Mr. Speaker, I have the pleasure to begin our debate on Bill C-93, which will amend the Criminal Records Act so that individuals who have criminal records for the simple possession of cannabis can quickly clear their record and live their lives to the fullest.
This bill proposes the unprecedented and exceptional measure of eliminating the waiting period and the application fee for people seeking a pardon for cannabis possession. This means that instead of waiting five years and paying the Parole Board $631, applicants would not have to wait a single minute and would not owe the Parole Board a single cent.
Bill C-93 is the next logical step in a process that began during the last election campaign, when we committed to ending the prohibition of cannabis in Canada. The result of decades of prohibition was that Canadians were among the heaviest and youngest users of cannabis in the world. Under the former system, the illegal cannabis trade put $7 billion annually into the pockets of organized crime, and Canadian law enforcement agencies spent over $2 billion every year trying to enforce an ineffective and counterproductive legal regime.
Last October, we finally put an end to the old way of doing things, and cannabis is now legal and strictly regulated, as promised. However, one of the lingering consequences of the previous system is that it saddled many Canadians with criminal records, making it harder for them to get jobs, rent apartments, travel or volunteer in their communities. The people affected are disproportionately from minority communities.
To be sure, they broke the law. They committed what, at the time, was a criminal offence, and there were consequences for that. However, people who were convicted only of possession of cannabis for personal use, an activity that is now legal, should be able to shed their criminal records and the associated burdens and stigma as quickly and as easily as possible. That is exactly what Bill C-93 would allow. This proposed legislation would create a pardon process for people convicted of simple cannabis possession that would be streamlined and simplified in multiple important ways.
Currently, to apply for a pardon or record suspension, which has been the legal term used since 2012, a person who has completed a sentence has to wait several years before submitting an application. It can be five or even 10 years, depending on the circumstances. Under Bill C-93, there would be no waiting period at all.
Currently, the Parole Board charges a $631 application fee, which is obviously a major barrier. That is especially true for low-income Canadians who need to clear their records so that they can get jobs and earn salaries. However, without those jobs and salaries, they cannot afford the fee. Bill C-93 would eliminate the application fee.
Ordinarily, in addition to requiring police and court records, the law puts the onus on the applicants to demonstrate that they have been of good conduct and that receiving a pardon would provide them with measurable benefits. These subjective factors are considered by government-appointed Parole Board members who make a judgment call about whether to grant the pardon. Under Bill C-93, for people whose only offence was simple possession of cannabis, the good conduct and measurable benefits factors would be eliminated. Applications would be quickly processed by public servants at the Parole Board, because there would be no judgment call to make. If the police and court records showed that a person's only conviction was for possession of cannabis for personal use, that person would get a pardon.
In short, there would be no application fee, no waiting period and no need to convince the Parole Board to grant a pardon based on subjective criteria. This would dramatically simplify and accelerate the process.
However, these are just some of the measures in the bill. There are additional practical steps the Parole Board is taking to make it even quicker and easier for people to apply. For instance, it is redesigning the application form to make it simpler to understand and faster to complete. It is devoting resources to work with people to ensure that applications are properly submitted. It is updating and clarifying the information on its website and preparing a step-by-step application guide, a 1-800 number and a dedicated email address specifically to help people with cannabis possession convictions make use of this new expedited process. Plus, it is developing an outreach strategy that will involve community partners, civil society organizations and social media to make people aware of the new process and how to access it.
It should not be harder for people to work, go to school, travel, find housing or volunteer because they once committed an act that is no longer illegal.
All the legislative and operational amendments that I just mentioned will ensure that individuals who have a criminal record for nothing more than simple cannabis possession will be able to move forward in life as fully reintegrated members of society.
The process of developing our approach for dealing with criminal records for cannabis possession involved a great deal of discussion, both internally and with stakeholders, such as the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty. We ultimately settled on the streamlined pardons process I have described, but we carefully examined other possibilities, such as amnesty and expungement, and I will address both approaches to explain why we did not choose them.
