Good morning, everyone.
Mr. Chairman, as I think all members of Parliament know, and certainly all Canadians know, in June of this year Parliament acted swiftly to make necessary and I think well-considered changes to the pardon system in this country. Some relatively urgent circumstances caused Parliament to act.
In particular, two cases came to the public's mind. One was the imminent opening for Karla Homolka to apply for a pardon. The other situation that quite reasonably upset Canadians was the quiet pardoning of Graham James, who had been convicted of a number of sex offences against young men in his charge as a hockey coach.
At that time, back in June, the government tabled a comprehensive pardon bill that contained some positive measures. It also contained some measures that not only required further study, careful consideration, and deliberation, but were on the face of it absolutely the wrong way to go in terms of pardon policy in this country.
Back in June, Mr. Chairman, the New Democrats worked cooperatively and productively with the government to fix the imminent mischief in the pardon legislation. In particular, we dealt specifically with the Karla Homolka and Graham James situations. We did a number of things, as committee members will remember.
The first thing we did, which was very important, was we fixed the problem the pardon granting institution had. They had very little discretion to deny a pardon if the application was made. Prior to our changes in June, there were two waiting periods: a three-year period for summary convictions and a five-year period for convictions by indictment. But if a person waited that length of time after they served their full sentence--not only any period of incarceration, but also any period that may have been served on probation or on parole in the community--provided they had not reoffended in that time period and provided upon a cursory police check they had not triggered the attention of the police in any way, the granting institution really had no discretion but to grant the pardon.
One of the good things that I think was in the government's bill back in June was a provision that would give the parole board the discretion to grant a pardon or to refuse a pardon in any circumstance that would bring the administration of justice into disrepute. For the first time in Canadian history, we gave the tools to the board to deny a pardon in any circumstance in which that test was met.
It was my view then and it's my view now that this tool is sufficient to deny a pardon application by Karla Homolka, were she to make it. I think it also may be broad enough to empower the board to refuse to grant a pardon to Graham James, were he to make that application today. That's what Parliament did through all-party cooperation, including cooperation from the New Democrats. It was also the New Democrats' suggestion to add manslaughter to the list of offences that would require someone to wait 10 years to get a pardon.
We might also remember that back in June the other important measure Parliament took was to increase the time periods offenders had to wait to get a pardon in certain types of offences. We took sex offences against children and increased the time period to wait for a pardon from five years to ten years, and for summary conviction offences, from three years to five years.
At the same time, as I said, what the New Democrats insisted upon was that manslaughter be added to that list of offences for which a person would have to wait ten years. We did that specifically because that's the offence that Karla Homolka was convicted of.
I want to pause here and just talk for a moment about something else that's important. The former Minister of Public Safety, Stockwell Day, three or four years ago, reviewed the pardon system. The government did a review of the pardon system at the time Graham James was in the news. In fact, it was another sex offender, I believe, who was in the news at that time who spurred the government to do a review. The government did a review of the pardon system and made very minor changes to the system at that time, in 2007 if I'm not mistaken. Then we reviewed the pardon system in a very in-depth and profound way in June of this year.
I think that all-party cooperation in June produced a very important and progressive development in our pardon system. It gave the pardon system the opportunity to refuse to grant a pardon and gave them the discretion. It ended what Canadians have always perceived as being a rubber stamp, so that if you waited the three or five years, as it was then, and made your application, pretty much the pardon was automatic. We fixed that problem by putting the discretionary aspect in.
We also, I think, addressed something that Canadians said was a great concern, which was whether three or five years was a long enough period of time to wait for someone to apply for a pardon. In many cases, we thought it wasn't. In a lot of cases, and particularly sex offences, we should make an offender demonstrate a longer period of rehabilitated behaviour, that being ten years. That, I think, was also a positive step.
We've heard some testimony before this committee that if a person is going to reoffend, they do it within five days, five weeks, or five months. If someone has actually not reoffended for a period of five or ten years, then the evidence that we've heard so far--and I think we need to hear more evidence on this--is that it is highly unlikely that the person is going to reoffend.
So here we are today. The government came back this fall and put in some further proposals to change the pardon system, which I think are worthy of merit and further careful deliberation. I think they also, it's fair to say, have continued to pursue some of the flawed aspects of the bill that was presented in June, and that of course is the bill before us, Bill C-23B.
