Mr. Speaker, it is a great pleasure to rise to speak to this bill today. I have found the debate and all the preparatory work that we have done in my office in advance of me speaking today very interesting.
Many of the impressions we have about witness protection come from south of the border. We have watched American television and American crime shows for so long that we are very familiar with the concept of witness protection. Most Canadians probably think the system in Canada is as robust, well-developed and tightly coordinated as it appears to be in the United States through those representations we have seen on television.
I was very curious to discover that the program was not that old. I thought I would do a little rundown of the history of the program in Canada, just to give some background to the debate.
At the federal level, the witness protection program only began in 1984 as a series of internal RCMP guidelines and policies. It was designed at a time when the fight against drug trafficking had become a major priority. Its intent was to encourage the co-operation of witnesses who could provide information on organized crime. We can see that the witness protection program is tightly associated with the rise or further expansion of organized crime, specifically in relation to the drug trade.
There were protective measures for those who co-operated with law enforcement in the provinces. Some provinces and municipalities, including British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec already had their own witness protection programs that provided a variety of protection measures, such as relocation for the duration of a trial, for example. However, admission to the federal witness protection program, which is run by the RCMP today, was, and still is, an extreme measure only used in the most severe cases.
The first legislative basis for the witness protection program came with the passing of Bill C-13, Witness Protection Program Act in 1996. The bill sought to strengthen the program by including a clear definition of admission criteria for witnesses and a more public and accountable structure for the management of the program. It provided clearer lines of authority than existed in the program prior to the legislation, which, as I mentioned, was essentially a policy, making the witness protection program the clear responsibility of the RCMP commissioner.
According to 2008 data, there were approximately 1,000 protectees in witness protection program; 700 managed by the RCMP and 300 by other law enforcement agencies. About 30% of these protectees had not themselves acted as witnesses, interestingly, but were in the program because of their relationship to a witness.
Under the Witness Protection Program Act, the commissioner is required to conduct an annual report, outlining statistics about the program, without disclosing details that could compromise its integrity or the identity of protected witnesses.
The 2011-12 annual report showed that of 108 individuals considered for admission to the witness protection program during that period, 30 were accepted, which surprises me. I thought the rate of acceptance would be higher. Twenty-six of the thirty came from RCMP investigations, while four were admitted on behalf of other Canadian law enforcement agencies. The total cost of the program, including RCMP and public servant compensation, totalled $9.1 million.
Under the current Witness Protection Program Act, the RCMP is responsible for making all decisions related to admission and all potential protectees must be recommended by either a law enforcement agency, namely the RCMP, or a provincial or municipal force.
Individuals are admitted to the program based on a number of considerations outlined in the legislation such as: the nature of the risk to the security of the witness; the likelihood of the witness being able to adjust to the program; the cost of maintaining the witness in the program; and whether alternative methods of protecting the witness are available. Once it has been determined that the witness protection program is the best option, a protection agreement is be signed between the RCMP and the protectee, outlining the obligations of both parties. Admission to the program involves a total identity change and relocation. Therefore, when individuals are admitted to the program, it is assumed that they will remain lifelong protectees.
However, protection can be terminated by the RCMP if the conditions of the protection agreement are not met, such as, for example, if the protectee commits a crime, associates with gang members or uses drugs. Protectees can also choose to terminate their protection voluntarily. In either case, their families continue to be protected. It cannot be stressed enough that admission to the witness protection program is the last resort.
There have been some controversies in recent years surrounding the program. In 2008 the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security conducted a review of the federal witness protection program. A few years later, an entire chapter of the Air India inquiry conducted by Commissioner John Major focused on the need for adapting the witness protection program to terrorism cases. Essentially, this bill would update a system that began before the advent of terrorism or before terrorism became an issue in our country and on our continent. This is why it is important that we update the program to take account of these new realities.
Under Bill C-51, recommendations for admission to the program could also be made by federal departments, agencies or services. Bill C-51 would make it possible for federal agencies or services other than the RCMP that might be involved in national security, national defence or public safety to make recommendations for admitting individuals to the program. However, under Bill C-51, the power to determine whether a witness should be admitted to the program and the type of protection to be provided would remain with the RCMP commissioner. This very important change would address the urgent need for the protection of witnesses involved in the investigation and prosecution of terrorist offences.
