Evidence of meeting #10 for Public Safety and National Security in the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was office.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Steve Sullivan  Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

April 20th, 2010 / 3:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Garry Breitkreuz

I'd like to bring this meeting to order.

This is the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, meeting number ten. We are going to have a briefing today on the latest report of the federal ombudsman for victims of crime.

We'd like to welcome Mr. Steve Sullivan, the federal ombudsman for victims of crime, to our committee.

The usual practice of this committee is to allow you an opening statement of about ten minutes and then we'll go to questions and comments. Whenever you're ready, sir, you may begin.

3:35 p.m.

Steve Sullivan Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you for inviting me to appear before the committee to brief you on our most recent special report and to discuss, more generally, important issues impacting victims of crime in Canada. The Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime was created to give a stronger voice to victims. By inviting me here today, you are taking an active role in engaging the government on victims' issues, and I thank you for that.

As some of you may know, our office has a mandate that enables us to help victims on both an individual and a national scale. Directly, we talk with victims every day, helping them resolve their complaints and answering their questions. Indirectly, we recommend change that will ultimately help all victims get better support, fairer treatment and a stronger place in the justice system.

My goal here today is to share with you a new perspective on some issues you are no doubt familiar with. I do so knowing that real change can start in this room. It was a number of years ago that the committee on justice that looked at the Corrections and Conditional Release Act recommended the creation of an office like ours, so I understand how real change can begin. I remember sitting in a small courtroom in 1995 in Prince George, British Columbia, with the mother of a murdered child and his sister. He was murdered by an individual on federal parole. When the inquest looked at the circumstances of his death, and also at how Mrs. Fichtenberg was treated by the system, one of the recommendations that came from that process was the creation of this office.

I can remember working with members of Parliament from various parties, including who was then a fairly rookie member of Parliament, the Honourable Peter MacKay, when he put the motion in the House of Commons. I worked with Liberal MP Ray Bonin as he presented a bill in the House of Commons that had wide support from all members of the House of Commons, and I remember the day that the Minister of Justice and Minister of Public Safety appointed me Canada's first ombudsman.

It is the power of committees like this one that can take serious issues and help make things better for victims and all Canadians. This is my last week as ombudsman, and I can say unequivocally that I am proud of the work we have done so far. We have resolved some very difficult complaints efficiently and compassionately, and I have to give credit to the National Parole Board and Correctional Services of Canada for working with us to resolve those issues. I have worked in this area for 15 years, and I can say without a doubt that the way we handled those cases and the way we resolved them probably wouldn't have happened without the creation of this kind of office.

We made recommendations to the government on Internet child sexual exploitation, the sex offender registry, victim fine surcharge, more training for judges, and restitution. I am proud to say the government has taken issue on many of these points. We played an instrumental role in helping the RCMP resolve a decade-old problem with privacy issues in making referrals to victims about services, and we are working with them to help finalize a national policy that reflects our recommendations. But there is more to do. The report that you have in front of you makes 13 recommendations to the government on how we can feasibly and effectively achieve meaningful change for victims of crime in Canada by dealing with the federal corrections and parole system.

Some of these recommendations are a more formal presentation of points that I made to the government in the past, and I was pleased to see that Bill C-43 incorporated amendments to address some of these issues. While that bill would have significantly reformed the current corrections and parole system and enhanced the role of victims within that system, there are a number of important issues that remain unaddressed. And though the bill died with the prorogation of Parliament, I would suggest that we now have an opportunity to get that bill right. By incorporating a few changes, we can strengthen the bill before it is re-introduced so that we can be more effective for all Canadians.

While I am certainly happy to answer any questions you may have about that report, this will be my last opportunity to address the committee as ombudsman, and there are a couple of broader issues to touch on in the time remaining in my opening remarks.

I think it is important to understand that we talk about victims of crime. Their needs and concerns are complex, and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions and there are no easy solutions. They are long-term, they are difficult, and sometimes we have to challenge our own notions of what they look like.

This is national victims of crime awareness week, so it's a very fitting week for me to be here. Yesterday at the event and today at a different event, I listened to victims of crime talk about their needs and their concerns and heard victim service providers talk about the challenges they face in trying to meet those needs on behalf of victims. They talked about lack of services, or not being aware of services, lack of information. They talked about treatment by the system; in court, not being respected in their opinions. And yesterday the Prime Minister spoke at the opening of the symposium for national victims of crime awareness week and he talked as well about the imbalance we have in our system that focuses so much on offenders and not so much on victims.

I was a little disappointed, however, that he proceeded in his speech focusing almost exclusively on how we treat offenders. On the day we were supposed to remember and recognize victims of crime, he talked about Karla Homolka, Clifford Olson, and Graham James. And I can tell you that when he left and a discussion began among those victim service providers and within those workshops, the issues we talked about were very different. They were very basic about trying to meet the needs of victims of hate crime, trying to meet the needs of male victims of sexual abuse, trying to raise awareness and prevent crime.

