Mr. Speaker, I want to take the opportunity first of all in participating in this debate to express my sincere gratitude to the prime minister for the confidence he has placed in me by appointing me as the Solicitor General of Canada. I am particularly honoured and proud to have been given this task.
I also want to express my regrets to those members particularly from New Brunswick who served in the 35th parliament and were not re-elected. Their leadership will be sadly missed.
Last week we listened with interest and with optimism to the Speech from the Throne opening this the 36th session of Parliament. This occasion was particularly significant to me as a newly appointed minister. This is a parliament with a unique and historic opportunity to provide leadership on national issues to secure the social and economic future of Canadians as we approach the next millennium.
As solicitor general I am responsible for providing national leadership on issues relating to federal corrections, policing and national security. As such I would like today to address this session of the throne speech dealing with building safer communities. I want to provide an overview of the direction my ministry will be pursuing to help protect the safety and security of Canadians.
Canadians identify their feeling of personal safety and security as the one overriding element that contributes to their definition of being Canadian. The notion of living in safe communities is a hallmark of the Canadian identity. We know that crime creates fear not just for our personal safety but also for the safety of our families and our communities. It undermines the very quality of life in our neighbourhoods.
Canada is a comparatively safe society with a crime rate that has dropped steadily over the last four years. Yet there are many indications that Canadians do not feel safe and that is a reality to which governments must respond.
Canadians are entitled to know and feel that their communities are as safe, as peaceful and as secure as we can make them. Since the government's first election to office in 1993, we have made public safety a priority for action. We have made solid gains.
Carrying through on our red book promises over the past four years resulted in an intensive focus on criminal law issues to improve public safety. In particular, Canadians told us loud and clear that they wanted the government to get tough on violent high risk offenders. Here are just some of the measures that we took to improve public safety in that way.
We strengthened the dangerous offender provisions in the Criminal Code, created a new long term offender designation and passed measures to make it easier to detain until the end of sentence sex offenders who victimize children. We devised a national flagging system to help crown attorneys identify high risk offenders.
We established a national volunteer screening system to help organizations screen out child sexual abusers who apply to work with children. We passed tougher laws on stalking and made peace bonds more effective in keeping abusers away from women and children. We passed laws allowing police gathering and use of DNA evidence. Just last week we introduced a bill to create a DNA data bank.
The overarching theme of our safe communities agenda in the second red book is that building safer communities requires a multidimensional balanced approach.
This government recognizes the importance of dealing firmly with those offenders who threaten public safety. Some offenders must be imprisoned and in some cases for lengthy periods of time. This is not debatable in order to protect the public. However, there are others who can be dealt with more effectively and safely without lengthy terms in prison.
Almost all offenders will ultimately return to the community one day. Our best long term protection results from their return to a law-abiding lifestyle in the community. Where this can best be achieved through community supervision, with adequate programs in residential communities this should be our approach. This approach does not mean being soft on crime nor letting criminals go free. It means making these offenders responsible and accountable for their crimes through other means.
The Speech from the Throne speaks to the issue of alternatives. The federal and provincial governments are committed to developing alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders who can safely and effectively be managed in the community.
Let me say also a few words about public attitudes on criminal justice issues as they relate to this subject. A recent Angus Reid survey demonstrated the remarkably strong consensus that exists among Canadians on the need for a balanced and comprehensive approach. According to that survey Canadians believe that the protection of the public and the rehabilitation of offenders are of higher priority than punishment as goals of incarceration.
The results of the Angus Reid survey suggest how we may further reform Canada's criminal justice system but they also speak to the need to involve citizens in the communities in the development of safe and effective solutions. This is nowhere more important than in our work to address the needs of aboriginal offenders who continue to be overrepresented in our correctional system.
While dealing more appropriately with high and low risk offenders will remain a priority, it is imperative that we also work to prevent crime in the first instance. As stated in the Speech from the Throne, the government will increase funding for community based crime prevention initiatives to $30 million a year. In our safe communities agenda we focus on crime prevention at the community level which is essentially a process of community building with local involvement over a wide range of issues.
There is a wide consensus that successful crime prevention must take a comprehensive approach to tackling the root problems that lead to crime, and that these efforts must start at the earliest stages of a child's life. Our efforts must bring together the expertise of those responsible for housing, social services, public health, recreation, schools and policing. Our efforts should include the contributions of the ordinary citizens who live and work in the very communities we seek to serve and protect.
In 1994 the National Crime Prevention Council was established as part of the national strategy on community safety and crime prevention. Together with the council and the Department of Justice, my department is targeting prevention programs where they are needed and will have the greatest impact.
These include aboriginal communities. In the coming months we plan to work more closely with aboriginal communities to develop crime prevention initiatives. This speaks directly to the red book commitment concerning the reduction of crime in aboriginal communities by assisting these communities in the development of community driven activities.
Another focus of our crime prevention activities involves young people. Issues related to youth crime including the victimization of young people, the most vulnerable members of our society, will continue as a priority in my ministry. We look forward to helping to renew and develop new partnerships between communities, the police, the voluntary sector and all levels of government.
Another area where partnership and co-operation are vitally important and one that is also aimed at improving the safety of our communities is that of information sharing among federal and provincial criminal justice agencies. Corrections staff and the National Parole Board need police and court information to make good decisions on handling offenders. In turn the police need corrections information to deal with released offenders. Here again gains have been made in recent years to bring about improvements.
