Mr. Speaker, it is with pleasure that I rise to speak to Bill C-12. This is a moment I have been eagerly awaiting, for I am well aware that in the world in which we now live, the issue of emergencies certainly demands the attention of legislators.
Just earlier, I was pondering the fact that, even in the 1800s, people were trying to regulate emergencies with the Quarantine Act. Why did they attempt to use this act in part to regulate emergencies? Because disease was surely the greatest threat to human communities, to the human condition about which Malraux spoke to us with such talent. I am sure, Mr. Speaker, that you are an enthusiast of Malraux. I know your erudition, and even your epicurean side. Of course, if we are talking about the 16th, 17th or 18th centuries, the spread of disease could not possibly be compared with the SARS crisis that we experienced, for example. And for once, the federal government was in a field of jurisdiction that belonged to it alone, under a class of subject enumerated in the Constitution.
When we speak of emergencies, the word “emergency” is in itself open to many meanings. What does it mean when we speak of emergencies? Are we talking about disease, the unleashed forces of nature, public transit, natural catastrophes, the overflowing of the Red River, the pollution in the big cities, terrorist attacks? Terrorism is a real fact of our collective life.
If I may digress, for a parliament and a parliamentarian, the end can never justify the means. One can never say, on account of some context one considers extraordinary, that one is going to take certain actions prejudicial to personal freedoms. In any case, you know how the Bloc Québécois is. If there is one party in this House that could hold a set of scales in its hands, with a centre of gravity that can balance human rights with necessary protection of the community, that party is surely the Bloc Québécois. How could we not be disturbed by Bill C-24, and its successor Bill C-36 on anti-terrorist measures. The government was trying to plagiarize the previous government, and it plagiarized certain provisions of the Patriot Act, tabled by the Bush administration. Incidentally, it will be with great interest that we shall read the judgment to be rendered shortly on the security certificates.
I know that some of my caucus colleagues, and in particular our immigration and public safety critics, have a lot of reasons to be worried. I would ask you the question, Mr. Speaker. Is it acceptable, in a country that adheres to the rule of law, for a person to be subject to arrest without warrant, arbitrarily detained, and not have access to the complete evidence in his or her court file? Do we not learn in our law schools that it is important to have a just and fair trial? Are we not in the post-Stinchcombe era? The Supreme Court has given judgment on this point. My colleague from Marc-Aurèle-Fortin is aware of that. Stinchcombe requires that all evidence be disclosed. That is surprising, because Stinchcombe involved a tax fraud matter, if I recall correctly.
In any case emergencies cover a range of situations: SARS, overflowing rivers, terrorism, or mass transit.
We know that in some democracies, the evil hand of certain groups has used mass transit to spread toxic substances. Plainly it is a concern of governments, I would even say their duty, to have evacuation and emergency plans.
Let us ask the question: is this primarily the responsibility of the federal government? That question arises in the case before us. This is not a case involving quarantine, an epidemic or virology.
The bill says:
This enactment provides for a national emergency management system that strengthens Canada’s capacity to protect Canadians.
Obviously, when we read the bill, we can say that it is reasonable for the federal government, in the departments for which that government is responsible, to have an emergency plan. We therefore understand that it is reasonable for there to be a plan for public safety, health, national defence, or any other example that my colleagues may bring to my attention.
Closer to home, I know that on Parliament Hill, the Board of Internal Economy, of which the various party whips are members, thinks about how to ensure that the Hill is safer. There have been very few unfortunate incidents, but still, there have been a few.
In fact, there is a new Sergeant-at-Arms in the House. I would like to wish him success in the responsibilities of his position. He is the person who is responsible for the safety of parliamentarians.
In the British parliamentary tradition, the distance between the opposition and the government is two and a half sword lengths. Why? Because when Parliament was first created, when the institution of Parliament was created in the United Kingdom, the monarch stood in fear of members of Parliament. That is the source of the tradition, when the Speaker is elected, of dragging him or her by the arm while being met with resistance. That is because some of the speakers, in some of the Parliaments of Great Britain, who were called burgesses, were beheaded when the king did not agree with them.
So as not to wander too far afield, let us come back to the Sergeant-at-Arms. He is responsible for parliamentarians’ safety, and in emergencies he must arrange for the Hill to be evacuated.
I would like to give you an example of a traumatic event that I experienced personally. Every member of this House is familiar with my sturdiness, physical strength and self-discipline. Then there is the President of the United States, who thinks he is the master of any house he happens to be in. When President Bush visited the Hill, some parliamentarians, including me, were not allowed access to the Hill. My colleague from Saint-Lambert was also denied access to the Hill. Why? Not because the constables prevented us from entering. After all, their kindness is known to us all. They were not the ones who denied us entry. It was security personnel outside Parliament who stopped us; they went about it quite rudely, I might add. Such events prompt us to think about how we might react in an emergency that forced us to evacuate the building rapidly.
I know that Board of Internal Economy members, including the whips, have discussed this issue.
So, yes, we have to have emergency measures in place in our large communities, especially in big cities. Emergencies can be caused by natural disasters, terrorist attacks on public transportation or, of course, disease. Obviously, we do not deal with disease as we did in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, but imagine the impact of a virus spreading through our communities. Even in our modern society, we have come to realize that hospitals are not always a safe haven. We do not think that going to the hospital can make us sick. I feel comfortable talking about this before the member for Québec because I know she is as healthy as a horse, but people sure do not expect to get sick when they go to the hospital.
We recently learned that some hospitals in Canada were vectors of contamination. This is one of the emergencies for which we must plan.
Although the Bloc Québécois agrees with this bill in principle, we have some concerns. First is the issue of respecting provincial responsibilities. A national emergency should never mean there is just one government. We are long past the time of the Rowell-Sirois commission. We are not in an apprehended war situation. As elected members of the Bloc Québécois, as representatives of the people of Quebec, we must never act as though there were just one government.
The National Assembly, whose first speaker was Mr. Panet—if I recall correctly—is one of the oldest Parliaments in North America. A number of years ago, it passed its own public safety plan. And who was the author of this important plan that respects decentralization, a plan whose goal was to have the regional county municipalities, the municipalities and the health care system work together? When we think of emergencies, these are the players we want to see promote a common vision.
The National Assembly was the first francophone Parliament in North America. It was led by Speaker Panet and founded under the Constitutional Act, 1791, with ministerial responsibility introduced in 1848. It used to be referred to as the Salon de la race, but that expression is no longer used. It passed its public safety plan. We are most privileged to have among us the author of the plan, none other than the hon. member for Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, who was the public safety minister at the time and who served the Government of Quebec well.