Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak on Bill C-223, an act to amend the Witness Protection Program Act.
As my hon. colleague said a few minutes ago, this bill transcends political issues and is totally non partisan. Our government wholeheartedly supports any measure to ensure the protection of people whose lives and sometimes the lives of their children are being threatened by a spouse or a former spouse. Nobody can really disagree with that.
This is an issue that this government has taken very seriously. A joint federal, provincial and territorial process has been in place for a number of years. It is called new identities for victims in life threatening relationships. It was developed under the leadership of Human Resources Development Canada.
In situations where there is no other viable alternative, this initiative offers persons in life threatening relationships the opportunity to change their identities to avoid serious or fatal harm. In short, it does what Bill C-223 seeks to do. But the new identities initiative does so in a manner which, I would submit, is more acceptable.
I will come back in a little while to the advantages of the new identities initiative compared with the provisions of Bill C-223, but first, I want to address in a broader way this issue of establishing new identities as a way to ensure the protection of victims of domestic violence.
Given new identities to victims of life threatening domestic violence is an extreme measure that, for obvious reasons, can only be used under exceptional circumstances and as a last resort.
New identities may ensure better protection, but do come with many problems. The people being given new identities must leave their community and break with their family and their friends. And where children are involved, things get a lot more complicated.
Nevertheless, although it is a matter of last resort, establishing a new identity is sometimes necessary. Since 1992 the joint federal, provincial and territorial new identities initiative has helped some 203 victims and is proving to be a very useful method of providing an additional measure of safety to those who are most at risk.
In a number of respects, Canada is at the very forefront of nations in its response to conjugal violence. The new identities initiative is one of the areas where we are at the cutting edge. I understand that International Social Services Canada has made inquiries and found no other similar initiative in any other country except for the beginnings of a slightly similar process in the United States. As such, Canada has much to be proud of.
That said, we can and must do more. Education, counselling, prevention and other social service measures are essential if we are to do away with family violence. When all else fails, we must take steps against the violent partners.
The federal, provincial and territorial partners have already worked on the development of a new identity program. There is always room for improvement, but we do not need to reinvent the wheel. We need to build on what is already established.
There are a number of unsettled questions. In particular, there is the need for more formal co-ordination of the new identities program, a process in which, I would remind hon. members, the federal, provincial and territorial governments participate.
We also need to examine the eligibility criteria and issues relating to mobility, as well as the matter of the financing of a fully operative program.
All these issues require consultation and co-ordination. The issue of responding to spousal violence is one that is a shared responsibility for governments at all levels.
I am pleased to report that officials are already examining possible improvements to the new identities initiative. This month a federal-provincial-territorial working group has begun consultations to address the very questions that I have just raised.
That brings me to the question before the House, that is Bill C-223, whose object is to amend the Witness Protection Program Act so that situations of family violence would come under it.
The witness protection program, run by the RCMP, is used to protect certain individuals who help in the application of the law. A perfect example is the case of witnesses asked to testify in trials involving organized crime. So, naturally, this program concerns specific situations linked particularly to the application of the law.
The process of establishing a new identity is a separate program run jointly by governments. It applies to situations and persons other than those who come under the witness protection program.
In essence, Bill C-223 would incorporate the security measures provided in new identities into the Witness Protection Program Act.
The issue before us is not whether we should seek to ensure that safety and security measures for victims of spousal violence are the best they can be. Similarly, the issue is not whether we should take steps to build upon processes such as new identities. The issue is what steps should be taken. My view is that Bill C-223 simply is not a proper step.
As I have indicated, there are a number of specific questions that must be addressed if we are to build upon the excellent initiatives that have already been developed. Bill C-223 does not answer the questions or address the issues that must be examined. For those, consultations are necessary. The process of holding these consultations has been put in place and is currently getting under way. Proceeding with Bill C-223 would undercut this important process.
I admit that one of the solutions that could be considered in order to increase protection for victims of domestic abuse would be to incorporate the new identities process into the Witness Protection Program Act.
However, it is clear from preliminary consultations with various interested agencies, including victims' rights groups, that including the protection of spouses in the Witness Protection Program Act is not the best solution.
Before any thought is given to this option, the complex underlying issues must be resolved, particularly as regards the services available to victims and the co-ordination of action by the federal, provincial and territorial governments.
I am saying that very sincerely. I respect the initiative taken by the hon. member. I share the objective that is pursued with this initiative. These goals are fundamental, but the importance of this issue makes it necessary that we not take hasty steps. We must consult with those involved. We must avoid imposing top down solutions that may undercut what has already been built. The working group now in place must be allowed to consider all the dimensions of the problem without being locked into one single solution. For these reasons I do not support Bill C-223.
Before I conclude, it is important to note that yesterday was the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and also the opening day of the white ribbon campaign commemorating the tragic killings of women in Montreal a few years past. It is so very fitting that we have had the chance today to address an issue as important as conjugal violence within this context.