Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure to join in the debate today on Bill C-4, a bill to amend the Youth Criminal Justice Act. This is certainly an issue which is of concern and interest across Canada.
One thing that concerns me, though, is that when we hear the Conservatives talk about young people, most of the time it is about putting them in jail. My experience with many young people in my riding of Halifax West is very different and very positive. I think most people in this chamber would recognize that most of their experiences with youth have been positive, I hope.
For instance, I recently attended the Bedford Lions Speak Out in my riding where seven or eight high school students spoke extremely well, which made it difficult for the judges. I was not a judge but I was asked to ask questions of the students after they had made their speeches to help make it a little more challenging for them. These were young leaders in the community who offered arguments and advocated that other young people should be more involved in the community and in volunteerism. These were terrific young people.
My son is a Scout and I went with his Scout troop on a winter camping trip on one of the coldest Saturday nights of February. It has been a mild winter but it was about minus 20° that night, if I recall correctly. I spent a couple of hours on the Saturday morning with them, helping them set up and taking some pictures of them. I was glad not to have to stay too much longer because it was cold. Sure, I was concerned about my son, but he was well-equipped, very happy and enjoyed it thoroughly. There again was a group of young people doing good things.
The Scout movement is involved in setting goals. My son wants to be a chief Scout, for example, which is an important goal and there are steps one works at toward that. That is the kind of activity in which we want to see young people involved. We should want to see more encouragement of that kind of activity. They have positive role models involved, which is very important because it is so often lacking which is why young people get involved in criminal activities. This is part of the heart of the problem. We need to examine the reasons why young people sometime get into trouble. They often do not have mentors or positive role models. They often have terrible home lives because they are living in poverty. We need to examine that.
In terms of other positive examples, I recently attended the launch of the Girls Soar Physical Activity Week. We saw some terrific young people from a school in my riding. In fact, I saw a young runner from the riding of Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, my colleague's riding, who is on the national team and is a tremendous young role model.
There are so many examples of young people doing good things, I would like to see the Conservative government thinking about them a little more and thinking about how we get more young people to be like that. We need to deal with the issues of youth crime in a way that says that part of the solution here is to recognize the causes of these crimes and what is behind these problems, and then try to address them more effectively.
People in my province have and have had a great interest in this issue for some years, particularly following, which I know my colleague from West Nova will recall, the tragic death of a well-liked teacher named Theresa McEvoy. Justice Merlin Nunn was appointed by the provincial government to do a study and he did an excellent examination into the situation that led to her death by a young offender, 16-year-old Archie Billard. It was a very sad case but Justice Nunn did an excellent job and his report was highly regarded across the province.
It is important to look at the history of this situation. Before the Youth Criminal Justice Act, Canada at one time had one of the highest rates of incarceration of young people in the world. We should consider whether that will really work and whether that is really the answer. The government wants to incarcerate more and more people and wants to have more prisons at great expense but is not willing to put the money into things that will reduce poverty, and that is the concern.
The idea of the Youth Criminal Justice Act, in many parts, was to deal appropriately with young people, to deal with people who were not violent offenders in a way that is appropriate. There is no question that, as Justice Nunn recommended, there needs to be some changes to the act.
This is very important, which is why I brought forward a bill. I had great assistance from the lawyer for the McEvoy family, Hugh Wright, a lawyer in Halifax who kindly worked hard and drafted the bill that I introduced to try to implement the recommendations of Justice Nunn.
I am pleased to see in this bill some of the elements of what I was proposing, but I do not see others. I see other elements that were not at all recommended by Justice Nunn, which concern me. I want to talk about this issue, because it seems to me that the government has chosen to cherry-pick from the Nunn report the kinds of things that suited its own ideology and reject those that did not. It is a bit like its attitude toward evidence generally, and I will talk about that some more.
The Nunn report has been out for several years now, and it is curious to me that it has taken so long for the government to come forward with a response to it. We had Bill C-25 introduced in the last Parliament, but the government did nothing to move it forward. That is so often the case with so many of its so-called tough on crime bills. It talked about them a lot, but it did not actually take action to move those bills forward. It would not even introduce them sometimes for debate, which is curious and bizarre to me.
By the way, if this bill passes second reading and does go to committee, I hope that Justice Nunn will be asked to appear at committee to give his expert advice. I think he is very knowledgeable and has done a very thorough review.
There are some good things in this bill. There are numerous amendments to the act and the youth justice regime as a whole, including changes to the general sentencing principles of the Youth Criminal Justice Act. Other amendments include changes to the definitions of terms such as “violent offence” and provisions relating to publication bans and repeat offenders.
