Mr. Speaker, I am always pleased to rise in the Chamber on behalf of the constituents of Pictou--Antigonish--Guysborough, my colleagues in the Conservative coalition and to simply be able to address the House, particularly on such an important bill as this.
The debate today centres around an amendment to the new youth criminal justice act that will replace the Young Offenders Act. Arguably one of the most important tasks that we could undertake in this place is to put in place a more effective and more accountable system of criminal justice for youth.
The act in its entirety will replace the Young Offenders Act at great cost to the country in terms of delay, in terms of implementation and certainly in terms of cost to young people. The country will quickly come to understand that the bill is virtually unenforceable in its complexity and in its costs associated with setting up these new programs.
Throughout the deliberations at committee, where we heard from numerous witnesses from all aspects of the youth criminal justice system, one of the statements that was most telling, and which has stayed with me to this very day, came from a very senior judge who had spent a great portion of his life on the bench dealing with the enforcement of the Young Offenders Act. He told members of the committee that he had read the bill no less than five times and was not able to comprehend fully what the bill was seeking to achieve.
I can only equate that level of complexity with the Income Tax Act in terms of new provisions, convoluted references and cross sections.
I have many friends in the practice of law, many of them practising criminal law specifically and spending a great deal of time in youth court which preoccupies, unfortunately, a great deal of the time that is set aside for hearings. They have indicated to me that, as lawyers, they are happy about the new legislation because of the new appeals and the new work that will result for the legal community. I say that in seriousness, with no degree of sarcasm. The bill would be a make work program for lawyers.
I want to take a moment to congratulate the new Minister of Justice. I am quick to note that he has inherited the bill as did his predecessor. The new minister, sadly, seems to have adopted the approach that we will fast track the bill, get it through parliament as quickly as possible and then wash our hands of it.
That is very unfortunate because although the amendment, which I will speak to in more detail in a moment, is very much an attempt to improve upon what I would call a bad bill, it does not address the overwhelming need to look at the convoluted, costly, cumbersome nature of the legislation that is being thrust upon the provinces.
My grandfather had an expression that aptly sums up what is happening with the amendment. It is an attempt to improve a bad situation. He used to say that we can sometimes come across a good stick of hardwood in a manure pile. This is an amendment that will improve upon a bill but the bill itself is so flawed in its entirety that it is difficult to even recognize the merit of what will occur.
As legislators we have to be very adamant about recognizing that no bill will satisfy everyone. As a former crown attorney who worked with the current Young Offenders Act and has some working knowledge of the previous Juvenile Delinquents Act, I never thought I would come to the conclusion that the old Young Offenders Act would be better than anything that we could come up with in a serious, studied and informed way.
Upon arriving in Ottawa after being elected in 1997, I was convinced that through the work of the justice committee, through the input of the entire forces of the Department of Justice and all of the minions and lawyers who work in that department, surely we could come up with something better than the Young Offenders Act.
Well, much to my dismay, we have produced, after eight years of study under this Liberal administration, a bill that is terribly wrong and cumbersome.
The bill was intended to simplify and streamline a system so that young people, in particular, their parents and those who are tasked with the enforcement of youth criminal justice would be able to work in a more suitable and responsive fashion, in a way that would be quick to adapt to the changing times and the way in which young people find themselves facing tough decisions which lead to their involvement in the criminal justice system.
I would be quick to embrace the philosophy of the bill. The intent clearly is to somehow codify a system that would allow for early intervention which would allow for the proverbial pre-emptive strike in dealing with young people when they make those decisions that challenge the law. Yet, sadly, what we have done is put layers on top of layers and have created a system that will result in numerous delays and new court challenges.
This new approach that was supposed to achieve so much will have the polar opposite effect. It will result in these delays which follow that old legal maxim that justice delayed is justice denied. This system will not allow young people, and their parents in particular, to grasp what is happening.
Many who work in the system would certainly agree that accountability and responsibility are paramount to any youth justice system. What this does is separate that nexus of accountability.
When a person finds himself or herself charged with a criminal offence, he or she meets first with a lawyer, if possible. My friend from Palliser has identified a very important problem: the lack of resources for legal aid, for crown attorneys to deal with the volume of cases, for police, for social workers and even for judges. The system has ballooned. It has expanded.
