Mr. Speaker, it is with some degree of regret that I rise in this House today to speak on this bill. The debate on Bill C-68 ought never to have taken place at all, as the Minister of Justice knows full well.
It has been demonstrated on many occasions that what is not working properly is not the Young Offenders Act itself, but its application. Those who are applying it properly succeed where others fail. Nevertheless, the Liberal government is obstinately preparing to demolish the spirit of this approach.
I would like to take the time available to me to prove that the Young Offenders Act does not deserve the fate the Liberals have in store for it, in response to pressures from western Canada. The act is being used as a scapegoat by a Liberal government that prefers to take the easy way out, while it ought to be left unchanged.
The Youth Offenders Act was passed in 1982, and came into effect in 1984. This legislation did not spring up over night. It is the result of several decades of reflection. In fact, one has to go all the way back to 1857 to find the first initiative assigning special status to juvenile delinquents.
The beginnings of the first youth justice system go back to 1908, with the Juvenile Delinquency Act. This intention of this act was to put young people back on the right track, while minimalizing their responsibility, given their youth. The idea was to set up a system that would truly promote the effective reintegration of young offenders into society.
At the time, Ontario was among the first provinces to put pressure so that young offenders would benefit from a protective approach. Ironically, Queen's Park is now the most vocal in demanding more repressive measures for young offenders.
In the early seventies, Quebec took two social measures that would prove very useful under the Young Offenders Act: the creation of a legal aid program and a reform of social services. Quebec adopted its first diversion measures in 1974, when it reviewed its Youth Protection Act. The province was then ready to implement the Young Offenders Act as soon as it would come into effect, in 1984.
I must point out here the extraordinary solidarity displayed in Quebec, which, at the time, succeeded in convincing the federal government to adopt the act that we now have, that is an act based on crime prevention, on the rehabilitation of young people who commit criminal acts, and above all an act designed to ensure the long term protection of society. The Young Offenders Act as we know it reflected, and still reflects, the thrust that it was intended to have.
At the time, there was no doubt that we had to put more emphasis on diversion measures. In Quebec, that approach had been stressed long before, in the Prévost report. Going before the court should only be considered after having exhausted all other options, such as reorientation, rehabilitation, and agreements with the parents to provide special treatment.
That approach had been applied elsewhere, including in the United States, in England and in Scotland. The federal government had no choice but to set the stage for diversion measures, through the Young Offenders Act. Still, since the administration of justice comes under their jurisdiction, it was the provinces that had to set up diversion programs. Quebec did so by establishing an ambitious alternative program.
This year, 1999, we celebrate the 15th anniversary of the coming into law of the Young Offenders Act. The Minister of Justice of Canada considers that the law has done its time, that it is out of date and no longer meets our expectations. Let us be clear, the Liberal government is not getting ready to sacrifice 15 years of expertise, but rather 30 years of Quebec know-how.
The Young Offenders Act is the product of a number of serious consultations and studies. In 1992, the Government of Quebec established a task force to look into the application of the Young Offenders Act. Chaired by Michel Jasmin, deputy chief justice of the court of Quebec, Chambre de la jeunesse, the task force brought forth a voluminous report after two and a half years of in-depth consultation and study.
I consider it vital to inform the House of some of the conclusions of the Jasmin report, which remain topical and which, it would seem, are unknown to the minister.
Drafted from testimony by many jurists, criminologists, psychologists and social workers in Quebec, the report eloquently describes the approach taken in Quebec in dealing with juvenile delinquents. I will read to you a number of passages of this important report prepared by Mr. Justice Jasmin.
From the work we have done over the past two and a half years, we are satisfied that the Young Offenders Act is good legislation. We were struck by the consensus of the various sectors that deal with this area. It should be noted that Quebec has developed a tradition in dealing with young offenders.
The efforts of the pioneers, who, in the 1950s, advocated that services be human and professional, have borne fruit that at the time would have been unthinkable. The aim was to move beyond mere repression to focus interventions on the education and rehabilitation of young people. A lot has been done to reach that point.
And the judge continues, a little further on in his extremely important report:
Juvenile delinquency is a complex problem and must be approached accordingly. The legislation is a key element of any strategy, but we must look at the broader picture and examine other factors that are no less important. It is often easier to amend legislation than to change our approach to a problem.
Mr. Justice Jasmin probably already knew the current Minister of Justice. He goes on:
It may be tempting to think that tougher legislation is the answer to the problems of delinquency. Simplistic responses blind us to the full extent of complex problems and create the false impression that we are doing what is necessary to resolve them. One such simplistic response is substituting get-tough measures for educational approaches.
It is clear from examination of the bill at second reading that the minister's responses to an extremely complex problem are very simplistic.
The Jasmin report is often mentioned by those who support Quebec's approach. As a member from Quebec, I cannot ignore it. I will use this report to denounce the simplistic solutions of this government, which has caved in not once but twice to pressure from the right and from the Reform Party.
I will again point out that the Young Offenders Act is a good act. I cannot say often enough to the minister across the way that substituting get-tough measures for educational approaches is a simplistic response.
The Young Offenders Act is getting very good results. Youth crime is steadily declining. Oddly enough, the federal Minister of Justice presented very eloquent figures to this effect when she introduced her bill.
She mentioned that there had been a 23% decrease in youth crime since 1991. She even told the press that the number of crimes with violence had also decreased since 1995.
Just as we identify a tree by the fruit it produces, so should we judge the Young Offenders Act by the results it gets, and not by a misconception.
It would be irresponsible to blindly reform the youth justice system without looking at the whole picture. In protecting such vital things as life and bodily security, the Young Offenders Act plays a front line role in strengthening the community's faith in our institutions.
Parliamentarians therefore must respond quickly to the concerns of their fellow citizens by making the appropriate legislative amendments as needed.
