House of Commons Hansard #32 of the 36th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was customs.

Topics

Points Of Order
Oral Question Period

3:20 p.m.

Liberal

Rose-Marie Ur Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

Mr. Speaker, I too would like to comment on the matter of confidentiality. It is absolutely disturbing to think, with no disrespect to the university or to the students, that bills are being proposed and prepared for Private Members' Business through a student body at the university.

Again with no disrespect intended toward the students, my concerns are to ensure privacy and the legal framework under which our business is being conducted. I always believed that drafting for private members' hour was carried out by individuals under the direct control of the House.

I would first like to know if the Board of Internal Economy was aware of this and, more important, I would like to add my observation that in my opinion this is a case of privilege.

Points Of Order
Oral Question Period

3:20 p.m.

The Speaker

I thank the hon. member for her opinion that it is a case of privilege, but I am sure she will give me the latitude to decide whether or not it is a case of privilege.

The information has been well documented by the hon. member for Sarnia—Lambton. I will look into the matter and try to get to the bottom of it.

I have already ruled on this issue in the sense that it was not privilege but was an administrative matter. A few more points have been brought into the debate, which is why I want to take my time and look at all aspects to see if we can come up with something else.

Points Of Order
Oral Question Period

3:20 p.m.

Reform

Garry Breitkreuz Yorkton—Melville, SK

Mr. Speaker, I would like to add my support to the hon. member for Sarnia—Lambton.

I raised the same concern a month ago in the context of the process. We as members are not being allowed to decide this in the House of Commons. It is being decided by the Board of Internal Economy. We are not being given direct input.

I raised a question of privilege on that and I have not had a reply as yet. Things are getting worse and worse as we continue down this road. This needs to be addressed and I would like to see the whole House discuss it at some point.

Points Of Order
Oral Question Period

3:20 p.m.

Liberal

Bob Kilger Stormont—Dundas, ON

Mr. Speaker, I want to put on record for the whole House and all parties involved that the Speaker who chairs the Board of Internal Economy and presides over our meetings does not act arbitrarily. We seek his guidance quite often but ultimately in the end we as representatives of our parties deal with subject matters such as the one before the House now.

On one hand I am pleased that hopefully by next week the other place will have given us royal assent on the Parliament of Canada Act which will bring other representatives from the New Democratic Party and the Conservative Party to the Board of Internal Economy.

The House should be reminded that this issue has had a fair amount of debate at the Board of Internal Economy. I know the hon. member for Sarnia—Lambton and other colleagues from my side speak to me almost daily about the issue. I encourage members from the other parties to do likewise with their House leader and representatives.

Hopefully next week when the board resumes its meetings the issue will be resolved.

Points Of Order
Oral Question Period

3:25 p.m.

Bloc

Stéphane Bergeron Verchères, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to add my voice to those of my colleagues because, earlier, the hon. member for Hochelaga—Maisonneuve wanted to address this issue, but you did not recognize him. So, with your permission, I would like, on his behalf, to tell the House that the Bloc Quebecois very enthusiastically supports the point raised by the hon. member.

This having been said, and as pointed out by the chief government whip, the issue has already led to intense discussions within the House of Commons' Board of Internal Economy, and while I am prevented by my oath of office as a member of that board to elaborate, I am surprised to see that the unanimity reached in the House does not exist within the Board of Internal Economy.

Points Of Order
Oral Question Period

3:25 p.m.

The Speaker

So much for that. I do not want you to get into any secrets here.

Points Of Order
Oral Question Period

3:25 p.m.

NDP

Bill Blaikie Winnipeg—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, since everybody else was weighing in on this weighty matter I just thought I would put on record that the NDP caucus shares the concern raised by the member for Sarnia—Lambton.

We hope in the days to come that this can be dealt with successfully in the places where it should be dealt with. In my judgment it is not a question of it not being dealt with by Parliament just because it is being dealt with by the Board of Internal Economy. The Board of Internal Economy consists of representatives of the various parties.

If the member has a problem he should take it to his member on the board and not suggest that somehow Parliament is not dealing with it, because that is how Parliament does deal with it.

Points Of Order
Oral Question Period

3:25 p.m.

