House of Commons Hansard #208 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was witnesses.

Topics

Questions on the Order Paper
Routine Proceedings

3:10 p.m.

Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre
Saskatchewan

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, I ask that all questions be allowed to stand.

Questions on the Order Paper
Routine Proceedings

3:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Speaker Andrew Scheer

Is that agreed?

Questions on the Order Paper
Routine Proceedings

3:10 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Safer Witnesses Act
Government Orders

February 11th, 2013 / 3:10 p.m.

Conservative

Peter Kent Thornhill, ON

moved that Bill C-51, An Act to amend the Witness Protection Program Act and to make a consequential amendment to another Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Safer Witnesses Act
Government Orders

3:10 p.m.

Portage—Lisgar
Manitoba

Conservative

Candice Bergen Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety

Mr. Speaker, it is a great privilege for me to rise today to speak in support of Bill C-51, the safer witnesses act.

Our government has been quite clear that one of our top priorities is to help build safer communities for all Canadians. One of the ways we are doing that is by providing law enforcement officials with the tools they need to do their job more efficiently and effectively. We have done a lot since day one. We have enacted legislation to stiffen sentences and increase the accountability of offenders, and we have enhanced the ability of all law enforcement officials to keep Canadians safe. We have taken steps to modernize the RCMP.

The legislation before us today strengthens our track record and will go a long way to enhancing our collective efforts to combat organized crime. Crimes committed by organized crime networks present a serious concern to both police and Canadians. Many organized crime groups are involved with the illicit drug trade, which we all know is growing.

According to Statistics Canada, for example, cocaine trafficking, production and distribution in Canada has grown nearly 30% over the last decade. Today we also know that organized crime is becoming more global, more transnational and more pervasive. We know that organized crime groups are becoming more sophisticated to avoid detection and arrest.

We also know that most serious organized crime groups are very secretive, and they often pose unique challenges for law enforcement officials because they can be very difficult to infiltrate. In some cases, law enforcement officials rely on the co-operation of individuals formerly involved with these organizations in order to combat their activities or successfully prosecute the ringleaders. In other cases, they might rely on the testimony of key eyewitnesses. Those who do come forward or co-operate often fear for their own safety as well as the safety of their family and loved ones.

Public safety is the cornerstone of the witness protection program as it offers protection, including new identities, for certain individuals whose testimony or co-operation can be so vital to the success of law enforcement operations.

Although witness protection was informally available since 1970, Canada's federal witness protection program was officially established in 1996 with the passage of the Witness Protection Program Act.

Today, the federal program, which is administered by the RCMP, can provide emergency protection to witnesses under threat, offering such services as permanent relocation and also secure identity changes.

Since provincial governments are also responsible for the administration of justice, many provinces, including Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, have established their own witness protection programs, which differ from the federal program.

The federal program has a legislated mandate to provide national protection services to all law enforcement agencies in Canada, as well as to international courts and tribunals.

Legislation governing the federal witness protection program, however, has not been substantially changed since it first came into force, despite the constantly changing nature of organized crime and some calls for reform.

The safer witnesses act would help to strengthen the current federal witness protection program, a program that, as I have mentioned, is often vital to effectively combatting crime, particularly organized crime.

As the hon. Shirley Bond, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of British Columbia, noted when commenting on Bill C-51, in the fight against crime, protecting witnesses is essential.

Bill C-51 would enhance the protection offered to key witnesses who wish to co-operate with law enforcement officials in the fight against serious organized crime.

Chief Bill Blair of the Toronto Police Service perhaps said it best when he said:

In Toronto we have seen the fear caused by intimidation and the threat of retaliation in gang investigations. Witnesses with valuable information are deterred from coming forward.

Chief Blair supports this legislation, as it is “a valuable step in protecting public safety”, in his words.

Bill C-51 would also help to protect individuals and front-line officers involved in administering and delivering witness protection.

Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, recognized the protection put in place through our bill. The Canadian Police Association strongly believes that the legislation will enhance the safety and the security of front-line law enforcement personnel who are engaged in protective duties.

Mr. Stamatakis has stated that the Canadian Police Association appreciates the steps being taken by the Government of Canada to address those concerns. He went so far as to say, “On behalf of the over 50,000 law enforcement personnel that we represent across Canada, we ask that Parliament quickly move to adopt this Bill”. I could not agree more.

The safer witnesses act would also promote greater integration between federal and provincial witness protection programs and will help to ensure that individuals can access federal identity documents more quickly and easily.

Bill C-51 proposes important changes in five main areas, which I will outline. First, the changes will allow provincial and territorial governments to request that their programs be designated under the federal Witness Protection Program Act. This designation will facilitate their witnesses receiving a secure identity change without needing to be admitted into the federal program, which is the case today.

Should an individual in a provincial program require a secure identity change under the existing rules, he or she must be temporarily transferred into the federal witness protection program so that the RCMP can obtain the appropriate documents. This can obviously cause delays. It can also lessen the security of the program and present witness management issues for the RCMP.

