Witness and Spousal Protection Program Act

An Act to amend the Witness Protection Program Act and to make a related and consequential amendment to another Act (protection of spouses whose life is in danger)

This bill was last introduced in the 36th Parliament, 2nd Session, which ended in October 2000.

Sponsor

Jay Hill  Reform

Introduced as a private member’s bill. (These don’t often become law.)

Status

Not active
(This bill did not become law.)

Elsewhere

All sorts of information on this bill is available at LEGISinfo, provided by the Library of Parliament.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

May 30th, 2013 / 11:40 p.m.
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NDP

Dan Harris NDP Scarborough Southwest, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my hon. colleague for his remarks. However, I would like to refute the last statement he made in regard to people always saying they need more money. Time and again tonight, we have heard Conservative members talk about how the officials from the RCMP said they did not need more financing.

I am rising this evening, like everyone else, to speak to Bill C-51, An Act to amend the Witness Protection Program Act and to make a consequential amendment to another Act. The NDP supports Bill C-51, as it attempts to improve the witness protection program. However, we still have concerns about this bill. We are concerned that the Conservative government has refused to commit any new funding to the system. We are concerned that the Conservatives' requirement that the RCMP and local police departments work within their existing budgets would hinder the potential improvement of the program.

This situation is similar to other legislation we have seen before this House lately; namely, the Conservative government bringing forward legislation that would only partially fix a problem. Why are the Conservatives unwilling or unable to find the courage and political will to develop legislation to the point where it would actually be as effective as it could be? Once again, I find myself supporting legislation that is a half measure. It would in fact help, but would not fully resolve a problem that the government could be resolving.

Another shortcoming of the bill is that it does not include provisions for an independent agency to operate the program as recommended in the Air India inquiry report. The RCMP would continue to be responsible for the program, and this would leave the RCMP in a potential conflict of interest, being the agency both investigating the case and deciding who gets protection.

The federal witness protection program has long been criticized for its narrow eligibility criteria, poor coordination with provincial programs and low number of witnesses actually admitted to the program. Only 30 out of 108 applications considered were accepted in 2012. The blame for that has to go to the original authors of the bill, which would be the previous Liberal government members.

Since the Witness Protection Program Act passed in 1996, the Liberal and Conservative governments have done little to respond to the criticisms of the system. Some bills have been presented in the House of Commons to address small components of the protection program. As an example, Bill C-223 from a Reform member of Parliament in 1999 regarding witness protection in cases of domestic violence, was supported by the NDP and was defeated by the then-Liberal government.

The overarching issues of eligibility, coordination and funding have not yet been addressed. The New Democrats are on record as repeatedly asking the Conservatives to address the three key issues in the witness protection program: expanded criteria eligibility, co-operation with provinces and adequate funding.

In November 2012, the NDP member of Parliament for Trinity—Spadina called for more support for the federal witness protection program, pointing to the difficulty Toronto police faced in convincing witnesses to this past summer's mass shooting at a block party on Danzig Street in Scarborough to come forward. The Danzig shooting is just one of many examples I could point to where witnesses have been reluctant to step forward due to concerns for their own safety.

Bill C-51 proposes a better process to support provincial witness protection programs and would expand the program to other agencies with national security responsibilities. Bill C-51 would expand the eligibility criteria of the witness protection program to include various requests from the RCMP, such as including youth gang members by covering a new group of people who would give assistance to federal departments. Federal departments and agencies with a mandate relating to national security, national defence or public safety would also be able to refer witnesses to this program. It would also extend the period for emergency protection and clear up some technical problems in coordinating with provincial programs.

Provinces such as Ontario and Alberta have been pushing for a national revamp of the witness protection program, including more recognition of their existing programs. Bill C-51 would provide for the designation of a provincial or municipal witness protection program so that certain provisions of the act would apply to such a program. It also would authorize the Commissioner of the RCMP to coordinate at the request of an official of a designated provincial or municipal program the activities of federal departments, agencies and services in order to facilitate a change of identity for persons admitted to the designated program.

Bill C-51 includes enough improvements to warrant our support through third reading, though concerns about funding have been reiterated multiple times in committee and over and over again tonight, and there are still no answers from the government.

Expanding eligibility for the witness protection program is a generally popular policy. Those working to combat youth gangs feel allowing those seeking to leave gangs access to the program would be an important addition to the tools they need. This issue retains a high profile in the South Asian community due to the attacks on witnesses during the Air India inquiry, where witnesses were not eligible for the program as it currently excludes witnesses in national security cases.