The Speaker

I thank you very much for your interventions. I will take all that under consideration. I am going to come back to the House if necessary.

The House resumed consideration of the motion that Bill C-18, an act to amend the Customs Act and the Criminal Code, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Customs Act
Government Orders

November 18th, 1997 / 3:25 p.m.

Bloc

Odina Desrochers Lotbinière, QC

Mr. Speaker, when the hon. member opposite gave his reply and his comments on the speech I made before question period, you told me I would have a few minutes to reply to his questions and comments.

Therefore, I would like to know how much time I have left to complete my remarks.

Customs Act
Government Orders

3:25 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. McClelland)

The hon. member for Lotbinière is quite correct. He has the floor to respond to a question previously put. We will resume debate after the hon. member has responded. He has five minutes left in questions and comments.

Customs Act
Government Orders

3:25 p.m.

Bloc

Odina Desrochers Lotbinière, QC

Mr. Speaker, obviously, my colleague opposite was a bit surprised at the many questions I had about Bill C-18, an act to amend the Customs Act and the Criminal Code.

You will understand that we in the Bloc Quebecois are here to genuinely defend Quebec's interests, and when we see the way our friends opposite have been behaving since the beginning of this 36th Parliament, it goes without saying that we are even more on our guard, since the government, using all sorts of excuses, all sorts of national guidelines, is trying to interfere in matters that concern the Government of Quebec.

When I see, for example, what they did with Dorval airport, where an agreement had almost been concluded with the Sûreté du Québec to assume responsibility for airport security and the federal government stepped in and imposed the RCMP, you will understand that, because of the powers that will be given to our customs officers with Bill C-18, members of the Bloc Quebecois want to make sure that provincial jurisdictions are respected.

When someone is apprehended at the border point, a process will be set in motion and things must be clear, that is to say that it will be the Sûreté du Québec and the courts of provincial jurisdiction, as the provincial authorities, that will have control regarding possible charges laid by the legal system.

I also asked a few questions that were not answered. For instance, I asked the hon. member what assurances she had given union representatives. She replied that she had received a letter. I did not, however, hear anything specific about whether seniority clauses will be respected and whether the collective agreement of people represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada will also be respected. So, with this in mind, the Bloc Quebecois would like things to be clear.

The throne speech delivered not all that long ago made the federal government's intentions clear; it intends to use every opportunity to get involved in areas under provincial jurisdiction, so we are going to remain very much on our guard in reading bill C-18.

I would remind you, however, that we are very much in favour of Bill C-18 as such, since the statistics I have given offer a very good explanation of why we would like to see customs officers' powers enhanced. However, we want to see all of this happen with the utmost transparency and we want to see provincial jurisdictions respected throughout the process of passing the legislation, of training the customs officers, of renovating Canada Customs posts.

I think that everyone, if treated fairly, both in Quebec City and in Ottawa, will be very pleased with the passage of Bill C-18, for which I reiterate my support.

Customs Act
Government Orders

3:30 p.m.

Liberal

Claude Drouin Beauce, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to split my time with the hon. member for Niagara Falls.

I am very pleased to take my turn at expressing support for Bill C-18, which will give Revenue Canada customs officers the additional powers they require to enforce the Criminal Code at the border. It will be recalled that Bill C-89 ought to have been passed last March, but the elections intervened and it was put off.

This bill will have a positive impact for all Canadians, particularly those in Beauce, where we have the Armstrong border crossing. It will allow us to fill in a gap in enforcement which currently prevents our officers from intervening at border crossings to control criminal behaviour, such as impaired driving, child abduction, the possession of stolen goods. It also gives officers the power to arrest and detain any individual for whom there is an outstanding arrest warrant.

Bill C-18 will reinforce Revenue Canada's commitment to protect Canadians. Thanks to our position at the border, we have a unique advantage in identifying and intercepting criminals. We want to take advantage of our advantageous position. The bill will transform enforcement of the Criminal Code at the border considerably. It will in fact allow us to intercept criminals at the border and consequently to provide the communities in our country with better protection.

