Mr. Speaker, I am please to have the opportunity to address Bill C-223, an act to amend the witness protection program. I acknowledge the initiative of the member for Prince George—Peace River in bringing the issue before the House for consideration.
The bill seeks to address the protection of spousal abuse victims under the witness protection program. There is no doubt that the victims of spousal abuse are in an extremely difficult and sometimes even life threatening situation.
As all of us are aware most of the victims are women. Often their children are involved as well. Addressing their needs and ensuring their safety have involved many agencies in our communities: government and social services, law enforcement, and as voluntary and non-profit organizations.
While the federal government has an important role to play in this regard, it is my view that the safety of victims of spousal abuse will not be improved by going forward with the measures under Bill C-223 at this time.
In order to explain why Bill C-223 is not the right initiative let me first say a few words about the Canadian witness protection program. The program is managed by our national police force, the RCMP. It has become an important weapon in the law enforcement arsenal of investigative techniques. Its primary use has been to protect witnesses who may be at risk because they assisted with police investigations.
When it was formalized into legislation in 1996, it was enacted as a federal government initiative in partnership with provincial and territorial governments and law enforcement organizations to combat organized crime. Historically witness protection programs are most closely associated with the investigation of organized crime. As most of us know, organized crime covers a broad range of criminal activity, including large scale drug trafficking, murder, serious assault, money laundering and extortion, and robbery. As often as not, these crimes go hand in hand with the use of fear and intimidation to ensure the silence of potential witnesses and informants.
However, witness protection today has a broader application. A disturbing trend in recent years has been the use of fear and intimidation by lone criminals. These people are willing to go to any length to avoid conviction or to extract retribution from witnesses. As a consequence there are a growing number of people who need protection as a result of their roles in cases that have nothing to do with organized crime.
To deal with this growing need for witness and informant protection in response to the increased enforcement priority placed on fighting major national and international drug trafficking organizations, the RCMP source witness protection program was started in 1984. It was the forerunner of the legislative program now in place.
The current program offers protective services to provincial and municipal police forces across Canada. While many of these police forces rely entirely on the RCMP for witness protection services, some of the larger police departments also have their own witness protection initiatives. Obviously not every witness qualifies for witness protection despite numerous serious assaults that take place in Canada each year. The RCMP and other police forces must exercise care and good judgment when deciding who is eligible for witness protection and who is not.
Over the years witness protection programs of the RCMP and other police departments have become highly effective enforcement tools against criminals who previously were able to use threats and violence against witnesses as a means to avoid prosecution and conviction. Witnesses and informants who assist the police are an invaluable asset to the criminal justice system and in many cases their testimony cannot be replaced by any other investigative means.
This is especially true in drug enforcement. Here the availability of the RCMP witness protection program has prompted informants and witnesses to come forward to assist the police and to testify in court against major national and international drug traffickers. These witnesses have provided crucial firsthand information to further investigations which otherwise would have been obtained at considerable cost in police resources, human or otherwise, or not at all.
Major police investigations often require the police to use a wide variety of investigative techniques. A witness protection program is one of the most sensitive of these techniques. Witness protection is not a cure for violent crime or organized crime, but it is an important tool that is being used for law enforcement investigations, one that has been of major help to police in fighting organized and serious crime in Canada. For that reason I do not think the special needs of the victims of family violence would best be addressed by simply tacking spousal safety measures on to this law enforcement program as suggested by Bill C-223.
Family violence is more than just a law enforcement issue. While enforcement certainly plays a role in addressing the problem, family violence is a problem that Canadians have also addressed through social services such as counselling to ensure the well-being of spousal abuse victims and their families. A response of this kind is not within the normal domain of a police administered witness protection program.
The federal government currently addresses family violence through a number of programs in place. In addition, the national strategy on community safety and crime prevention has funded several community programs to address the problem. The federal government has renewed its commitment to reduce family violence in Canada. The family violence initiative promotes public awareness of the risk factors of family violence and the need for public involvement in responding to it.
The initiative has strengthened the ability of the criminal justice system and the housing system to respond. It supports data collection and research and evaluation efforts to identify effective interventions. It is an initiative that marks a new stage in federal efforts to reduce family violence. The issue of family violence has been integrated into ongoing programs in many government departments. We have learned that the best way to address family violence is to support a common vision and a co-ordinated approach.
This does not mean, of course, that we can ignore the very real security issues that arise in spousal abuse situations. These issues must be addressed as part of a co-ordinated approach.
I am pleased to say that there is, in fact, a national initiative in place to assist certain spousal abuse victims. It has been developed with provincial and territorial partners under the leadership and co-ordination of Human Resources Development Canada. The initiative is called the “New Identities Program” and it is for victims of life threatening relationships.
This initiative allows a chance for abused spouses and their children to start new lives in greater safety and security. Various measures taken under this process are designed to help remove those at risk from the access of their abusers and to ensure that their safety and security is maintained. It is, of course, a measure of last resort, since removal of the victims can create hardships on the victims themselves. It is only used in exceptional cases where other safety measures have been or will be inadequate.
Our present day responses to spousal abuse can always be improved, but I believe that the specific measures under Bill C-223 are not the best way to do this. While the proposals in Bill C-223 may appear to offer a response to the immediate security concerns of spousal abuse victims, it may not best serve their interests when there are other more appropriate and viable alternatives possible. These alternatives, which build on what is already in place, must be pursued.
Among the possible alternatives is that some future connection to the witness protection program may be considered. However, the various alternatives must be fully evaluated together and should be allowed to evolve out of the current spousal security measures.
We should not predetermine a single choice and implement it through an unco-ordinated mingling of different initiatives. Let us not forget the role of the provinces and territories in this matter. Providing support for victims of family violence includes important elements falling under provincial jurisdiction.
Provincial consultation and co-ordination are absolutely vital to the success of additional efforts in this area. Of course, we also cannot forget the needs and concerns of those who would be directly affected, the family violence victims themselves. Establishing a new identity is only part of the solution and it cannot be considered separately from other needs.
Human Resources Development Canada is taking steps to improve the new identities program. It has established a working group that includes the provinces and territories to examine possible changes and suggested improvements in consultation with victims' groups.
The federal government is seeking to improve Canada's response to family violence. We do that through our family violence initiative. We do it through our national strategy on community safety and crime prevention and we do it through what Human Resources Development Canada is doing right now.
I believe our best option is to let existing programs and processes continue their excellent work. We should support those efforts currently under way.