You'll know that roughly 2.5 million crimes were reported in Canada in 2008. That is reported crime, different from what the actual crime rate is. Of that 2.5 million crimes, fewer than 5,000 offenders went to federal prisons. If all we talk about is who's going to our federal prisons, then we ignore a large number of victims of crime. We asked the government to commit funding in different areas.

We had asked them in this most recent budget to commit $5 million—a relatively small amount of money when we are talking about federal budgets—to a model called child advocacy centres. Now, if you are from Edmonton or Montreal or Niagara, you will know what those centres are. They are centres that meet the needs of child victims who are going through the system. They bring together everybody who provides services to that child and they provide it in a child-friendly environment. It is an American model. They have over 900 centres in that country; we have three or four in this country. We had asked the government to provide a small fund that would help communities establish those. I have been to Victoria, Toronto, Winnipeg.... I know Halifax is working. There are communities across this country trying to get a centre for their children. There were no discussions and we have not talked a lot.

One of the things I had hoped we would do in our office is look at the area of sexually trafficked young people. We know that disproportionately young aboriginal girls are being lured away from reserves, and they are being trafficked across this country. There are young boys who are selling themselves on the street for shelter and for food. We need to have services, programs, and shelters to help those kids get off the street. They are not the kinds of victims we like to think about. I know we have some officers in the room. They can often be very difficult individuals. They are belligerent, they don't want help, they won't ask for help, they don't think they need help. But these kids are being sexually assaulted every single day. We often don't think of them as victims of crime, but they are perhaps among the most vulnerable.

We don't have any programs that will help prevent the repeat victimization, multiple victimization of people. We know in a recent StatsCan report that 2% of the Canadian population experiences 60% of all violence offences. If we could target our efforts to those individuals who we know are victims, who we know are more at risk of being victims again, and try to help focus our efforts on prevention, we can actually prevent individuals from being assaulted or sexually assaulted, or having their homes broken into again.

The research tells us, and in my experience in working with victims for over 15 years, what matters most to victims is the process. They expect information from those involved in the process and the system. They expect to be respected, they expect information, and they expect to have a voice and for people to listen to that voice. If we do all those things well, what the research tells us is that victims are actually less focused on the outcome, which means the sentence. So if we do better by victims throughout the process, they are less concerned about what the sentence is. They certainly expect people to be held accountable, and they expect appropriate sentences, but they will no longer judge the value of the harm done to them by the time we put somebody in prison.

Governing is about making very difficult choices—and I have a lot of respect for those of you who go into politics, because it is about making difficult choices—and in this current fiscal environment those choices are more difficult than ever. I think the Prime Minister said before this budget that it was the most difficult because he had to say no so many times.

As my final recommendation to the Prime Minister and to the government, we have asked that the government refocus its efforts and its priorities on trying to meet the real needs of victims of crime. Sentencing and the “get tougher on crime” agenda will not meet the real needs of victims of crime, who are suffering every day, who call our office every day, who have trouble making their mortgage payments because they have lost their job, whose kids are acting up in school because they can't get counselling. These are real challenges that victims of crime face every single day. Obviously we need to have prisons, and we need to have programs for offenders who are in prison. I think we need to spend, as the Prime Minister talked about yesterday, an equal amount of effort and time on the needs of victims as we do on the needs of offenders.

I'll cut it short there, Mr. Chair, and hopefully try to answer some questions the committee might have.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Garry Breitkreuz

Thank you very much. We appreciate your comments.

We are going to move immediately into question and comments.

Mr. Holland, please.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Mark Holland Liberal Ajax—Pickering, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you, Mr. Sullivan.

Let me start by thanking you for your work over your career as an advocate for victims. I also want to thank you for the work you have done as ombudsman, because I know it was no small task to set up the office. It was starting from scratch and zero, building this office and getting it up and running. I think you've done an excellent job in an extremely short period of time to shed light on where government needs to be focusing and what we need to be looking at.

Maybe I'll start there. It was confounding to me that your term wasn't extended. I wonder if you have any insight into that decision, and particularly in the context—maybe you would concur with me—that right now, more than anything, the office needs stability. Now that it has finally got up and running and you got the wheels on the bus, as it were, now is an opportunity to really get through the heavy lifting and do the work, and when you put somebody new in, you will have to start at zero again.

3:45 p.m.

Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

Steve Sullivan

Thank you for your kind comments.

I won't make any allusions. I asked the minister in December for consideration for reappointment. It has been an absolute honour to serve Canadians in this way, and it's an amazing opportunity to further the work that many of us have done over the years.

I had expected to be judged on what we'd accomplished, and I think we've accomplished a fair bit. As you mentioned, setting the office up was.... I'll be honest: I learned a lot about government and how to work in that environment, so setting the office up took a lot longer than I thought.

