moved that Bill C-15, An Act to amend the National Defence Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, be read the third time and passed.
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise in support of Bill C-15, which aims to amend the National Defence Act to strengthen Canada’s military justice and grievance systems.
This legislation is a comprehensive package of amendments that will enhance the military justice system, clarify the roles and responsibilities of the Canadian Forces Provost Marshal and improve the military police complaints process and military grievance system.
As a former practitioner of the law, Mr. Speaker, you could vouch for the fact that the modernization of law, including the justice system for the Canadian Forces, is an extremely important undertaking and is a long time overdue.
As the House has heard throughout its considerable consideration of the bill, the military justice system is essential to maintaining the discipline, efficiency and morale of the Canadian Armed Forces.
The requirement for a separate, unique system of military justice has long been endorsed by Parliament and the Supreme Court, and is further recognized in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The framework of Canada's military justice system has also been validated in two independent reviews. The first was conducted by Chief Justice Lamer and was tabled in the House in 2003. A second review, by Chief Justice LeSage, was tabled last year following the introduction of the bill.
The amendments proposed in Bill C-15 were developed to address those recommendations that are still outstanding from the Lamer report.
Bill C-15 encapsulates the government's previous legislative efforts to address these recommendations, namely through Bill C-7, Bill C-45 and Bill C-41, so the bill is essentially in its fourth iteration.
The content of the bill has been thoroughly debated and reviewed. It has been before the House, where some 100 speakers from all parties participated in the debate. Most recently, the Standing Committee on National Defence met eight times in February in examining the bill. Three sessions were devoted to clause-by-clause review of the proposed legislation, and the committee heard from 16 expert witnesses from the Department of National Defence, the Canadian Armed Forces and non-governmental organizations.
I want to take this opportunity to thank my House colleagues and the witnesses for their diligence and dedication in the study of the bill.
I would also be remiss if I did not note the leadership of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence, the member for Ajax—Pickering and members of the committee, as well as Colonel Mike Gibson, who has dedicated tremendous time and effort in bringing the bill forward to this point.
The bill before the House today will make several important changes to the National Defence Act and enhance the military justice system and grievance framework. These amendments include setting out a wider and more flexible range of sentencing options, enhancing the treatment of victims by introducing victim impact statements at courts martial, and clarifying the process and timelines for future independent reviews of the military justice system.
I am pleased to say that members from both sides of the House are generally in support of enhancing the military justice system and grievance process. However, during second reading and in committee, it became apparent that misconceptions regarding certain provisions have persisted, specifically, those provisions related to criminal record exemptions and the Vice Chief of Defence Staff’s authority to provide instructions to the Canadian Forces Provost Marshall during investigations.
I would like to take this opportunity to make the government's position clear on these issues and to put to rest any misunderstandings that could further delay the implementation of this important legislation.
Let me begin by quickly addressing concerns related to the criminal records aspect in clause 75 of the bill, because it seemed to be the focal point of many of the comments here in the House and in committee.
While summary trials are necessary to maintain discipline within the Canadian Armed Forces, clause 75 specifically recognizes that most summary trial conviction offences are not sufficiently severe to justify a criminal record for the disciplined military members within the meaning of the Criminal Records Act.
Specifically, this clause ensures that service members would no longer be required to apply for a record suspension, also known as a pardon, for convictions that would not constitute an offence for the purposes of the Criminal Records Act. That is to say, it simply would not show on a person's record upon leaving the Canadian Forces if he or she has been convicted under one of the offences specified in the act.
In response to concerns under the scope of exempted convictions, the committee accepted the government's proposal to amend the bill to expand the list of exemptions. National Defence estimates that this provision would exempt approximately 95% of summary trial convictions from resulting in a record within the meaning of the Criminal Records Act and eliminate any undue hardship to members transitioning to civilian life. Therefore, most would leave the Canadian Forces with an unblemished record if convicted under one of the mentioned offences.
In committee, members also expressed concerns over a provision to give the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff the statutory authority to provide case-specific direction to the Canadian Forces Provost Marshal during investigations. The intent of this provision is to statutorily define the relationship between the Provost Marshal and the chain of command and to enhance the transparency and accountability of military police investigations.
Unlike civilian police forces, Canada's military police may be asked to operate and conduct investigations in operational theatres, as we have seen in places like Afghanistan, where active combat is taking place. Taking this into account, there may be the need in exceptional circumstances for the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff to issue special instructions to the Canadian Forces Provost Marshal. I say this because surely an operational combat zone would qualify as an exceptional circumstance. Special instructions would balance the investigative independence of the Provost Marshal with the safety and security of those involved in the investigation and the operational imperatives of the Canadian Armed Forces.
This bill would establish in statute a mechanism for issuing such instructions, thereby achieving three objectives. Firstly, maximizing accountability by identifying a single authority for such instructions, namely, the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff. Secondly, establishing a statutory requirement for such instructions to be issued in writing, therefore improving transparency. Finally, further increasing transparency by requiring such instructions to be made public, unless the Provost Marshal considers that it would not be in the best interests of the administration of justice to do so.
There are also provisions here where one can envision that information, particularly intelligence that was passed to the Canadian Forces by allies, would be protected in such circumstances.
In closing, our troops perform extraordinary tasks each day—often at great risk to themselves—in service of our country. They need—and deserve—to know that they can have confidence in the fairness and strength of the military justice system that governs and protects them.
This legislation before the House today has been years in the making. In fact, if we trace its history, it goes back to a period before this government came to office. The amendments have now had the benefit of a full second reading debate in the House of Commons and committee study. I strongly urge the House to support implementing these important provisions without delay.
It will benefit the men and women in uniform of the Canadian Forces and their families. It will benefit these extraordinary Canadians who do so much on behalf of our country at home and abroad.