Madam Speaker, let me start by thanking the voters of Esquimalt—Saanich—Sooke for sending me back to the House once again, this time for a fourth mandate. In particular, I would like to thank my partner for more than 20 years, Teddy Pardede, for his constant and enduring personal and political support. My role as an MP is now taking up more than half our relationship and I will never be able to repay him.
As I said during the campaign, I very much wanted to come back to the House to be able to deal with unfinished business from the last Parliament. Indeed, there were lots of things we made progress on that were cut short by the early and unnecessary election. That is why I was pleased to see the quick passage of the ban on conversion therapy, Bill C-4, unanimously no less, both here and in the other place.
There are other examples of bills on which this House had held hearings, had achieved a broad consensus on moving forward and is now able to do so. Those include my Bill C-202, to make coercive and controlling behaviour and intimate partner relationships a criminal offence and Bill C-206, which would remove self-harm from the military code of conduct as a disciplinary offence and instead make sure that self-harm is treated as the mental health challenge that it truly is. I hope we can find a way to move forward on both of those bills that were left undone in the last Parliament.
Today, here we are debating Bill C-5. I am frankly surprised to be up on Bill C-5 so soon because its predecessor was not one of those bills which had been to hearings and it was not of those bills where we had lots of discussions about how to come to a consensus on what needed to be done. Normally, I would be glad to see the House moving quickly to get stuff done that sat on the back burner for far too long. That would be especially true of the issue of systemic racism in the justice system and it would be even more true of the opioid crisis on our streets today.
However, Bill C-5 is a virtual carbon copy, to date myself with an archaic phrase, of Bill C-22, which the government introduced at the eleventh hour in the last Parliament. At that time, we New Democrats clearly told the government we found Bill C-22 to be weak sauce. After its introduction, there were only very limited discussions before Bill C-22 was reintroduced in this session as Bill C-5. In those brief talks I made it clear that New Democrats wanted to see a bill with a few more teeth. We have a crisis of over-incarceration, we have a crisis of opioids on our streets, and the bill is not strong enough.
I am not sure how happy I am to be rushing forward on a bill that remains a half measure, especially when it is not even very clear what it is a half measure of. Here is the first and most important question I have for the government about Bill C-5: Is this a bill to address systemic racism in the Canadian justice system? If so, why is its focus so limited? We know mandatory minimum sentences are one of the causes of the over-incarceration of racialized Canadians and indigenous people. Then why does the bill restrict itself to only removing mandatory minimums for some offences, namely personal possession of drugs and some firearms offences?
We have years of experience now with mandatory minimums. We know they do nothing to reduce crime. We know that they only result in the incarceration of people who have no place in the prison system.
As the over-involvement in the justice system is a real problem for indigenous and racialized Canadians every day, I still have my doubts of some of the provisions in Bill C-5, like introducing those diversion programs instead of more fundamental reforms. In the absence of tackling the thorny question of reform of the RCMP, again I still have some doubts about increasing police discretion in drug cases as Bill C-5 proposes.
If Bill C-5 is actually about racism in our justice system, then there is surely much more it could do. I will return to this question later in my remarks. If Bill C-5 is not about tackling the broad issues of systemic racism in the criminal justice system, then is it really about something else? In fact, the heavy focus on removing mandatory minimums for drug crimes might lead us to believe that Bill C-5 is actually about the opioid crisis. If that is the case, then once again, it makes it hard for me to be excited about quick action on the half measures to confront the opioid crisis that we have in the bill, especially when we have known for so long what is needed.
As an elected official, I first spoke in favour of decriminalization of personal possession of all drugs more than a decade ago as a city councillor in Esquimalt. At the time, I argued that decriminalization provided the most effective path, along with safe injection sites, to tackle the emerging problem of deaths from drug overdoses in my community.
Even then, I was able to point to early signs of success in Portugal where decriminalization was adopted in 2001. Since then, Portugal has seen an 80% reduction in overdose deaths. It has seen the proportion of people who use drugs fall from 52% to 6% when it comes to new HIV and AIDS diagnoses. It has seen a decrease of incarcerations for drug offences by over 40%. Instead, in Canada over the last decade, we have seen so many preventable deaths and now this problem has accelerated into a full-blown crisis across the country.
Last month the Province of British Columbia announced a record number of people had died so far this year from overdoses. There were 201 deaths in the month of October alone, the highest ever in a single month. Think of all the families we are talking about, all 201 families affected by the loss of loved ones in a single month in a single province. This is a crisis.
Numbers released by the B.C. Coroners Service show a death toll in the first 10 months of 2021 in British Columbia being 1,782, surpassing the 1,765 deaths recorded in all of 2020. B.C.'s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, was direct in her assessment of the situation in B.C., a situation no different than any other jurisdiction. “Simply put, we are failing,” she said. With six people dying every single day in British Columbia, the status quo cannot be accepted.
