Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise today to join in the debate on Bill C-79, the victims rights bill.
At the outset I would like to do something I am not very accustomed to doing, and that is to give some accolades to the government on this legislation. I see some shocked looks on the other side.
Periodically when I travel throughout the huge, wonderful and beautiful riding of Prince George—Peace River there is a perception that opposition parties always oppose. Some of my constituents are quite surprised to learn that the Reform Party is the official opposition.
If we look back at the legislation the government has introduced over the past five and a half year since Reform has been in the Chamber in any numbers, the Reform Party has supported the legislation about half the time. It is somewhat surprising for Canadians to learn of that because their attention is always drawn to those times when we are in direct opposition to the government and speak out quite clearly, loudly and volubly in our opposition, stating our case as to why we feel the government is on the wrong track or perhaps does not go far enough.
It is a bit of a unique situation for me to stand in my place today and say well done. It is an important first step. I am pleased that the government has responded. It was certainly not in a timely manner, but it has finally brought forward the legislation.
Most important, I would like to take this opportunity to applaud the victims and the victims rights groups which have sprung up from coast to coast to coast in Canada over the past number of years because citizens themselves have seen the need for this type of legislation. They have seen the need for legislation and laws that go well beyond what Bill C-79 does. They have seen the need to make some of the changes we see today.
I appreciate as well some of the comments made earlier in the debate when Liberals rose in their places and actually recognized Reform and the work we had done in promoting the issue of victims rights. A number of Liberal members that spoke during the debate referred to my colleagues from Langley—Abbotsford and from Surrey North and the work they have done over the last number of years in pushing forward the issue of victims rights and the need to make some very substantive changes to the way in which the courts handle the issue.
I will touch briefly on the bill and then I will use some of my remaining time looking at a couple of areas where I feel the government could go a lot further in recognizing victims and the importance of bringing forward legislation and programs to address their needs.
What does the bill do that we are debating today? As outlined by a number of speakers from both sides of the House earlier, victims are now to be informed of their right to prepare a victim impact statement at the time of sentencing. That is an important step.
Victims will have the choice to read a victim impact statement in court. They will have the right to present victim impact statements at section 745 hearings.
Victims and witnesses will have protection through the banning of publication of their identities where it is necessary or where the courts feel it is necessary for the proper administration of justice.
Judges will be required to inform the public of the possibility of section 745 application toward early parole for those who receive life sentences. This is another very important step that has been missing from the present day legislation. At the moment there is not a requirement on the part of judges to alert the public that certain convicted murderers may be getting out under section 745; in other words under the faint hope clause, early parole. Police officers and judges will consider victims safety in all bail decisions.
This change in Bill C-79 makes so much sense that one might remark on why it would not have been there previously. That would be an excellent question and certainly, I am sure, a question that many Canadians would ask. Why was the consideration of victim safety not written into the law previously in the case of individuals getting out on bail?
As I said at the outset, as far as it goes Bill C-79 is an important step forward and one that I am pleased to see is supported by all parties in the House. I hope that it will receive speedy passage.
I would like to touch on a couple of other issues of importance to me personally, and indeed important to a lot of Canadians from coast to coast. The first I would like to talk briefly about is conditional sentencing.
On many occasions in the past number of years Reform members have risen in their places and spoken to the issue of conditional sentencing. It was contained in the old Bill C-41 in the last parliament. Reform and other critics, and indeed a lot of people out in the real world, raised many concerns about Bill C-41. One concern was that conditional sentencing may be used in cases where it would be inappropriate, in cases of violence.
At the time Bill C-41 was being debated we raised those concerns, as did others, and basically government members pooh-poohed them. They said not to worry, that even though some of those crimes were not specifically exempted from conditional sentencing we would never see the day when that would happen. Conditional sentencing is meant for very minor crimes, such as a first time offender who puts some graffiti on an overpass, or a first time shoplifter. We all know that young people, in their exuberance, might sometimes be led astray and do something foolish or stupid. I am sure many people in the Chamber, if they reflect back far enough, will remember doing some silly things when they were young.
There is certainly a place for conditional sentencing where, instead of people going to jail for specific crimes and being incarcerated, they would be let out under certain conditions. However, it was never intended that it be used in cases of violence. Certainly that is something that Reform has brought to the attention of the government time and time again.
Conditional sentencing under Bill C-41 became law in September 1996 and was to be used as a tool by the judges. Unfortunately, the very concerns that we and others have expressed during debate came to fruition when judges started using conditional sentencing in cases of violence. The list runs into the hundreds and indeed thousands of cases where, I believe, the vast majority of Canadians feel very strongly, as Reform does, that it is being used inappropriately by judges.
I recently commissioned a national poll to see what people were thinking on the issue of conditional sentencing. As the deputy justice critic, one of the roles I have with the Reform Party, I have been handed the task of trying to continue to raise the issue of conditional sentencing with the government. As part of that role, I wanted to see what the thinking of Canadian people themselves were in a national poll.
I asked three questions. The first was: “As you may know, judges are currently allowed to grant a form of conditional sentence where those convicted are given the opportunity to serve part of their sentence at home instead of in jail. Do you favour or oppose this practice?” This is pretty straightforward. The poll found that 23% of Canadians favoured the practice of conditional sentencing, 59% opposed it and 18% were uncertain.
The second question in the poll was: “Do you think that those convicted of violent offences, such as manslaughter, kidnapping, drug trafficking, assault or rape, should be eligible for a conditional sentence?” The people who felt that would be appropriate in some cases were: yes, 13%; no, 84%; uncertain, 3%. Canadians very clearly had their minds made up on this second question. They can distinguish between right and wrong. They can distinguish between where the punishment should match the crime. They do believe that in those cases of violence and drug trafficking that the individual should do jail time.
