Madam Speaker, may I begin this afternoon by congratulating the hon. member for Fraser Valley West and his colleagues for using their opportunity today, an opposition day, to put this resolution before the House of Commons. It provides us
with the occasion to discuss and consider the circumstances of people who are too often overlooked in the criminal justice system.
Victims have until relatively recent times been the orphans of the justice system. Although steps have been made toward progress in recent years, they have been imperfect. There remains a great deal to do.
In the two and one-half years it has been my privilege to serve the government and the public in my present capacity, I have made it my business whenever the opportunity arises to meet with those whose lives have been touched by crime. For the most part these have been surviving family members of Canadians who have been murdered.
I have found those meetings to be very difficult because of the emotions involved. Questions are often asked for which there are no simple responses. There is in the final analysis nothing that one can do, whether minister of the crown, member of Parliament, police officer, judge, friend or even loved one which will satisfactorily take the place of the person who has been lost to crime.
I have had those meetings because I believe it is an important part of my job. It is important for persons who have lived through such tragedy to have the opportunity to speak directly with someone who must take responsibility for Canada's criminal justice system and to express their experiences and their perspective. I have had those meetings because I have learned from them. My own insight, my own understanding and my own perspective of criminal justice matters has been broadened and enriched from what I have learned in those encounters with Canadians who have had a direct, personal and very tragic experience with the criminal justice system.
Let me make it clear at the outset that I do not think there is anyone who would contend today that the criminal justice system should be organized just for victims alone. Their perspective is important and essential. There is a great deal we can do to improve the system as it relates to them.
However, the victim is not the only participant or the only stakeholder in the criminal justice system. There is the public, which has a right to see a system that is fair and balanced and operated for their benefit. There are the police who must walk the streets and take risks with their own personal safety to enforce the law and to assist in its prosecution. There is the offender. It is one of the principles of sentencing in the criminal law that we should strive toward rehabilitation when it is possible. Indeed the safest and the surest form of public protection is to rehabilitate the offender so that the person can return to society and not offend again.
The victim's perspective is not the unique or only perspective when it comes to designing the criminal justice system, but it is a
very important one. As I have said, too often through insensitivity the interests and the personal stake of the victim are overlooked.
I am not comfortable to simply rhyme off shopping lists of legislative achievements as though they were a simple answer to a complex question. I do not pretend that we have done as much as we could have, or that we have done enough to improve the criminal justice system in the last two and one-half years. However, I do think that a discussion of this issue today would be incomplete unless I drew attention to the efforts we have made as a government to improve the system as it relates to victims.
For example, we amended the Young Offenders Act with Bill C-37, making the victim impact statement part of the process for the first time.
With Bill C-41, we amended section 745 to ensure that victims take part in the process of determining eligibility for parole, and we amended the Criminal Code concerning the victim's role in the process.
With Bill C-41 we also added sections concerning restitution, giving victims the opportunity to recover property or money in restitution from the offender.
With Bill C-42 we made it easier for those who are the victims of domestic abuse to seek peace bonds or restraining orders to keep the offender away and to make it more likely that it is the abuser and not the victim who is taken from the matrimonial home.
In Bill C-68, which stepped up the control of firearms, we amended the act by adding a mandatory minimum four year prison sentence for anyone using a firearm to commit any of ten crimes listed in the Criminal Code.
In C-72, we acted in response to the use in criminal cases of the defence of self-induced intoxication. We clearly stated that involuntary intoxication would not be allowed as a response for anyone accused of a violent crime against another person, and we changed the act after a Supreme Court of Canada decision on this matter.
With Bill C-104, we added sections allowing police forces to take forensic DNA samples with court permission.
The DNA sample provisions in the Criminal Code for the first time provide expressly that police can seek permission to take bodily samples even without the consent of the offender to be
tested for DNA purposes, a measure which I may say was supported by my friends across the way.
We have now before Parliament pending legislation which, among other things, would toughen the penalties for stalking, particularly where lives are taken. It deals with the victimization of children through juvenile prostitution by providing for stern minimum penitentiary terms for pimps and measures which would also make it easier for children to testify against their pimps when charges are brought.
In addition, we will in the weeks to come bring forward, in collaboration with the solicitor general, measures which will further amend the criminal law to provide more effectively for those offenders who are sentenced to finite periods of imprisonment but who can be predicted to be at high risk to re-offend violently on their release. We will label for the House concrete proposals to change the Criminal Code so that such persons can be supervised for periods as long as 10 years after their release from prison.