The reforms that our government is proposing would streamline and speed up the issuance of secure identity documents through the RCMP. As long as a provincial witness protection program has been designated, a provincial official responsible for the program would be able to work directly with the RCMP to quickly acquire the necessary documents. Once designated, secure requests for documents would be handled more quickly and easily, since witnesses under a provincial program would no longer need to be admitted into the federal witness protection program.

Under these changes proposed by the legislation before us today, federal organizations would be required to assist the RCMP in obtaining identity changes not only for witnesses in the federal program but also for witnesses in designated provincial programs. Provincial governments have been requesting an expedited process for obtaining federal identity documents, and we are acting on their request. These two changes, which our government has introduced, would help meet these demands from provinces such as Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

In fact, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Saskatchewan Gordon Wyant had this to say about the legislation:

These changes will help strengthen our criminal justice system by providing greater protection for witnesses. We support the proposed improvements to the Witness Protection Program Act as yet another step in making our communities safer.

A third area of reform proposed by Bill C-51 concerns the protection and disclosure of information about people within provincial and municipal witness protection programs. Under the existing federal Witness Protection Program Act, the prohibition against disclosure of information is limited to only information about the change of name and location of federal protectees. The bill would broaden the type of information to be protected and include information about the change of identity and location of provincial witnesses in designated programs as well as information about the federal and designated programs, including those who administer both the federal and provincially designated programs, which is so important.

Therefore, we would be providing greater protection to both the protectees as well as the law enforcement officials who are administering these programs. It is hard to believe it has gone this long without changes. It is very important that we all support this and get the bill passed. Again, this is consistent with provincial requests to strengthen disclosure prohibitions so that information about their witnesses is protected throughout Canada.

The fourth set of changes in the safer witnesses act would mean that the federal witness protection program would be able to accept referrals of persons assisting organizations with a mandate related to national security, national defence or public safety rather than only from law enforcement and international courts and tribunals, as is currently the case. Such organizations include the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and National Defence.

Again, these are very important changes. These legislative reforms would respond directly to a recommendation that was made in the final report of the Air India inquiry.

Finally, Bill C-51 would also address a number of operational issues, based on experiences gained in administering the current program over the past 15 years. For example, this would include permitting voluntary termination from the federal program and extending the amount of time emergency protection could be provided to candidates being considered for admission into the federal program. The change would be to extend the current 90-day availability of emergency protection to a maximum of 180 days. These changes have been recognized as important as the program has been used and administered over the last several years.

The changes our government is proposing to the Witness Protection Program Act are the product of extensive consultations with federal partners and provincial and territorial governments, as well as with stakeholders, law enforcement officials and many interested parties.

As I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, our government is committed to providing law enforcement with the tools and resources needed to protect the safety of our families and our communities, including an effective witness protection program. An effective program is extremely valuable in the fight against crime, especially, as we know, organized crime.

Our government is proposing to enhance the effectiveness and security of the federal witness protection program by making it more responsive to law enforcement needs. These changes are needed to better support law enforcement and those whom the program is designated to protect by providing better service to provincial witness protection programs and improving protection for those who provide it; through broadened prohibitions against the disclosure of program information; by improving processes to obtain secure identity changes for witnesses; and through an extension of the amount of time emergency protection may be provided.

The changes that our government is proposing would respond to many of the needs and requests of provincial and territorial governments. They would respond to the needs of law enforcement officials and other stakeholders involved in the criminal justice system. They also would respond to the needs of Canadians from coast to coast who wish to see our government continue to build safer communities for everyone.

I therefore urge the opposition members to consider the bill, to look at the merits of the bill and to support this common-sense proposal that we have put forward. I encourage all members to support the bill and, as police and stakeholders across the country have asked us, let us expedite this, get the bill passed quickly, and get better and more efficient protection for witnesses who help us combat organized crime in Canada.

Safer Witnesses Act
Government Orders

3:25 p.m.

NDP

Randall Garrison Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Mr. Speaker, I assure the parliamentary secretary that we will certainly be working with her in committee to get the bill considered as expeditiously as possible. We always have to look for the possible poison needle in the haystack, as is our duty as the opposition. However, we will be trying to ensure this gets through as soon as possible.

My question is about the consultation with stakeholders. I would like to hear more about this, because this is an example of where the government members' listening to stakeholders has actually worked quite well.

Safer Witnesses Act
Government Orders

3:25 p.m.

Conservative

Candice Bergen Portage—Lisgar, MB

Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague for his commitment and his party's commitment to help us get this through committee.

It is correct that there are numerous consultations that go on continuously, obviously with provincial stakeholders and counterparts. The Minister of Public Safety meets with his counterparts regularly. In fact they just met recently before the Christmas break. As well, we consult with front-line officers. We meet regularly with the Canadian Police Association and members of the chiefs of police. Consultation is indeed very important and it is something that our government takes seriously.

Obviously the member opposite has listened as well to stakeholders and provincial counterparts, and he and his party want this to be moved through quickly. We appreciate the support of the member and his party. Hopefully, going forward we can get this accomplished.

Safer Witnesses Act
Government Orders

3:25 p.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, I do understand that the Liberal Party also wants to see the bill sent to committee. However, I have a question. When we talk about the designation from other jurisdictions that would be taken into consideration if the legislation were to pass, can the member provide a list of which provinces?