However, they must first and foremost ensure that the public has the information it needs to properly grasp such a complex problem as juvenile delinquency. There is no point, however, in doing what the minister has decided to do, namely throwing the baby out with the bath water. We must take a very close look and not act impulsively with such legislation.
The federal Minister of Justice failed in her duty to inform. By advocating stricter legislation, the minister wrongly intimates that the existing legislation is deficient. It would seem to indicate a lack of leadership.
Bill C-68 shows it is easier for a Liberal government to sacrifice good legislation than to advocate the effective approach it promotes.
To properly understand the reason behind the current amendments to the Young Offenders Act, we must go back to the 35th Parliament to look at the first Liberal attempts at turning the Young Offenders Act into a scapegoat.
On April 28, 1994, the current Minister of Health and former Minister of Justice stated in the House that the move to the right responded to election commitments. He was very candid in his acknowledgement.
I scarcely need to point out that these commitments were certainly not aimed at Quebec voters. In fact, it is hardly a well-kept secret that the Liberal Party's intention was to win over the clientele of the Reform in the west.
By passing Bill C-37 at that time, the Liberal government was introducing into the Young Offenders Act a whole series of automatic provisions which would greatly affect the fragile equilibrium of the youth justice system.
By allowing 16 and 17 year olds to be automatically referred to the adult court system, this government watered down once again the specific nature of the youth justice system. At the rate things are going, soon the only connection it will have with youth will be in its title.
Continuing in the same vein, in May, 1998, the Minister of Justice introduced her youth justice renewal strategy. In particular, she announced her intention to extend the referrals to 14 and 15 year olds. All parties involved in Quebec viewed this with alarm.
The Quebec bar association had even prepared an impressive brief in which it openly deplored this measure, which it felt was likely to increase recidivism among youth, both in number and in severity. In its brief, the bar association expressed the opinion that the problem did not lie with the current Young Offenders Act, but rather with the way it was being applied.
It also criticized the reform because it was based on grounds that were both biased and disconnected from reality. Among other points it raised was the following most legitimate question, one still as timely now as it was then, “Where exactly does the government get the information that stiffer sentences were going to have any impact whatsoever on the crime rate?”
The Quebec bar association was bang on. Not only was the reform not necessary, but the solutions being put forward by the minister are misguided and risky.
Last Friday, this issue received a breath of fresh air when some fifteen organizations from Quebec publicly reaffirmed their opposition to Bill C-68. The Association des centres jeunesse du Québec, the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse, the Conseil permanent de la jeunesse and the Association des chefs de police et de pompiers du Quebec, to name just a few, held a press conference at which they reaffirmed Quebec's consensus and flatly opposed the Minister of Justice's Bill C-68.
The message was and is very straightforward. They are telling the minister that they want nothing to do with her bill. They have systematically rebutted all the minister's claims that her flexible system will allow Quebec to enforce the legislation as it sees fit.
Criminologist Jean Trépanier, a recognized youth crime expert in Quebec, was scathing when it came to the minister's much-touted flexibility. At the press conference, he said: “The so-called flexibility seems to be a political trick. Quebec's judges cannot ignore sentences handed down in other courts”. Those in doubt need only read the bill.
Cécile Toutant, another very respected voice from Quebec, also took aim at certain of the bill's measures. This criminologist, who is responsible for the youth program at the Pinel institute, condemned the new measures allowing for the automatic imposition of adult sentences on 14 and 15 year olds. According to Ms. Toutant, the time served in jail has nothing to do with the protection of the public. Perhaps the minister does not know that.
Me Trépanier and Ms. Toutant are members of the Quebec bar association's subcommittee on young offenders. That subcommittee drafted, among other documents, the association's submission on the strategy to renew the youth justice system. The minister cannot ignore the advice of these experts.
Those who will have to live with the new legislation do not care about the concerns of this election-minded Liberal government. They are the ones who will have to implement the new act. The spokesperson for Quebec's youth centres association was very clear when he said, and I quote, that “if the bill is passed, we will have a real mess”.
The act will be implemented based on a very fragile discretionary power held by crown attorneys. Again, the Young Offenders Act is a good act. It is effective and it gives good results. Therefore, why change it? What are the reasons justifying such a shakeup, other than the fact that the minister is desperate to please right-wing voters and give them the repressive measures they are asking for.
Recently, western Canada, headed by the Reform Party, was demanding harsher sentences. It is getting them with this bill. Recently too, western Canada's right wing was demanding that the names of young offenders be published, and again the minister yielded to pressure.
Reformers are still not satisfied. They now want criminal justice to apply to 10 year olds. Right now, the minister says she does not want to hear about such a measure. Yet, that is what the Liberal government said in 1994, when Reformers were asking for harsher sentences. The government would not hear of such measures. What happened since? The government caved in pathetically.
This government will never succeed in maintaining a balanced approach to juvenile crime. It is much too concerned by its election ambitions in western Canada. Who can trust such a flip-flop government?
Still today, one thing is obvious in the issue of the Young Offenders Act. The Quebec people will not be able to make choices that reflect its own values until it attains sovereignty.
Every day until then, we shall rise in this House to denounce the weakness of this government. In this issue in particular, the Bloc Quebecois will not give up on its demands, with witnesses to back up its position, that the minister listen to common sense, quit playing petty politics with something as important as the future of young people who are experiencing trouble with the law, and make up her mind to withdraw her bill, because it is aimed at trying to cause the failure of the Quebec model.
It constitutes a real obstacle and a threat to the Quebec model, which was created with the help of specialists and all those involved in the field and goes back a good 30 years.
I am calling upon the minister to understand this, and to withdraw this bill as quickly as possible, because it is not good for the future of these young people involved in crime.