I spoke earlier of the need for the government to provide leadership in policing. We have made a concerted effort over the last four years to consult with police to determine what tools we can develop to help them fight crime.
To this end just a few days ago I introduced legislation to create Canada's first national DNA data bank. The data bank to be established and maintained by the RCMP will be a powerful investigative tool to help protect Canadians from violent and repeat criminals. With this legislation Canada will become one of only a handful of countries to have a DNA data bank.
Another area where police have said they need more and sharper tools is in the fight against organized crime. Organized criminal activities are clearly a matter of growing concern for the police, the general public and the government. The recent bikers war in Quebec underscores that organized crime is not something intangible, something that happens in dark alleys hidden from view, but can and does have a direct impact on our neighbourhoods.
The international trafficking in illicit drugs with associated money laundering continues to be the highest threat of all. Recognizing that organized crime knows no jurisdictional boundaries, our efforts to fight it are and will continue to be domestic, continental and international in scope. Nationally there is a strong and growing commitment among police and law enforcement agencies in all jurisdictions to work with my ministry and the Department of Justice to build stronger partnerships to combat organized crime.
This fall I will be making in the House of Commons the first annual statement on organized crime to report on the implementation of the anti-gang legislation, Bill C-95, and our efforts to improve co-ordinated enforcement. Also in this regard I will be meeting tomorrow with Janet Reno, the American attorney general, to review progress and identify the next steps in our co-operative Canada-U.S. efforts to fight cross-border crime.
Citizen participation in determining solutions is no longer an option. As far as we are concerned it is an obligation. We in government must not forget our obligation to keep Canadians informed of developments in the criminal justice system. We need to share information about issues of importance to Canadians in order that we can have fruitful and informed discussions on those very issues.
I would also like to speak briefly as a minister from the province of New Brunswick. The throne speech was clear in stating that in order to secure a strong Canada for the 21st century, governments will need to work more closely with others in partnership. We will have to welcome new ideas that are citizen based, pursue more aggressively the strategic alliances available to us and consider collaboration an essential ingredient for our national and regional success. These are important messages. Co-operation, collaboration, sharing ideas and talents and collective problem solving are the essence of our ever evolving democracy. It is about achieving together what we could not possibly do alone.
The issues are very complex and very numerous today and easy solutions are elusive, so elusive in fact that any chance for successful solutions usually requires collective thinking and action. Governments at all levels are becoming more mindful of this new imperative in the conduct of their business. As a result citizens can expect better decisions and more informed policy making from their leaders. This is important too in deciding what the state itself can do best and what the state should concede to the community as a better place for certain things to get done.
For example Canada's old age security and medicare benefits are regulated and funded by the national government and rightly so. The enviable success of these programs would not have been achieved without the resources and overarching presence of the federal authority. Regulating and distributing the country's wealth to achieve equitability among the provinces is a proper role for the federal government. However there have been other initiatives emanating from the nation's capital which have been more effectively implemented regionally or even better at the community level if that option were considered.
I earlier indicated my commitment to involve communities in the issue of crime prevention. Fixing crime in the different communities in our country will come only with the direct and meaningful involvement of those placed in and knowledgeable about the particular communities in which they reside.
The role of the national government in such cases should not be to prescribe solutions; rather government's role is to encourage and help facilitate a process of problem solving at the community level from the ground up. This approach to governing is not indicated only for crime prevention. Communities it turns out are the best places to address a range of problems from poverty and unemployment to human resources development.
Thanks to the foresight of the four Atlantic premiers an Atlantic vision conference is being organized next month in Moncton. The conference is planned as an important step in a process of sharing and discovery aimed at economic recovery in Atlantic Canada.
The federal government will participate in the proceedings. In fact I will attend the conference from start to finish. Other federal ministers will also attend. The deliberations will be conducted in a true spirit of partnership, federally, provincially and interprovincially. This is as it should be and the better will be the chances of success for the conference and for our region.
We know that economic growth solutions in Atlantic Canada will be found in Atlantic Canada if each of the four provinces seeks solutions on their own for a stronger economy. The Atlantic vision conference will feature sharing, collaboration and consensus building. It aims for the crystallization of federal, provincial and industry participation in the region's future development.
While we recognize there is a great deal to be done, it is the beginning of a voyage toward economic recovery.
The Atlantic premiers deserve our commendation for their vision in undertaking this project. The leadership in Atlantic Canada recognizes it is a part of a larger community which is Canada. The challenge is to find ways for all Atlantic Canadians to both contribute to and share in our national bounty. The Atlantic vision conference plays quite largely in making this possible.
This will be a collaborative exercise, one which I understand very well. In my own constituency I have made it a practice to hold regular, broadly based, very visible community forums. I held a forum on aboriginal justice issues during the third week of August in Fredericton. Other consultations I have engaged in in the short time I have been solicitor general include meetings with IACOLE, the Canadian criminal justice system, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the aboriginal police chiefs and the national reference group which we established with some 40 organizations. We spent a day together here in Ottawa discussing the issues of importance to that community. I also visited the RCMP depot in Regina to discuss policing issues with members of the RCMP.
We approach the new millennium with great optimism, but we also recognize that difficult decisions will have to be made. I firmly believe that we are on track, that we are making progress and that we are well equipped to handle both the challenges and the opportunities which lie ahead.