Mr. Speaker, may I begin by adding my voice to those of many others who have spoken to congratulate you upon your appointment as Speaker. May I observe that in the few days you have presided it is already evident through your leadership in the House that members will better achieve the objective we all share which is a forum of civility and decorum acting in the public interest.
I feel enormously proud to take my place in this Chamber as the representative of Etobicoke Centre. The riding I represent is a diverse and a vital one whose needs and strengths reflect to a great degree those of Canada in these challenging times. During the election campaign, as was the case with so many of my colleagues, I had the opportunity to visit over 30,000 doorways in Etobicoke Centre and among other things I learned first hand the extent to which Canadians everywhere feel strongly about the important justice issues of our day. For me it is a great privilege to be in this Chamber not only as the member of Parliament for my constituents but also as their representative in cabinet dealing with justice issues.
It has been said that justice is the first of the social virtues. In its absence all else seems contrived. When the scales are in balance the way is open for the best in our nature to emerge.
As Minister of Justice of Canada, I am fully aware of my duty to initiate the development of policies and proposals to strengthen our justice system, which without the shadow of a doubt is one of the best, most flexible and fairest in the world.
Canadians have a system of justice that is bilingual and drawn from two different legal systems; the international community considers it to be a model of tolerance, integrity and openness. Although two distinct legal systems are developing, at the same time, they serve to advance a single idea in Canada, the primacy of law.
During these past 10 weeks I have worked with members of the department of justice and my colleagues to identify the immediate priorities for this portfolio at this time.
I wish to take this opportunity to outline for the House at least in general terms the priorities which we see as the most urgent.
In recent weeks I have had the opportunity to meet with members of the parties opposite, or at least some of them, to discuss their perspectives with respect to justice matters. I have found that they have valuable perspectives, that I look forward to working with them and that we have really common objectives in the public service so far as justice issues are concerned. That will ensure that Canada has the best and most effective system of justice possible. I respect their perspectives and, as I say, I look forward to working with them.
The justice agenda I will describe today falls generally into three categories: first, measures to deal with violence and initiatives to prevent crime; second, proposals to ensure the law promotes equality in the diversity of today's Canada and provides for equal access to justice; and third, steps to modernize our laws so they reflect current values and meet the challenge of changing times.
Let me acknowledge at the outset that which must be evident. It will be impossible for us to achieve meaningful progress on any justice issues without collaboration with our provincial and territorial counterparts. So much that is on our agenda involves shared jurisdictions. It needs co-operative collaboration. We cannot succeed alone and I acknowledge that at the outset. I will work with my provincial counterparts in addressing the objectives which I will describe today.
Let me first deal with measures dealing with violence and initiatives to prevent crime. The speech from the throne contained a commitment to enhance community safety and crime prevention. Canadians are determined to preserve the peaceful, orderly and safe communities that reflect our society's values. One of Canada's defining characteristics is our deep sense of order and civility. Yet in a society that abhors crime and violence, there is increasing concern for the safe and peaceful communities we feel are being threatened by crime, and particularly violent crime.
The time has come for us to send the message loud and clear that violence in any form will not be tolerated. We shall not stand for it from any individual, from any group, of any age. Yet our response to the problems of crime and violence must also reflect the very values that we seek to preserve. We must not simply become harsh, although stern measures will sometimes be required. We must recognize and address the causes of crime and put appropriate emphasis on rehabilitation, on treatment where that is required.
Several recent and comprehensive studies have urged in the strongest terms that Canada develop a coherent national strategy for crime prevention.
Last year, the Standing Committee on Justice and the Solicitor General asked the federal government to take the lead and recommended that together with the provinces, territories and municipalities, it develop a national crime prevention strategy.
The special advisory committee on a Canadian strategy for community safety and crime prevention made the same recommendation. Crime prevention must take into account the fundamental causes of crime: poverty, sexual exploitation of children, family dysfunction, racial inequality and inefficient or underfunded social services.