When I look back over this past year at what we've actually accomplished, in addition to resolving complaints from victims--which began day one--we provided a report to the government on the Internet on how to improve services for victims and how to help police find more victims. We've haven't got a response from the minister yet to that report, which was submitted almost a year ago, but some of our recommendations have actually been put into legislation.

We put forward recommendations on a sex offender registry that are in the bill. I testified last week on that subject at the Senate committee. There were a number of different things. There was the throne speech; we recommended amendments to the victim fine surcharge in the Criminal Code, and that was done.

I don't know why I wasn't reappointed, but having said that, I'll say that this office is far bigger than I am, and I hope that it reaches far greater heights after I leave it.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Mark Holland Liberal Ajax—Pickering, ON

On that point, the Department of Justice's 2009-10 report on plans and priorities contains some numbers that I found very concerning, and I'd appreciate your comment on them.

For 2009-10, the number of full-time equivalents is eight for your office, the office of the ombudsman, and planned spending is $1.3 million. In 2010-11 it's the same, but for 2011-12 it shows zero: zero full-time equivalent positions and zero dollars. Are you aware that potentially they might close your office? Why do you think their projections show it going down to zero?

3:45 p.m.

Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

Steve Sullivan

I've had no indication that the government intends to close the office. In fact, my understanding is that the government plans to continue the office--

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Mark Holland Liberal Ajax—Pickering, ON

Have you seen this report?

3:50 p.m.

Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

Steve Sullivan

I haven't seen those numbers, so I can't really speak to the main estimates.

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Mark Holland Liberal Ajax—Pickering, ON

Maybe we'll leave it at that for the moment, but obviously that's a source of very serious concern, because the office is extremely important.

I want to talk for a moment about the cuts that have been made. According to the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, in the recent budget the government cut 41% of the budget for grants for the victims of crime initiative and 34%, or $2.7 million, to contributions for the victims of crime initiative.

How do you think these cuts are going to affect victims' groups in Canada? Do you think that those on the front lines of helping victims and helping to break the cycles of victimization out there are getting the resources they need to help victims?

3:50 p.m.

Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

Steve Sullivan

Those numbers were brought to our attention as well. They're in the 2010-11 main estimates for the Department of Justice.

I used to work in the non-government world of victim advocacy. At that time the centre was funded by the Canadian Police Association, which I understand is here today on Parliament Hill. They have withdrawn their funding for their own reasons, and right now the centre--and, I think, many other victims' organizations--fully depend on that kind of grant project money from the department, not only to further their knowledge and do research, but also to help them deliver services to victims. Those are victims who just aren't being served anywhere else. They're almost a last resort, so if there are cuts to those kinds of programs, the cuts can have a real impact on the ability of those organizations to serve victims.

You may be aware that under the public safety department there is, I think, $1.5 million in sustainable funding that goes to different community groups that are almost exclusively offender-based groups. They do really important work, and I don't want to take away from that, but of that $1.5 million, I think the Resource Centre for Victims of Crime gets less than $20,000. That's the only group that gets any kind of sustainable funding from the federal government.

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Mark Holland Liberal Ajax—Pickering, ON

We know that in two years' time the Correctional Service's budget will be up 96% since 2005 and we know that capital spending on prisons will be up 236%. We know, as you mentioned, that to start off national victims of crime awareness week, the Prime Minister talked about making victims more important, but then spent 95% of the time talking about offenders. I'm wondering how we reconcile that.

The increase in correctional spending is just the tip of the iceberg, obviously. Is that the best approach, or should we be trying to look at ways of dividing that money so that we don't see cuts to these victims' groups and those who are supporting victims, but augmentation, and so that we don't see cuts to crime prevention, but augmentation, and so that we increase community capacity to break cycles of victimization, as well as provide some money for prisons?

3:50 p.m.

Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

Steve Sullivan

I think we've asked the government to balance it out a little better. Taking the Prime Minister's point, the more we spend on how we treat offenders means we can't spend it on how we treat victims. I think everybody has to be really careful.

Yes, sentencing is important to families. They look at that as a measurement of the harm committed against them, and they expect appropriate sentences. But it can't be seen or sold as something that will meet their needs, because their needs are much more basic than that. Realistically, their needs won't be met by whether the offender gets five years or ten years.

I've travelled to many different conferences in the U.S. over the years, where the sentences are far stiffer than we'll ever see in Canada, and talked to victims about their cases. They say, “He got this and that's just not long enough”. The problem is that if all we give victims to measure the harm is a number of years in prison, that number is never going to equal the harm that was done to these people.

We need to focus on their needs on a daily basis. If we can address those, they might have less interest in what the numbers are. They obviously still want offenders to be held accountable. I think most of the victims I talk to want offenders to come out of prison different from when they went in—they have an interest in that—but it can't be seen as a means of meeting their needs.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Garry Breitkreuz

Thank you very much.

