Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
I'm pleased to meet with the members of the justice committee to discuss the main spending estimates of the Department of Justice. My deputy minister, John Sims, is joining me today.
The Department of Justice plays a vital role in Canadian society. It promotes Canada's rights, freedoms, and laws; it provides high-quality legal counsel to the Government of Canada; and it ensures that Canada's system of justice is accessible, efficient, and fair. The work we do at the justice department has a very real impact on the lives of individual Canadians. Through our work on policies and legislation, we strive to create safer and healthier communities that benefit us all.
As Canadians we have always taken pride in our democratic society, our traditionally low crime rates, and our safe communities. I'm sure that most of us remember a time when we left our homes unlocked and felt safe letting our kids play outside unattended. Over the generations, our society has changed. Today we lock our doors, and we are more watchful over our children. We recognize the dangers they face, dangers such as swarming, gangs, and drugs.
While Canada's justice system has evolved over the years, its evolution has not kept pace with Canadian society. It is now facing increased pressure to adapt to the needs of 21st century Canada. That is why Canadians voted for change. Canada's justice system needs new solutions to our modern challenges.
The new government has laid out its agenda for change through five key priorities: passing the Federal Accountability Act; cutting the GST; making our communities safer by cracking down on gang, gun, and drug crime; giving parents a choice in child care; and establishing a guarantee for patient wait times.
As Minister of Justice and Attorney General, I will be working closely with my colleague Stockwell Day, the Minister of Public Safety, to deliver on the new government's priority of making our streets and communities safer by tackling crime.
Today I'd like to discuss some of our new government's priorities for strengthening our justice system. I'm confident that the actions we take to achieve these priorities will result in reforms that will mean everyone, particularly the most vulnerable members of society, can feel safe and secure in their communities.
The first thing we need to change is the way we deal with serious offenders. It is time for Canada to get tough on violent crime. This is an issue that Canadians want addressed, and the new government is committed to ensuring serious consequences for serious crime. But tougher penalties for criminals are only part of the solution.
We also recognize that the most effective way to reduce crime and victimization is to prevent it from ever happening. That is why we are also committed to supporting crime prevention initiatives that will strike at the root causes of criminal behaviour. We will give young people the knowledge and tools to make good decisions so that they can avoid the factors that place them at risk of coming into contact with the criminal justice system.
Mr. Chairman, I am pleased to say that we have already begun to take action on our commitment to strengthen Canada's justice system. Earlier this month I tabled two bills in the House of Commons that will reform our laws so that serious crimes are met with significant consequences.
One bill deals with sentencing and will put an end to the use of conditional sentences, including house arrest, for serious and violent offences. The reforms in this bill will tighten up the law, removing the option for serious, violent, and sexual offenders to receive a conditional sentence. The reforms will ensure a cautious and more appropriate use of conditional sentences, reserving them for less serious offences that pose a lower risk to community safety.
The other bill we introduced will toughen sentences for crimes involving firearms by enhancing the mandatory minimum penalty provisions of the Criminal Code. Under the proposed legislation, serious offences involving firearms will be subject to very tough sentences. If an offence is gang-related or if a restricted or prohibited firearm such as a handgun is used, the minimum penalty will be five years on a first offence, seven years if the accused has one prior conviction for a firearm-related offence, and ten years if the accused has more than one prior conviction for firearm-related offences. Other firearm-related offences, such as firearm trafficking and smuggling or the new offence of robbery where a firearm is stolen, will also be subject to higher escalating minimum penalties.
With these two bills, the new government is meeting its commitment to protect Canadian families and communities by tackling gun, gang, and drug violence. We will be better equipped to fight organized crime and to keep dangerous offenders off our streets.
In addition to these sentencing reform bills, later this spring we will undertake the first step in our plan to protect children. We will table a bill that will raise the age of consent for sexual relations from 14 to 16 years of age and rename it as the “age of protection”. This change will bring us in line with most of the world. It is long overdue, and it is particularly important in the age of the Internet, when young people are targeted by cyber-predators.
These are bold first steps in reform of the law. In addition to this and other legislation, we are developing enhanced strategies for law enforcement, crime prevention, and correctional services as we address key justice issues that are of serious concern to Canadians.
One of these issues is drugs. The number of marijuana grow operations has increased dramatically in Canada, spreading into suburban and rural communities. The production and distribution of drugs such as crack cocaine, crystal meth, and ecstasy have increased as well.
The time has come to make more serious efforts to clean up our streets by tackling drug crime. We must work to ensure the safety and health of our young people by helping them make the right choices to stay away from illegal drugs. In this vein, we have made it clear that we have no intention of decriminalizing drugs, because we want to send the right message to young people about their dangers.