Now, whereas in June, Bill C-23A, as it's now known, made the necessary and important changes, what we have left in Bill C-23B primarily are some issues with regard to which we must, I believe, tread very carefully. When we haven't made any pardon changes in decades in this country, when this government looked at the pardon system in 2007 and thought that it didn't need any changes at all but a couple of minor administrative changes, and when Parliament made important changes in June, there is no need for urgency at this point today.
We have had only three days of hearings so far. For any of the Canadians watching, three days doesn't mean three full days but three meetings of two hours apiece, and in that two-hour period we have had 15 minutes carved out for dealing with committee business. So we have so far, it's fair to say, maybe about four and a half hours of discussion and hearing from a few witnesses on the issue of pardons in this country. From the two hearings at which we heard actual witnesses--and we heard from only a handful of witnesses--I think it's already quite clear that this bill has been exposed as having some serious deficiencies. Some would call them deep flaws. Each time a flaw is exposed, it causes us as parliamentarians and policy-makers to stop and think that we had better move carefully in this area.
So we're just getting started studying this bill, and it's obvious that there are many problems to be dealt with. Now, instead of hearing that evidence, the government wants to shut down testimony and rush through this bill, without having the necessary and careful deliberation. In my submission, that is not a responsible way to deal with a very serious issue.
I want to talk about one of those major flaws. This government has put in this bill—they did it in June and they're coming back with it now—what's called the “three strikes and you're out” rule. There's a provision in this bill that says anyone with more than three indictable offences would be ineligible for a pardon forever. I'm going to say that again. You get more than three indictable offences, and the Conservative government wants to pass pardon legislation that says you will forever be ineligible, barred from receiving a pardon.
The New Democrats arranged to hear from a few of the people who would be most affected by this, former offenders who would be denied pardons forever under this proposed legislation. These are people who have had more than three indictable offences. They came and testified right here at this table before this committee.
We also heard from organizations that work with ex-offenders. Here are some of the things we've heard so far.
We heard that proceeding with this provision hastily might actually endanger public safety. That's because we've heard some evidence—only a little bit so far—that shows that the pardon system and the pardon process is one tool in the rehabilitation process. It's a very important tool. We've heard from people who work with offenders and offenders themselves that having the prospect of getting a pardon, being able to work towards a pardon, helps them to get their lives back on track and not reoffend.
If there is one overreaching goal in the carceral system that we should be working towards and that all parties should be in agreement with, it's that we should always favour policies that help offenders not to reoffend, not only because it's good for the offenders and their families, but also because it's good for our communities. When that person goes back into the community, I want that person not to reoffend, not to endanger any other family, any other person, any other property. I want our people to be able to walk safely in our communities. That means that I, as a parliamentarian, will take it very seriously when I hear people tell me that a particular measure helps them not to reoffend. This piece of legislation, this particular provision of the bill—three strikes and you're out—would endanger that principle. It will take away one piece of hope, one piece of motivation, one piece of policy that, we have a taste of evidence to suggest, is instrumental and helps people in not reoffending. So we've heard the valuable role that pardons play in improving community safety.
In testimony from department officials, we also heard that 25% of the applications for pardons are from people who have more than three indictable offences. When we say “more than three indictable offences”, I'm sure Canadians react the same way I reacted when I heard that, which is that someone with more than three indictable offences should never get a pardon. That's what I thought, until we actually started talking to people who have experience with this process, and to former offenders themselves.
We put three live human beings in front of this committee, only three. Out of the tens of thousands of people who may be affected by this, we heard from three only. We put them here to be subjected to questioning from our side and from the government side. What did we hear? We heard from one person who was convicted of 24 indictable offences, which sounds horrible, until you hear his story. The story we heard is that these were convictions for selling steroids. We heard that this is a person whose wife passed away from cancer when he was a young married man. He had a mortgage, and he went into deep grief. He had financial problems so he started selling steroids. He told us that one transaction of selling steroids would result in multiple convictions: possession, trafficking, conspiracy, and fraud.
So someone who sounds like a person showing an intractable trend, an irremediable criminal, is actually a person who sold steroids over a period of six months and ended up with 24 indictable convictions as a result, because there are multiple convictions from single transactions.
Who is he now? I hope Canadians actually have seen this man. This man has gone for years without reoffending and is now an executive in the media industry, someone who has a mortgage and a new marriage and who occupies a position of responsibility and of probity. This was a person who presented an absolute success of what happens when prison works in the right way. This was not a thug and a hooligan or the type of criminal whom the government likes to portray—the stringy-haired criminogenic monster whom the government likes to hold up as the model for all of their criminal policy. This was a real person who had for a brief stretch of his life a problem, and he has put his life back together in admirable fashion.