I know that the hon. member for Fraser Valley West recognizes that the way the criminal justice system operates in general and more particularly the way it treats the interests of victims is a shared federal and provincial responsibility. I do not say that to avoid the responsibility that we have federally, I accept that. But the administration of the criminal law, the organization of the courts, the manner in which prosecutions are carried on and the standards that the crown attorneys follow are prescribed by the provincial and not the federal government. Therefore, it is very much a shared responsibility that we must discharge together.
The question then becomes: What is it that we can do as the federal participant in this system to encourage, facilitate and achieve the objectives that we share? I can report to the House this is not the first time that the issue of the treatment of victims in the system by both levels of government has been in issue.
As the House may know, every year there is a meeting among the federal attorney general and the provincial and territorial attorneys general to discuss matters of common interest. This year's meeting is to occur here in Ottawa in about two weeks. At my request, the issue of victims, their place and their treatment by the criminal justice system has been put on the agenda for that meeting.
It is my intention to put before my provincial and territorial colleagues a proposal that we reaffirm basic principles about how victims are treated in the system.
In 1988, at just such a meeting, the federal and provincial attorneys general endorsed a statement of basic principles to govern the treatment of victims. I would like to read from that, if I may. In many ways it reflects the same principles that are contained in the statement that was read by the hon. member for Fraser Valley West.
In 1988 the ministers adopted this statement:
In recognition of the United Nations' Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime, Federal and Provincial Ministers Responsible for Criminal Justice agree that the following principles should guide Canadian society in promoting access to justice, fair treatment and provision of assistance for victims of crime.
Victims should be treated with courtesy, compassion and with respect for their dignity and privacy and should suffer the minimum of necessary inconvenience from their involvement with the criminal justice system.
Victims should receive, through formal and informal procedures, prompt and fair redress for the harm that they had suffered.
All victims should be informed of what reparations are available to them, and what steps they have to take to obtain them.
Victims should be informed of what role they will play in the trial, the trial date, developments in the case, and the final court decision.
Victims' opinions and concerns should be sought out, and the necessary assistance provided to them throughout the entire trial.
When the victim's personal interests are involved, his or her opinions and concerns should be brought to the attention of the court, provided this is allowed by the rules of criminal procedure.
The necessary steps should be taken, as required, to ensure the safety of victims and their families, and to protect them against threats or reprisals.
Enhanced training should be made available to sensitize criminal justice personnel to the needs and concerns of victims and guidelines should be developed, where appropriate, for this purpose.
Victims should be informed of the availability of health and social services and other relevant assistance so that they might continue to receive the necessary medical, psychological and social assistance through existing programs and services.
Victims should report the crime and co-operate with law enforcement authorities.
That is the statement of basic principles that the ministers adopted eight years ago. I intend to put it before them again next month and to invite them to reaffirm those principles because to my eye and in my experience while those high sounding principles are easy to adopt, it is quite another thing to put them into practice every day in the courts.
Too often a victim is not consulted about the adjournment of a case. Too often the perspective of the victim is not sufficiently respected in dealing with matters of sentence, and too often after the case has left the court and the offender is taken away to serve the sentence, the victim is forgotten. There is no follow-up, no provision of services, no effort to bring to the attention of the victim recourses and remedies that are available.
I will use the occasion of the meeting next month to remind my colleagues of those commitments made eight years ago, to canvas with them concrete steps that can be taken to bring those principles to life and methods by which we can improve on and elaborate on those principles.
I undertake to the hon. member for Fraser Valley West that in preparation for my meeting with my colleagues, I will examine the statement of principles he read from this morning and determine how much of that statement I can add to what is in the document I have read from to improve it and to broaden it in its scope.
The resolution today is a welcome opportunity to discuss an important subject. It is a good use of the House's time. I share the concern that has been expressed by the hon. member. I may not agree with every element of the means he has described by which the objectives can be achieved, but the objectives we do share.
I also join with him in acknowledging that we have a distance to go before the criminal justice system serves the interests of victims as it should, while recognizing and emphasizing that is not the only perspective we must keep in mind.
I wish to tell the hon. member for Fraser Valley West that we will be happy to support his resolution and have the justice committee look at this issue. I will bring to the committee whatever might arise from my meetings with the provincial and territorial ministers so that together, in a fashion that is not partisan but is co-operative, we can act to improve the circumstances and improve the criminal justice system.