OTTAWA — NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was forced Wednesday to claw back a suggestion bilingualism requirements for Supreme Court justices be waived to encourage Indigenous candidates.
Singh had made the suggestion earlier in the day after judge and educator Sheilah Martin was nominated to fill an upcoming vacancy on the top court, disappointing some who had hoped an Indigenous candidate would be chosen.
But after his idea generated friction within his own caucus, Singh issued a statement to clarify he "strongly" believes that Supreme Court justices be bilingual with a functional understanding of both French and English, adding it is the only way to ensure Canadians access justice in an official language.
Indigenous rights must also be recognized and defended, Singh said, noting Indigenous languages have historically been "grossly overlooked" in Canadian institutions.
"I am open to hearing suggestions of how to remain fully committed to bilingual judges while supporting the advancement of judges from Indigenous communities," he said.
"It's my sincere hope that we will see, in near future, a Supreme Court Justice from a First Nation, Metis or Inuit background."
Earlier on Wednesday, Singh said there needs to be an understanding of the unique situation Indigenous communities have faced and a recognition of Indigenous languages.
"I would say in general our position as a party is that we support bilingualism," Singh said.
I am open to hearing suggestions of how to remain fully committed to bilingual judges while supporting the advancement of judges from Indigenous communities.Jagmeet Singh
"It's important as a nation that has two official languages that we support bilingualism with respect to judges but there is a specific case to be made for the Indigenous community."
The remarks touched off pushback from NDP MPs.
"That is not a position of the NDP," Quebec lieutenant Alexandre Boulerice said. "He knows it ... but we are ready to work with anybody from the Aboriginal community to ... see how we can integrate more efficiently Aboriginal languages."
NDP justice critic Murray Rankin said Singh's original comments were not in keeping with the NDP's position stipulating judges must be bilingual to sit on Canada's top court. The party's official languages critic had put forward a private members' bill to enshrine the bilingual requirement into law but it was defeated.
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"We are trying essentially deal with two streams of rights," Rankin said.
"The need to be more representative, particularly for the Indigenous ... legal traditions on the court and at the same time, an ironclad commitment to bilingualism which the NDP has long had as its policy."
Some had hoped for Indigenous justice
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who is Aboriginal, said Wednesday she suspects many current Indigenous judges will apply for positions on the top court in the future.
Sen. Murray Sinclair, the former chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde have both said in the past that an Indigenous appointment to the top court is long overdue.
They have also said the functional bilingual requirement creates barriers for Indigenous jurists.
But Sinclair applauded Martin's appointment, noting her involvement in the Indian Residential Schools settlement.
"She has been a strong advocate for education and equality, as well as a formidable voice for under-represented groups including Indigenous peoples in the legal profession," Sinclair said.