moved that Bill C-223, an act to amend the Witness Protection Program Act and to make a related and consequential amendment to another act (protection of spouses whose life is in danger), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I will begin my remarks today by stating that this is an exciting day for me. Although I have submitted private members' bills many times in the past six years, this is my first bill to be deemed votable.
Bill C-223, an act to amend the Witness Protection Program Act or the new identities act, as I have called it, attempts to accomplish one thing, to save lives.
In my remarks today I will address the problem of domestic violence in our society, the inadequacies of our present laws, the current new identities program and explain the initiatives proposed in Bill C-223.
Domestic violence is one of the most horrendous problems facing our society. It is my opinion, and that of the hundreds of women who have responded to this issue, that domestic violence is indeed a national problem deserving increased attention from parliament. I do not believe that we as parliamentarians have done enough to address the violence that all too often occurs behind closed doors. This is an issue that requires us to put aside our partisan ways and address the true needs of those in danger.
Just listen to these statistics. In 1996, 21,901 cases of spousal assault were recorded in a sample of 154 police departments across the country. In 1996, approximately 80% of victims of criminal harassment or stalking were women. Over half of all female victims of criminal harassment were harassed by ex-spouses or other intimate partners.
Between 1977 and 1996, there were 2,048 spousal killings in Canada. In over 56% of spousal homicides, investigating police officers had knowledge of previous domestic violence between victims and the suspects.
The process of eradicating domestic violence is not easy and I am fully aware that process will take some time. In the meantime, there are women and children in our country who live in fear for their lives. When I began to research this issue I was shocked by the lack of laws focused on preventing domestic violence and spousal abuse. Aside from anti-stalking laws and restraining orders, there are few remedies available. Most of the laws focus on punishment for crimes committed and are often too late for victims.
Such was the case for Mary-Lynne Miller from Dawson Creek in my riding. In February 1997 Brad Neuman, Miller's former common-law spouse while on probation beat her into a coma in her own apartment. Mary-Lynne suffered on the floor with severe head injuries for over 21 hours before getting medical attention. She remains in a coma to this very day.
One of Neuman's probation conditions was that he was to have no contact with Mary-Lynne Miller. Other than go into hiding, Mary-Lynne could not ensure her own safety and paid a heavy price. It was this case that really opened my eyes to the tragedy of domestic violence. Sadly, there have been thousands of others equally tragic.
In January of this year I was reading the Vancouver Province on my flight from Vancouver to Ottawa where I came across an article. The story detailed a maverick program run by bureaucrats in the Department of Revenue Canada, in conjunction with Human Resources Development Canada, to provide new identities for those people who find themselves in life threatening situations. It allows them to change their names and social insurance numbers in order to hide from an abusive spouse or former spouse.
The woman featured in the article had endured beatings, death threats and emotional torture. The new identities program helped her to relocate and get new documents. Unfortunately, her academic credentials were not transferable to her new identity nor was her resume. This meant finding any job she could in order to support herself and her child. When her husband caught her trail again she would have to run and start the same panicked process of self-preservation over again.
After reading this article I felt frustrated and motivated to do something. That is when I began to research this issue to seek out a solution. The result is the bill before the House today. Originally numbered C-494 in the first session of this parliament, I sent copies of this bill and background material to over 500 women's shelters and transition houses across Canada seeking feedback and their input.
What I got in return were letters of support; tragic, horrifying personal stories and petitions signed by hundreds of people in support of the bill. It was reassuring to know that those who deal with the brutality of spousal abuse on a daily basis endorse the principles contained in this bill.
This summer a woman contacted me after hearing about the bill. She came into my office in disguise to tell me firsthand the story of her abuse. She has been on the run from her former husband for over 10 years. She and her son live in a constant state of readiness to move. Just this fall her husband, through a private investigator, found them again. The threat of violence is so severe that her son's school was put on lock down to assure his safety.
She has been harassed, stalked, beaten, permanently disfigured and threatened with death. It is hard to believe that these are Canadian citizens living in such fear in this very country.
Without a new identify, this woman is positive that her former husband will kill her. Even though he has had several restraining orders filed against him there, is little that can be done until he decides to strike again.
As I mentioned earlier in my remarks, the new identities program is an ad hoc program providing assistance to those in need. However, the program is not well known and operates without a mandate or formal funding.
I would like to take this opportunity to recognize the tremendous service that the bureaucrats in these departments have undertaken. These individuals went far and beyond their job descriptions to help those in need. They exemplify the true meaning of the term “public servants”.
I believe that the witness protection program is the natural home for new identities. Women brought into the program will benefit from the expertise and knowledge of the RCMP who already relocate crown witnesses. All law enforcement agencies across the country are connected electronically, granting access to this program from the most remote reaches of Canada.
By bringing the new identities program under the Witness Protection Act, I believe we can do more for these women and their children. The Witness Protection Act defines protection as including relocation, accommodation and change of identity, as well as counselling and financial support.
This program is not for everyone. In fact the exact opposite is the reality. The new identities program is an escape of last resort for those who the law has failed and are in fear for their lives and the lives of their children.
I listed earlier the tremendous sacrifices undertaken to change one's identity. However, there are some in our society who would try to use such a program for ulterior motives. To ensure this does not happen there is a list of factors or criteria to be considered for admission into this program: the nature of the risk to the security of the person would be assessed; alternative methods of protecting the person without admission into this program would be considered; the nature of the injuries suffered by the person or the severe psychological damage inflicted by the spouse and any criminal history; the circumstances that cause the spouse to believe that their life is in danger would obviously be assessed; and, such other factors that the commissioner of the RCMP would deem relevant. I believe that the criteria are fair and will ensure that those who truly need the program will have access to it.
Canada is supposed to be the best country in the world in which to live. But for women living in fear from abusive spouses, it is a hell on earth.
I fully realize that according to the standing orders I can speak for 20 minutes when moving a votable bill. Certainly this is such a tragically vital bill I could not do the subject proper justice if I spoke all day. However, I believe in my heart that this issue is non-partisan and is of such a nature that I will limit my remarks in order to allow more members to participate in this important debate.
In closing, I call on all members to support this bill. It is but a first small step that we can take to provide protection to those most needing our help.