The second person we heard from was a young aboriginal man. We all know that aboriginals are terribly disproportionately represented in our criminal justice system and in our prisons. This person told us that he's a recovering alcoholic who committed offences that were property offences. Yes, they were serious; I don't mean to minimize the offences. He committed robberies. He himself said that he knows the pain and the fear he caused when he went into stores and robbed those stores.
But he also is a person who has gone for years without reoffending. He is now a person who has a family and children. He talked about how he wants a pardon so that he can get a better job to support his family.
All three individuals talked about how getting a pardon is an incentive for them and a very important part of their rehabilitation plan to help turn their lives around.
Even, I dare say, some of the Conservatives' own witnesses, people who I think have a lot to tell Canadians about the criminal system—that's the victims groups.... We heard from Sharon Rosenfeldt and Sheldon Kennedy, two people who have suffered at the hands of criminals in a way that none of us can truly understand. Ms. Rosenfeldt lost a child to convicted killer Clifford Olson, and Sheldon Kennedy as a young teenager suffered under the sexual offences of his coach, someone under whose charge he was put, who should have been caring for him and should have been watching out for him, but who violated that trust. We have to take their testimony seriously.
We heard from both of those individuals that neither of them, I don't think, would be terribly in favour of removing the possibility of a pardon from someone forever just because they had more than three indictable offences.
We heard testimony from the minister that the figure of three or more than three indictable offences was an arbitrary one. We asked him if he had any data to support the number three. Is there some data to support that someone with more than three indictable offences is somehow less prone to qualify for pardon than someone with two? Or is the magic number four?
His answer was surprising and I think very disturbing. It was that it just seems right. He has no data—no empirical data, zero. This is someone who has the resources of the Department of Public Safety and probably of the Department of Justice, who has the full resources of government to provide studies and data and facts, who came to this committee and said he had nothing; three just seems right. One's not enough, he said; two's not probably right; but three seems right.
Mr. Chairman, that's Goldilocks policy. That's making policy the way children do: this one is too hard, this one is too soft, and this one is just right.
This policy would preclude tens of thousands of Canadians from ever getting a pardon for the rest of their lives. And it's based on a feeling, a hunch? That's not the way to make carceral policy in this country, and it's not, I think, what Canadians send us to Parliament to do. I think Canadians send each and every one of us to Parliament to carefully consider facts and evidence, to make the best effort we can make to come up with policy that is thoughtful and effective.
Again, the minister admitted no evidence, no data, no studies to show how adopting this law would help in any way to make our communities safer.
I also want to just talk for a second about this. This government has stood in the House time and again and said that the very best social safety tool that a person can have in this country is a job. You won't hear any one of the members of the government contradict that today, because they themselves have said it, because they believe it. And in some ways, Mr. Chairman, it's actually true. A job is a pivotal part of Canadians' abilities to care for themselves and care for their families.
We've heard absolutely unarguable testimony so far that getting a pardon is a critical part of having a person re-establish themselves in the employment world. We all know that when you apply for a job, there's a section on an employment form that asks: “Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offence for which a pardon has not been granted?” The ability to check off that box or not check it off is the difference between someone's getting a job and not getting a job, in many cases. If we want offenders to come back out of prison and to reintegrate themselves into society and start repaying their debt to society, and start acting as we expect our citizens to act and not be a burden on the taxpayer and not be a burden on the state, don't we want them to get a job? Of course, we want them to get a job if they've demonstrated that they deserve that kind of trust again.
The New Democrats are totally in favour of making a pardon process that is strict, that gives the pardon process the ability to deny that pardon, that makes the offender demonstrate that they have truly rehabilitated themselves through an extensive period of time of proving that; not through their words, but through a period of time during which they have shown that they have not reoffended—and make that period of time a good, substantial one; make it a long one, in some cases. But getting a job is critical, and this “three strikes and you're out” proposal would harm that process.
I also want to talk about lengthening the wait times. This bill proposes to double the ineligibility periods before applying for a pardon. It would go from five years to ten years in some cases, and three years to five years for summary convictions.