The amnesty approach is being used in California, where the state is proactively and automatically clearing people's records without requiring applications. I completely understand the appeal of that approach, but in Canada at the moment, it is, unfortunately, a practical impossibility.
Canadian law has never had an offence known as “cannabis possession”. The record of a person convicted of possessing cannabis might say something like “possession of a controlled substance in Schedule II”, without referring to one of the several substances in that schedule.
Therefore, to find everyone who was ever convicted of cannabis possession, we would first have to find everyone who was ever convicted of possession of a controlled substance in the same category as cannabis, and then, in each case, go through the court documents to find out what the substance actually was. That would be challenging enough if all those records were held in one central repository, but that is not at all the case. We have a patchwork of different law enforcement authorities at various levels of government, each with its own records and record-keeping systems.
Some of these systems are sophisticated and computerized, but others are literally papers in locked boxes in a courthouse basement. In other words, proactively clearing people's records for cannabis possession would require a massive amount of resources at all levels of government, and it would take a very long time. People would still be waiting to have their records cleared years from now. It is much simpler to receive applications in which people provide the specifics of their particular cases. That would allow the Parole Board to process the files much faster and would allow applicants to have their records cleared much sooner, and that is the point.
There have also been calls for expungement instead of pardons. The difference is that a pardon sequesters a person's record so that it does not show up in a criminal records check, whereas expungement eliminates any mention of the offence from all records, as though it never happened in the first place.
Expungement actually did not exist in Canada until last year, when we used it for the very first, and thus far only, time to deal with historic convictions for consensual sexual activity between same sex partners. The idea was that the laws in those cases were unconstitutional. They should never have existed, and they were, by their very nature, fundamentally and inherently unjust.
The prohibition of cannabis was bad public policy, but it did not violate the charter. Still, there is no question that in its application, it had a disproportionate impact on certain groups of Canadians, especially members of black and indigenous communities. It is in recognition of that fact that we are proposing the exceptional and unprecedented measures contained in this bill.
Practically, for the applicant, the effect of a pardon or an expungement would be virtually the same. With either approach, a prospective landlord or employer would not be able to find out about a past conviction. In fact, the Canadian Human Rights Act expressly prohibits discrimination on the basis of a pardoned criminal record. The goal of letting a person move on with his or her life without the burden of a criminal record would be achieved in both cases.
The only realistic scenario in which a pardoned record for cannabis possession could be reinstated would be if a person committed a new offence, and at that point, because of the new offence he or she committed, the person would have a criminal record anyway. The impact of reinstating the cannabis conviction would be pretty minimal.
When it comes to international travel, in particular to the United States, an expungement could cause additional complications that a pardon would not. That is because the U.S. might have a previously existing record of a person's conviction, likely from when that person crossed the border or tried to cross it in the past. Even if a criminal record check came up empty today, which would happen with either a pardon or an expungement, the American border officer would have a note in the file from the last time. The officer could insist that a person get a waiver or provide more information about the conviction. If the record was pardoned, the person could contact the Parole Board and get the information needed to satisfy the U.S. border officer. However, if the record was expunged, there would be no documentation for the Parole Board to provide, and one might simply be denied entry.
The bottom line is that the approach we are proposing in Bill C-93 is a practical and efficient way of clearing the criminal records of those who were charged with simple possession of cannabis.
We would waive the fee, which is $631, and we would waive the waiting period, which is usually five years. We would eliminate the subjective factors, such as whether the applicant has been of good conduct and whether the pardon would provide a measurable benefit. We would make the application process simpler and more user-friendly.
I am proud that during the last election campaign, whether others were talking about maintaining the status quo or proposing timid half-measures, such as decriminalization, our party had the courage to recognize that bold action was needed. We made a commitment to legalize and regulate cannabis, the better to keep cannabis out of the hands of Canadian youth and the profits out of the hands of criminals. We upheld that commitment, and now we have put forward a bill that would help people criminalized by the previous system turn the page so that they would no longer bear the stigma and the burden of a criminal record.
I invite all hon. members to join me in supporting this important legislation.