This new, complex, convoluted system adds to that voluminous bureaucracy that is building like mould around our justice system and expanding like a snowball going downhill. We need to strip away, like old shingles, some of the buildup that has occurred over the years in the justice system and allow people to understand in a more fundamental way how the system works. Further to that, people need to have access to the system. They do not need to be given more sterile delays in the system.
Because of the lack of lawyers and the systemic delay that results from these new procedures, months, if not years, can go by from the time the charge is made to the time of conviction or acquittal. The system to transfer youth to adult court is more complex than it is to conduct a trial and secure a conviction or an acquittal, as the case may be. We seem to be in reverse when we look at the cause and effect of Bill C-7.
While there may be a number of improvements, when we spoke to police, as I mentioned, lawyers, judges and legislators from the provincial side, the negatives far outweigh the positives. I want to talk for a moment about the new responsibilities that will fall on police, on the law enforcement community.
What police are currently doing in exercising discretion under our current system is making judgment calls in the field. Very often, rather than charge a young person, they may decide to reprimand on the spot, to take them home, to enter into discussions with parents and to essentially do what police are supposed to do: exercise that proper discretion.
What we are doing here is trying to somehow codify this system of discretion, telling police that they can now issue warnings, that they can now issue cautions and that these have to be written up in a certain way. We are superimposing these responsibilities in an artificial way, telling police that they must be counsellors and caseworkers, and that they must document all of this, do the paperwork and spend less time out on the street and more time being administrators and paper shufflers.
This imposition, on top of the current responsibilities of law enforcement and the demands upon the men and women who are currently carrying out that important task, is, I suggest again, a great deal of delay and a great deal of unnecessary, unsubstantiated work that is currently outside the realm of police in terms of where they should be concentrating their efforts.
The police are extremely worried about having the ability now to use this information for a very important judicial exercise which is called a bail hearing. I pointed out to the minister, as well as to members of the justice committee, that under this new system of cautions and sanctions that the police can use, they will no longer be able to use the information they have gathered for the purpose of a bail hearing.
The purpose of a bail hearing, as the Speaker would know and other members are aware, is the ability that the system has to take young people out of society and incarcerate them if there is a judicial finding that they are about to commit a criminal offence or they are a risk of fleeing the jurisdiction. However it is very much integral to the system to be able to intervene quickly.
Under this new system, which is just perverse to me, they are told to gather information and then advised that they cannot use it in a bail hearing. It is absolutely unjustifiable that we would allow that system to remain.
There are a number of serious flaws in the bill but the amendment that has been proposed by the Senate does manage to shed light on a very serious problem that can be found not only in the youth system but the Canadian justice system at large.
Noting differences for differences' sake is unacceptable. What we see here is a recognition of the inherent differences that do exist, sadly, on native reserves in this country. My colleague from the NDP has alluded to the social and economic differences and that the consequences those have on young people are very acute. I have two reserves within my federal constituency at Pictou, Afton and Antigonish county. I think that around this country this is very much to our shame, and one of the inequities throughout our entire country with which we are still wrestling. It stands to reason that we are trying to in some way to recognize a problem. This is not tantamount to the solution, it is simply a reminder to those in the judiciary that this has to be taken note of.
If there is one positive that can come from this debate it may be that the amendment proposed by the Senate demonstrates that the societal differences between aboriginal and non-aboriginal youth are recognized. Justice should be blind to race, ethnicity and gender. In a perfect world we would not need the leviathan, but this is not a perfect world and those societal inequities remain and are evident today.
Clause 38 of the youth criminal justice act deems to lay out the purpose and principles of sentencing under clause 42. It states:
The purpose of sentencing...is to contribute to the protection of society by holding a young person accountable for an offence through the imposition of just sanctions that have meaningful consequences for the young person and promote his or her rehabilitation and reintegration into society....
Yet in the bill sent to the Senate, a fundamental truth about our system was not addressed. It is currently the case in the adult system. Therefore to be consistent--and my friend from the Alliance party might say we are being consistently inconsistent, but I would submit that we have to be consistent between the youth and the adult system--we have to have similar protection under this new youth criminal act.