I am also interested to know if there are programs at the municipal level. I know the bill makes reference to the municipal level, but are there cities that actually have them, and if so which ones? I am most interested in knowing that.

Safer Witnesses Act
Government Orders

3:25 p.m.

Conservative

Candice Bergen Portage—Lisgar, MB

Mr. Speaker, there are several provinces that have witness protection programs in place: Quebec; Alberta; Manitoba; and I believe, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. There are no municipal programs. Obviously the province would operate these.

What the designation would do is help expedite secure identity documents. Right now there can be quite a delay when provinces try to get secure identity documents for people involved in the witness protection program. Now they could have their program designated under the federal program. Once it is designated, that process would happen a lot faster, which would make it better for law enforcement and it would make those who are witnesses feel a lot more secure and feel they would be protected if they go forward.

Those are the provinces that currently have a provincial program in place.

Safer Witnesses Act
Government Orders

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

James Lunney Nanaimo—Alberni, BC

Mr. Speaker, Bill C-51, the safer witnesses act, is an important bill. The many important provisions in the act help secure identity changes for witnesses and help our law enforcement agents when they do risky undercover work.

Recently there were news articles about an important undercover case that exposed Hell's Angels' activities in British Columbia. It was very daring undercover work. Risky police activities are taken to help bring criminal organizations to the law.

When victims of crime also come forward and testify about nasty, terrible events they have experienced, I wonder if the member would expand on how the provisions of the bill would help someone such as the undercover officer, who put himself at great risk in the recent case in British Columbia, and how victims of crime would benefit from the protections in the bill.

Safer Witnesses Act
Government Orders

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

Candice Bergen Portage—Lisgar, MB

Mr. Speaker, putting victims first as well as recognizing the good work that front-line officers do is very important in all of the legislation our government puts forward. There is a couple of ways that the bill and the changes to the witness protection program would help our officers. First, it would create greater prohibitions regarding what kind of information could be disclosed about someone who is within a witness protect program or who has administered it, which is obviously law enforcement and its agencies.

It is pretty unbelievable, but up until now, all that would not be able to be disclosed was the name and location of someone who was in a witness protection program. There are so many more ways to track someone down, so we have expanded that to a much broader, much greater amount of information that would be protected for not only those people who are part of the witness protection program, but also the law enforcement people who help enforce it.

This would help victims. We hope it would also help us prevent and deter crime, find out where those organizations are working and allow law enforcement a greater ability to infiltrate, stop them and keep our communities safer.

Safer Witnesses Act
Government Orders

3:30 p.m.

NDP

Jean Rousseau Compton—Stanstead, QC

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague for her speech and her bill.

My comments pertain primarily to the situation in Quebec. The Conservative government has been in office for nearly seven years now. During that time, there have often been requests from the RCMP and Sûreté du Québec in light of the growing violence in the province as a result of street gangs, organized crime and biker gangs.

The RCMP and Sûreté du Québec regularly ask for more money in order to detect these situations and run a witness protection program that is as effective and, more especially, as transparent as possible.

I would like my colleague to explain to us how this bill will help to achieve that objective.

Safer Witnesses Act
Government Orders

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

Candice Bergen Portage—Lisgar, MB

Mr. Speaker, we have been very responsive to the needs of front-line officers, including the RCMP and provincial police throughout this country. In fact, we have 11 police officers who are part of our caucus and who have worked on the front line, so we listen to them and we consult.

We have been providing tools such as these legislative changes. We have provided 30 different pieces of legislation to help crack down on crime, which is what police are asking us to do. We have heard from front-line officers in our study on the economics of policing. They have said it is not more money they need; they want the tools to fight crime. They are looking at ways to be more efficient. We have given them the tools as far as legislation is concerned to crack down on gangs, guns, drugs and organized crime. This is just one of them.

Unfortunately, the opposition members did not support many of the bills we put forward. I do not know if they have any police officers in their caucus. We do have 11 of them and we are listening to our caucus members as well as police from across the country. We will continue to give them the support they need. We would ask the opposition to support our legislation and not to vote against us when they have a chance to support police officers.

Safer Witnesses Act
Government Orders

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

David Wilks Kootenay—Columbia, BC

Mr. Speaker, I wonder if the parliamentary secretary could tell the House what checks and balances will be in place to ensure that the identity of a federal protectee is not exposed.

Safer Witnesses Act
Government Orders

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

Candice Bergen Portage—Lisgar, MB

Mr. Speaker, currently there are a number of checks and balances in the program. However, one inefficiency we found was that a very small amount of information about someone involved in the witness protection program is prohibited from being disclosed. As I mentioned earlier, it is only the name and location. Not only as a check and balance but to greater protect witnesses, more information must be protected. The methods of finding people have become much more sophisticated. Therefore, we have to make sure that a greater amount of information regarding where witnesses have been relocated, their change of name, the jobs they are doing and what they did previously is protected. Again, it is not just for witnesses. It is also for members of law enforcement who are part of that process.