Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise on behalf of the official opposition to discuss Bill C-78, which was just tabled by the solicitor general.
It is somewhat surprising that, for all intents and purposes, Bill C-78 is similar to a bill considered by the House on September 26, namely Bill C-206, which introduced by the hon. member for Scarborough West and given first reading on February 1.
Indeed, a comparison of both bills shows that there is very little difference between Bill C-78, which is before us today, and Bill C-206, which has already gone through second reading in this House.
The only changes that I could find, and they are not major, are that compensation of witnesses may be better under bill C-78. Also-and to my mind this is not an improvement-under this bill, the RCMP commissioner will now have to make the necessary arrangements with witnesses, or their counsel, to ensure their protection. Under Bill C-206, as considered on September 26, the solicitor general had the authority to reach agreements with witnesses. That, of course, made it easier, under our parliamentary system, to ensure control of government activities through ministerial accountability.
This, I feel, is an issue which the committee will have to look at again. In terms of the principles involved, there is not much difference between the solicitor general's position and the one which I express on behalf of the official opposition. Nevertheless, we will have to take another look at this issue and decide who should be responsible for the arrangements made. I understand that it can be argued that the RCMP commissioner is ultimately accountable to the solicitor general who, in turn, is accountable to this House, which means that the House will have a say in the process. I will come back to this point.
Before getting into the heart of the matter, I would like to begin by stating that the contribution by the hon. member for Scarborough West, not only in introducing Bill C-206 but also in taking part in all aspects of the work of Parliament, particularly in the justice and legal affairs committee, ought to ensure that he will have the opportunity in the very near future of having his point of view heard on legal issues within that committee.
Now, having made that remark, and having voiced these few reservations, I must nevertheless express my pleasure at the care the government has taken with this issue of witness protection. I believe that the government's wishes will result in a change to Canadian law.
We must admit that we lagged considerably behind our American neighbours, who have had witness protection legislation applying to all 50 states of the union for 25 years now. That legislation is is well known by the general public, which is thus aware of its rights.
Here, we do have some legislation in this regard, but it is not as well known and is administered by the RCMP in some cases, by the OPP or the Sûreté du Québec in others, but always sporadically and piecemeal, which does nothing to help the general public understand the system.
In a law-abiding society, I do not believe that we can settle for a piecemeal approach, with decisions depending on the whims of whoever is responsible for policing at a specific time. I feel that instead we need to have legislation that will apply all across Canada and will therefore incorporate in the rules of law those principles we wish to be seen in our public law. This will improve the situation of witnesses, particularly in criminal cases, and more particularly in cases involving serious crimes.
It is my opinion that this will put an end to the application, in a sometimes sequential manner and without any controls, though it was done in good faith, of procedures about which there might be witness confusion as to which policies apply to them. From now on it will be clear, and attorneys will be able to inform witnesses of the protection programs available to them by law. This transparency in application of the law cannot help but be beneficial to the community at large.
As I just pointed out, there should be one set of criteria for everyone, and the public should be aware of those criteria.
Now, how should witness protection be structured and how should it be monitored? Should the courts monitor witness protection or should it be left up to the RCMP commissioner or the minister?
Some will probably argue that monitoring by the courts would involve a certain amount of publicity which may not be desirable in this case, because often the purpose of the witness protection program is to allow the witness, who has put his life on the line many times, to hide behind a new identity so that he can start a new life.
If there is monitoring by the judiciary, every precaution must be taken to avoid undue publicity or releasing names, which could be disastrous and even do the opposite of what the bill introduced by the government is intended to do.
There could, however, be a form of monitoring by Parliament. I have been and still am a member of the Sub-Committee on National Security, and I submit that this would probably be the ideal venue for reviewing, either from time to time or on an ongoing basis, as deemed appropriate by the committee, the entire witness protection system and its implementation by the RCMP.
The expertise of the Sub-Committee on National Security-which I would like to see become a standing committee of this House-would ensure that parliamentarians would be able to monitor the actions of the police in this respect, both discreetly and effectively, I would hope.
Those are some of the issues. I hope that in committee we will have an opportunity to hear witnesses, and we may be able to clarify certain points during clause by clause consideration.
In serious cases involving drug trafficking and organized crime, for instance, often the very survival of the witnesses is at stake. Under our legal system, the crown's case is usually based on the testimony of witnesses as opposed to confessions by the accused. That is the whole point of protecting witnesses. There are no spontaneous confessions. We live in a country that respects its citizens. We have reached a level in our civilization where we can treat people with respect. We cannot force people to confess. The crown often has to introduce circumstantial evidence by calling witnesses, and these witnesses must be protected.