We can assure Canadians that we will provide customs officers with training that will equip them to perform their new duties in a fair and responsible manner while remaining within the law.

The government's position is that there is no need to have personnel at the border carry firearms, as this could, moreover, escalate violence instead of helping resolve conflicts. Customs officers perform their jobs effectively without firearms, and everything leads us to believe that this is the way it will always be.

What it means is that they will be able to intervene without waiting for the police when they believe someone has committed, or is in the act of committing, an offence under the Criminal Code. They will, for instance, be in a position to take the following steps: detain impaired drivers; take a breath sample, hand over to the police those whose alcohol level is high enough to justify their taking a breathalyser test; detain or arrest suspected child abductors; arrest or detain persons against whom a warrant for arrest has been issued under the Criminal Code. Customs officers will hold suspects in detention until the police can intervene. This makes a huge difference in the enforcement of the Criminal Code at the border.

It is essential to bear in mind that customs officers will use these powers only within the framework of their duties at entry points. They will not take part in investigations under the Criminal Code. With the exception of testifying in court, they will not take part in investigations once the police have intervened.

At present, customs officers have the power to arrest and detain persons for offences under the Customs Act and the Excise Act. But when they observe Criminal Code offences, the only line of action open to them is to notify local authorities. The purpose of the bill put forward today is to confer on designated officers the power to arrest and detain persons who contravene the Criminal Code. This means that customs officers will have the power to perform arrests for such offences as impaired driving, child abduction or, as I said, possession of stolen goods.

It is important that this bill be passed as quickly as possible so that selection and training can start. We hope to implement this program within six to nine months after the bill is passed. We intend to apply the program at all ports of entry, starting with those with the heaviest traffic and the largest number of Criminal Code offences.

Every manned border crossing will have designated officers responsible for enforcing the Criminal Code. We are glad that the various police forces at the municipal and provincial levels, as well as the RCMP, welcomed this change. With this legislation, the police will be able to rely on customs officers to arrest and detain at the border any person suspected of a Criminal Code offence, which will make a big difference in the workload of the police.

We plan to continue discussions with the provinces and with our federal colleagues to finalize the implementation plan.

Designated officers will be vested with the powers required to arrest or detain persons suspected of violating the Criminal Code. These officers will work at ports of entry across Canada and will have direct contact with travellers wishing to enter Canada. Immediate response powers will only be granted to those full time customs officers who have received appropriate training. That is why I am pleased to support Bill C-18 today.

Customs Act
Government Orders

3:35 p.m.

Liberal

Gary Pillitteri Niagara Falls, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak in support of Bill C-18, legislation reintroduced in this House to give customs officers new powers under the Criminal Code.

This legislation continues the good work carried on in Bill C-89, a bill that died when Parliament was dissolved prior to the last federal election.

Customs officers are our first line of defence in keeping drugs, contraband and illegal firearms out of the country. I am proud to lend my support to Bill C-18. I believe this legislation will make our communities safer and will be beneficial for border communities such as the one that I have the privilege of representing federally.

Under this new legislation, customs officers—many of my constituents happen to work as customs officers as there are four point crossings in my constituency—would provide first response capability at the border.

Bill C-18 will make the enforcement of our criminal laws more efficient and effective and will help to render every community in Canada a safer place in which to live.

Under the proposed legislation, customs officers will be given the capability of detaining or arresting at the border those individuals suspected of having committed criminal offences, for example, impaired driving or child abduction.

At present, customs officers have the power of detaining and arresting individuals who commit customs act offences such as smuggling. Customs officers also have the authority to search and seize goods such as illegal drugs, firearms, contraband tobacco and liquor and prohibited materials such as child pornography from entering Canada.

A study conducted in 1995 concluded that the existing situation was unacceptable and it proposed an extension of customs officers' powers to include Criminal Code offences. The recommendations made by this study received support by many important organizations and groups such as police forces, Revenue Canada employees and the customs excise unit.

History showed us that if customs officers had had in the past the powers, lives could have been saved.

