"Je comprends que vous ne pouvez pas parler français du tout," NDP house leader Joe Comartin told a Conservative government Supreme Court nominee Wednesday.
"I understand that you are not able to speak French at all," Comartin repeated in English. Justice Micheal Moldaver, who was testifying before an all-party committee, smiled nervously.
"I understand that the statement that you read today, I assume had been prepared and you are reading those statements?" Comartin continued.
"That is correct sir," Moldaver responded.
Moldaver and Justice Andromache Karakatsanis had just finished introducing themselves to MPs. They are the government's picks for two vacancies on the country's top bench.
Moldaver is a veteran of the Ontario Court of Appeal, where he has been a judge since 1995. Karakatsanis, who is perfectly bilingual but admitted Wednesday she has little knowledge of Quebec's civil code, was promoted last year to the Court of Appeal for Ontario from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.
Both are recognized as legal experts, but the major point of contention, for NDP and Bloc Quebecois in particular, is Moldaver's lack of French.
"Is there any advantage that Mme Justice Karakatsanis had in terms of learning French that was not available to you?" Comartin asked Moldaver.
"No sir, there wasn't," the appointee responded.
Comartin noted that the Quebec bar had written to the federal government to reconsider Moldaver's appointment and that the Commissioner of the Official Languages had it was an absolute requirement for Supreme Court justices to be able to work in French and in English.
"I have followed your career, I have no questions about your ability -- except for that one, for me, crucial element. So what do you say to the province of Quebec, to the francophone communities across the country?" Comartin added.
Moldaver said it was an important question that he took "very seriously."
"My lack of fluency, at the present time, in French will clearly make my task that much harder on the court," Moldaver said. "But I am not so much worried about me, I feel, and I understand exactly the concern certainly from council who appear before the Court and wish to speak in the French language and who understandably would want a judge that could engage with them in the French language which I readily admit, I cannot do. That said, I can only commit to you, for that I will be taking up, obviously, I will be studying and I'll be learning and I will be meeting with someone obviously to learn French as quickly as I can. There is simultaneous translation which obviously will be of assistance to me, I will have available law clerks who can assist me in understanding factums and so on that are filed in French. I will have, obviously colleagues who can assist me. And all I can say sir is that I will do everything that I can in my power to get as far and as proficient in the French language as quickly as possible."
"I respect the question, I respect very much the views of the Quebecois and I am what I am, I will just do everything that I can...I can't just do more than that sir."
Comartin said he had heard the same promises when Justice (Marshall) Rothstein sat before MPs.
"I heard the same commitment from him. And we all know that was five, five and half years ago and Mr. Rothstein is still not able to conduct any hearings in French," Comartin added.
The NDP, through New Brunswick MP Yvon Godin, re-introduced a private members' bill in June, bill C-208 'An Act to amend the Supreme Court Act (understanding the official languages)', to ensure Supreme Court justices are bilingual.
The previous version of the bill made it through the House of Commons but died on the floor of the Senate when Canadians headed to the polls last March.
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Joe Comartin as the NDP's justice critic. He is currently NDP house leader.