The crown never knows, during the bail hearing, the preliminary hearing or, later, the trial-all of which may or may not be part of the process-whether it can count on these witnesses at a given time. We have to protect witnesses and we also have to protect the evidence that may be collected at some time or other. The very fact that courts across the country have a huge backlog of cases means that preserving evidence is a serious problem in Canada. Evidence collected at a previous stage may often no longer be valid at a subsequent stage if the witness has disappeared from this earth. So in addition to protecting witnesses, we must also protect the evidence.
The Crown prosecutors' big concern is whether they can keep their witnesses until the time of the trial. They wonder whether the witnesses will answer their questions properly, once on the stand. Time is often the Crown's greatest enemy in a criminal trial. Witnesses' memory is inversely proportional to the length of the proceedings. It is perhaps even directly proportional, that is, it fails as proceedings go on or the risk of failure increases. It is a bit like cigarettes. The risk increases with use.
At the moment, there are no ways to deal with this, since witnesses' memories often fail in criminal cases. People at home can see on TV what happens when witnesses do not want to remember anything or when they cannot remember anything, all the pressure that can be brought to bear on people who want to help in the cause of justice, but are unable to because of constraints imposed on them.
So Bill C-78 will remedy this to some extent. It should not be considered a magic formula, a miracle solution. I am one of those who believe that, in politics, nothing happens magically or gets done immediately, we progress by taking one small step at a time in the right direction. I consider this bill, Bill C-78, one such step and, in using it, we will see what sort of contribution it makes to changing criminal law, protecting witnesses and safeguarding justice in criminal matters.
I also think there are two times, in particular, when witnesses need help. Before the trial, naturally. At that point, witnesses' material security must be looked after, and they must be given effective protection. In some instances, they literally have to be hidden for their own protection-I hope it is with their approval-so they may give proper testimony, which will give a court of law the opportunity to assess the quality of the testimony and decide whether the Crown has presented beyond any reasonable doubt the necessary evidence. We must not forget that, under our system, the burden of proof is on the Crown. And the burden is enormous. The slightest failure in this regard inevitably leads to the acquittal of the accused.
In the case of heinous crimes-I will address drugs and organized crime later-the mere disappearance of witnesses can raise a reasonable doubt. Often, if witnesses, who may or may not show up in court, disappear, the prosecution will simply have to rise and tell the court that they have no evidence to offer. This can only lead to an acquittal since there is no evidence. We must then provide protection for witnesses before the trial.
Protecting witnesses before the trial is not enough, however, we must also protect them after the trial, after the verdict, whether it is a verdict of guilty or not guilty, because there is no guarantee that the testimony of a witness protected under the provisions of Bill C-78 will be enough to convict someone. The bill must allow witness protection authorities to assure witnesses that if they testify at the trial, they will be protected whether the accused is found guilty or not guilty, because witnesses' safety cannot be compromised whatever the verdict.
I mentioned it earlier but it always bears repeating: In some cases, because of our legislation-I am not questioning our Criminal Code in any way-because of the presumption of innocence and the resulting reasonable doubt, there may be an acquittal even if the witness is protected. We must therefore provide for the reintegration of those witnesses who have secured convictions or
who have failed to do so through no fault of their own because of the way the evidence was reviewed.
In closing, I wish to express my support for Bill C-78 at second reading and to issue a warning against what we too often see in some courts of law that are probably trying to proceed too quickly. A famous trial recently held in Canada showed us that the prosecution is often much too eager to plea-bargain with some witnesses to get them to testify against their codefendants, an arrangement through which a person pleads guilty to a lesser offence or an offence included in a more serious offence in return for a lighter sentence and a promise to testify against targeted people for whom the prosecution wants stiffer sentences.
In some cases, this practice is quite commendable; in other cases, it is, in my opinion, quite reprehensible. And I do not think that good judgment can be guaranteed by a bill. I call on the solicitor general, on provincial attorney generals, who must deal with these issues practically every day, to use as much common sense as possible when plea-bargaining with witnesses, many of whom are corrupt, who will testify against codefendants in return for a more lenient sentence. This practice deserves a serious examination. It must be the subject of wide criticism and of a broad national debate.
What do we expect from our judicial system? Our judicial system does not make enough room for victims. We, of course, give the accused all the benefits provided by our laws, by our charter of rights and freedoms. We must, however, give victims in criminal cases the importance they deserve. As we heard several times in the Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs, victims of crime very often feel left out. A crime has been committed but the victims are the least of our concerns. It is all well and good to be concerned about witness protection. I nonetheless think that people who have lost a loved one-be it a spouse, a child, a friend or a relative-to murder are entitled to some compassion.
On these words, I will ask the government to provide protection, to provide a much greater compensation for victims.