That is why recognizing the stark reality of the opioid crisis, the City of Vancouver, the Province of British Columbia and now the City of Toronto have all three applied to the Minister of Health for an emergency exemption from the provisions of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that criminalizes personal possession of small quantities of illegal drugs. They are asking that we recognize that criminalization only adds more harm to the toll addiction takes on its victims.
Where are the Liberals on decriminalization of so-called “hard” drugs, either as a temporary exemption or permanent strategy to shift our response to addiction from punishment to health care? One might be surprised to learn that decriminalization is the official policy of the Liberal Party, endorsed more than three years ago at its 2018 convention in Halifax. Perhaps some will be even more surprised to learn that the government was advised to move on decriminalization of personal possession of drugs before the last election.
The previous Minister of Health appointed a commission of experts to advise on drug policies well before that election. Don MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition at Simon Fraser, was part of the task force that simply said that charging people with simple possession and seizing their drugs makes no sense.
In a CBC Radio interview, MacPherson said, “There's mountains of evidence that show it's a bad thing. It's harmful, it hurts people and there is not really an upside to it.” He continued saying, “So the task force...came fairly quickly to the conclusion that the federal government should immediately start work on putting forward a plan to decriminalize simple possession of drugs across the board.”
The task force submitted that report before the election and has since followed up with the new Minister of Health and the new Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, but MacPherson reports they have yet to hear anything back.
Since we returned to Parliament last month, MPs have been increasingly vocal in raising their concerns about the opioid crisis. Certainly, my leader of the New Democratic Party, the member for Burnaby South, has repeatedly called on the government to commit to moving quickly on decriminalization. This call has come from all parties and all parts of the country, urban and rural.
Last August, during the election campaign, even the Conservative leader added his voice to those calling for shifting our approach from punishment to treatment as the way to respond to the opioid crisis, though he did not go quite as far as decriminalization.
Last week, the new member for Yukon, who was previously the Territories' medical health officer before running for the Liberal Party, rose in this Commons to acknowledge that the Yukon has the highest rate of opioid deaths in the country. The new Green MP, the member for Kitchener Centre, made a moving statement in this House on the scourge of opioid deaths in his community.
Indeed, when the new cabinet was appointed, we saw the appointment of the first Minister of Mental Health and Addictions at the federal level, which many of us took as encouragement and acknowledgement of the urgency and seriousness of the opioid crisis.
Therefore, when we know the severity of the problem and we know the solutions, it surely becomes incumbent upon all of us in the House to ensure that we act. Therefore, where is that action? It is not in Bill C-5.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the three emergency decriminalization applications from Vancouver, B.C., and Toronto, we have no indication that things are moving quickly. Under the leadership of Mayor Kennedy Stewart, a former member of the House, Vancouver submitted its preliminary application for an exemption on March 3, and its final application June 1. British Columbia's application was submitted November 1 and Toronto's December 1. It is not like the government has been taken surprise by these requests, yet all the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions is reported to have said is, “We are looking at these proposals very, very seriously.”
At the same time, the minister refused to set a timeline for a decision on these applications. Instead, the minister veered off into an argument that decriminalization alone would not solve the opioid crisis, as if anyone ever thought decriminalization by itself was a solution to addiction rather than an important measure of harm reduction.
The minister said that other options were being considered, including establishing a safe supply of opioids to give injection drug users an alternative to the increasingly toxic fentanyl now on the streets. She indicated the federal government was also looking at setting up more safe injection sites and making more counselling available. Yes, that it is all good, but there is no need to wait on decriminalization while putting together a more complete package.
What was especially disappointing to hear was the minister in one interview referring to these ideas as “innovative”. She should know that these are not new ideas, but rather tried and true harm reduction strategies with a track record of nothing but success.
When it comes to the temporary decriminalization applications, the B.C. minister of mental health and addictions, Sheila Malcolmson, also a former member of this House, told reporters last week that Health Canada staff had identified no barriers to speedy processing and approval of B.C.'s decriminalization application.
Where are we? On the one hand, we see no real sense of urgency on the short-term exemption applications and, on the other hand, that leaves us with Bill C-5, which reflects none of that necessary urgency to move toward permanent and complete decriminalization of personal possession of drugs. The narrow scope of Bill C-5, as drafted, certainly means that, for technical reasons, we cannot likely add decriminalization through amendments at the committee stage.
That brings me back to the question of what is Bill C-5 really about. It seems that in the government's mind, this must be a bill primarily about tackling systemic racism in our justice system. If that is the goal of the bill, is there enough there to support?