We'll go to the Bloc Québécois now. Ms. Mourani.

3:50 p.m.

Bloc

Maria Mourani Bloc Ahuntsic, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

And thank you, Mr. Sullivan, for being here.

I will continue along the same lines as my colleague, Mr. Holland. If I understand correctly, it does not matter if we build more prisons or give criminals stiffer sentences because that does not address the needs of victims. Victims need our assistance on a daily basis, they need help dealing with their pain and the financial difficulties that result from being a victim of crime.

You may be familiar with Bill C-343, introduced by my colleague, France Bonsant. It calls for rules. It seeks to amend the Canada Labour Code, namely to make Employment Insurance benefits accessible to victims of crime and families where a spouse or a son or daughter has been the victim of crime, to allow these individuals to keep their job for at least two years and to collect benefits for at least one year.

What do you think of France Bonsant's bill?

3:55 p.m.

Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

Steve Sullivan

I am familiar with the bill. I think those are the kinds of initiatives that address some of the stuff we hear every day.

We talk of the families whose kids were murdered who just can't go back to work; they can't get past what happened. So some of them lose their jobs, and when they lose their jobs they lose their houses, and their kids are in school and university. Those are some real challenges that victims face on a daily basis.

With victims of sexual assault, we looked at some studies in the U.S. that talked about lost productivity. These things have a real impact on people's ability to perform. We know that for people who were victimized as children, their productivity later in life is affected. So that's a burden on all of us.

Those are the kinds of practical things that could really help address some of the needs of victims. We also suggest to the government, in that same vein, that sometimes when there's a crime such as a homicide, the trial might take place two to five years later. It's difficult sometimes for families to get time off work to involve themselves in that process and take advantage of the rights they have under the system. So some flexibility within that system as well would really help.

3:55 p.m.

Bloc

Maria Mourani Bloc Ahuntsic, QC

Are you saying it would be a good bill for victims? Do I understand correctly? Right then.

In the throne speech, the government announced a desire to help victims of crime. It earmarked approximately $3 million annually to implement measures for families of murder victims, in particular, and for the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime.

Bill C-343 is not estimated to cost $3 million, that is impossible. If you are trying to help as many families of victims as possible, be they missing children or even suicide victims, there is no way that $3 million is enough to meet the needs of those families and to help fund the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime.

Do you think $3 million is a realistic amount for a bill amending Canada's Labour Code? Is it enough to compensate victims in terms of employment insurance and to help fund the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime? Is it enough to do all of that at the same time?

3:55 p.m.

Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

Steve Sullivan

I think it depends on what the specifics of the commitment the government made were. My understanding is that right now, anyone can go, and if they have a medical certificate, they can get up to 15 weeks of leave. My understanding of the government's proposal is that for families of homicide victims, they could get the first six weeks of that time off without a medical certificate. If you look at what is being proposed, it's certainly a modest step forward. I don't want to take anything away. I think anything we do for victims is a positive thing, but it certainly doesn't go as far as the bill you're talking about would go.

3:55 p.m.

Bloc

Maria Mourani Bloc Ahuntsic, QC

Indeed.

3:55 p.m.

Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

Steve Sullivan

You know, we have an average of 600 murders in Canada every year. It doesn't help victims of sexual assault. It doesn't help parents whose kids were abused. There's a whole range of victims who are left out.

Again, I hate to criticize a positive step forward, but it's a relatively modest step forward.

3:55 p.m.

Bloc

Maria Mourani Bloc Ahuntsic, QC

From what I understand, you think Bill C-343 is far more generous, that it helps the largest number of victims' families possible. It does not call for 15 weeks or 15 weeks plus 6 weeks, but one year. Do you think that 15 or 21 weeks is enough time to recover from the psychological pain caused by the death of a child?

4 p.m.

Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

Steve Sullivan

It largely depends on the individual. I know families and I've worked with families who go back to work immediately. That's what they need to do. It helps them if they keep busy, and that's what they do. Other families need far longer than that.

4 p.m.

Bloc

Maria Mourani Bloc Ahuntsic, QC

Very well.

4 p.m.

Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

Steve Sullivan

I think flexibility in the system is really important.

4 p.m.

Bloc

Maria Mourani Bloc Ahuntsic, QC

I read your report entitled Every Child, Every Image, and I have to tell you that it really struck me. I have done a lot of work in the area of child abuse. I have long been criticizing the fact that IP addresses are not automatically available to the police. They should be. Bills C-46 and C-47, which we supported, should have been referred to the committee for study, but they died because Parliament was prorogued, and they did not come up again. Law enforcement has been waiting on them for 10 years.

What do you make of this government's willingness to implement these bills in order to give police access to IP addresses?