The sentencing reforms I mentioned earlier will play an important role in tackling major drug crime. In addition, we will look to make precursor chemicals of crystal meth, such as pseudoephedrine, harder to get; introduce a national drug strategy, with particular emphasis on youth, that will encompass all drugs in implementing a nationwide awareness campaign to dissuade young people from using drugs; expedite deportation of non-citizens convicted of drug trafficking, drug importation, or running grow ops; and restore the Canada ports police.
Another crime that we need to deal with is street racing. Our cities are not racetracks, and the time has come to get rid of the racers who pose a threat to the safety of our citizens. Through criminal justice reform, we will send a strong message that racing will no longer be tolerated on Canadian streets. Despite the prospect of serious bodily harm, or death, this dangerous phenomenon continues in Canada. It is clear that people who engage in street racing have no regard for their own safety or the safety of others. The stories are tragic. Over the past few years, there have been a number of highly publicized incidents where drivers, their passengers, and innocent victims have been killed. Since January alone, three men in Vancouver, one in Edmonton, and a Toronto taxicab driver have all allegedly been killed because of street racing.
The Government of Canada will work to keep these criminals off our streets. We are committed to combatting this dangerous activity by getting tough on those offenders who so recklessly endanger human life.
In addition to tackling these crime issues, we will also reform the law with respect to our parole and bail processes. Parole must be a privilege to be earned, not a right to be demanded. We will examine a number of options on this front, including creating a presumption of dangerous offender designation for anyone convicted and sentenced to federal custody for three violent or sexual offences; repealing section 745.6 of the Criminal Code, the so-called faint hope clause, that allows a criminal serving a life sentence to apply for early parole; replacing statutory release, the law entitling a prisoner to parole after serving two-thirds of his sentence, with earned parole; toughening parole provisions once you have been convicted of committing a crime while on parole, eliminating parole for life after the third such conviction; preventing courts from giving extra credit for pre-trial custody for persons denied bail because of their past criminal record or for violating bail; and creating a reverse onus for bail hearings for anyone charged with an indictable firearms offence.
For all of these initiatives, I look forward to working with Parliament, law enforcement, corrections, prosecutors, and my provincial counterparts to develop effective new policies.
One last key issue I wish to discuss is crime prevention. Our government, as I have discussed, is focused on tackling the pressing issues of gun crime, criminal gains, and drugs, but this government also recognizes that it is equally important to prevent criminal behaviour before it has taken root. We will address the root causes of crime by supporting communities and families with effective social programs and sound economic policies. Such efforts will include working with the provinces, municipalities, police, and community leaders in areas threatened by gun and gang violence to support programs that reach out to young people. We must help them recognize the dangers of violence in their schools and communities so that they reject gang and gun violence.
The efforts will include supporting results-oriented, community-based initiatives for addictions treatment, training, and rehabilitation of those in trouble with the law, and investing in community-based educational, sporting, cultural, and vocational opportunities for young people at risk. By working with the provinces, territories, and other partners, this government will support solutions that will help end the cycle of violence that can lead to broken communities and broken lives.
I am pleased to note, Mr. Chairman, that Budget 2006 reflects the Government of Canada's commitment to crack down on crime. Highlights from the budget include $161 million for 1,000 more RCMP officers and federal prosecutors to focus on such law enforcement priorities as drugs and border security, including gun smuggling; $37 million for the RCMP to expand its national training academy at Depot to accommodate these new officers and build the capacity to train more officers in the future; funds set aside to expand Canada's correctional facilities to house the expected increase in inmates as a result of changes in sentencing rules; $20 million for communities to prevent youth crime, with a focus on guns, gangs, and drugs; and $26 million to give victims a more effective voice in the federal corrections and justice system and to give victims greater access to services, such as travel to appear at parole hearings.
Budget 2006 presents a balanced approach to law and order spending. I believe these investments will help to strengthen our justice system so that it better meets the needs of our modern Canadian society.
In closing, Mr. Chairman, I wish to thank you and your committee members for the important work that you do. It's an honour for me to take part in this process as Canada's newest justice minister. As I mentioned at the onset, Canada's system of justice contributes to the well-being of Canadians in many ways, but it also faces many challenges. I believe these initiatives, which we will pursue over the coming months, will help to modernize Canada's justice system by getting tough on crime as well as addressing root causes of crime. We will make Canada a safer place to live.
I welcome your questions and look forward to your feedback.
Thank you very much.