Mr. Speaker, I am pleased today to rise to speak to Bill C-343, An Act to establish the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Criminal Acts and to amend certain Acts. This bill seeks to establish a new department supporting an office of the federal ombudsman for victims of criminal acts, and it would drastically expand the role, mandate, and powers of the current victims ombudsman and thereby incur associated costs. Bill C-343 also proposes to make the victims' ombudsman an agent of Parliament with unrestricted investigatory powers and, in my opinion, an overly broad mandate.
To better understand Bill C-343's proposals, it is important to review the existing mandate of the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime. The current office was created in 2007 pursuant to a decision of the Prime Minister as part of his prerogative for the machinery of government. The ombudsman's mandate establishes the terms and conditions of an order in council and provides that the office do the following: to assist individual victims with regard to the provisions of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act; to promote and facilitate access to federal services and legislation available to victims of crime; to increase awareness of victims' needs and victims' issues among criminal justice personnel; to promote federal legislation for victims of crime among criminal justice personnel; to identify and review emerging and systemic issues, including those issues related to programs and services provided or administered by the Department of Justice or the Department of Public Safety.
The ombudsman is required to submit an annual report to the Minister of Justice on the activities of the office. The bill's sponsor has stated that the Department of Justice can remove anything from the ombudsman's annual report that is unfavourable to the department, before tabling it in Parliament. I must correct this statement, as it is simply untrue. Neither the Minister of Justice nor officials in her department have any authority whatsoever to alter the ombudsman's report in any way. The Minister of Justice tables the ombudsman's annual reports in Parliament, along with a government response that often responds directly to criticisms or recommendations included in that report. In addition to the annual reports, the ombudsman may also issue special reports at any time to the Minister of Justice or to the Minister of Public Safety concerning any matter within those ministers' mandates. These special reports can be made public by the office of the ombudsman 60 days after being submitted to either minister. As is the case with the annual report, the ombudsman's special reports cannot be altered by the ministers of justice or public safety or by officials from those departments.
Since the establishment of the office, the ombudsman has published nine annual reports, seven special reports, and two systemic review reports. In addition, the victims ombudsman has made numerous appearances before House and Senate parliamentary committees to provide recommendations on various bills addressing issues, such as on-line crime, increased penalties, victims' rights, firearms, elder abuse, and the amendments to the Corrections and Conditional Release Act affecting victims.
The sponsor has stated that the bill would improve the functioning of the victims ombudsman's office by making the ombudsman independent and directly accountable to Parliament. While the proposed changes would make the office a separate department, the bill curiously proposes to have the ombudsman report to Parliament through the Minister of Justice, who would table the annual report. As this is in fact exactly the same process as that currently followed, the bill appears to fail in its goal of making the ombudsman directly accountable to Parliament.
The current Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime is funded through the Department of Justice, but operates at arm's length from the federal departments responsible for victims' issues. This arm's-length relationship is critical to the credibility of that office. There is no evidence that the existing system for ensuring independence is failing in any respect. It allows the ombudsman to address victims' concerns by working directly with the relevant federal department and to propose options for policy and legislative reform that would benefit victims, and yet it does not involve the additional expense associated with the creation and maintenance of a separate department as proposed in Bill C-343.
The bill's sponsor has stated that there would not be any new costs associated with the proposed new ombudsman's office. We know that this is simply not accurate. New costs would be incurred on an ongoing basis to develop the internal services to support that office, such as human resources, security, communications, information management, and technology and financial services. These costs are currently borne within the Department of Justice. In addition to these costs, there would be extra costs incurred as a result of making the ombudsman an agent of Parliament. As previously noted by the hon. member for Eglinton—Lawrence, section 54 of the Constitution requires that bills that appropriate any part of the public revenue must be recommended to the House of Commons by the Governor General.
Standing Order 79(1) similarly prohibits the House from passing any bill that requires the appropriation of funds without the support of the Governor General.
The sponsor of Bill C-343 also has suggested that the ombudsman's existing mandate does not allow her to fully discharge her responsibilities. Most notably, the sponsor is concerned that the mandate does not permit the ombudsman to conduct reviews of complaints under the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights. I respectfully disagree. The existing mandate is sufficiently broad to allow the victims' ombudsman to provide a second level of review for complaints of alleged rights infringements under the Canadian Bill of Rights. Since coming into force in 2015, that act has enshrined rights for victims of crimes at the federal level.
These rights apply to victims in their interactions with the Canadian criminal justice system. One of the key objectives of the act is to foster a culture of change in the system to ensure the police, crown prosecutors, correction officials, and others provide victims with the information they need about their case, provide them with the necessary measures of protection, give them opportunities to be heard, and to facilitate their ability to seek restitution for the losses incurred as a result of the crime.
The Canadian Victims Bill of Rights also expanded the role of the federal ombudsman for victims of crime with respect to addressing victim complaints. It provides that victims who are not satisfied with the outcome of the internal complaint mechanism of a federal department may file a complaint. The website for the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights complaints mechanisms indicates clearly that the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime is the second level of review for the listed federal departments and agencies. This mechanism is open and accessible to all Canadians.
The ombudsman's website currently shows that her office assists victims by providing them with information about their rights under federal law and how to request her office conduct a review of a victim's complaint about any federal department, legislation, or services related to victims of crime. The office reported that it had responded to 713 issues that were the subject of complaints in 2015-16. Victims' rights were included among the top five topics for which Canadians sought the assistance of the ombudsman's office.
In spite of the sponsor's assertions to the contrary, it appears quite clear to me that the ombudsman's current mandate allows her to provide assistance with complaints related to the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights.
I value the important role the current Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime plays in our criminal justice system. She is a former colleague and a close friend. In the absence of compelling evidence that the ombudsman requires any of the measures suggested by the sponsor, I am unable to support Bill C-343.