Evidence of meeting #126 for Public Safety and National Security in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was crime.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Bill Blair  Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction
Ruby Sahota  Brampton North, Lib.
Louis Dumas  Director General, Domestic Network, Operations, Department of Citizenship and Immigration

3:30 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal John McKay

I call to order meeting number 126.

It is my privilege to welcome Minister Blair on behalf of the committee.

Congratulations on the appointment. I hope you see this committee as a committee that you can readily access and that will be helpful to your mandate.

I will ask Minister Blair to make a presentation, and then we'll go around with the usual rounds of questions.

Again, welcome. I look forward to your statement.

3:30 p.m.

Bill Blair Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair and committee members. I'm very pleased to have the opportunity to join you today.

As you can see, I am joined by senior officials from departments that play a very significant role in my responsibilities. I'm very grateful for their support today.

As you have stated, Mr. Chair, this is my first opportunity to meet with you in my new capacity as the minister for border security and organized crime reduction. I very much look forward to the opportunity to work with this committee. I see it as a valuable source of insight and advice that will assist me, the government and the responsible departments and agencies in their important work.

As the minister, my overarching goal is to help ensure that our borders remain secure and to lead cross-governmental efforts to reduce organized crime. I and my officials have been working hard to get a head start on the priorities under that banner, which have been entrusted to me by the Prime Minister.

The issues we are tackling are not confined to a single department or agency. They run across government, whether we're looking at cannabis, irregular migration, guns and gangs, organized crime or opioids. That is why the Prime Minister has asked me to work with the full support of all of the relevant departments to ensure a coordinated and effective approach to these very important critical issues.

I am fortunate to have already forged a solid working relationship with many of the departments with which I now work when I served as the parliamentary secretary to two ministers and had the opportunity to work across ministries on important issues. I look forward to working with all of my cabinet colleagues and fellow parliamentarians on both sides of the House.

I am pleased to provide some insight to you today as to how I intend to deliver upon my mandate.

First, I would like to begin by thanking this committee for their excellent and important work in their careful scrutiny of Bill C-71, which yesterday, I am pleased to say, passed the House at third reading.

We cannot ignore the reality that offences involving firearms have been increasing over the last five years. I have seen that first-hand, not only in my city but in communities across the country. I am pleased that this crucial legislation makes common-sense proposals to keep guns out of the wrong hands, to improve licensing classification and to strengthen records commitments.

Thank you for your amendments. Thanks to those amendments, the bill was further strengthened to propose additional background-check criteria related to violent behaviour, which must be considered before a licence will be issued.

Additionally, you made helpful proposals to clarify non-restricted firearm transfers and to providing greater certainty that no federal registry will be created with the enactment of Bill C-71 when it becomes law. These are welcome additions to an already strong set of new measures aimed at reducing firearms-related crime in Canada. I am proud that I have been given a responsibility to support Minister Goodale as this bill moves forward through the Senate.

As my mandate letter has indicated, I have also been given responsibilities to examine ways to reduce gun crime involving use of handguns and assault rifles while not impeding the lawful use of firearms by lawful firearm owners. Therefore, I will be beginning a formal process of engaging with Canadians on this important issue. Over the next month, my parliamentary secretary and I will host round tables across the country.

I'll stop here and introduce my parliamentary secretary, who I believe is with us today, Mr. Peter Schiefke.

We will host a series of round tables across the country to hear from a wide range of expertise and opinions. We will also be soliciting feedback from law enforcement, municipalities and indigenous communities, and as well, of course, our provincial and territorial colleagues. In addition, we will create an online portal so that all Canadians can provide their thoughts on this important issue.

Our government is open to looking at any measure that will be effective in keeping our communities safe. We have already invested over $327 million in initiatives to reduce gun crime and criminal gang activities. The majority of this funding will be going to provinces and territories to bolster local prevention and enforcement programs.

I want to emphasize that we need to take a broad and all-encompassing approach to reducing violence in our communities. In my time as a police officer and a police chief, I learned that in high-crime neighbourhoods there tends to be only a small number of people who victimize law-abiding people who are struggling with disadvantage. Those neighbourhoods often have higher rates of poverty, poor housing, higher rates of problematic substance use, a lack of jobs, a lack of access to mental health and other services, a lack of opportunity and a lack of hope. These are what are sometimes referred to as the social determinants of crime and victimization.

I can tell you that in my city we made every effort to ensure that we had a robust and visible police presence on the streets, but we've always held that addressing the social circumstances that give rise to violence is the other important part of that equation.

In my experience, you cannot arrest your way out of these very complex social issues. Our government has taken steps to address these challenges. We've created the first-ever national housing strategy. We've implemented the Canada child benefit, which is addressing child and family poverty, and we have increased the amount of money that is available for youth employment. We will continue to work closely with all of our colleagues in all departments to make sure that the government is doing all that it can to address crime.

The same must go for our approach to opioids. The impact of opioids, as this committee well knows, is being felt in communities of all sizes in every part of Canada. In the last two years, over 8,000 Canadian lives have been cut short due to opioid-related overdoses.