The provinces have long been calling for better coordination between federal and provincial programs. Now, of course, in terms of coordination between federal and provincial programs, we know that is a weakness of the current government, when we look at the Prime Minister who has refused to meet with the first ministers as a group over the seven years the Conservatives have been in power.

We are also disappointed that the bill did not include more recommendations from the Air India inquiry, such as a more transparent and accountable process for admissions into the program. Even the government itself identified this as a serious problem, and yet it failed to address it in the bill.

Overall, Bill C-51 is a positive step, but unfortunately we do not see the Conservatives providing the resources to make it really count for communities. We want to see them provide local police departments with the support necessary to make sure witnesses come forward in gang situations, for example. The Conservative government is not acknowledging the high cost borne by local police departments. There are also provincial witness protection programs, but if the crime is federal in nature or involves drugs, the RCMP take over and then charges local police departments the full cost, something many local departments cannot afford, particularly in small communities.

The RCMP's own website states, “There are instances when the costs of witness protection may impede investigations, particularly for smaller law enforcement agencies”. I have not heard one member of the government speak to that issue here tonight.

While the NDP has been calling for changes to the witness protection program since 2007, it is just now that the Conservative government is responding to our concerns, as well as many stakeholder concerns.

The NDP would like to believe the Conservative government is committed to improving the witness protection program but without the necessary funding for the RCMP to carry out these changes, we fear the improvements that are needed will not necessarily materialize.

Speaking of resourcing, several witnesses and the RCMP at committee said that they in fact do believe that they have the resources to take care of their share of the burden. However, as I mentioned previously in my speech, local law enforcement agencies and provincial law enforcement agencies are going to end up bearing many of the costs that are associated with changes in the witness protection program.

We have seen this kind of approach time and time again with the Conservatives' crime agenda. They make changes to legislation that are going to impact provincial and municipal budgets without providing any of the funding to absorb the costs. What ends up happening is an insidious form of downloading. Instead of the costs of the federal changes being borne by the federal government, they end up being borne by the provinces and municipalities, which are already straining to a much greater extent than the federal government is.

It is very unfortunate to see this kind of approach continuing. Back in the 1990s, the Liberal government downloaded billions of dollars on the provinces, and then the provinces, like mine of Ontario where we had the Mike Harris government, proceeded to download provincial costs, like social services and welfare programs, onto municipalities without actually giving them the funds to address the issues.

It is sad to see here in 2013 that we are in fact seeing the same kinds of things happening.

While the NDP is supporting the bill, once again we are seeing a bill that we do not think addresses all the issues that could be addressed in the bill.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

May 30th, 2013 / 8:55 p.m.
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NDP

Pierre Jacob NDP Brome—Missisquoi, QC

Mr. Speaker, I rise in the House today to speak about Bill C-51, something that I am genuinely concerned about.

This bill contains measures that have long been called for by the NDP. It proposes a better process to support provincial witness protection programs. It applies the program to other agencies with responsibilities for national security. The bill will broaden the eligibility criteria for the protection program to include repentant members of street gangs who are willing to testify against others in their gang.

Federal departments and agencies that have a national security and public safety mandate may also suggest witnesses for the program. The bill will extend the emergency protection period and will eliminate a number of technical problems relating to the coordination of provincial programs. It is a necessary bill, and one that addresses flaws that were identified a long time ago.

The NDP has been demanding the expansion of witness eligibility for protection programs for nearly two decades now.

In 1996, this House passed the Witness Protection Program Act. In 1999, the NDP voted for Bill C-223 to broaden witness protection in cases of domestic violence. This bill was overturned by the then Liberal majority.

Since then, the fundamental issues of eligibility, coordination and funding have never been dealt with by Canada’s successive governments.

Since 2007, members of the NDP have been calling for changes to be made to the witness protection program. It has taken the Conservatives six years to finally respond to our requests.

The issue is real, however. Close relatives and the various stakeholders have said for a long time now that the program must be expanded. In May 2010, the RCMP submitted a report to the Minister of Public Safety in which it asked that the witness protection program be strengthened.

As we know, in order to fight back against investigations into their activities, street gangs have no qualms about intimidating the families of witnesses. They want to stop witnesses from speaking out against them. Street gangs are very violent and quick to use intimidation to avoid going to jail.

Members of street gangs are afraid of speaking out against their accomplices, because they know they will not be protected. However, in cases involving street gangs, the best witnesses are gang members themselves. Members of street gangs who want to get out of crime and are willing to testify against their associates must be allowed into the witness protection program.

