Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak in support of Bill C-18, legislation reintroduced in this House to give customs officers new powers under the Criminal Code.
This legislation continues the good work carried on in Bill C-89, a bill that died when Parliament was dissolved prior to the last federal election.
Customs officers are our first line of defence in keeping drugs, contraband and illegal firearms out of the country. I am proud to lend my support to Bill C-18. I believe this legislation will make our communities safer and will be beneficial for border communities such as the one that I have the privilege of representing federally.
Under this new legislation, customs officers—many of my constituents happen to work as customs officers as there are four point crossings in my constituency—would provide first response capability at the border.
Bill C-18 will make the enforcement of our criminal laws more efficient and effective and will help to render every community in Canada a safer place in which to live.
Under the proposed legislation, customs officers will be given the capability of detaining or arresting at the border those individuals suspected of having committed criminal offences, for example, impaired driving or child abduction.
At present, customs officers have the power of detaining and arresting individuals who commit customs act offences such as smuggling. Customs officers also have the authority to search and seize goods such as illegal drugs, firearms, contraband tobacco and liquor and prohibited materials such as child pornography from entering Canada.
A study conducted in 1995 concluded that the existing situation was unacceptable and it proposed an extension of customs officers' powers to include Criminal Code offences. The recommendations made by this study received support by many important organizations and groups such as police forces, Revenue Canada employees and the customs excise unit.
History showed us that if customs officers had had in the past the powers, lives could have been saved.
Six years ago, sexual predator Jonathon Yeo was prevented from entering the United States at the Niagara Falls border crossing. He was armed. American officials alerted Canada Customs that an armed man was heading back into Canada. Sadly, Canadian officials did not have the legal right to detain him. As we know, he went on to murder three people before killing himself. One of the victims was the daughter of Priscilla de Villiers, founder of CAVEAT, a group that has been pushing for expanded powers for customs officers.
In the case of Mr. Yeo, the jury believed that customs officers should have been able to do more to assist the police. I believe that the proposed legislation is consistent with the jury's recommendation.
Our customs officers encounter many criminal situations while on duty. I know, as many of my colleagues here know today, that Canadian customs officers perform their duties in an exemplary way. For example, in the last two and a half years, customs officers were faced with 8,500 different suspected impaired drivers, almost 200 incidents of suspected child abductions, cases of individuals who were subject to arrest warrants and more than 500 individuals who had in their possession suspected stolen goods, most being motor vehicles.
These kinds of crimes are not acceptable in our community as they are hurting all of us. At this point we may ask: By delegating additional powers to customs officers are we putting them at risk? Bill C-18 will ensure that customs officers will receive additional training. Customs officers will be trained to ensure that they act fairly, responsibly and within the confines of the law in carrying out their duties.
Customs officers in my riding have raised the issue of bullet proof vests. The Department of Revenue will make bullet proof vests available to those designated officers who believe that their personal safety will be enhanced by choosing to wear a protective vest.
Many of the youths in my riding get jobs during the summer as customs officers. Some may ask if those student customs officers will receive first response powers. The answer is no. First response powers will be restricted to a fully trained, permanent customs officers, full time and part time, who have direct contact with people seeking to enter Canada at points of entry. Designated officers will respond to the Criminal Code situation identified by the students.
From the time this bill receives royal assent it could take six to nine months before it would be fully implemented. Customs officers will receive full training during that time and holding facilities will be constructed at border points across the country. This initiative will strengthen the already excellent working relationship between Revenue Canada customs and the RCMP, which will represent a more efficient way in which to help my own community of Niagara Falls and Niagara on the Lake and indeed every community in Canada a safer place in which to live.
I am aware that some customs officers believe that they should carry a weapon for their personal protection. However, I believe and it is my government's position that introducing firearms at the border is unnecessary. In fact, it could be a serious mistake. We have to bear in mind that this is not entirely new ground for customs officers. They are already designated as peace officers for the purposes of the customs act and to date they have demonstrated that they have no need for firearms to fulfil their responsibilities very safely and efficiently. Arming them in fact could invite more violent behaviour on the part of criminals. If not handled properly, an officer's firearm could provide a would-be criminal with a weapon that could actually be used to injure or kill the officer.
The role the government has in mind for our customs officers will be to provide a first response service. They will not be expected to participate in a Criminal Code investigation or transport prisoners. Police will intervene at the earliest possible stage.
As I said before, a great many of my constituents work as customs officers. I am well aware that they are carrying out a tremendous job with Child Find Canada and Operation Go Home in trying to alleviate the suffering for all those who experience the pain of missing or abducted children. Customs officers have every reason to be proud of their contribution to Canada's efforts to return abducted children to their homes. They have always acted professionally and completely within the scope of their authority.
The legislative changes called for in the legislation we are debating today will enhance their ability to assist with the retrieval of missing children because it will enable them to detain suspected abductors and turn them over to the appropriate police authority.
I am in favour and I lend by support to Bill C-18. To those who are saying that the government has the intention of creating another police force, I say these measures are a means of assisting police in their work, not replacing them. Under this legislation customs officers will be authorized to only make a preliminary action to hold suspects until police arrive.
I am in favour of and I am pleased to support Bill C-18. While I fully endorse this initiative, I am asking the House for the speedy passage of these changes that will benefit my community and other communities across Canada.