moved that Bill C-415, An Act to establish a procedure for expunging certain cannabis-related convictions, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, it is an honour to rise in the House this afternoon to present my private member's bill, Bill C-415. My bill would have the effect of expunging or erasing criminal records for the half million Canadians who have records for the possession of small quantities of cannabis, which became a perfectly legal activity in October of this year.
This is a matter of fundamental justice and I urge all members to support this initiative. I urge government members to keep an open mind and to study the bill and amend it so we can move it forward as quickly and effectively as possible.
As far back as 2012, the Liberal Party passed resolution No. 117 on cannabis legalization and it is curious that it used the words of elimination of all criminal records for simple possession. I am pleased that the Liberal Party agrees with me that expungement and not merely record suspension is what is required in this circumstance.
According to a report commissioned by the Department of Public Safety, fully 86% of those surveyed agreed that completely erasing criminal records for minor offences, particularly cannabis possession, was the right thing to do. Judging by the enormous outburst of editorial support that I am pleased to have received from coast to coast, Canadians get it. They support this initiative because they are fair-minded people who recognize the unfairness inherent in continuing to burden people with the effects of a criminal record for something that is now legal.
I stood yesterday in the House with a prominent aboriginal leader from British Columbia, with people from the John Howard Society and with Senator Pate, the former executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society. They all called on the government to get with this, expunge records and not to rely, as I will explain why, on merely criminal record suspension in this context.
I have three fundamental arguments in the short time available that I would like to make. First, I want to challenge the government's assertion that it will be bringing on immediate pardons. The word “immediate” means now and I will explain why that is simply not possible. Second, I want to address the government's apparent argument that expungement is somehow reserved for only one category of past historical injustices and not things like this. Only record suspensions apparently, in the Liberals' mind, are appropriate in this context. Third, it is important to tell Canadians about how the unjust application of cannabis laws in our country has happened. I think it is undeniable that there has been an injustice.
On the first point about the timing, the government has had several years to address this signature initiative on cannabis legislation. Other jurisdictions like California and Vermont, when they brought in their laws, brought this piece in at the same time and automatically expunged the records for people with convictions for a small quantity of cannabis. The Liberals chose not to do that. They said they should wait for record suspensions, sometimes they called them pardons, and that will happen sometime soon, maybe with legislation introduced, I presume, in the spring.
Canadians know there will be an election in October. They know any initiative has to pass through both Houses and be proclaimed in law, so it is likely that this will not take place until 2020, if my arithmetic is right. When Canadians hear the word “immediate”, they think of something different. I would urge the Liberals to work with my bill and make it better so we can get on with the task that should have been commenced when we brought in legalization in the first place.
The second argument is the arbitrary distinction between expungement reserved for something called historical injustices and pardons for something else. I do not know who is giving legal advice to the Liberals on this point. I have had the good fortune of getting opinions from Benjamin Berger, Professor of Law at Osgoode Hall, and noted constitutional lawyer Professor Kent Roach at the University of Toronto. They see absolutely no distinction in law. I see none in public policy for what the government seems to be insisting upon.
Let me quote from a leading Toronto criminal lawyer, Annamaria Enenajor of the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty. She said, “the government...leaves the impression that restrictions exist on the government's ability to issue expungements for the offense of simple cannabis possession that are beyond its control. This is false. There is nothing in Canadian law that prohibits our government from issuing expungements for offenses that, in their application, unjustly targeted racialized and indigenous communities. It simply chooses not to. This is a policy decision.”
Professor Kent Roach says that “The charter is the minimum not the maximum in terms of our sense of justice. The government's proposed pardon scheme also reveals larger problems with our pardon system which, among other drawbacks, is conditional on future good behaviour.”
There is no distinction possible, although the government wishes to make it. I urge it to keep an open mind so we can do what is right for Canadians.
That takes me to my third point. The application of this law is a historic initiative to address a historical injustice. It is a fact, and I commend the government for acknowledging that black and indigenous people across this country have been disproportionately burdened with criminal records for possessing small quantities of cannabis. That prevents these people, who are often already more marginalized and impoverished than other citizens, from getting their foot on the social ladder. Why? It is because they now have a record. It means they are last in line when they want to rent an apartment. They are last in line when they want to get a job and have to answer “yes” about having a criminal record.
If that record were expunged, as my bill would do, they could honestly answer that they do not have a criminal record. It would be deemed in law that they do not such a record. Imagine how many thousands of impoverished Canadians we could assist by doing the right thing.
