Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House today to speak to Bill C-13, concerning the protection of witnesses. This is a topic of some interest to the police, naturally, and it is also an important factor in helping the judicial system not just to track down criminals, but also to pursue individuals involved in organized crime. It is also a very sensitive topic, open to controversy. By its definition, organized crime involves a number of people, a very close-knit group that it is extremely difficult for RCMP or CSIS agents or anyone else to penetrate.
One of our duties is to assist the judicial process, to facilitate legislation and the application of legislation for those who must apply it on the front line, in most cases, police officers, of course.
It is important in 1996 that Canada have such a law. It has been needed for a long time, but whatever the reasons for the delay, we are finally debating it today.
The objective, let it be remembered, is to improve the quality of life. You do not pass a law for the sheer pleasure of it, you pass a law to facilitate the process, and Bill C-13 is ultimately about
improving the quality of life and improving respect for the law, which becomes more effective as a result. It is simply a work tool, not a revolution in itself, as we have seen elsewhere.
Experience has shown that turning to witnesses to provide elements of proof or help with police investigations at the risk of endangering themselves or their families, is often one of the most effective means available to our justice system in the fight against crime, particularly organized crime. The objective of the witness protection program act is to ensure that our federal witness protection program continues to offer the best protection possible to sources and potential witnesses.
It is hardly surprising that Bill C-13, which itself flows from Bill C-78 tabled by the Solicitor General, is to all intents and purposes the same as a bill already passed by this House on September 26, Bill C-206, tabled by the hon. member for Scarborough West, and passed at first reading on February 1, 1995.
In fact, the only noticeable changes are that witnesses can be better compensated under a bill as introduced. Also, under Bill C-13, the commissioner of the RCMP will now have to make the necessary arrangements with witnesses, or their solicitor, to ensure their protection.
As I was saying earlier, under Bill C-206, as passed on December 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.
We lagged considerably behind others, in particular our American neighbours, who have had witness protection legislation applying to all 50 states of the union for 25 years now. That legislation is well known by the general public, which is thus aware of its rights.
The system was made necessary because what is happening today is that police authorities are using a piecemeal approach, dealing separately with each informant they want to see testify in court.
This makes things somewhat ambiguous for these people, who have a law to enforce, for a variety of reasons, including the media aspect. But on what basis are they going to negotiate these piecemeal agreements?
I do not believe 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 as this will improve the situation of witnesses, particularly in criminal cases, and more particularly in cases involving serious crimes.
The process, as it is currently applied, does have a few flaws. These events are always surrounded by publicity, which taints the true purpose of the mandate outlined in Bill C-13.
Law enforcement officers bargain with criminals, often for money, but also for reduced sentences. On the subject of reduced sentences, there was a case recently in Ontario, in Toronto to be more precise, that draw a great deal of media attention for all kinds of reasons. Naturally, in this matter-this is as good an example as any, since it is often how it works-it is quite clear that, without the help of the informer witness-in this case, a woman-it would have been almost impossible for the judicial system to get a conviction for extremely serious crimes.
Witness protection is not afforded indiscriminately either. It has been used in many instances. I think that every member of this House has learned about such cases through the media or through personal experience. The problem is it could be subject to interpretation. Will giving informer witnesses money or reduced sentences have the effect of encouraging crime? That is one way of looking at it, but we must look a little further than that, we must take a slightly more serious attitude and admit that, ultimately, it has the effect of encouraging informers to come forward, which, in turn, leads to the arrest and conviction of individuals and often groups of individuals.
Some would say this is rooting out individuals whose sole reason for belonging to our society is to abuse the system, certain advantages or the kindness of some organizations, but that is part of a bigger picture. Let us not kid ourselves here. Without the protection afforded by the law, informers would just not come forward.
Big time criminals never operate alone, or only very exceptionally. As for those who operate alone and are still out there, have not been caught yet, we do not hear much about them either. They are therefore of no great concern to us. But those who operate in gangs, the big time criminals involved in drug trafficking or money laundering, to name but a few of their activities, they are the ones that worry us. This is the kind of cases that are reported on almost every week on television.
And every week, there is all this information on all sorts of crimes: currency counterfeiting, card counterfeiting, large scale credit card theft. Land is bought in foreign countries with money to be laundered and then resold. The list goes on and on.
