Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and good afternoon, once again, to the committee.
I am glad for the opportunity to discuss Bill C-93 this afternoon, legislation that will make it much easier for people convicted of simple possession of cannabis to clear their records and move on with their lives.
I am pleased, Mr. Chair, to be joined by Angela Connidis, from the Department of Public Safety; Ian Broom, who is with the Parole Board of Canada; and Jennifer Gates-Flaherty, who deals with criminal records at the RCMP.
In the old system, when cannabis was illegal, Canadians were among the biggest, and youngest, consumers of cannabis in the world, to the delight of criminal organizations. Last autumn, we fulfilled our commitment to put an end to that ineffective and counterproductive ban.
However, a number of Canadians still have a criminal record for simple possession of cannabis. With Bill C-93, they will be able to rid themselves of it expeditiously.
For people convicted solely of possessing cannabis for personal use, this legislation will simplify the process of getting a pardon in several ways. Ordinarily, applicants would have to pay a fee to the Parole Board of $631. We are eliminating that fee entirely for these purposes. Applicants also face a waiting period of up to 10 years to become eligible under the usual system, and we are getting rid of that waiting period too.
As the law currently stands, the Parole Board can deny applications based on a variety of subjective factors, such as whether a pardon would provide the applicant with a “measurable benefit”. Under Bill C-93, such factors would not be considered in the context of this legislation. In addition to the measures in the bill, the Parole Board is taking further steps, such as simplifying the application form, creating a 1-800 number and an email address to help people with their applications, and developing a community outreach strategy to encourage as many people as possible to take advantage of this new process.
We're doing all this in recognition of the fact that the criminalization of cannabis had a disproportionate impact on certain Canadians—notably, members of black and indigenous communities. We are doing it because we will all benefit when people with criminal records for nothing more than simple possession of cannabis can get an education and a job, find a place to live, volunteer at their kids' schools and generally contribute more fully to Canadian life. They are impeded in doing those things because of that criminal record.
There were several points raised about the bill during second reading debate and in public discussion that I would like to address. Let me say also that I certainly commend the committee for taking the initiative of holding these hearings with respect to Bill C-93 to do a prestudy and to deal with this matter in as expeditious a manner as possible.
First, there is the question of why we're proposing an application-based system instead of pardoning people's records generically and proactively as has been done, for example, in certain municipalities in California. Unfortunately, doing that same thing in Canada on a national scale is simply a practical impossibility.
For one thing, Canadian conviction records don't generally say “cannabis possession”. That's not the language that's used in the records. They say something like “possession of a schedule II substance,” and then you have to check police and court documents to find out what the particular substance was. The blanket, generic approach is not all that obvious, given the way that charges are entered and records are kept in the Canadian system. Doing this for every drug possession charge that potentially involves cannabis would be a considerable undertaking, even if all the documents were in one central computer database.
In reality, that is not the case in Canada. Many of these paper records are kept in boxes in the basements of courthouses and police stations in cities and towns across the country. It's not as simple as just pushing a button on a computer. We could start the process today, but people would still be waiting for their records to be cleared years from now because of the way those records are retained. By contrast, when someone submits an application for a pardon under the provisions that we're proposing in Bill C-93, Parole Board officials can zero in on the relevant documents right away, and the person can get their pardon much faster.
Another question raised at second reading was about the appropriateness of waiving the fee. There was concern that taxpayers would be footing the bill for people who broke the law.
The fact is that if we don't waive the fee, wealthy Canadians with cannabis possession convictions will be able to get their pardons quite easily, but lower-income people will remain saddled with the criminal record and the stigma. Many people with records for cannabis possession don't have that spare $631 lying about. They need the pardon to get a job and earn a paycheque. It's a bit of a vicious circle. Also, waiving the fee is a good investment. A person who gets a pardon is better able to get an education and a job, and contribute to their community in all sorts of ways, including by paying taxes.
Finally, there's the question of why we are proposing an expedited pardons process rather than expungement. I would remind the committee that expungement is a concept that did not exist in Canadian law until we created it last year to destroy the conviction records of people who were criminalized simply for being gay. In those cases, the law itself was a patently unconstitutional violation of fundamental rights and the convictions that flowed from it were never legitimate in the first place.
The prohibition of cannabis on the other hand was not unconstitutional. It was just bad public policy. There is no doubt though that the manner in which it was applied disproportionately impacted certain groups within our society, particularly black and indigenous Canadians among others. That's why we're proposing to waive the fee and the waiting period, and to take numerous other steps to make getting a pardon for cannabis possession much faster and much easier.
As for the practical effects of pardons as opposed to expungement, criminal record checks come up empty in both cases. The effect of a pardon is protected by the Canadian Human Rights Act, and pardons are almost always permanent. Since 1970, more than half a million pardons have been issued and 95% of them are still in force today.
It's important not to minimize the effect of a pardon. Some of the debate in the House has made it sound as though a pardon is an insignificant thing. It's worth remembering that when this committee studied the pardon system in the fall, it heard from witnesses who emphasized just how consequential a pardon can be.
Louise Lafond, from the Elizabeth Fry Society, testified that a pardon is “like being able to turn that page over” and allow people to “to pursue paths that were closed to them.”
Catherine Latimer, from the John Howard Society, testified that pardons “allow the person to be restored to the community, as a contributing member without the continuing penalization of the past wrong.”
Rodney Small testified that for years he wanted to apply to law school, but couldn't for want of a pardon.
In other words, making pardons more accessible, with no fee and no waiting period, will have life-changing impacts for people dealing with the burden and the stigma of a criminal record for cannabis possession. We will all reap the benefits of having those people contribute more fully to their communities and to Canada as a whole.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for your attention. I'd be happy, along with my colleagues from the various departments and agencies here, to try to answer your questions.