Our government is determined to develop an integrated crime prevention strategy. Together with the other levels of government, the police, victims' groups and community organizations, we will make a priority of looking at the fundamental causes of criminal behaviour and eliminating them.
We will create a national crime prevention council and convene it at the earliest possible date to start preparing a comprehensive crime prevention strategy, and within that strategy, specific community based tactics to prevent crime. We will consult broadly on its mandate. We will ensure that it is not simply window dressing. We will make it meaningful. And we will need and we will appreciate the views of the members of all parties in this House as we put it together.
Turning now to another aspect of our response to violent crime, this government is determined to address squarely and openly the widespread concerns about the Young Offenders Act as it relates to violent crime among young people.
We will soon introduce legislation reflecting the commitments made during the election campaign to make specific changes to the statute: increased sentences for specific violent crime, the greater sharing of information about young offenders with those who need to know for reasons of safety, the creation of the category of dangerous youth offender for certain violent repeat offenders, adjustments to the provisions respecting transfers from youth to adult court and steps to ensure that treatment will be available for those young offenders who need it most.
At the same time, I intend also to initiate a thorough public review of the Young Offenders Act to ensure that it continues to serve the interests of justice in Canada. Canadians must be satisfied that the Young Offenders Act strikes the proper balance between, on the one hand, the protection of society, and on the other, recognition of the special needs of young persons in contact with the criminal justice system.
We will involve Parliament in this exercise of review in keeping with our commitments toward a consultative process contained in our election platform. As part of our review of the statute as a whole, we will have regard to the many helpful submissions that my department has received during the past few months as part of the public consultation process.
In addition, we shall demonstrate that Canada will not tolerate the manipulation and exploitation of young people by adults for criminal purposes. We will do this by encouraging law enforcement officials to make greater use of existing provisions of the Criminal Code which make it an offence to induce others to commit crime.
Still addressing the question of violent crime, I can tell the House that in the present session we will take steps to address concerns about the release of high-risk offenders into society at the end of their custodial terms.
Taking into account the imperatives of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we shall find ways by which society can protect itself from individuals who may be unfit for release. In many cases this issue will arise at the intersection of the criminal justice system and the health care system. For that reason it will be essential for us to develop these responses in concert once again with our provincial counterparts and we will consult for that purpose with those officials.
The government will address the serious problem of violence against women and children, including domestic violence, not as a women's issue, but as a justice issue. We acknowledge that violence against women is linked to their lack of economic equality. I will work with others, among them the Secretary of State for the Status of Women, to develop and introduce measures to promote equality and safety for women, both in their homes and in public places.
In support of this commitment and as Minister of Justice, I will work with federal, provincial and territorial colleagues to introduce appropriate justice reforms. We shall sponsor public education programs to increase understanding of violence against women. We will increase levels of funding for transition houses that provide refuge for victims of domestic abuse. We shall introduce changes to the nature and effect of peace bonds and more effectively protect spouses from abusive partners. We shall work in collaboration with colleagues in the department of human resources to ensure that court ordered child support payments are made.
It makes little sense for a government that is having to come to grips with massive deficits to pay out annually extraordinary sums to single parents, mostly mothers, when they are the beneficiaries of court orders that are not being respected. We are determined to find a way to make those responsible for making payments under court orders comply with those obligations.
Finally in this category, the government will take steps to reflect the widespread public expectation that there will be stricter gun control in Canada. We shall act on our campaign commitments in that regard.
In co-operation with other departments, we will tackle the problem of illegal arms smuggling. We will see to it that better statistics are compiled on the criminal use of firearms. We will scrutinize the list of prohibited weapons to see if it should be added to. We will strengthen the current legislation which provides for a separate offense if a weapon is used for criminal purposes. But we will not however disregard the views of legitimate firearm owners who now have to meet certain requirements before purchasing such weapons.
