorities. There are two legitimate sides to this debate. You cannot always say that is the case. However, in this case, I believe that we should prioritize the broader principle, the principle that addresses the very nature, character and heart of Canada and Canadians, and that is our bilingual and bicultural nation. That is an essential quality of what we are as Canadians. It makes us different in the world.

Of course, we must attend to the administration of justice and ensure that we have the benefit possible jurists that we can find for the Supreme Court of Canada. Some have raised a possible problem in that we may not have enough lawyers who have full bilingual comprehension and understanding. I am not convinced. That problem is within our power and their power to fix. It is the same old argument. I think of 22 years ago when courts were being restructured. The Supreme Court could not be restructured because we would never be able to find the people. It is the same argument that was made 40 years ago when this all started. We would never be able to find the qualified people. You know what? We have and we do.

It is certainly possible for jurists of the quality and level of intelligence of candidates for the Supreme Court to learn a second language and to learn it very well. That is the ultimate solution. If we continue as we do, we get the worst of both possible worlds. The ultimate solution is to adhere to the value, character and principle of bilingualism, promote it and have lawyers learn how to speak French. They will. They want to do it. Law faculties that want to become the best in the country will begin to teach their students French so that they, one day, can have people aspire to being jurists in the top court in the land. I think the problem will quite readily and quickly begin to take care of itself.

Why is it that we cannot think on the grander scale about this issue? Why can we not think about how much Canada is and how much more Canada can be? If we begin to take for granted principles like bilingualism, which is at the heart of who we are, those principles can slip away. We should always be trying to find occasions, cases and ways to promote them. This proposal is a perfect way to promote that important principle. It is symbolic, yes, because it says to all Canadians that bilingualism matters deeply to us. It is also important because it will assist us ultimately in delivering justice even more effectively because we will have people who can speak both languages. I do not think that is too much to ask from Canadians. We ask all kinds of things of Canadians. I think of the sacrifices, effort, work and commitment that have gone into building this country to the state and level that it is today. We can certainly ask lawyers in this country to learn French or English so that they can work in the highest court in the land in both official languages. I do not think it is too much to ask at all. It is an easy vote, and I am voting yes for this bill.

I am from Alberta, from the West. I love Alberta deeply. I love the West. I have felt there have been times when it needed to be listened to and understood better. I also know that Quebec and francophones outside of Quebec have made this country special. They are one of the reasons this country is special. There are many reasons, but they are a particularly important one. They have made us different than the United States. That has been very important for what we are as a country and how we define ourselves as different from the United States.

Francophones have made us multicultural and, because we value that culture so much, we have had to pay recognition to other cultures. When people from around the world view Canada, do you know what they see? They see a multicultural, bilingual nation they aspire to emulate. People all around this world do so because of our tolerance, understanding, acceptance and the way we live together.

This bill can be one more powerful step in ascending that staircase to what can be the best, most perfect country in the world.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear! Hear!

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