Mr. Speaker, it is with pleasure that I rise to speak to Bill C-37. It is a bill that we in the Liberal Party are greatly concerned about, and we are a bit surprised by the amount of support the New Democratic Party has decided to give it.
It was interesting listening to the debates and to some of the questions and answers yesterday. I believe it is a fairly simple message that the government is trying to communicate with this particular bill, as it has done with other justice-type bills, and that is that the government wants to start getting tough on crime. It is a message that the government consistently states.
The first thing that comes to my mind is that just because the government said it does not necessarily make it true, and just because it is passing the type of legislation that it is passing, does not necessarily mean that our streets are going to be safer at the end of the day.
I think that if the Prime Minister really wants to get a sense of how the population feels about the issue of crime and safety, he would be best advised to start meeting and talking to people, maybe attend an actual town hall meeting. He should go out to some of our larger cities and smaller communities and get a sense of what people are thinking about in regard to crime.
I would like to make reference to the people I represent, the people of Winnipeg North. Crime is a very serious issue. My constituents want to feel safe in their communities. I would argue that they have a right to feel safe in their communities. I love my city. It is a great place to live, and I would recommend that all people visit, maybe spend a little bit and enjoy the beautiful city of Winnipeg. Having said that, there is a significant crime rate there. It is very real. It is tangible.
What the people I represent want to see is a government that is more inclined to prevent crime from happening. I do not believe the government is doing a good job on this. At the end of the day, there are initiatives that the government could take that would have a very real and tangible impact in terms of preventing crime.
Interestingly, the member for Kootenay—Columbia, in British Columbia, posed a question yesterday. I actually printed out the question. I just want to read a small part of it because it is so relevant to what I am trying to highlight here. The member stated:
The way I look at it is that if offenders do not want to pay the victim surcharge, maybe they should not commit crimes.
Even though I would ultimately argue that one of the biggest priorities of my constituents is to get the government to prevent crimes from taking place, I can assure everyone inside this Chamber that increasing a surcharge is not going to prevent any crimes from taking place. Whether it is in a remote area or an urban centre, it is not going to reduce the crime rate.
Anyone who tries to imply that is just wrong. No one is going to think, “If I have to pay x number of dollars more because of a surcharge the court is going to give me, I am not going to commit that crime”. I do not believe that would happen. It is not going to address that particular issue.
That is what this bill is all about, increasing the surcharge for individuals who commit a crime. There is nothing new about that. This is something that has been talked about. Legislation was brought in. I believe it was in the late 80s, possibly the early 90s, when it was decided that we should have some sort of surcharge or a financial penalty for those individuals who commit crime. It was the Chrétien government that went as far as to say it should be applied to individuals who commit crimes, but we have to enable a judge with the judicial discretion as to whether or not to apply the surcharge. That makes a whole lot of sense to me.
Not everyone is in the same position. Not everyone is able to facilitate the payment of a surcharge, and quite often it works at odds. I talked to a constituent yesterday about this particular bill, and what I was thinking of right offhand was someone who commits an illegal act in order to provide food on the table. I have had presentations on this. Many individuals are involved in the sex trade not because there is a desire to be there or a desire to feed their drug abuse and so forth, but because it is a source of income. Individuals who find themselves in that position and are ultimately fined are, at the end of the day, going to have to pay more for the food on their table.
Maybe there are other ways, such as social services, that we could be assisting people, but unfortunately that is not happening. Certain individuals within our communities do not have the luxury that many of us have in terms of disposable income in order to be able to pay the type of fines that might be levied. If the individuals do not pay the fine, they could end up being put in jail as a direct result. I would suggest that is not in society's best interest. Ultimately one could argue that there is always a way in which they could deal with it through working. Manitoba has the fine option program. Under the fine option program if an individual cannot pay a fine, there are certain places to go and work where minimum wage is paid in order to pay the fine. Not all jurisdictions have similar programs so that might not necessarily be an option for everyone.
The point is that the current system provides our judges with the opportunity to make an evaluation if someone who has committed a crime is able to convince the court that he or she is not in a position to pay the fine. That should suffice in this situation. It is not in the best interests of the public to assume that our judges do not know what they are doing when it comes to using the waiver they have in legislation. That waiver enables them to say to someone convicted of a crime that given their hardship or their circumstances there will be no surcharge. A judge has the expertise to make a good judgment on that issue. If the government lacks confidence in our judges then maybe it should be having discussions with ministers of justice across Canada on that particular issue. Nothing prevents the Crown from being able to raise the issue.
