Mr. Speaker, I am happy to speak to Bill C-223, an act to amend the Witness Protection Program Act.
I want to thank the hon. member for Prince George—Peace River for introducing the bill. This matter involves the issue of improving safety and security for spouses whose lives are in danger. It is obvious to me that improving safety and security for victims of spousal violence has or should have the support of the members of the House. It definitely has my support.
When the hon. member for Prince George—Peace River introduced the bill he noted that this was a non-partisan matter. I agree, it is a non-partisan matter. I want to provide my input to this debate in a way that respects its non-partisan matter.
I do not think that there is any real debate that measures ought to be in place to protect victims of life-threatening relationships. I believe that the only questions are what form these measures should take and how we can improve upon what is currently in place. These are important questions that deserve careful review by experts who work in the field of family violence.
In Canada we already have numerous measures against family violence in place. Let us look at some of them. First, we have laws that prohibit and punish the physical violence that is frequently a tragic part of abusive relationships. As we are all aware, however, these laws have not always worked. In the past our society has been far too accepting of family violence. Law enforcement and justice officials themselves have not always been sensitive, and still today are not necessarily as sensitive as they should be to the issue when it was, in the past, brought to them and when, still today, it is brought to them.
However, we have recently made some progress in this area. Through education and prosecution guidelines, we have sought to ensure that the appropriate criminal charges are brought against persons who commit these acts. We have also had success in this regard, although I must agree, as many in the House would state, there is room for improvement. While such measures are not the whole answer, they obviously play an important role in deterrence and in providing sanctions against perpetrators of family violence.
In addition to the standard criminal justice measures against violence, we also have measures which are more specifically relevant to spousal violence situations. An important measure of this type is the prohibition against criminal harassment found at section 264 of the criminal code.
We must remember that criminal harassment, such as stalking, is frequently a prelude to spousal violence. Further, beyond the direct physical violence that it can lead to, stalking can also cause significant harm in and of itself as the constant fear of violence takes it toll on that victim.
The Minister of Justice recently announced that she would recommend that parliament lengthen the maximum penalty for criminal harassment from five to ten years. In appropriate cases, those who carry out criminal harassment would then be subject to dangerous offender provisions, allowing for the imposition of indefinite sentences. That is a move forward.
Criminal code measures providing deterrents and sanctions must work in conjunction with other measures. Shelters and transition houses have played an important part in addressing safety and other needs of family violence victims.
I am sure a lot of members, if not all members in the House, have shelters within their own riding. I have one in my riding and it performs a real service to victims of family violence and to the children of the spouses who are victims of family violence.
I also wish to acknowledge, as was pointed out earlier in the debate, that there was a tragic incident in a Montreal shelter where this safety, which this bill wishes to address, was breached and a woman was killed by her spouse. Such an incident, however tragic, should not take away from the important and positive role played by shelters and the dedicated people who staff them.
The responses to family violence that I have mentioned are not sufficient in and of themselves. Broader prevention initiatives are vital to making a long term difference.
Historically, family violence has been hidden in silence and denial. We have already done much to bring it out into the open but more has to be done. Notably, governments at all levels, the federal, the provincial, the territorial and the municipal, have supported counselling and education to help encourage recognition and reporting of the problem.
In addition, victims receive counselling for immediate trauma and long term psychological harm. It is important to remember, as well, that counselling is not restricted to the victims alone. Prevention can be and has successfully been addressed to those who engage in abusive behaviour. In fact, I have been told that there are over 100 treatment programs in Canada for perpetrators of spousal abuse.
As I have said, such counselling and treatment programs, both for victims and abusers, are supported by governments at all levels. Non-governmental organizations often play a key role in delivering the services.
At the federal level our support is provided through such means as the Family Violence Prevention Initiative and the National Strategy on Community Safety and Crime Prevention. These initiatives, and those I mentioned earlier, have made Canada a leader in efforts to put a halt to family violence. Nevertheless, we must still recognize that even these initiatives are not always enough.
This brings me back to Bill C-223. The bill identifies an additional type of assistance that can sometimes be offered. It involves such measures as the relocation of the victims and the continuation of their lives under new identities, away and safe from their abusers. It is a form of assistance similar to that currently offered under a process called New Identities For Victims of Life-Threatening Relationships. Human Resources Development Canada co-ordinates this joint federal, provincial and territorial ad hoc initiative.
As was recognized by members from both sides of the House earlier in the debate on this bill, providing a new identity to victims of spousal violence is a measure of last resort.
The reasons for this are clear. Restarting lives in such a manner can involve considerable challenges and hardship. Therefore, it must be a measure of last resort. We must be careful that the use of such processes does not place additional burdens on persons who are already victims.
This brings me back to the issue of Bill C-223. The witness protection program offers protection to persons who assist law enforcement. It is very much a program with a specific law enforcement purpose. It is typically used in matters of organized crime.
I have been informed that the issue of spousal protection under the witness protection program is one of the options the current new identities working group which the government has set up will be examining. However it is only one among a number of options. In fact, preliminary consultations with victims groups and those who work in the field indicate it might not be the best option. Other options, such as a separate more fully developed new identities initiative, are also being considered.
It is for this reason I ask the House today in a non-partisan manner not to support Bill C-223. During the time that this matter is being examined by a federal, provincial and territorial working group in consultation with victims representatives, we should not go forward with a bill that predetermines and imposes a single option. We should allow for the possibility of a multitude of options. This is especially the case if preliminary consultations have indicated that the option provided under this private member's bill is not necessarily the best option. Instead, we should let those involved in the working group devote their energies to considering the best way to build upon that which we already have in place.
Spousal abuse is a serious issue. Governments at all levels are addressing this issue and are looking for the best options to provide protection to those spouses.