We are talking about organizations. These activities cannot be conducted by a single individual. A person alone cannot go out and buy equipment with clean money while carrying dirty money obtained from a drug deal. This is simply not possible. There are steps to follow. There are a number of people involved and, among
these, we sometimes find informers, who deserve to be protected when they testify.
Let me tell you about a case on the North Shore, in my riding, more specifically in Sept-îles. Several tonnes of hashish were seized. At the time, a big wig was arrested, namely Vito Rizutto, the mafia boss. An informer was involved. As I recall, 18 people, from sailors on the ship to the big boss himself were in that small jail, in Sept-îles, which has room for 23 people in total. Needless to say that this group of 18 pretty well filled up the place.
There was also an informer inside, a ship captain. I remember him very well. Since then, he has been keeping a very low profile, particularly in view of the fact that the investigation fizzled out for all sorts of reasons that would be too long to explain.
I remember that, at the time, the informer was offered police protection, including a new identity and possibly some money. Because of this arrangement, he was prepared to testify. He confessed. At the time, I was a correctional services officer and had the opportunity to speak with him, with all of them, but I asked him the following question: Would you give yourself up if you did not have this system?
Naturally, they offered to protect his family, him as well, give him a new identity and so on. He was adamant, it was out of the question. He would say nothing at all, if nothing else was offered, if this protection system was not offered, which is not surprising in the times we live in, if we want to catch the big criminals.
All the more so as we are not looking at 100,000 people wanting money to talk, 100,000 people to protect, who need new identities. I listened to the remarks of my colleague across the way earlier, and he said, if my memory is correct, that the average was $30,000 per person, and often $20,000. It is very unusual. I once saw approximately $100,000 in British Columbia a few years back. I think that this idea dies hard.
The deputy across the way was right to point out that the majority averaged $30,000. Do we say this is good, or not? This is, after all, being given to someone who has committed a crime, let us not forget that. Nor should we stick our heads in the sand. I say it is a compromise we have to make if we want to improve the legal system as it now stands, and particularly its application.
Improving the legal system, legislating for the fun of it, these are things anyone can do. In order to get elected, we create laws, but these laws must be easy to apply for those on the front line, the police officers who make arrests and conduct investigations. They must be given the legislative means authorizing them to do so, so that they will no longer find themselves stuck in situations as they are today, where there is a considerable risk of finding their pictures on the front page of some tabloid, with the claim that they offered some criminal this, that or the other.
There must be better protection than there is at present. I feel that C-13 goes a long way toward providing that protection.
When we speak of witness protection, it has been pointed out, and I repeat, that this involves some 80 to 100 individuals, a figure which includes family members.
It must be kept in mind that, like the rest of us, these people have families. If we commit some act, we do not want our families to pay for it. Of course, we need to have a sense of responsibility, but nobody is perfect. We must face up to our responsibilities.
A criminal who has been informed on will automatically get at the informant where he or she is vulnerable, if at all possible, so if only the individual is protected and not the family, the whole protection process is useless. At this time, among of the 80 to 100 individuals protected, and justifiably so, by the criminal justice system in this way , there are family members, children, wives and husbands.
The system is not perfect, I will admit, but it is a pretty good one. It is not perfect because it was created by people, and none of us is perfect, no matter who we are. But our lack of perfection is compensated for considerably by our efforts to improve.
Problems often arise in the period immediately following the commission of the crime. When someone is arrested, a lot of things go on in his or her head. This is logical and normal considering what is going on. The person is questioned by the police, offers information, a million questions are asked. It is not hard to imagine the panic such people can be in. It is absolutely incredible.
But, careful, time is a factor. If individuals were not given protection, the criminal world would eventually get to them, directly or indirectly, and they could be asked perhaps to simply forget certain facts when it came time to testify in court.
Let us say that Bill C-13 is a memory booster. It is a bit odd to put it that way, but if the witness protection system were dropped, I am sure people would forget a lot. However, when they are protected, they forget less quickly and co-operate more, and the legal system is better protected.
It is also important to realize that this society has to be protected by the laws we make, and there is nothing wrong with using the same methods as the criminal world, which works on weaknesses in finding these people and stops at nothing to achieve its ends.
Therefore, and I will conclude on this point, we support Bill C-13. It is not perfect, of course, but it is a significant step forward, which helps us catch up with other countries that have already incorporated this sort of measure in their legislation.