Six years ago, sexual predator Jonathon Yeo was prevented from entering the United States at the Niagara Falls border crossing. He was armed. American officials alerted Canada Customs that an armed man was heading back into Canada. Sadly, Canadian officials did not have the legal right to detain him. As we know, he went on to murder three people before killing himself. One of the victims was the daughter of Priscilla de Villiers, founder of CAVEAT, a group that has been pushing for expanded powers for customs officers.

In the case of Mr. Yeo, the jury believed that customs officers should have been able to do more to assist the police. I believe that the proposed legislation is consistent with the jury's recommendation.

Our customs officers encounter many criminal situations while on duty. I know, as many of my colleagues here know today, that Canadian customs officers perform their duties in an exemplary way. For example, in the last two and a half years, customs officers were faced with 8,500 different suspected impaired drivers, almost 200 incidents of suspected child abductions, cases of individuals who were subject to arrest warrants and more than 500 individuals who had in their possession suspected stolen goods, most being motor vehicles.

These kinds of crimes are not acceptable in our community as they are hurting all of us. At this point we may ask: By delegating additional powers to customs officers are we putting them at risk? Bill C-18 will ensure that customs officers will receive additional training. Customs officers will be trained to ensure that they act fairly, responsibly and within the confines of the law in carrying out their duties.

Customs officers in my riding have raised the issue of bullet proof vests. The Department of Revenue will make bullet proof vests available to those designated officers who believe that their personal safety will be enhanced by choosing to wear a protective vest.

Many of the youths in my riding get jobs during the summer as customs officers. Some may ask if those student customs officers will receive first response powers. The answer is no. First response powers will be restricted to a fully trained, permanent customs officers, full time and part time, who have direct contact with people seeking to enter Canada at points of entry. Designated officers will respond to the Criminal Code situation identified by the students.

From the time this bill receives royal assent it could take six to nine months before it would be fully implemented. Customs officers will receive full training during that time and holding facilities will be constructed at border points across the country. This initiative will strengthen the already excellent working relationship between Revenue Canada customs and the RCMP, which will represent a more efficient way in which to help my own community of Niagara Falls and Niagara on the Lake and indeed every community in Canada a safer place in which to live.

I am aware that some customs officers believe that they should carry a weapon for their personal protection. However, I believe and it is my government's position that introducing firearms at the border is unnecessary. In fact, it could be a serious mistake. We have to bear in mind that this is not entirely new ground for customs officers. They are already designated as peace officers for the purposes of the customs act and to date they have demonstrated that they have no need for firearms to fulfil their responsibilities very safely and efficiently. Arming them in fact could invite more violent behaviour on the part of criminals. If not handled properly, an officer's firearm could provide a would-be criminal with a weapon that could actually be used to injure or kill the officer.

The role the government has in mind for our customs officers will be to provide a first response service. They will not be expected to participate in a Criminal Code investigation or transport prisoners. Police will intervene at the earliest possible stage.

As I said before, a great many of my constituents work as customs officers. I am well aware that they are carrying out a tremendous job with Child Find Canada and Operation Go Home in trying to alleviate the suffering for all those who experience the pain of missing or abducted children. Customs officers have every reason to be proud of their contribution to Canada's efforts to return abducted children to their homes. They have always acted professionally and completely within the scope of their authority.

The legislative changes called for in the legislation we are debating today will enhance their ability to assist with the retrieval of missing children because it will enable them to detain suspected abductors and turn them over to the appropriate police authority.

I am in favour and I lend by support to Bill C-18. To those who are saying that the government has the intention of creating another police force, I say these measures are a means of assisting police in their work, not replacing them. Under this legislation customs officers will be authorized to only make a preliminary action to hold suspects until police arrive.

I am in favour of and I am pleased to support Bill C-18. While I fully endorse this initiative, I am asking the House for the speedy passage of these changes that will benefit my community and other communities across Canada.

Customs Act
Government Orders

3:50 p.m.

Reform

Keith Martin Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure today to speak on Bill C-18. As previous speakers have mentioned before, you will find a great deal of consent in the House for this bill. It is a bill that is long overdue to give our customs officers the powers they should have had a long time ago, powers in effect of a peace officer.

As we mentioned before, they are repeatedly confronted by situations that at times are dangerous but historically they have not had the power to enforce the law at our borders.