I think it would be worthwhile for the House to hear some of the words that Justice Nunn wrote in his report on the McEvoy case, because they are important to knowing the background of this situation and what is happening in youth crime in Canada and what the response to it should be. He said:
[I]t is important to state that not one of the parties with standing took exception to the philosophy behind the act or to the majority of its provisions. Rather, they identified a number of sections causing concern and recommended changes.
He further said:
I can categorically state that the Youth Criminal Justice Act is legislation that provides an intelligent, modern, and advanced approach to dealing with youths involved in criminal activities. Canada is now far ahead of other countries in its treatment of youth in conflict with the law—
He went on to say:
This is not to say that there are not those who are opposed to the [Youth Criminal Justice Act], just as there were those opposed to the previous acts, the Juvenile Delinquents Act and the Young Offenders Act. Many of these critics believe that jail is the answer: “There they'll learn the errors of their ways.” These critics pay little attention to contrary evidence, nor do they understand that with young persons jail for the terms they recommend does not correct or rehabilitate, but rather often turns out a person whose behaviour is much worse than it was. Others espouse the vengeful adage “adult crime—adult time,” paying no attention to the fact that it is a youth crime and not an adult crime.
Such an attitude is in direct conflict with modern approaches to treating criminal behaviour. Most of the adherents of these views refuse to accept that youth should be treated differently and separately from any adult system.
Nevertheless, they are entitled to the views and opinions they express. Unfortunately, in the present state of our youth criminal justice system, they are unable to make any contribution to reform even when some reform is not only reasonable but desirable.
He went on to say on page 230 of his report:
The witnesses and counsel for all parties in this inquiry have indicated full support for the aims and goals of the act while recognizing, at the same time, a need for a number of amendments to give flexibility to the courts in dealing with repeat offenders, primarily by opening a door to pre-trial custody and enlarging the gateways to custody.
He went on to say:
I cannot overestimate the importance of taking a balanced approach. Parts of the [Youth Criminal Justice Act] must be changed in order to create a workable and effective approach to handling repeat offenders in a manner based upon protection of the public as a primary concern, as well as providing a means to step in to halt unacceptable criminal behaviour in a timely manner. This is not an option. It is critical.
Here is the last quotation I will provide from him, from page 233 of his report:
[I] must make it absolutely clear and not open to question that all the witnesses I heard—police, prosecutors, defence counsel, and experts—agree with and support the aims and intent of the act. They accept it as a vast improvement over the previous legislation.
Thus I think it is important that as we examine this bill and examine what should be done to change the Youth Criminal Justice Act, we consider those thoughts and the need not just to change it but also to get it right. We need to be thoughtful about this. We need to provide a balanced approach and be smart on crime and on youth crime in this case.
I have serious concerns about this particular bill, which I hope will be addressed in committee, if in fact it gets to committee. These are sweeping changes to the act and some elements of the bill seem to favour punishment more than rehabilitation.
The government has done virtually nothing to ensure that youth do not get into the justice system in the first place, and that is a concern. What we have seen instead are cuts to anti-poverty programs and child care, and a lack of funding for aboriginal communities, as we would have had in the Kelowna accord, et cetera.
I also believe that youth must be treated differently from adults, and that is an important consideration. The Canadian justice system has recognized for decades that while their crimes may be similar, we need to treat youth differently from adults. The Conservative Party has never held that view.
It reminds me of the fact that children at age 14 have brains that are not fully developed; their brains are still developing and changing. I think anybody who has been a parent of a 13- or 14-year-old ought to be aware of it. Maybe some of us have forgotten that, but young people are terrific. My son is 13 and he is terrific, but there is no question that he is still growing and learning and that his thinking will change in the coming years. It is important to remember that when we think about how to deal with these situations.
In the past, the Conservatives and the Reformers before them have fought to reduce the barriers between youth and adult offenders. In fact, during the last election they said they wanted to put 14-year-olds into our prison system, institutions with hardened adult prisoners. Why would we put a 14-year-old in a prison, the same place as murderers, rapists and gang members, if our intention is not to make them better at crime and more hardened criminals?
There are weaknesses in this bill. Parts of it are poorly drafted. I suspect it may be the result of the fact this really comes from government ideology, as opposed to the bill being drafted by the department, because it usually produces very high quality legislation.
However, there are good provisions in it and I want to give credit where credit is due. For example, the bill would make it mandatory that no youth, regardless of their crime, would spend time in an adult institution. We need to see what the government will do to ensure that the provinces have the capacity to deal with this provision and be able to comply with it. I think we know the government recognizes that it could not get away with what it was suggesting in the last election, that is, putting young people in the same place as adult criminals. At any rate, I am pleased to see this has been modified and is an important provision in the bill.
