Mr. Speaker, I am proud to speak today in the debate on private member's Bill C-243, which I have proposed and which creates the office of Victims Ombudsman of Canada.
The prime objective of this office, which will be completely independent from the Correctional Service of Canada and the National Parole Board, is to act as a voice and an advocate for the victims of crime. It will conduct investigations, reviews of Correctional Service or Parole Board policies and studies into the problems of victims related to decisions, recommendations, policies, acts or omissions of the service or the board.
Moreover, this bill will require the Victims Ombudsman to maintain a program for communicating information to victims concerning the function of the Victims Ombudsman and the circumstances under which an investigation, a review of Correctional Service or Parole Board policies or a study may be commenced by the Victims Ombudsman. Thus, the bill concerns the rights of victims and the way these rights are respected.
The purpose behind establishing the Victims Ombudsman is the same as for all other organizations sharing the principles of justice, fairness and administrative responsibility for victims, by requiring that the public servants in the Correctional Service and Parole Board be accountable to the Victims Ombudsman when one of their decisions is directly linked to an act that harms an individual.
I stand in the House today to offer legislation that would give victims of crimes a voice and an advocate in our correctional system. The bill is founded on four guiding principles.
First, the correctional system belongs to Canadians, to our society. It is run by officials for the people of Canada. It does not belong to those officials, no matter what their professional credentials.
Second, for justice to be done it must be seen to be done. Under the current system, once an accused is convicted, custody is transferred to a correctional system that offers very little information on how sentences are served.
Corrections officials would have us believe that this process is best, that they know best, to trust them, and that they have an obligation to protect the privacy of inmates.
Others see it in another way. It is a convenient way to make decisions that cannot be justified to the public and certainly a more convenient forum in which to hide mistakes. And by way of leaks and reports provided to reporters, we know that there are mistakes.
All we have to do is look at the case of Michael Hector, who was released from penitentiary and then murdered three people. What of the case of Constable Joe MacDonald, who was executed by two individuals, Suzack and Pennett? A few short years after his conviction, Suzack was transferred from maximum to medium security. Joe MacDonald's family and the community were hurt, offended and outraged, but that did not matter to corrections officials who believed they knew better, so nothing was done.
Third, Canadians are reasonable, intelligent and wise. They understand fair play. They understand the importance of rehabilitation and can distinguish between a proper and improper way of administering a sentence.
The air of secrecy surrounding how sentences are served and administered only fuels distrust of our corrections system. Open the doors and windows into the system and it will be found that Canadians will support reasoned approaches to corrections and some of that distrust will fade away. In the end, a better system will emerge.
Finally, and most important, victims want and need a voice and advocate in the corrections system. When a crime is committed, public policy dictates that it is to be prosecuted and treated as a crime against society. That is a fair way to proceed to ensure a fair and just penal system as long as we stop to consider the individual who has actually suffered the loss and hurt. That individual and that individual's family carry the physical and emotional burden of the crime. Any fair and just system must take those views into consideration, notably in the administration of a court ordered sentence.
In my life, I have met victims and their families. Those meetings are not easy and can be very emotional. However, it has always struck me that their requests are so very simple: explain the process to me; keep me informed; who can I talk to when I have a question; and, how and when are my needs and views taken into account?
For whatever reason, the federal corrections system has failed to adequately respond to victims on all those matters. How do I know? Victims have had to contact me, their member of Parliament, to get basic information that should be provided in an automatic fashion.
In one case, a unilingual anglophone victim was given a contact number in which the voice mail was in unilingual French. Despite attempts to correct the situation, the victim had to contact my office to get results. That is simply not acceptable and is the result of a system that is insensitive and not responsive to the needs of victims and their families. It is neither equipped nor eager to serve the legitimate needs of victims.
I firmly believe that this must change. A victim needs to know that justice is being done and how it is being done. This information does not always heal the wounds, but it can help bring closure to a hurtful situation. One thing is certain: a corrections system that does not respond to the needs of victims does add to the hurt and unnecessarily prolongs the healing process. That is simply no longer acceptable.
How would this bill help? Simply put, this bill would establish an independent ombudsman for victims within the corrections system. This ombudsman would be the bridge between the corrections system and victims. He or she would be independent, educate victims, investigate their complaints and ensure that corrections officials properly respond to their needs.
The ombudsman would also work to ensure that the system becomes more sensitive and responsive to the needs of victims. This would include reports to Parliament on how the system is doing and what changes are required.