My colleagues have pointed this out on a number of occasions this year. I repeat it again this evening. In 2012, only 30 of the 108 applications for protection were accepted. The program served only 30% of those who were asking for help.

Bill C-51 will solve this particular issue, because it raises the level of protection for witnesses and informants who assist our police officers, in addition to expanding the use of these information sources. We will be able to fight directly against street gangs, which are becoming ever more common in Canada’s suburbs.

That is not all. If the Conservatives really want to improve the witness protection program, they must also commit the money for it to happen. It is fine to talk about protecting victims in order to appeal to voters, but the government needs to walk the walk.

I would like to remind the House that it costs $300,000 to protect each witness. If the definition of “witness” is expanded, as Bill C-51 aims to do, we will be sticking taxpayers with a bigger bill.

We support the bill, but we condemn the fact that the Conservative government has refused to commit additional funding.

Once again, it will be up to the municipalities and police forces to absorb the higher costs. They already have tight budgets. The commissioner of the Canadian Association of Police Boards said this on March 7:

...sometimes the cost of protecting witnesses hinders the investigations, especially for small law enforcement agencies that have a tight budget.

She also said this:

[The government must] ensure that legislation passed...does not result in a downloading of additional costs to the municipal police services that we represent.

The government cut nearly $190 million from the RCMP and more than $140 million from the Canada Border Services Agency. Investigations into drugs and crime in areas of federal jurisdiction are handled by the RCMP. However, the RCMP bills local police forces for the cost of protecting witnesses even though the local forces often cannot afford it.

Recently, the Conservatives announced that they would no longer fund recruiting programs for local police forces. A $400 million envelope was earmarked for the police officers recruitment fund, but the Conservatives decided not to renew it for 2013. That is appalling. These cuts will impact how effective Bill C-51 can be.

I commend the intention behind this bill. However, I hope that the federal government will allocate a significant budget to this bill and not make the municipalities and provinces cover the cost. The government is certainly not short on money: it gives $1.2 billion a year to the oil sands industry and forked out $70 million to celebrate the war of 1812. I want to remind the government that it has a responsibility to ensure that its laws do not increase the burden on the provinces.

In closing, although I am not happy about the lack of funding, I think that strengthening the witness protection program will improve public safety. After so many years, we are pleased that the government is finally making the changes that we have been calling for.

I therefore support Bill C-51 at third reading so that it can be passed. I support it on behalf of all the people, agencies and associations that want this bill passed. I am supporting this bill so that those who want to blow the whistle and testify can do so without fearing for their safety and that of their families. Bill C-51 will allow them to be better protected. I also hope that the government will increase the budget so that the municipalities will not have to foot the bill.

The NDP is once again building safer communities by giving the police more tools to help them fight street gangs and organized crime.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

May 30th, 2013 / 4:35 p.m.
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NDP

Carol Hughes NDP Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate what my colleague from the Liberals has said. It is obvious that everyone recognizes that there was and is a need to improve the witness protection program. Since the Witness Protection Program Act passed in 1996, both the Liberal and the Conservative governments have done very little to respond to the criticism of the system. Here we have a program that is supposed to help protect people, but there need to be improvements and there is still a lack of funding.

Bills have been presented in the House of Commons to address small components of the protection program. For example, Bill C-223, from a Reform MP in 1999, dealt with witness protection in cases of domestic violence. It was supported by the NDP but was defeated by the Liberal government.

The overarching issues of eligibility, coordination and funding have not been addressed. The Liberals criticized the program when they were in government, and now they criticize the Conservative government as well for not doing enough in Bill C-51. I want to know why the criticism of eligibility and underfunding was not an issue they addressed when they were in government. They had 13 years to do it.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

February 11th, 2013 / 5:30 p.m.
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NDP

Philip Toone NDP Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I will try to be as brief as possible.

I am pleased to rise in the House to say that I support a government bill—at second reading, at least. It is a jewel, and I hope we will see bills like this more often.

The government has a very hard time consulting people and developing bills that truly address the realities of everyday life. We have seen that over and over with all kinds of bills. I could name a few, but I would rather focus on Bill C-51 right now.

This bill addresses certain points. What is most obvious is the lack of money. We have heard many times in the House that the program will not be funded.

It is very worrisome that this government claims to be a good manager of the economy but cannot see the need to have resources available when it proposes changes. The government has missed the mark.

