Madam Speaker, I have no hesitation in coming to the issue before us, a piece of legislation which I think is not even worthy of the debate this Parliament has undertaken.
Members will appreciate the fact that perhaps, unlike some of my colleagues in the House of Commons, I have spent a considerable amount of my career working to help Canadians in difficult situations get home. While all of those do not necessarily involve circumstances that are the most palatable, or something that on the surface may seem to be correct, appropriate and right, the reality is that my actions and those of my colleagues in the Liberal Party have always been governed by principle, by legislation that has been time honoured and treaties that have worked for Canadians as well as for our international reputation.
What the Conservative government is proposing today is really a deconstruction to facilitate more discretion for the minister to pick and choose who the minister wants to render or to bring home. The reality is that when we see this bill before us that refers to keeping Canadians safe, nothing could be further from the truth.
As many colleagues have mentioned already, when an individual is prevented by his or her government from coming returning home and getting proper rehabilitation, from a land in which the individual may have been guilty over there but not necessarily here, and in which the circumstances of the individual's incarceration does not lead necessarily to the individual's conviction here in this country, without reprogramming, without the opportunity to rehabilitate, we are opening up a Pandora's box and subjecting Canadians to certain harm.
On the question of harm, the Conservative government has not made the case for the bill. I truly believe it should not go beyond second reading for the simple reason there has not been one case with which the Conservatives can come forward on the question of recidivism. We do know that the government has spent a considerable amount of its time and the time of the courts dragging its heels preventing Canadians from coming home, forcing Canadians to hire lawyers and go to the Federal Court of Canada in order to get the government to act, to stand up for the rights of Canadians abroad.
Members will understand my surprise at this kind of arbitrary discretion given to the minister, not based on fact. It surprised me because the bill was introduced by the Minister of Public Safety. Where is the Minister of Foreign Affairs? This is a treaty of a transfer of offender. If I understand the role of the public safety minister, formerly known as the solicitor general, it is to ensure that there is an appropriate understanding between the two nations when it comes to a transfer. It surprises me that the Minister of Foreign Affairs, one of the proudest portfolios we have in our government, is mute, relatively silent, taking a back seat and, I would say, irrelevant in this process.
I want to talk a little bit about the experiences I have had with Canadians who have had difficulty returning home. I am not talking about the imbroglio years ago with which I had to become involved with respect to the return of someone like, for instance, Brenda Martin. The government, after dragging its legs, heels, whatever, decided at the last moment that it would spend $90,000 to bring her home, when all it had to do was press for the case. There is something far more important with that case as it applies to many others. I can cite for colleagues examples of where Canadians have found themselves in difficulty.
Often the transfer of offender treaty is a mechanism where we may disagree with the legal system of another country, but once the person's trial is over, the transfer mechanism can be triggered. This allows us a political but also a diplomatic way of ensuring the return of a person who has been ill-treated abroad because the person happens to be a foreign national, because the person happens to be Canadian, because the person has been subjected to shoddy police investigations there, where the person has been subjected to a rule of law in that country, good or bad, that may not, for instance, adhere to the principle, the concept, the very maxim of presumption of innocence.
This mechanism, agreed by most nations around the world, a transfer of offender treaty, has worked well for Canada since 1978. It was codified in 2004. It has helped Canadians and certainly improved Canada's standing internationally when it comes to reciprocal roles between nations. We do not always have to agree with the legal system of another country.
Let us understand why this legislation is here. Sine 2006, the Conservative government has taken upon itself to refuse to bring Canadians home. This is not done with a ministerial refusal but by finding excuses such as a CSIS review or subjecting a person to incarceration longer because the government cannot find a way of saying no, even though the approvals have happened to bring the Canadian back to Canada from the host country where the Canadian has been incarcerated. I will provide some examples.
Hundreds of Canadians can be detained or sentenced to incarceration in foreign lands. Of course, we know that some deserve to be behind bars, but there are other cases, as I have mentioned, that are not so clear-cut. A growing concern in recent years is that it seems when Canadians get in trouble abroad, there is often an automatic assumption by some officials and, yes, some politicians that the subject is guilty and should be left to his or her own fate.
This is a rather dim view that can be evidenced by the fact that the government approval rate of transfer of offender applications filed by Canadians serving sentences abroad has declined in recent years. It is down from 140 cases approved by Canada in 2005 to a low of 58 in 2006, 75 in 2007, and 108 in 2008.