The need for organizations such as CSIS to be able to offer protection to witnesses was made abundantly clear during the investigation into the 1985 Air India bombing, as outlined in Commissioner Major's 2010 report. The report highlighted the issues surrounding the reluctance of witnesses in the Air India inquiry to co-operate with CSIS investigators who, under the Witness Protection Program Act, could not offer them adequate protection. This bill obviously comes from a recommendation from that inquiry, which is significant in the history of our country and has spurred many changes to public security legislation.
The other interesting aspect of this bill is that it would provide for better coordination with police forces other than the RCMP. This seems to be a recurring theme in the area of public safety, namely the idea that it is becoming more and more important in this complex world in which we live and in this complex reality, that police forces across the spectrum work closely with each other. That has not always been the case, but there is a recognition today that more and more this is part of the need to create a seamless web of national and public security in Canada.
Clause 11 of Bill C-51 states that the Governor-in-Council may, by regulation, add to the schedule of the bill a provincial or municipal program that facilitates the protection of witnesses. Once it is listed in the schedule, this program will become a designated program. By becoming a designated program, it means the federal government can better coordinate the activities of federal departments and agencies whose co-operation is required to provide the protectee, for example, with the proper papers, a new identity and so on. This is a very important part of updating our witness protection regime in Canada and making it much more efficient and effective.
Bill C-51, interestingly, would also extend the period of time during which the commissioner might grant emergency protection to a witness who had not been admitted to the witness protection program. Therefore, there are cases where it is obviously important to provide some kind of interim protection to a witness and by virtue of the bill, the commissioner will be able to offer longer interim protection. Under the current provisions of the Witness Protection Program Act, emergency protection may be granted for no more than 90 days, but Bill C-51 would allow for an extension of that time period by another 90 days, bringing the total time of interim coverage to 180 days.
This is a good bill but there are some issues in it that have not been properly addressed and I would like to outline a couple of those.
Both the Air India inquiry and the 2008 House of Commons committee report on the subject of witness protection recommended that decisions relating to the admission of witnesses to the program and the resolution of disputes arising between protectees and the RCMP be handled by an independent body. In other words, the objective was to provide a third-party view to resolve any disputes between these two parties. In the Air India inquiry, this was envisioned to be in the form of a new position, a national security witness protection coordinator, whose mandate would include assessing the risks to potential protectees, who would work with relevant partners to provide the best form of protection based on the situation and to resolve disputes between the protectee and the program, as I mentioned earlier.
The 2008 committee report recommended that this body be an independent office within the Department of Justice, consisting of a multidisciplinary team that could include police officers, crown attorneys and criminologists. In other words, as in many areas of public policy or many areas of life today, we are moving toward a more holistic approach to issues, which allows us to deal with the many sides of a particular situation using many different kinds of specialists. This office within the Department of Justice, as I mentioned, would have a multidisciplinary team.
Another of the recommendations in the 2008 House of Commons committee report was that potential candidates for admission to the witness protection plan be offered the aid of legal counsel during the negotiation of the admission and the signing of the protection contract. This recommendation arose from testimony about the powerlessness of many prospective protectees when it comes to negotiating their protection agreement. Protection agreements have a huge impact on the lives of protectees or their families and, at present, are negotiated between the RCMP, which has years of experience in such negotiations, and protectees who are unfamiliar with the process and may not understand the implications and scope of the document they are signing. The House of Commons committee therefore felt that the presence of a lawyer would help ensure that negotiations are more fair and equitable.
These are two reasonable recommendations that fit within the widely accepted view that people need support when they are dealing with such complicated issues. One can just imagine the stress that someone contemplating going into the witness protection program would feel. He or she may not be thinking clearly about the issue, may not be familiar with that side of police work because of their always being on the other side of the police-criminal divide. It would seem to me that having the person negotiate without support would leave him or her somewhat helpless, and that is not the Canadian way. We believe in counter-balancing situations so that things are not entirely one-sided. In that perspective, this recommendation makes a fair amount of sense.
Like the NDP we will be supporting the bill. It is really a housekeeping matter in some ways and it would help build another defence against the threat of terrorism. The witness protection program in its current form has provided an effective tool to fight organized crime but it has not been updated to take into consideration cases involving terrorist threats. There is other legislation before the House today, Bill S-7, that is also meant to update our defences against terrorism. This bill connects very well and very logically with that other initiative and with the general vigilance that we are exhibiting in our society to make sure that our communities are safe and secure.