All in all, the ombudsman would make sure that those victims and their families will be able to understand the process, be kept informed, ensure that a qualified and competent official is available to answer their questions, and make sure that their needs are responded to and their voices are heard.
Having an advocate for victims in the corrections system is a reasonable and logical measure. There are three sides to every crime: the offender; society as represented by the state; and the victim who suffers the hurt and loss. In our corrections system, the offender is represented by the correctional investigator, who acts like an ombudsman for prisoners, and the state is represented by corrections officials, but the victim has no representative. It is time to change this unacceptable and unfortunate situation.
It is my hope that this Parliament will see the wisdom in establishing an ombudsman for victims. I trust that members of Parliament will reach the consensus that providing victims with a voice and an advocate will improve our corrections system and that by providing a mechanism by which victims can have their complaints investigated we will advance the transparency and accountability of the system.
Victims need and want to be heard. I trust that the House is listening. While something has been accomplished for victims over the years, much remains to be done. With the goodwill and effort of everyone in the House, I know we will get there, but there are specific improvements that I am calling on the government to make.
First, we should change the law to make it clearer that victims have the right to make a statement at National Parole Board hearings. The board does this in practice now and I applaud it for making this change, but the law needs to make it clearer that we can never backtrack on this.
Second, we should expand the definition of who is a victim so that the people taking care of injured victims or young victims can have the same access to information as any other victim. Where the victims are not able to speak for themselves, there has to be respect for those around them who can speak for them.
Third, when victims are unable to attend the hearing or do not want to attend but still want to know exactly what went on, arrangements should be made for them to listen to a tape recording of the parole hearing.
Fourth, we should authorize the National Parole Board and the Correctional Service to provide victims with the gist of information about an offender's participation in treatment and programs. Victims are not interested in revenge. They want to know that the offender who has harmed them is getting treatment, hopefully, and will not again harm anyone. Years can go by with victims having no idea if the offender is doing anything productive or is just doing time.
Fifth, we should provide financial assistance to victims who wish to attend parole hearings. This is something we hear from victims constantly. They would like to attend the parole hearing and they have the right to attend the parole hearing, but they cannot afford the cost.
Sixth, we should create a dedicated independent position that would have the authority to receive questions and complaints from victims, follow up on those matters and report to the minister through the deputy minister. This is what I have been trying to do with my bill. It is absolutely essential that this office be independent and separate from the parole board and the Correctional Service and that it have the ear of the minister. Victims need to know who to call. They need to know that they will not be passed from pillar to post.
These are all measures under the authority of the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. Let me also say a few words about what I am calling upon the Minister of Justice to do.
I would like to see greater coordination and leadership of all federal government victim programs so that we are sure every department is playing the full role it should in responding to victims' needs. It may be, for example, that a victim is a war veteran and we would need to be sure that Veterans Affairs is coordinated with other partners.
I would like to see more comprehensive policy and legislative development so that we can be proactive and not always play catch-up in meeting victims needs. We also need more research to identify the effectiveness of our victim programs and to identify new trends or issues.
We should not forget that sometimes Canadians are victims abroad. For example, Canadians were injured in the tragic bombing in Bali last year. We need to be able to support them when they need help. We need to be sure that our embassies have the right training to do so.
I am also calling on the government to do more to help victims in the three northern territories, where the Attorney General of Canada is responsible for criminal prosecutions. Not only are there challenges in the north due to the remoteness of some communities, there are particular cultural issues that must be addressed in meeting the needs of victims.
I would also like to see better information about existing victims' services and how to assess them. This should also encompass making sure that there is consistency in victims' services across the country. I have just referred to gaps in the north, but this applies in other areas as well.
Last, I call on the government to expand the resources it has to develop new programs and services. Many of these can be done by community organizations if they have the money. I know that the Minister of Justice is a firm believer in restorative justice, and that approach is centred on helping communities help themselves.
If the government would take action on all these fronts, then maybe there would be fewer complaints from victims, less frustration and more chances for victims to heal and to move forward with their lives. We all want that. and victims deserve nothing less.
It is time for action. Victims of crime need our support and expect that their elected representatives in this noble institution will act as quickly as possible to give them a voice and an advocate who can protect their rights from a system that seems, increasingly, to care nothing for the safety of ordinary citizens.
I look forward to a fruitful debate on the bill and I invite members who support a stronger voice for victims of crime to lend their support and speak in favour of Bill C-243.