This is a concept that's worthy of further discussion, worth learning more about. What kinds of offences should go from five to ten years? As I've already said, New Democrats have already indicated our support for moving sex offences against children from five to ten years, and it may even be the case that there are some sex offences against children for which a person should never get a pardon. New Democrats are prepared to look at that.
But what this does with a broad brush...what this government says is that all indictable offences of every type should go from five to ten years. In a Criminal Code that is very thick and has every single type of indictable offence, from impaired driving to shoplifting to forging a testamentary instrument to passing a bad cheque, there are all sorts of offences that Canadians would recognize fall on a spectrum. They fall on a spectrum from the minimally serious to the moderately serious to the heinous.
There are some offences that I think we can all agree may qualify for the “never getting a pardon” process, but absolutely the vast majority of Canadians would agree, because they're reasonable people with common sense, that there are some indictable offences for which you shouldn't have to wait ten years to get a pardon. My colleague in the Liberal Party has brought up a very good example on several occasions of a young woman, perhaps a single mother, who gets into trouble—she's in her early 20s, she ends up writing some bad cheques, or she ends up shoplifting, maybe—because she is low-income and needs to have clothes for her children. She makes a mistake and she has one indictable offence.
This government would say that you have to wait 10 years after you serve your sentence, which in many cases would probably be 12, 13, or 14 years. Additionally, Mr. Chairman, we've also heard from businesses that exist to help people get pardons that the pardon process itself usually takes a year or two years.
So that one young woman who might have made a mistake at 20 years of age might, under this legislation, have to wait 15 years before she can get a pardon. That is not “considered legislation”, in my respectful submission.
In terms of basic drafting, this bill has been rushed so quickly that we can determine that there are drafting flaws in the bill. We have the so-called problem, which we have finally teased out of the minister and out of the support staff—I think they acknowledge that there is a drafting flaw in this bill—concerning the people who are convicted of sex offences against children and the way it works with respect to young offenders: a 16-year-old and a 14-year-old, or a 17-year-old and a 14-year-old. The close-in-age provision is incorrectly drafted in this bill. So we even have a flawed drafting issue here.
I also want to talk a bit about what I will say, with the greatest of respect, is a little bit of Conservative hypocrisy. We brought those three offenders as committee witnesses to show Canadians and this committee the types of people who would be personally affected by this legislation. Again I think it's fair to say that we heard compelling and touching stories of people with criminal pasts who had turned their lives around, who have completely turned their lives around. Conservatives to a person said to these people' faces, we're really proud of what you've done; we really admire the way you've turned your life around. I could be wrong, but I think one or two of them may even have suggested to these witnesses: “We don't mean you. You're not the ones we mean to prohibit from getting a pardon forever. We mean those other people.” But of course, those three are exactly the people who will not get a pardon as a result of this legislation.
Worse, after sitting here in this committee, each of the Conservatives talking to those ex-offenders and treating them with respect and praising them stood up in the House the very next day and made outrageous statements disparaging those very courageous individuals who came to tell their stories.
I won't mention the name, but I'll quote one of the members in the House, the day after these former offenders came and bravely testified—on television—about their criminal past and how it was turned around. It took more courage than I have seen many Canadian demonstrate in a long time. The Conservative member said:
...yesterday the public safety committee heard pleas from the convicted criminals to keep Canada's pardon system as is. Like so many times before, the Liberal public safety critic showed that he put the rights of criminals before the rights of victims.
That, of course, is not true. This is part of the rhetorical nonsense you hear from the government, which accuses anybody who might want to bring some study and some subtlety and some intelligence and some facts to the debate of crime...they accuse us of putting criminals before victims. What nonsense! But they did it, and worse was their two-faced way of telling these people to their faces how much they admired them and the next day going into the House of Commons, where they have parliamentary immunity, and portraying them to the Canadian public as if we had a bunch of common criminals who wanted the pardon system liberalized. It was about the biggest piece of hypocrisy I've seen in a long time.
I want to talk again about evidence. So far the Conservatives have not tabled one piece of evidence, one statistic, one study, or one piece of data before this committee that shows why these changes are needed or how the changes would improve community safety.
I want to talk again about the Conservative approach to making legislative changes based on politics and based on fear and not based on facing evidence.
When they put Bill C-5, the international transfer of offenders bill before this committee, it was unanimously panned by the witnesses. The Conservatives couldn't find one witness, not one, who supported the bill.
They brought Bill C-17, and we heard this expert panel yesterday express grave concerns about the impact on free speech and basic--