I have been given the responsibility of leading our work in reducing the smuggling of opioids across the border. Canada has a four-pillar strategy—a national strategy for drugs—and an important part of that strategy is law enforcement. It is dealing with that issue of interdicting the supply of drugs, principally opioids, and some of the precursor chemicals used in their manufacture, as well as other materials.

Law enforcement is an important part of this puzzle, and it will be supported. As we work with partners to interdict the illegal supply, we also intend to do so in the context of the other pillars: demand reduction, harm reduction, and treatment and rehabilitation. This will involve a public health lens to address the illegal supply and distribution. It includes pursuing law enforcement activities to counter drug trafficking in a manner that also balances health and safety concerns.

Mr. Chair, in my experience, this is a transnational issue. I look forward to the opportunity to ensure that we are well equipped at our borders to maintain their security and that we are able to tackle this problem with a whole-of-government approach. It also necessitates—and I am familiar with—a strong collaboration between Canadian and American law enforcement and law enforcement around the world.

The illegal movement of narcotics and other poisonous drugs into our communities is a transnational crime problem, and it is one that requires a global response.

With respect to our other immediate priorities, we are, of course, only a few weeks away—22 days away as my colleague from Health Canada advises me—from the beginning of a transition to a legal adult-use cannabis regime in Canada. It is important to remember that the transition to legal cannabis will be a process and not a single event.

We will continue to work collaboratively with all of our cabinet colleagues on the implementation of this new form of effective cannabis control, and we are working collaboratively with the provinces, the territories, municipalities, law enforcement and stakeholders across the country to ensure an orderly and responsible implementation.

We believe that this new system will do a far better job than the failed current criminal prohibition in protecting our children from the harms of cannabis consumption and in protecting the health and safety of all Canadians, and it will take billions of dollars in profit out of the hands of organized crime.

With respect to my mandate commitments on irregular migration, the safe third country agreement and opportunities surrounding concurrence operations for travellers, I am keen to move forward quickly on these issues as well. I have discussed the former with the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration. I look forward to providing updates in the very near future. I feel that both Canada and the U.S. have an opportunity to demonstrate how our close partnership can help us adapt to evolving and complex migration challenges while managing the border effectively. To that end, I have written to the Secretary of Homeland Security to begin discussions about how the safe third country agreement can be improved and enhanced to the mutual benefit of both countries.

Through all of these commitments, Mr. Chair, I'm honoured to carry out the responsibilities that have been entrusted to me. I look forward to your continued advice and engagement in keeping our borders secure and our communities safe.

Thank you very much. I look forward to your questions.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal John McKay

Thank you, Minister Blair.

You certainly make a chair's heart go pitter-patter because you stayed within the time limits.

The first round is seven minutes. First up is Michel Picard.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

Michel Picard Liberal Montarville, QC

Thank you.

Welcome, Mr. Minister.

Welcome everyone.

Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. My first questions will talk about customs and asylum seekers. I am from Quebec and, of course, this issue was a bit complicated last year. Obviously, we have not heard about it that much this year. Would you please expand on the progress and your learning experience from last year, on what happened this year, and maybe put the record straight as of today?

3:40 p.m.

Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction

Bill Blair

Last year, as you are all aware, Canada experienced a significant increase in the number of people who were seeking asylum who presented themselves irregularly at our borders, not at a regular border point but at various crossings. The issue impacted a number of communities but I think was most significantly impactful in the area of Lacolle, Quebec.

The government and the agencies responsible began very quickly to develop and increase their capacity to ensure that for people who were crossing at the border our Canadian safety was maintained. So the RCMP—and I would commend them for their excellent work; I've been to Lacolle and I've watched—ensure that anyone coming across the border at any place is subject to a vigorous security background check to ensure that there is no criminality or threat to national security.

They've been working very closely with the officers and agents of the CBSA and the IRCC in order to ensure that those people are properly processed.

We have also recognized that in the processing of those individuals there's a significant backlog because of the surge and the capacity of the IRB, the Immigration and Refugee Board, and the capacity of the agencies and departments responsible had been significantly limited by, quite frankly, a decade of underfunding. We have been restoring that funding. Some $173 million has been invested into improving the efficiency of the process by which we are now conducting these hearings to which people are lawfully entitled to determine their admissibility. We are also, after nearly $400 million in cuts at CBSA, restoring their capacity by investments of nearly $72 million to increase their ability to remove individuals who have been deemed inadmissible as quickly as possible.

Now we remain absolutely committed to upholding Canadian law and Canadian humanitarian principles, and we are starting to see some success.

We've also made significant efforts in reaching out to the United States, reaching out to NGOs and community groups that have been working with the people who present themselves at our borders, and we've seen some success.

For example, I had a conversation with our colleague, the member representing Emerson, Manitoba. I asked him about their experience, because in the winter of 2017 many people were irregularly crossing at a border near his community. I asked him what the current experience was, and he advised me that after the Minister of Immigration went to Minneapolis, met with the community groups down there, explained to them that presenting yourself at the border and seeking asylum is not a free ticket to permanent residency and that they were going to be subject to legal processes and subject to removal if they were deemed ineligible, that flow significantly reduced.