Once again, I condemn the government for failing to hold enough consultations. If it had taken the time to consult people, especially the provinces that have been calling for a new witness protection program, it would have seen that resources are needed and that the provinces need support.

The fact that we have gotten to this point today is due in large part to the Air India inquiry. The Air India bombing was devastating. Many lives were lost. It took years, decades, before we could begin to understand what went wrong and what could be learned from this tragedy.

After Justice Major released his report on Air India, the Government of Canada presented its game plan. In its 2010 action plan, it spoke specifically about witness protection:

“Witness Protection -- Delivering better and more effective protection for witnesses.”

The bill before us today stems in large part from the fact that the Conservative government read the report and is trying to find solutions. I commend it for that.

The Conservatives said:

To further enhance its federal Witness Protection Program and address current challenges, the Government will: introduce more transparency and accountability into decisions concerning admission to the Witness Protection Program; promote the fair and equitable treatment of protectees by focusing more on their needs; and enhance the way sources of mutual interest to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the RCMP are handled.

Perhaps what is missing here is, again, financing all of these goals. It is great to list them, but it would also be great to finance them.

To understand what the government is trying to accomplish with the bill before us, we must go the Public Safety Canada website, which provides a definition of a witness entitled to protection under the witness protection program:

Definition of Witness

A witness is defined [by the witness protection program] as someone who gives or agrees to give information or evidence, or agrees to participate in a matter relating to an investigation or the prosecution of an offence. Generally, there are three categories of people who may need protection under the federal [witness protection program]: agents, who are directed by the police to accomplish certain tasks in the course of the investigation and are compellable witnesses; witnesses, including “innocent bystanders” who have information about a crime and decide to come forward, or individuals who, because of a relationship with the witness, may also require protection; and repentant witnesses or co-accused individuals who agree to testify against a fellow accused.

That is all very nice. However, let us not forget that during the Air India inquiry, one of our witnesses was killed before he could testify.

I think that proves how urgently this program needs to be overhauled. Because of the program, a key witness at such an important inquiry was unable to testify and was killed as a result.

Quite frankly, witness protection is not too much. We must not forget that there have been expenditures under the program before us. I will come back to that because it is important. The program accepted only 30 people out of 108, at a cost of $9 million. Therefore, for the year that ended in March 2012, $9 million was spent to protect 30 people. For an investigation such as the Air India investigation to be conducted properly, quite frankly the $9 million would have been a good investment at the time. We missed an opportunity to better protect people.

We have before us a bill that could help us, give us some avenues to explore and even offer solutions. It is not a bad bill. We can even applaud many of the measures. However, since the Witness Protection Program Act was passed in 1996, there have been few improvements.

In the past, the Liberal and Conservative governments did little to respond to criticisms. When Bill C-223 was introduced by a Reform member in 1999, we supported it. The NDP also wanted to move forward. Unfortunately, the Liberal government at the time thought otherwise and defeated the bill.

Once again, I congratulate the members of the House who really wanted to improve how witnesses who need protection are treated. The members across the floor will recall that the Reform Party has a lot in common with the Conservative Party. At least they will agree with me on that. A consensus among us would have been nice, so we could move forward with this bill. It is too bad the Liberal Party did not move forward on this when it had the chance.

Since then, there have been many calls for improvements. We must not forget that the hon. member for Trinity—Spadina introduced a bill on this in November 2012 in response to the problems that the Toronto area was having with street gangs.

The new bill would definitely help address these issues. It is important to keep moving forward, but we need to do so in co-operation with the provinces. Co-operation is seriously lacking. Provinces like Ontario and Alberta that have many Conservatives members—who, incidentally, should listen more—have been pushing for the program to be renewed and improved for quite some time now.

Based on the provinces' requests, the changes set out in Bill C-51 are simply inadequate. They need to go a lot further.

Inter alia, Bill C-51 does the following:

(a) provide for the designation of a provincial or municipal witness protection program so that certain provisions of that Act apply to such a program; (b) authorize the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to coordinate, at the request of an official of a designated provincial or municipal program, the activities of federal departments, agencies and services in order to facilitate a change of identity for persons admitted to the designated program....

What I was saying is that the person's identity must be changed. But the provinces simply are not in the position to be able to do that themselves.

But the RCMP is able to help people change their identity. They need licences, a new ID card, a new social insurance number and perhaps even a passport. Many federal documents are required. And no organization is in a better position to help these people than the RCMP.