The third question was: “Would you support or oppose changes to the conditional sentencing rules that would make those convicted of violent crimes ineligible for a conditional sentence?” Seventy-one per cent of Canadians supported ineligible, 21% were opposed and 8% were uncertain.
Again, the vast majority of Canadians, some 71%, feel it is right for the government to initiate changes, belatedly I would add, to this legislation and basically plug the loophole it created with Bill C-41.
As deputy justice critic, I am obviously going to continue to push this issue and mount a concerted campaign to get the government to see the error of its ways and initiate this change that is obviously supported by the majority of Canadians.
I know the Reform Party is always accused of dredging up the most horrific examples when we talk about justice issues, but in order for Canadians to understand the issue a bit better, I will cite a couple of the thousands of cases since September 1996, two and a half years ago, where conditional sentencing has, in my opinion, been used very inappropriately.
The first case I will talk about very briefly is the Paul Gervais case in Orleans, not far from here. He received a certain amount of local media attention.
I, along with one of my colleagues from Calgary, personally met with six of the young men who were involved with this. Mr. Gervais plead guilty to sexual assault charges involving nine young men. When I met with the victims, they told me they felt they had not only been victimized by Mr. Gervais, but that they had been revictimized by a system that let them down. I had a tough couple of hours meeting with those young victims. They really questioned the benefit in them coming forward and ultimately having their so-called day in court only to find that Mr. Gervais received a conditional sentence.
I know one of my hon. colleagues just prior to my speaking remarked about that. Victims feel that they are victimized twice: first, by the criminal and the crime; and second, by the so-called justice system, or as some have taken to calling it, the injustice system in the country.
I would suggest that the conditions of Mr. Gervais' sentence were ridiculous. He did not have to serve a day in jail. He is under the supervision of his wife and yet this is the very person who was aware that he had a previous conviction over 20 years ago for molestation of boys. She knowingly allowed him to have young boys working with him in his shop. Yet this is the person to whom the judge, in his infinite wisdom, turned Mr. Gervais over to, saying “Okay, instead of sending you to jail, we will send you home with certain conditions. One is that your family must be responsible for you”. They obviously failed in that responsibility before or these young boys would not have preyed upon.
An 11 o'clock curfew for Mr. Gervais was put in place. He must be home by 11 o'clock at night. When one looks at the case, all his offences against these young boys occurred during business hours at his shop. What possible good will an 11 o'clock curfew do? That particular case is being appealed.
However, when I was asked by these young victims and by reporters about the case, my position was that it should not be up to the victims to try to lobby and pressure the crown counsel to appeal something that should never be in place to begin with. Why should the victims have to lobby the prosecutor to appeal the judge's decision in the sentence and to try to get an appropriate sentence so the individual can be sent to jail where he belongs?
I raised a second case in the House as early as October 1996. It was one of the first cases brought to my attention of the inappropriate use of conditional sentencing. It involved a young mother in my riding. I cannot identify her because she still lives in fear for her safety and her life. She was sexually assaulted in her own home by a former spouse. The fellow drove in a drunken state to the town where she resides, broke into her home and raped her on the kitchen floor with the children home at the time.
To begin with, she thought that because the individual was a former spouse there was not even any point in her bringing this to the attention of the RCMP. That is how much faith she had in the justice system and, as I relate the details, the House will find out why.
Originally she charged her former spouse with common assault causing bodily damage. It was only later that she decided to actually charge him with sexual assault.
In the judge's ruling, he said: “In this case, I do not believe the evidence of the accused, nor am I left in any doubt by it”. He found the accused guilty. Obviously there was ample evidence to support the woman's story that she was indeed sexually assaulted and raped in her own home.
The judge went on to say, in making his judgment:
I think that while society might have an interest in sending (Mr. X) to jail, it seems to me that the victim and her children might be better served by (Mr. X) serving his sentence in the community and continuing to pay child support.
Imagine that. Imagine the sense the victim had. And we are here today to discuss victims rights. Imagine what was going through her mind when she learned of the judge's ruling.
The next case does not deal with conditional sentencing but with another issue I feel very strongly about and on which something has to be done. This was a very tough issue for me to deal with. It involved spousal abuse to the point where the young woman in question was beaten senseless and left in a vegetative state, which she is still in today. I have had some conversations with her mother. As a parent, I can only imagine the private hell this family endures every day as they try to care for Mary-Lynne Miller of Dawson Creek.
Her common-law husband, Brad Neuman, despite a previous history of fraud, forgery, assault, impaired driving and of previously assaulting Ms. Miller with a knife, for which he served six months in jail, he assaulted her again and left her in a vegetative state. However, because he threw himself on the mercy of the court and cried some crocodile tears, he was only sentenced to four years with parole eligibility after two. He received four years for effectively murdering this young woman. For all intents and purposes, although she is still technically alive, she is in a vegetative state.
I will briefly refer to a couple of things I believe the government can do to correct some of these problems. I put forward Motion No. 577 which stated:
That in the opinion of this House, the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights be instructed, in accordance with Standing Order 68(4)(b), to prepare and bring in a bill to prevent the use of conditional sentencing in cases where someone is convicted of a dangerous crime including: murder, manslaughter, armed robbery, kidnapping, drug trafficking, sexual assault, and all other classifications of assault including child and spousal abuse.
This is a vitally important first step. Within the next couple of weeks I should be introducing a private member's bill in the House which will follow up on that motion and show how exempting those crimes from the use of conditional sentencing can be accomplished in legislation.
The other thing I did as recently as yesterday was introduce private member's Bill C-494 in the House which would bring a current program that does not have official status under the witness protection program.
I could go on at great length about the need for more reform on victim rights, but I see I have run out of time.