Jaywalking is not an offence under the charter. However, if nine out of 10 people we go after for jaywalking ho are black or indigenous, then it is a charter violation. Again, I commend the government for acknowledging this data as being valid. If someone is indigenous in Regina, they are nine times more likely to be charged and have a record for cannabis than non-indigenous people; and seven times more likely in Vancouver; and if someone is black in Halifax, they are five times more likely to be charged and have a record; and three times more likely if they live in Toronto. This is wrong. This is Canada. We should fix that, and let these people get on with their lives.
I want to address head-on the government's argument about record suspensions. It chooses to call it “pardons”. It does not do the job. What is the difference between a pardon and expungement? An expunged record is erased; it is completely destroyed. Under my bill, the offences would be deemed in law to have never happened. Therefore, a person whose record has been expunged could truthfully say on a job application that they do not have a criminal record. That makes all the difference.
What about a pardon? A pardon merely reclassifies the record. It may still be released, and even revoked, in the future. Most importantly, with a pardon, an individual can still face those obstacles I talked about. Furthermore, a pardon talks about forgiving, by implication, and not expungement, which would be an acknowledgement of the historical injustice in how cannabis laws have been applied in our country.
For a long time, cannabis amnesty has been a policy of the NDP. Since 2004, we have been calling for amnesty for people with records for cannabis possession. My colleague, the member for Vancouver Kingsway, who has done excellent work on this file, introduced a motion in the House asking the government to immediately pardon all criminal records for simple possession. The government said no.
Let me go to the argument I have heard the government use as recently as this morning. It is wrong. When a landlord or employer asks a person if they have a record, the question they are supposed to ask is whether they have ever been convicted for a criminal offence for which a pardon has not been granted. Now, the government says that if there has been a violation of that requirement, they can go to the human rights branch or the human rights tribunal in their province. I do not know whether the government has dealt with people from the inner city.
I used to do legal aid in downtown Toronto. People who are illiterate and do not speak English have enough trouble already. Do we think they are going to get lawyers, with legal aid in this world being so scarce, and take this to the human rights branch? I do not really think so and neither does Samantha McAleese, who is doing her Ph.D. on this very topic at Carleton. She has worked in the inner city of Ottawa with The John Howard Society for many years. She said that many people struggling with criminal records can often have barriers like literacy or language, making these formal complaints to the human rights codes very daunting. She further said that requiring individuals to muster through a complaint process in order to access employment, housing or any other social domain seems quite ridiculous. People with criminal records already face enough barriers in the community and are often already doing everything they can to get by day by day.
Even if the government is right, why would it not go far enough to complete the job with expungement? Even if there is a legal, technical reason for being right, which I urge the government is not the view of the leading criminal and constitutional lawyers I have consulted, why would it not complete the job?
I was so proud to have stood in this House when another expungement initiative took place not long ago: Bill C-66. It was the expungement of what the government termed, and I agree, historically unjust convictions for people convicted in the past for same-sex sexual activity and yet thousands of racialized and marginalized people have also been treated unfairly in the past. I have demonstrated that and the government accepts it.
People have barriers to renting apartments or getting jobs. Mothers from Saskatoon have cried on the phone to me that their child, busted a couple of years for having a couple of joints, cannot coach the soccer team because of these vulnerable people initiatives that require that people not have records for reasons we well understand, dealing with children and so forth. Their lives are also affected by this. After years of injustice, why would the government settle for a process that will not fully relieve the burden of a criminal record? The only way to right the wrong and finally give the half million Canadians a fair chance is expungement, to erase the records for simple possession.
The evidence is pretty clear that the argument about pardons may be good in theory, but in practice, people in the real world do not always ask those precise questions that the government says landlords and employers should be asking, “Have you ever been convicted for a criminal offence for which a pardon has not been granted?”, that magic incantation. In the real world in downtown Ottawa or Toronto, we were told yesterday, people do not always ask those questions and, therefore, people cannot get on with their lives because they have criminal records, they are already the poorest among us often and they are disproportionately indigenous and black Canadians.
It is simply the right thing to do. Why the government did not do it at the time, like other jurisdictions they modelled their legalization on, I do not know, but it is time to do it now and it is time to do it right. A half-measure is not good enough for Canadians. Expungement is the answer. Record suspension does not do the job. Let us get on with it. I urge all members to do the right thing and support my bill in the House.