All this is funded by the federal government in co-operation with the provinces, and that is what I dislike. It is critical that we find a way to better fund the bill before us today.

I hope that when this is debated in committee, the government members will propose improvements to the bill so that the programs will be better funded in co-operation with the provinces. The request that the provinces are making, that the program be better funded, is key.

An article was recently published in Maclean's. I want to quote certain parts of it that support what I have been saying and the claims from the provinces and other stakeholders. We hope to see these claims when the bill is studied in committee.

In December 2012, the Conservative government made the following announcement:

The Conservative government plans to introduce long-anticipated legislation today to modernize the federal witness protection program...

Revelations five years ago that a protectee committed murder while in the program triggered a wave of review and discussion.

Très inquiétant.

The legislation is expected to include a more independent process for deciding who gets into the secretive program, as well as improved training and more sophisticated practices for handling protectees.

Some members have sued over the program, while others have been kicked out.

The proposed federal changes follow recommendations from a Commons committee, an inquiry into the 1985 Air India bombing and extensive consultations with the provinces.

Several provinces have their own witness protection programs, but often they provide only short-term assistance. In addition, obtaining new federal identity documents for protectees requires co-operation with the Mounties.

The proposed changes to the Witness Protection Program Act, passed in 1996, are expected to simplify the process of obtaining these crucial documents and generally improve relations with provincial agencies.

Ontario and Alberta have been pushing for more federal recognition of their witness programs as part of the national revamp.

I want to emphasize that there were consultations and that the problems raised during those consultations were, for the most part, related to expensive technical issues. Once again, there is no support to move ahead with what needs to be done. I think that the government could come up with a bill that better meets the needs if it were to take the provinces' comments seriously.

We would like to see a more transparent system, a system that does a better job of meeting needs for the purpose of determining who is eligible for this program. So far, this is not necessarily clear because even the government has a hard time answering the question. Still, this is a step in the right direction. We want the Conservatives to start providing the necessary resources to ensure that the current program meets the needs in our communities.

Many have stated that the need to protect people is greatest right in communities, in street gangs. We want people affected by street gangs to feel comfortable testifying so that, ultimately, our streets can be safer. To make that happen, people need easier access to this program. They have to know that they will be protected. I doubt that is the case now. I am not sure that they would put their faith in the bill before us. Once again, this bill would benefit from more thorough debate in committee.

To date, the government does not seem to have recognized that operating a regional police force is very expensive. The fact that it costs the provinces a lot of money and that no money will be coming from the federal government is a problem. Unfortunately, that is often the case with the government. It legislates changes at the provincial level or drops a federal responsibility hoping that the province will pick up the slack. Then the province has a hard time paying for a program it does not have the means to pay for. In the end, the federal government will tell people that it has conquered the deficit because it has decreased spending when all it will really have done is transferred costs to the provinces and municipalities, which will have to find ways to make up the shortfall.

The Harper government is terrified of increasing taxes. That is all well and good, except that it leaves the provinces no choice but to increase their own taxes.

For the taxpayer, provincial and federal taxes are all the same: they are taxes. The Harper government has nothing to brag about. I would even say that it should be ashamed.

In the provincial witness protection programs that involve crimes of a federal nature, the RCMP takes over and charges local police departments the full cost, something that many local departments cannot afford. The RCMP's own website states that there are instances when the costs of witness protection may impede investigations, particularly for small law enforcement agencies.

The municipalities I know that have their own police force and smaller municipalities with smaller police forces will find it very difficult to fulfill the obligations that the federal government is imposing on them, or at least that the bill we are studying in the House plans to impose.

Once again, it is an improvement, and I congratulate the government, but we must do much more. Unfortunately, this government has a great deal of difficulty understanding just how great the need is and how crucial it is that the need be met.

Our society is protected by the combined efforts of the federal, provincial and municipal governments. Together, we can help solve the problems we face. However, it does not help to impose new criteria without providing the resources required to enforce or even implement the criteria. The government is creating a situation that is doomed to failure. This must be avoided at all cost.

The NDP has long been calling for better co-operation between the federal government and the provinces. We are pleased to see an improvement in that regard. That being said, without the necessary funds, it will be hard to ensure that the programs being proposed here today will get very far. I think this is going to create even more problems for the local police forces, which will have a hard time meeting the obligations imposed by the federal government. We must prevent that. Closer co-operation would have truly improved the situation, but that is not what we are seeing today.

I am very pleased to vote in favour of this bill, at least at second reading, but it is time for the Harper government to start realizing that we need better co-operation.