Another example is the provision that allows courts in sentencing to lift a ban on publication of the accused or convicted person's name. I would hope this would happen rarely, not often, but I can personally see that this could be needed in exceptional cases and would be helpful in protecting the public. That is my own view.
Let me talk for a moment about some of the recommendations in particular that Justice Nunn made and how this bill responds to them. I think he made some 36 recommendations. Some of them related to the provincial justice system, the system for youth incarceration and so forth, and a certain number of them related to federal legislation. I am going to talk in particular about those that relate to the bill we are talking about today.
Recommendation 20 said:
The Province should advocate that the federal government amend the “Declaration of Principle” in section 3 of the Youth Criminal Justice Act to add a clause indicating that protection of the public is one of the primary goals of the act.
The government has certainly made the protection of the public a major part of this act now, but it has also gone far beyond what Justice Nunn recommended. My feeling is that what the government has done in this bill is in fact a rejection of the recommendation I just read. Justice Nunn made it very clear that it was important to be balanced in how this was done and he wanted this to be just one of the principles, because the other principles were still important. The government has made it the overriding principle, and that is a concern.
In recommendation 21, he said:
The Province should advocate that the federal government amend the definition of “violent offence” in section 39(1)(a) of the Youth Criminal Justice Act to include conduct that endangers or is likely to endanger the life or safety of another person.
I am pleased to see that the government has done this in section 3(c) of this bill.
In recommendation 22, Justice Nunn said:
The Province should advocate that the federal government amend section 39(1)(c) of the Youth Criminal Justice Act so that the requirement for a demonstrated “pattern of findings of guilt” is changed to “a pattern of offences,” or similar wording, with the goal that both a young person’s prior findings of guilt and pending charges are to be considered when determining the appropriateness of pre-trial detention.
In this case, in clause 8 of the bill, the government has resorted to the phrase “either extrajudicial sanctions or of findings of guilt or of both”. Instead of looking at what the pattern of offences was, it has talked about them quite differently with the terms, “extrajudicial sanctions”. It will be interesting to have a discussion about what that would mean.
Does it mean that if a police officer stops a young person and reprimands them or drives them home for some reason, or whatever, that would be an extrajudicial sanction? It is not clear to me, and I am a little concerned that this particular provision might be subject to a charter challenge, because it may bring in things where there has not been due process. Obviously, we should be careful of that because we want to have laws that are actually going to work and not be overturned by courts. Most of us would prefer that we designed these laws and determined what they should be here in Parliament.
In recommendation 25, Justice Nunn said:
The Province should advocate that the federal government amend section 31(6) of the Youth Criminal Justice Act to remove the requirement of a new bail hearing for the young person before being placed in pre-trial custody if the designated “responsible person” is relieved of his or her obligations under a “responsible person undertaking.”
This is a very important recommendation at the heart of what Justice Nunn was talking about. It is not clear to me that this is in the bill. I have looked for a provision like this and have not seen it, but I hope we will have some answers from the government on that question of why we do not see an amendment to that section of the act in the bill as presented.
To me, this is at the heart of the matter because in the McEvoy case, the mother of the accused had agreed to look after and be responsible for the accused young person, but then at some point before his trial said she could not handle it any more and could not take responsibility. She wanted to be relieved of her responsibility.
There was no provision for that young person to then be held to their undertaking and be taken into custody. This is one the key things that Justice Nunn wanted to see changed. I am concerned that we do not see it in the bill. I raised this issue with the minister just before speaking here, and I hope he will be looking into it. I think he will perhaps be looking into it and at whether or not we need an amendment to the bill. I hope we will see that coming forward.
Recommendation 23 from Justice Nunn reads:
The Province should advocate that the federal government amend and simplify the statutory provisions relating to the pre-trial detention of young persons so that section 29 will stand on its own without interaction with other statutes or other provisions of the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
I am pleased to see that clause 4 of the bill appears to do this, though I only received the bill yesterday and only had a good look through it last night. These things take time to digest and we would like to look further at this and have some good discussion among colleagues on it. However, I am encouraged to see that it appears to be going in the right direction.
Recommendation 24 states:
The Province should advocate that the federal government amend section 31(5)(a) of the Youth Criminal Justice Act so that if the designated “responsible person” is relieved of his or her obligations under a “responsible person undertaking” the young person’s undertaking made under section 31(3)(b) nevertheless remains in full force and effect, particularly any requirement to keep the peace and be of good behaviour and other conditions imposed by a youth court judge.
Again, this is one of the issues I raised with the minister and I am pleased he has agreed to look into it.
I am gravely concerned about the provisions on denunciation and deterrence that are in the bill, because they are contrary to all the evidence. The fact is that we know that a 15-year-old generally thinks he or she is invincible and is not going to get caught. So these provisions do not really work.