We will review the types of weapons sold in Canada and we will consider measures to ensure that no weapon falls into the hands of criminals or unfit individuals.
The second broad category to which I wish to refer has to do with equality before the law. Equal access to justice and equal treatment in the justice system are fundamental principles in Canadian society, a society that is increasingly diverse. There is, however, mounting evidence that our justice system is falling far short of the high standards that Canadians expect.
A number of recent and authoritative studies have established there is a significant degree of gender inequality in Canada's justice system. The present government is committed to addressing gender issues both in the justice system and in society generally.
The Department of Justice acted on the recommendations made by the working group chaired by Madam Justice Bertha Wilson. As a matter of fact, the department has already received an internal report which lists in detail steps aimed at eliminating the systemic inequalities prevalent in its own organization.
I am sure all members of this House will agree with me that a strong and independent judiciary is a fundamental element of a free society. Canadians are justly proud of the high quality of our judges. For my part, I shall bring forward to cabinet recommendations for judicial appointments that reflect competence and merit in order to maintain the present high level of confidence that Canadians feel in the judiciary that serves justice in Canada.
Another important element of our approach to equality before the law in a diverse Canada is the search for better ways of ensuring that the justice needs of aboriginal peoples are recognized and acted upon. Canadians generally tell us that our system of justice, despite its strengths, could work better. They are right.
Aboriginal people, among others, say the law has become a system more about process than about justice and to some extent they are right. In many aboriginal communities there is now a remarkable will to actually try to do something about this challenge. It is a will to carve out new relationships with the justice system. The process of change will be gradual and difficult but we have an obligation to aggressively pursue this opportunity for change. We shall work closely in these efforts with our provincial and territorial colleagues and with the aboriginal leadership, with the communities and with aboriginal individuals, who are prepared to improve the administration of justice.
A further aspect of equality before the law in Canada has to do with the Canadian Human Rights Act. In the throne speech the Prime Minister's commitment made during the election campaign was renewed. We shall introduce amendments to the Canadian Human Rights Act. These amendments, among other things, will include sexual orientation as a ground upon which discrimination is prohibited.
The House has been committed to that principle for many years, and successive governments have expressed the intention to introduce the amendment. This government shall do so, not just to fulfil a commitment but as a matter of fundamental justice.
May I mention briefly steps we intend to take in connection with hate motivated crime. We shall make it clear that such crimes will not be tolerated. We shall introduce legislation that will expressly provide that hate motivation must be regarded as an aggravating factor in determining the sentence to be imposed for any specific criminal act.
Let me say also that we shall introduce changes in the criminal justice system that will help persons with disabilities participate fully on an equal basis.
May I turn now to the third and last broad category on the agenda for justice in the year ahead, modernizing the law.
We will soon table a bill re-establishing the Law Reform Commission. We are fortunate to be able to revive this commission which will serve a useful purpose as an independent body drawing attention to needed amendments to Canadian legislation. We will give it a new mandate and a new structure.
Last year a subcommittee of the standing committee on justice released a report on a recodification of the Criminal Code. We will be considering those recommendations, and we will undertake an assessment of the question of whether the present code is serving the interests of criminal justice in the modern age.
We shall also introduce legislation to deal with the sentencing aspect of criminal law. The legislation will clearly set forth the purposes of sentencing, provide for a full range of alternative sentences, focus on the desirability of non-custodial sentences for non-violent crime, and provide for a range of intermediate sanctions where they are appropriate.
The agenda I have described very briefly this afternoon is a broad and a challenging one. Nonetheless it is equally clear that the issues we seek to address are urgent and important. May I say that I look forward to working with my colleagues in government, my colleagues throughout the House of Commons, in meeting the challenges this agenda presents. In doing so, may we recommit ourselves to what must be our ultimate objective in justice: to furnish, provide and maintain the fairest and most effective system of justice for Canada and Canadians.