Clearly removing mandatory minimums for drug offences would be a step forward. Even better would be removing mandatory minimums for all but the most serious violent offences. That is not there, not in Bill C-5. The frustration with the ineffectiveness of mandatory minimums has gone so far as to see a provincial court judge in Campbell River last week substituting probation for a mandatory jail sentence for a woman convicted of dealing fentanyl to support her own addiction. The judge said that she could see no positive impact of a jail sentence in that case.
Not only does Bill C-5 fail to address cases like the Campbell River case, but as well Bill C-5 is missing other elements that would help right the wrongs caused by systemic racism in the justice system. Let us make no mistake about how serious this problem is.
Correctional investigator Ivan Zinger reported in 2020 that while indigenous people made up 4.9% of the total population of Canada, they made up just over 30% of the people in Canadian prisons. Approximately 3.5% of Canadians identified as Black in the last census, yet Black Canadians make up more than 7% of those in prison.
When we look at indigenous and racialized women, the figures are even more stark. Zinger reported that Black women made up just over 9% of women incarcerated and indigenous women made up a shocking 42% of the population in women's prisons. This is the result of mandatory minimums.
The injustice does not end with incarceration as then there is the legacy of a criminal record. Not only have indigenous and racialized Canadians been disproportionately targeted for investigation, prosecution, diversion, fining and imprisonment, the most marginalized among us then end up stuck with criminal records, criminal records that make getting a job almost impossible, criminal records that often restrict access to affordable housing. Bill C-5 lacks any provision for automatic expungement of criminal records for drug possession, something for which the NDP has been calling for more than two years.
Automatic expungement is clearly what is needed after seeing the failure of the government's program for expedited pardons for marijuana convictions, a program that has granted pardons for less than 500 people of the estimated 10,000 eligible in the two years it has been operating. We need something better; we need automatic expungement of these records.
Again, the narrow drafting of Bill C-5 means, for technical reasons, we likely cannot add those elements we really need to tackle racial injustice to the bill. Certainly we cannot add expungement. It is likely we cannot even add additional offences where mandatory minimums now apply to the removal list.
Therefore, I have a question for the government, one I had already been exploring with it before we rushed into this debate. Is there not a way we can make this bill do more to address both racial injustice and the opioid crisis?
The New Democrats are ready to talk, but we probably need to do so before we reach the conclusion of this second reading debate. There is one possibility I will put forward right now to get the ball rolling, and I have to credit the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which put forth the following recommendation in call to action 32 more than six years ago. This call to action states:
We call upon the federal government to amend the Criminal Code to allow trial judges, upon giving reasons, to depart from mandatory minimum sentences and restrictions on the use of conditional sentences.
This proposal would allow judges to ignore mandatory minimums where there are good reasons to do so, including the good reason that mandatory minimum sentences are, in and of themselves, most often unjust. This call to action to restore discretion to judges over sentencing for offences where mandatory minimums have been imposed is clearly doable, it is just not in Bill C-5.
A way to put this call to action into legislation has been provided in what is now Bill S-213. Again, it is probably not possible to add restoring discretion for judges when it comes to mandatory minimums to Bill C-5 in committee, because this idea is far beyond the scope of the existing bill.
What I am asking of the government is whether we can think about using the relatively rare process of sending Bill C-5 to committee before the vote at second reading. This would allow the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights to alter the scope of the bill and to add missing provisions like the TRC call to action 32 to Bill C-5, and to add expungement to it. That would put some teeth in this bill.
Sending Bill C-5 to committee before a second reading vote would require a motion from the minister, and he has that opportunity later today when he speaks.
Let me conclude with this offer to work with the government on Bill C-5. This is renewing the offer New Democrats made when the bill was originally introduced in the last Parliament. I make this offer pointing to the progress we were able to make on bills like Bill C-4 and Bill C-3, when we were able to work together on common goals and purposes.
If sending Bill C-5 to committee before a second reading vote is not the way forward in the government's view, then let us work together to find other ways to strengthen the bill.
Am I optimistic about the chances of Bill C-5 proceeding? With the bill as it stands, can the government actually convince the New Democrats that there is enough in Bill C-5 to justify proceeding quickly or even proceeding at all? As I have said, I have good ideas about how we can ensure that is true.
I know there are misgivings in other parties about certain provisions of the bill, but I also know that no one in the House is unaware of the systemic racism in our justice system and its impact on racialized and indigenous Canadians. As well, I know no one in the House wants to turn a blind eye to the suffering imposed on families by the opioid crisis.
I also know we will not get a lot of opportunities to address systemic racism in the justice system in this minority Parliament and will not get many, if any, other opportunities anytime soon to respond effectively to the opioid crisis. Let us not waste the opportunity we have before us now with Bill C-5 to do one, the other or both—