As a result, at times we have seen some tragic results of individuals who have been murdered. The hon. member across the way mentioned Ms. de Villiers who was murdered by Mr. Yeo who came into this country when he was turned away by an American immigration officer, after which the American immigration officer told our forces on the other side what was occurring. There was a failure to respond.

I might say at this moment that our officers who work at the borders do an incredible job under extraordinarily difficult circumstances and we can all be very proud of the work that they attempt to do under those difficult circumstances.

However, let us just talk a little more about this bill. As we said before, it does give the power of peace officers to our customs officers, but we have some concerns over this.

Number one is the concern of the repeated use of students in roles that at times could be dangerous. It has been noted in this House that at times up to 90% of customs officers working in areas that are high traffic, high density and potentially dangerous are covered by students who have only two and a half weeks of training.

This is not to denigrate the students but we must believe that these students must have the adequate training and the protection for themselves to carry out the job.

As time passes, as criminals become more desperate, as our borders become more porous, the need for these officers to be trained appropriately and have adequate protection is going to become even more urgent.

I can only impress on the government that these students who were working in this position for their sake must have the appropriate training and protection that they require.

It is a failure of this bill that it does not address that. This bill also does not address the cost factor. We recognize the need for it but the government must also be prepared to let us know where the costs are coming from.

Perhaps the way to recoup these costs without dipping into the public purse would be to use the moneys from drug traffickers and people who are trying to bring contraband across our borders.

For too long the penalties that have been placed on individuals trafficking and bringing illegal contraband into this country have been ineffective.

Criminals know that if they come into this country and they are caught, the chances are the penalties they receive will be minuscule compared with the profits from criminal behaviour.

I will give one example right now and I will get to more later. If one were to smuggle five handguns into this country in a box one could charge over $50,000 for those handguns. The margin of profit is enormous.

We know from our correctional services that many times the penalties for trafficking, the penalties for using weapons, are often plea bargained away to get an expeditious conviction. That sends a message of absolutely zero penalty to the criminal.

Let us go through some of the flaws of the system that we have had for too long. I will go through them piece by piece.

Canada has a large porous border and the problem we have with respect to weapons is not Bill C-68. It is not criminals going and getting a firearms acquisition certificate and going in and getting a course, applying for a permit and then committing a crime. Those criminals who are using illegal weapons in the commission of a crime are doing so generally with weapons that are smuggled across our border. They are smuggled across our border because there has been a failure to block off this serious problem.

Canadians are paying the price for this and we have done an appalling job of trying to prevent this among us. The government's response to this is to invoke Bill C-68 which, at least the part that has to do with registration, will do almost nothing to make our streets safer and I would argue would make our streets less safe because of the costs incurred in trying to bring the system forward. The hon. Minister of Justice knows this right now.

Rather than investing its efforts into Bill C-68, I would ask that the government invest in supporting our peace officers on the line and in the line of duty to do their job and to also support and enforce the existing penalties in our justice system.

Second, we will talk about drugs, another very important substance that is coming across our borders in contraband. We have again failed to do this.

It was interesting to hear, in speaking to law enforcement officers recently, that if someone is charged with a crime, unless it is murder or an extremely serious offence, they are released on bail. Because of overcrowding due to a failure in investing in judges and crown counsel, we have such a backlog in our system that individuals who are guilty of serious crimes, crimes that affect innocent civilians across this country, are being let go or are being given paltry penalties. Criminals are walking away laughing because they know that our system is so backlogged. It is such a bureaucratic morass right now that the criminals are getting away, which does nothing to bring confidence into the justice system for the people of this country.

If one looks at the amount of crimes reported in this country, over 70% of violent crimes are never reported. Over 80% of rapes are never reported. Over 70% of break and enters and assaults are never reported. It is not because of the police officers who are doing their hardest to do their jobs. It is because the public has little confidence that these individuals are going to be prosecuted.

Bill C-18 can go a lot further in trying to enable our customs officers to enforce the law.

The trafficking of illegal immigrants and criminals into this country is a serious problem, mentioned before by members of the government and from our side. This cannot be overlooked. Although we have a large border, it is not impossible to deal with this issue. It is in fact essential for us to do that.