I should point out that the slight increase in 2008 may be due to recent court rulings urging the government to lighten up on denying such requests. It is worth noting that in 2005 no transfer request was in fact denied. However, in 2008, 26 were refused and the refusals have drawn some attention and could support the view that the government is taking a new and rather heavy-handed approach to dealing with wayward Canadians.
In one court ruling a couple of years ago, Justice Kelen commented that the government should be taken to task on its transfer refusal. The court went as far as to state that contrary to the Minister of Public Safety's view, not everyone abroad constitutes a threat to national security. My goodness, there are 45,000 people incarcerated in this country. Are we to assume then that the minister thinks that all 45,000 are a threat to national security?
When we look at the facts underlying the reason the government has been motivated to bring this kind of legislation forward, they have nothing to do with what we are reading in it. It is not keeping Canadians safe. It is keeping Canadians in the dark. It is denying them a series of circumstances. It demonstrates to Canadians above all that the government is all about quick witty comments such as fairness at the gas pumps and keeping Canadians safe. It is a fraud. It is not true.
If the government is trying to go after a particular constituency to make a few people happy, that is great, but I can say that in my time I have dealt with people across the aisle, Conservatives, Bloc members, New Democrats, and when one of their constituents who may have supported them is in difficulty, there is never a question from a Liberal or most members of Parliament as to whether or not the person voted for a certain party before getting service. Giving discretion to the minister leaves us in a position where we are now going to subject the right of a Canadian to return, often in circumstances that are unbelievable, based on the whim of the minister.
We believe in the rule of law, not the rule of thumb.
It is extremely important for colleagues to recognize that this piece of legislation may be couched under circumstances that may allow the government to appeal to a particular constituency in this country. I can only say that I have met people who have been and are part of that constituency and it is a different thing when it is their son, their daughter, their aunt, their friend, their relative who is in difficult circumstances.
We have seen the government act in a way that is capricious and we cannot have a situation of picking and choosing Canadians we are going to help abroad. Nor is it lost on people how unseemly it is for individuals to have to take their cases to court because of a government that hides behind its royal prerogative to help or not to help.
The Conservatives campaigned a few years ago on a platform of standing up for Canadians. It is too bad they do not do it when it comes to Canadians abroad unless they are embarrassed into doing it, until they are forced to do it or because someone who happens to be well connected to their party made a phone call saying they ought to look at it.
There is the case of Mr. Kapustin, for whom the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism quite rightly went to bat, but there are hundreds of other Canadians like him. There is Brenda Martin. The Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities went to see Bashir Makhtal in Ethiopia. It was very laudable, but there are hundreds of Canadians who find themselves now caught in a situation where the Minister of Public Safety wants to use some undefined, unspecified and very arbitrary decision-making power that is contained in this legislation to choose who is and who is not going to get the chance to return home.
I cannot think of a better example of why parliamentarians exist, and that is to prevent the unchecked power of cabinet and of the executive to make decisions based upon circumstances ill-defined, certainly in legislation.
We have every reason to worry about this. Canadians travel for many reasons such as business, education, tourism and volunteering at work. They should not commit crimes whether they are here or whether they are elsewhere around the world, we know that. However, we know that some, unfortunately, will.
We also know that Canadians may be convicted in the context where the presumption of innocence is ignored, where prejudice against foreigners, human rights violations and unsavoury policing techniques lead to convictions of innocent persons. We also know that sometimes harsher sentences are imposed on foreigners than on nationals, and I have a number of examples of experiences with this. The possibility of serving the remainder of a sentence in Canada, in my view and I think the view of what we have seen in practice, may alleviate these perceived and sometimes real injustices.
Should Canadians have the right to be transferred? If, indeed, the conditions of incarceration amount to what would otherwise be considered matters of cruel and unusual punishment, in this case and as this legislation from the Conservatives proposes, should they be at the mercy of the minister's whim in the evaluation of such critical and crucial decisions? I think not.
I ask Canadians to look beyond this bill before us called keeping Canadians safe. They should look at it and scratch back a bit of the surface. It is wonderful and we all want to be safe, but there is nothing that binds Canadians together more than recognizing that we believe in the ability of an individual to rehabilitate themselves.
We have an excellent correctional service system in Canada, of that I have no doubt. However, as I mentioned earlier, it is this transfer of offender treaty that allows many people, who would otherwise find themselves permanently in jail, incarcerated, tortured, deprived of the very basics of human rights because of a ministerial whim, to return to a country that has forsaken them.
This is not a question of making a point about good people and bad people. If they are jail in other countries, there is probably a very good reason for it. However, all too often we see there are extremely important examples of where people have been put in jail through no fault of their own.