We've seen progress in these other areas, and so far in the last four or five months of the summer that has just immediately passed, we've seen a significant reduction of up to 70% fewer people who are presenting themselves at our border than was the case last year.

September 25th, 2018 / 3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Michel Picard Liberal Montarville, QC

Thank you.

I was happy to read in your mandate letter that you will address organized crime issues, and you know my interest on financial fraud. The RCMP knows that as well.

There have been a number of changes at the RCMP and challenges also to address investigations of commercial crimes. We still have some work to do. We still have some issues to cover. There has been discussion about, for example, beneficiary ownership to go further in the fight against financial crime.

There are issues also at the RCMP with recruiting, where we need our expert resources to as much as possible remain in those departments focusing on financial crime, which is such a specialized department. What is your take on that?

3:45 p.m.

Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction

Bill Blair

Within my responsibilities is to address the issues of organized crime. You and I have a shared experience in the enforcement of the laws and these crimes. Also, we are informed by some recent and very important work that was done by Dr. Peter German, for example, in British Columbia looking at money laundering through the casinos out there. I've spoken to Dr. German. He's an old friend and colleague, and we have much work to do there.

But it is fair, I think, to acknowledge that over a period of time the capacity of the RCMP and the expertise to conduct those investigations was diminished, and there are a number of reasons for that. I don't think finger-pointing is very helpful in this at all. I think what is necessary is to restore that capacity. I've had conversations with the commissioner, and my colleague could perhaps also comment. We recognize that it's an important responsibility of the RCMP. As a member of the Canadian police community in the past, I will tell you that we relied heavily on the RCMP and its expertise in the conduct of these investigations. Municipal and provincial police services across the country work very much in collaboration and partnership with the RCMP because of that expertise in such areas as the integrated enforcement teams and the combined forces special enforcement units, in economic crime investigations. That's very important work.

My responsibility will be to look and to see if there are regulatory changes or changes to legislation that will enhance our ability to deal with issues of beneficial ownership and to strengthen our capacity to deal effectively and to be able to prosecute offenders for those important crimes.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Michel Picard Liberal Montarville, QC

Has the RCMP started to approach the recruitment and the resources differently? We do have an issue, because there's pressure coming from national security. They get all the staff moving to national security, therefore compromising capacity not only for financial crimes, but in other departments.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal John McKay

Very briefly, please.

3:45 p.m.

Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction

Bill Blair

Operational decisions made by the members of the RCMP with the deployment of their limited resources need to be made in the national interest, and I have every confidence in their leadership.

We also recognize that the deployment of officers and expertise to deal with national security or terrorist financing, which are critically important to the safety and security of this country, can result in a diminished capacity to conduct other forms of investigation. We'll continue to work to ensure the members of the RCMP get the resources that they identify, that they need, to do the important work for which we rely upon them.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal John McKay

Thank you, Monsieur Picard.

Ms. Rempel, welcome to the committee. You have seven minutes.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Michelle Rempel Conservative Calgary Nose Hill, AB

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Has the Prime Minister given you a mandate to stop people from illegally crossing the border from safe spaces like upstate New York and subsequently claiming asylum in Canada?

3:45 p.m.

Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction

Bill Blair

My mandate is very clear. First of all, the entrance of people coming to our borders is governed by a number of pieces of legislation, including, for example, the safe third country agreement with the United States. That is a bilateral agreement between our two countries—

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Michelle Rempel Conservative Calgary Nose Hill, AB

Sure, but again, has the Prime Minister

3:45 p.m.

Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction

Bill Blair

I'm sorry. I thought you wanted an answer.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Michelle Rempel Conservative Calgary Nose Hill, AB

I'm just asking you a yes-or-no question. Has the Prime Minister given you a mandate to stop people from illegally crossing the border from safe spaces like upstate New York into Canada? Is your mandate to bring the numbers significantly down?

3:45 p.m.

Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction

Bill Blair

My responsibility is to ensure the border integrity and border security and to manage the issue of irregular migration. Unfortunately, Ms. Rempel—

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Michelle Rempel Conservative Calgary Nose Hill, AB

It's to manage—

3:45 p.m.

Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction

Bill Blair

—it's not a simple yes-or-no answer. It's an answer that—

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Michelle Rempel Conservative Calgary Nose Hill, AB

But it is—

3:45 p.m.

Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction

Bill Blair

—has a number of components, including working with the United States to look at enhancing the safe third country agreement—

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Michelle Rempel Conservative Calgary Nose Hill, AB

Okay.

3:45 p.m.

Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction

Bill Blair

—and also making significant investments in ensuring that we can manage—

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Michelle Rempel Conservative Calgary Nose Hill, AB

I'm sure you're going to spend—

3:45 p.m.

Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction

Bill Blair

—that flow in an efficient and safe manner.