If an illegal immigrant comes to this country with a criminal record and is posing a threat to innocent civilians in Canada, be they immigrants or citizens, is it not our responsibility to do what we can to protect them? It is a lot more expensive to try to get somebody out of the country once they are here than to prevent them from coming across our borders. I think we need to keep that in mind.

Alcohol is another substance that is brought into our country across the borders and is a very serious matter. Cigarette trafficking has also been a serious problem. The government invoked a bill to decrease the price of cigarettes. That did nothing to decrease the conduit of smuggling. It decreased the trafficking of cigarettes north-south but did nothing to decrease the trafficking east-west. Furthermore, it increased trafficking east-west.

In my province of British Columbia we have a serious problem with cigarettes coming from the east and people making a profit as a result of that. A much more serious issue is the health consequences of that bill, which has committed over a quarter of a million young Canadians to pick up cigarettes.

There was an answer that would have decreased smoking among youth and would have also decreased the trafficking. It was to bring forth the export tax. The government did that but it also dropped the price. The export tax alone on cigarettes would have cut the legs out from the trafficking of cigarettes north-south.

When Mr. Mulroney did this, I think in 1992, within seven weeks the smuggling of cigarettes decreased by 70%. The Conservative government of the day backed down because the cigarette companies said they would get out of this country if the government did not pull the export tax. What did the Conservative government do at that time? It stuck its tail between its legs and removed the export tax. The smuggling continued. It does nothing to diminish one aspect of cigarette trafficking. We have to address all the components of trafficking which are the conduits. Bill C-18 does go some way to do that and I congratulate the government for pursuing that course.

Finally, I will talk about endangered species. The smuggling and trafficking of endangered species in Canada is a serious problem. Canadians may be interested to know that we are one of the top countries in the world for the smuggling of endangered species products, everything from powdered rhino horn, tiger bones, penguin bones, rare orchids, rare butterflies and birds. All of these are brought into Canada and shipped to other parts of the world and we are culpable.

The failure to act in this area has resulted in the decimation of some very important species, species that could have benefits for all of us, but more important are the heritage of everyone in the world.

The black rhino population has been decimated by 98% over the last 20 years and the elephant population by over 80%, but is now starting to replenish. The Bengal tigers of India were for a time increasing after some measures were invoked by India. Because of rampant trafficking and slaughter and the lax system for trying to apprehend people who are doing this, the tiger population is plummeting.

There are other species such as the Sumatran tiger and the spotted cat of China which are being decimated in large part because of the trafficking in these animals.

It is a shame that we as a country that prides itself in standing for justice, fairness, one which is sensitive to the environment, would not enforce the laws dealing with endangered species. Canadians would be interested to know that there are only a handful of hard working, overworked, and underfinanced fish, game and wildlife officers who are trying to prevent the decimation of these beautiful creatures. They cannot do it.

Another problem in their job has been the failure of the justice department to invoke penalties that fit the crime. Individuals who are trafficking in gall bladders laugh at the penalties. The penalties meted out to them are nothing compared to the profits of the trafficking in endangered species. But there are some solutions.

Perhaps the government would entertain the idea that instead of using students in front line customs positions as Bill C-18 alludes to, which could be potentially dangerous, perhaps they could be used with fish, game and wildlife officers to search for contraband. Then we could get a better handle on apprehending individuals who are trafficking in drugs and contraband materials.

The government could also invoke the Pelly amendment such as the legislation that exists in the United States which would give a lot of teeth to try to prevent the trafficking in endangered species.

In closing, I would again like to lend our support to Bill C-18 and commend the government in its pursuit of this important legislation which will finally give our customs officers the power they require to do their jobs safely and effectively. I would also ask the government to for heaven's sake make sure that the students who are working in those positions are trained properly and protected from harm. Let us also ensure that the courts will be empowered to enforce the law in our country.

It will be for the justice minister to take a very close and brutally honest look at the justice system as it is presently and to finally delve into the serious problems we have in trying to ensure that justice is met, that the Canadian public will be protected and that criminals will be arrested and will pay the penalty for breaking the laws in our country.