Thank you, Mr. Chair.
It's always a pleasure to appear before you and this committee. I know you have a particular interest in issues of public safety, having served as the critic for Public Safety for a number of years. I know you did an admirable job in that respect, and I'm sure you are putting that knowledge to good use, as you are now entrusted with this very important position as chair of this committee.
I will say that after I and 30 separate individuals have appeared at eight committee hearings answering questions on G-8/G-20 costs, the chance to finally discuss government legislation is indeed a welcome opportunity. I'm grateful to contribute to your review of Bill C-23B, the Eliminating Pardons for Serious Crimes Act.
I have with me a number of senior officials, whom you have already introduced. I will defer to their knowledge in specific areas when it's appropriate in order for the committee to get all the facts necessary for consideration.
With your permission, I have a short opening statement, after which I would be happy to answer any questions the committee may have.
Before I continue, I want to acknowledge the spirit of cooperation that all honourable members have demonstrated in strengthening Canada's pardon system. Together we've made some important progress in addressing serious shortcomings in the legislation, things that were a very real concern for Canadians, and things that the House was able to pass prior to rising for the summer break of Parliament.
With the amendments to the Criminal Records Act, passed in June, the Parole Board of Canada now has the authority to exercise discretion and to deny a pardon application in cases where the evidence clearly demonstrates that granting one would bring the administration of justice into disrepute. The board must weigh this decision, taking into account factors such as the nature, gravity, and duration of the offence, as well as the circumstances surrounding the commission of the offence, and of course the applicant's criminal history. You will recall that under the former legislation there was little difference in the criteria to differentiate between a pardon for an indictable offence and summary conviction offences.
Offenders must now show that there is a measurable benefit to granting them a pardon. The onus is on the applicant to demonstrate to the Parole Board of Canada that a pardon will contribute to their rehabilitation as a law-abiding citizen. Those amendments also increase the length of time before someone convicted of a serious crime is eligible to apply for a pardon. Anyone convicted, by indictment, of a sexual offence against a child or of a serious personal injury offence is required to wait 10 years, instead of the previous five, before they can apply for a pardon.
We have worked in collaboration with the other parties to make solid initial progress. In passing these amendments, we've also shown our respect for the wishes of victims and many other law-abiding Canadians. We believe more can be done, and I trust we can continue in the spirit of cooperation to make further improvements to the legislation.
Mr. Chair, to understand why Bill C-23B is important, we need only to go back to April of this year, when Canadians learned that sex offenders can have their records set aside if they meet the requirements and they have adopted a law-abiding life. Canadians reacted. Many were concerned.
A good part of Canadians' reactions was connected to the word “pardon”. One of the dictionary definitions of “pardon” is forgiveness. The other meaning, which is “remission of illegal consequences of crime or conviction”, is closer to what the act intended. The perception of forgiveness has prevailed, and in very serious cases in particular it has been very difficult for victims to contemplate forgiveness when the harm or injury is still being suffered by that victim.
This is why this bill would change the terminology. The Parole Board of Canada would no longer grant offenders a pardon, but rather a suspension of record. This change will provide a more accurate and understandable description of what in fact is being granted and an opportunity to start over with what amounts to a clean slate.
It affirms the fact that a person's criminal record will be kept separate and apart, but it makes clear that the record has not been erased. That is one important amendment contained in this bill.
A second amendment is directed at protecting the most vulnerable of our citizens, our children. While Bill C-23A made some improvement in this area, we believe more should be done.
As you will recall, the amendments passed in June provided that those convicted of a sexual offence related to a minor and prosecuted by way of indictment must now wait 10 years to apply for a pardon. In the case of those who commit a sexual offence against a minor and are prosecuted by summary conviction, the waiting period is now five years. The amendment proposed in Bill C-23B would go further and make anyone convicted of an offence involving sexual activity relating to a minor ineligible for a suspension of record.
I emphasize that this provision would not be all encompassing. If the offender can demonstrate that he or she was close in age to the victim, which is similar to some of the other provisions we have in the Criminal Code, and that the offence did not involve a position of trust or authority or a threat of violence or intimidation, a suspension of record could be granted in that circumstance.
This bill would also deny a suspension of record to anyone convicted of more than three offences prosecuted by indictment. We believe this is a reasonable cut-off point.
A final amendment contained in this bill would require the Parole Board of Canada to submit an annual report on its activities with regard to suspensions of record to the Minister of Public Safety. This report would be tabled in Parliament and therefore available to all Canadians. The report would let Canadians know how many applications the board received for suspensions of record for both summary convictions and indictable offences, as well as the number of suspensions ordered and refused for both categories of offences. The report would also list suspensions of record ordered by offence and by the applicant's province of residence.
The goal of this amendment is quite simple, and I trust honourable members will agree that greater transparency is always a good idea. We believe this is information that Canadians should be able to access. It's also information that parliamentarians need in order to determine whether the system is working as it should. This report would not contain any personal information.
Mr. Chair, in addition, the government will be bringing forward various technical amendments to this legislation in order to reconcile Bill C-23A and Bill C-23B. The reconciliation has to occur, given the fact that those two bills were split off, and it would appear that presently, unless that reconciliation takes place, there would be some inconsistencies if the House simply adopted Bill C-23B.
In conclusion, Mr. Chair, we are all aware that certain provisions of the Criminal Records Act have been the subject of considerable debate in recent months. We have all read the editorials and the letters to the editor and we have listened to the calls on the talk shows. I know how many e-mails and calls I have received on the subject.
There is no question that the subject of pardons touches a nerve with Canadians. The amendments we are proposing in this bill are a reasoned response to the very reasonable concerns of Canadians. With the simple replacement of one word, these amendments would take a great deal of the emotion out of this debate and more accurately identify what in fact is being accomplished. Together with the previous amendments to the Criminal Records Act, they will help further ensure that suspensions of record are granted only to those who have earned them. They will provide Canadians with more information about the workings of an important part of our justice system.
I thank you, Mr. Chair. I thank committee members in advance, and I look forward to our discussions.