What do we do with Mohamed Kohail, who just a few months ago was sentenced to death? That sentence, we hope, will be lifted at some point. What about William Sampson, a case which I was directly involved with, who was about to be executed? We worked with those countries and we worked to ensure that our relations with those other nations were paramount so that the life of the Canadian in this case, and we hope in the case of Mohamed Kohail, would be spared.
Canadians are languishing in jails around the world. The least they would expect is for Parliament to give a rubber stamp or a green light to a practice of saying that we may or may not like them, but we do not want to tell them why we may or may not like them.
My hon. colleague, the member for Hull—Aylmer, raised a question about a particular case. I know the case very well because it was one of an individual who is bipolar and who had done something obviously wrong, but at the end of his time in prison, half his sentence was served, the American government and the State of Florida said that he could return to Canada, that they had no quarrel with it. However, the Conservative government that said, no, that it wanted to keep him there. It knew he was bipolar and that he had difficulty. It knew he did not get treatment while he was in that facility, but it did not want him back.
The right of a Canadian to return is a right that cannot be compromised or changed by judicial discretion or ministerial indiscretions, and that is of great concern to members of Parliament on all sides of the House.
If I sound passionate, it is because I back up what I say with action. I call on the Conservatives to back off on this nonsense. There is no reason to have this kind of legislation. When Canadians, who I think are extremely intelligent on these kinds of things, have an opportunity to look at it, they will not be fooled. They will not be fooled by “keeping us safe” when it is in fact tantamount to making Canadians unsafe.
People who return from torture and squalor in another nation and have been kept there because of the discretion of the minister will not come back programmed to go back into society. Let us understand this. They are not folks who have committed an offence in Canada. They get off the plane, the boat, the train or whatever the case may be and they go into the general public.
Where is our public safety there? The government has to be clean. It cannot confuse messages to be cute, trendy or trite when all it is doing is potentially subjecting Canadians to more harm, while at the same time damaging the lives of individuals who did no crime in Canada.
We understand the transfer of offenders treaty. People commit serious offences in another country. After a period of time, the country agrees, through treaty, to send them to serve out the remainder of their sentence in Canada. People who have committed serious crimes in other countries will have to serve the remainder of that sentence in the Canadian context, and that is very important to stress. They will at least be in a Canadian facility so they can be directed in a way that they can get back on the streets and rehabilitate themselves.
We do not have something like dungeons in our country. We do not torture people in our country. We believe in the ability of people to reintegrate into society at some point. That is, after all, why we call it corrections. By allowing the minister to do this through misadventure, and by supporting an ideology, which I think under scrutiny most Canadians would not accept, is wrong. It is flim-flam and it is not standing up for Canadians but rather trampling on Canadians.
In my time as a member of Parliament, dealing with some of these cases, I have often thought it interesting when I visit someone who has been in jail and has been tortured. It is interesting and depressing to know that the person has only one link to Canada and that is a Canadian citizenship. People fought for our liberties in the Boer War, the first world war, the second world war and the Korean War. What our young men and women are doing in Afghanistan today is making our country proud. I think the last thing on their minds would be to see us compromising our framework of legal, democratic bodies of law that protect Canadians at an instant.
For the members of the government on the other side who have proposed the legislation, it is not only flawed, but it sends the wrong message. It does not improve Canada's image and it does nothing to protect Canadians. It does not do a service to those men and women who have given their lives and continue to make our country proud on a number of fronts.
We should talk to our police about Canadians who have returned and the importance for rehabilitation through our correctional services. Every person has the ability to change. Some may not, but if they have not committed a crime in Canada, we should give them the benefit of the doubt. The facts bear out. How many Canadians have returned under the transfer of offenders treaty and offended? Not one.
The argument made to justify this legislation is false, it is misleading and it is a fraud. I would suggest to all members of the House that this does not deserve the debate in committee. There are only a couple of amendments, including changing “must” to “shall” and giving the minister discretion that, in his or her opinion, the person should or should not return.
I do not think that discretion should be given. I do not think there is a basis for it. I do not think there is an argument for it. Anybody who takes the time to really consider what has been offered here must recognize that the facts speak louder than political or ideological rhetoric. I am convinced that we should not only leave well enough alone, but that the problem is not evident. As my colleague just said a little earlier, it is not broken, so let us not try to fix it.
I look forward to questions from members of Parliament, but I want them to know one thing. I would stand up for any Canadian requested by any member of Parliament from any party. I am here to stand up for Canadians. This is not an ideological issue. The Conservatives should come to their senses.