Statistics and studies have consistently shown that there are a disproportionate number of aboriginal youth incarcerated in our system. In keeping with the purpose and principle, the bill might ask what constitutes just sanctions. Specifically, while the amendment is a good first attempt at recognizing the inequities in the system, I submit that it does not go through sufficient explanation and direction.
As we examine the original Bill C-7, it becomes evident that clarity was not essential in the minds of the government when the bill was passed on to the Senate. Seasoned professionals have examined the legislation and today they are no further ahead than when they started. Several friends and colleagues have spent approximately three years examining the bill and are still at a loss on the overall effect it will have on our justice system.
The bill has, in essence, been more than that. It has been almost eight years in the making and it has gone through several incarnations, Bill C-68, which alludes to a whole other type of bill that we are aware of, Bill C-3 and now Bill C-7.
It is interesting to note that there were 160 amendments, demonstrating the flawed nature of the bill. It is too long, too complicated and too expensive. It is interesting to see it come back with rather minor yet albeit significant changes.
The justice committee could have heard more input on this particular issue, if there was any doubt left in the minds of some members of the House. However, the committee was not given that opportunity. It was brought directly back to parliament, again demonstrating the government's angst and anxiety over the bill and its attempt to get it through quickly.
In my mind, these changes were necessary and yet it speaks to the fundamental problems of a piece of legislation when in our haste to cater to pollsters the government overlooks such an important section as 718.2(e). There are many people in the country, including Joe Wamback from Ontario, who have expressed their desire to revisit the bill. Provincial attorneys general, those who work in the criminal justice system every day, have requested that the government at least revisit the implementation of the bill and give the provinces an opportunity to brace themselves financially, if nothing else, for the costs associated with its implementation. Yet this new minister appears to be charging ahead.
While the amendments of the upper Chamber should alleviate a constitutional challenge on the grounds of discrimination, the bill will most certainly be challenged on other grounds leading to incredible delays and backlogs in a system that is already on the verge of collapse.
The amendment states that all available sanctions other than custody that are reasonable in the circumstances should be considerable for all young persons with particular attention to the circumstances of aboriginal young persons. What could be more straightforward than that? Deliberate, informed debate on such a subject should and could continue. Broadening the spectrum for judges to enable to take this issue into account is a good in and of itself.
In response to comments made by the Canadian Alliance critic, I would reiterate that we take victims as we find them. I do not believe that there is a race or ethnicity issue associated with the particular clause. It is consistent with current criminal code provisions. It is not about specializing the interests of the accused or the victim. It is simply putting into legislation a recognition that the situation which aboriginal people find themselves in today is worthy of note in coming to a conclusion as to what the appropriate sentence is that is meted out by the sentencing judge.
Some have argued that this is in and of itself discriminatory to have a clause like this in the criminal code at all. Yet in our justice system we have to recognize that the courts have made an important pronouncement and it was alluded to. Queen v Gladue set out quite clearly that we can improve upon the situation of aboriginals in our legal system by this recognition of their circumstances. It is one of simple consultation and it allows judges to recognize what is inherent in the country today.
As Senator Pierre Claude Nolin of the other place pointed out, the framework of analysis outlined in section 718.2(e) must include systemic and background factors which explain why aboriginal offenders often appear before the courts. They include: poverty, level of education, drug or alcohol abuse, leaving the reserve and facing systemic prejudice, unemployment, domestic violence and direct or indirect discrimination.
The framework of analysis set out by the courts includes the type of sentencing procedures and sanctions which may be appropriate in the circumstances for the offender because of his or her particular aboriginal heritage or connection.
The inclusion of this clause in the code was necessary to deal with the overrepresentation of aboriginal people in prison and to encourage sentencing judges to have recourse to a restorative justice approach which is consistent with the theme and the philosophy of the bill.
I reiterate that the importance of the amendment is paramount to the fundamentals laid out within the entire document and I concur with hon. Senator Andreychuk who rose in support of the amendment put forth by a Liberal senator on the other side. She said:
Too often in this place do we have to be prodded to raise issues concerning Aboriginal youth
I and the PC/DR coalition support wholeheartedly the amendment, however we take great issue with the problems found in the entire bill. We oppose the implementation and adaptation of the new youth criminal justice bill and will continue to do so for reasons that have been enunciated at length by others and myself.