The government had other options as opposed to bringing in this particular legislation, taking the responsibility away from a judge and just arbitrarily making the decision to dramatically increase the surcharge on crimes or fines.
Ultimately the government would say that the reason for this legislation is to support victims. I am exceptionally sympathetic and I like to think that all my caucus colleagues understand and appreciate the need to support victims of crime in all of our communities. That issue does need to be addressed.
However, I do not believe that we should be totally reliant on a charge that is given to individuals who commit crimes to finance the programs necessary to assist victims of crime. There is a responsibility of government to be at the table through general revenues and more, in terms of supporting victims of crime. There are many different ways in which we can do that.
To deepen the reliance on a judge to penalize individuals, who may not be able to pay anyway, is not the best way to finance the programs that should be put in place to support victims of crime. Yes, it could supplement it. I do not know the percentages, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with surcharges supplementing programs. I am quite comfortable with that.
What I am not comfortable with is when the government gives the message that it is sympathetic to victims, but demonstrates that sympathy by taking away the responsibility of judges to use their discretion on whether or not there is a hardship case, and applying the surcharge to everyone. I do believe there could be circumstances that would justify a waiving and it would be inappropriate for the government to take that away. I believe that we have more confidence in the judicial system than the government does. I also believe that the government does have a role to play in standing up for the victims of crime, and there are different ways in which we can support that.
Over the years I have met with hundreds of individuals who have shared their stories with me as victims of crime. I myself have had the unfortunate incident of my home being broken into and property stolen. I felt that there was little support, for example, to provide information, and in many ways, that is what it is.
If someone breaks into my or my neighbour's house, I want to have an understanding of what happens next. Victim services could provide that type of education or a phone number that an individual could call if their home was broken into or there was an incident at their workplace or if they witnessed something and allegations were made. There is a wide variety of incidents and I have only mentioned the less severe ones.
I was present when a good friend received the news that one of her children was murdered in cold blood. I witnessed the impact it had on her. What type of services were there? She was a victim but she was not alone. There are a number of individuals out there with horror stories. I can appreciate the need for victim services.
I believe most, if not all, members of the House of Commons would recognize the importance of victim services and would encourage all governments to provide some form of those services. It is amazing that now with the Internet, people can go, for example, to the Manitoba department of justice and can access web pages that talk all about victim services. We have made some significant strides over the years.
However, at the end of the day, we really need to work toward, and the government needs to focus more attention on, preventing crimes from taking place. The emphasis of the government should be on that. This is a bill which I question the value of bringing forward because in government it is all about priorities. What are the priorities of the government when it comes to dealing with crime in our communities? Obviously, it has put this bill as a very high priority.
When I first was elected, it was during the by-election. The Conservatives, the New Democrats and Liberals all had a wonderful opportunity to go to Winnipeg North and get a sense of the important issues. Because it was a by-election, the individual caucuses would have been aware of what was happening in Winnipeg North and in the other two areas where there were by-elections and would have known that the number one issue was crime and safety.
I was very honoured and privileged that the people of Winnipeg North chose me, but I went right from the by-election into the chamber. One of the first things I raised was the government's cutback on gang initiatives, on alternatives to gang lives, on assisting refugees and others in not becoming attached to gangs and to be more productive citizens. I know how critically important it is that we provide those types of alternatives to gang lives.
As I made reference to earlier, when I was the justice critic, we had a huge problem with automobile thefts. During 2000, 2005 and 2006, 14,000 vehicles were stolen in the province of Manitoba. For months I argued that the issue had to be dealt with. We found out that a relatively small number of individuals were causing half the problem, roughly 300 individuals. A high-risk program was developed where these individuals were monitored and as a result automobile theft decreased by half, from 14,000 down to 7,000 over a couple of years, so there were fewer victims.
This is the type of thing governments need to demonstrate more. When I asked a question of the parliamentary secretary, I suggested that she should look at the national government's important leadership role in what happened in other provinces and bring provinces together to look at which programs worked well in the different provinces and get a consensus, more like best practices, and promote and encourage those good ideas in other jurisdictions.
Ottawa has a responsibility in preventing crime. The bill will not prevent a crime from taking place. The bill is not necessary in the sense that the judge has discretionary authority. It is already mandatory. In terms of the amount of the fine, we are open to that discussion. We will wait and see what happens at committee.