Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise in the House to represent the constituents of Saanich--Gulf Islands in British Columbia. After sitting in the House for the last hour listening to the debate of members from the province of Quebec it will be nice to bring this discussion back to all of Canada.
We are talking about Bill C-7, a new youth criminal justice bill that will affect all of Canada in every province and every territory. Arguably I believe this is one of the most important things we have to do in the House. We have challenges to make our youth criminal justice act more effective and more accountable. After eight years of study it amazes me that this is the best that the government, the lawyers and the drafters at the Department of Justice can come up with.
We have an amendment put forward in the Senate that has been brought before the House. I would like to focus my comments on that for just a few minutes. Basically the Senate has suggested a change to Bill C-7 that when aboriginal youth specifically are to be sentenced the sentencing judge should take into consideration their aboriginal descent.
I do not disagree that there are absolutely massive problems within the aboriginal communities across the country. I have personally practised youth criminal law and seen many aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in our courts. I also acknowledge that a higher percentage of aboriginals is incarcerated.
What is that telling us? That is telling us that over past decades governments have failed aboriginal people. The Indian Act, which is still before parliament, is failing aboriginal communities.
We could get into a long discussion about the lack of accountability. It is completely unfair to put everybody in the same basket because there are some success stories across the country. Unfortunately they are few and far between.
I quote the current Minister of Justice from Hansard of Wednesday, January 30, at page 8491 wherein he said:
The House of Commons now has an opportunity to consider and vote on this amendment which relates to the serious problem of the overrepresentation of aboriginal youth in custody.
I have witnessed this firsthand. Instead of trying to fix the problem, instead of going to the root of the problem or the cause, an amendment is brought into the House that would base sentencing on race. That will not help aboriginal youth. That will not change anything.
When I practised law and did some criminal work in the youth courts I never met a judge whose interest was not to try to ensure that the youth did not come back before the court and to ensure that he or she got the help needed.
Yes, some punitive measures will also be considered. All those factors are considered, but should we write into statute that we will now sentence based on race? Is this the best the government can come up with, the best it can do to address the real problem that governments over past decades have failed the aboriginal community miserably?
When I have spoken in communities throughout my riding I have yet to find one non-aboriginal person who would be willing to trade his or her place in society for that of the aboriginal people who live in my riding. There is a lot of poverty.
Unfortunately the current government and past governments have failed them miserably. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars on aboriginal people. In recent years Indian affairs has budgeted somewhere between $23,000 to $25,000 for every man, woman and child of aboriginal descent. That is not reaching aboriginal people. There is no accountability within our aboriginal communities.
Again I qualify that by saying it is not fair to throw everyone into the same basket but it is a massive problem throughout our aboriginal communities. I am absolutely horrified that the best the government can do to address this problem is to put a provision into statute, into our criminal code, that if someone is of aboriginal descent he or she would get special consideration from a sentencing judge in youth court. I find that absolutely appalling.
Let me deal with the larger problem. I acknowledge that the member for Surrey North has not only faced very serious challenges of his own personally in this area but has used his experiences to try to improve the system, to try to come up with solutions that would actually make a difference.
The ultimate goal would be to help these people by ensuring that they get the tools and resources they require and by putting the ones who are committing serious crimes into some type of institution where they can get help, where they can learn to respect other people and where they will not be compelled to live a life of crime. That is the time to turn these people around.
Unfortunately after eight years of study when we actually speak to the experts who will be affected by the new youth criminal justice act we realize that we will bog down a system that is already bogged down. We will make a slow system even slower. We will create a whole lot of work for a whole lot of lawyers.
As we try to bring in a statute we try to regulate everything, all the discretionary powers which the police have now. We will bring it in so that what they have to do, what they have to go through, is all written in statute. Just to transfer a youth into adult court will be much more complex.
After eight years of study, after people across Canada have been crying out for change to the Young Offenders Act that it is not working, is this the best the government could come up with?
I emphasize that we on this side of the House have argued, and I completely agree, that we should not be putting into statute provisions of sentencing based on race. I acknowledge there is a problem, but that problem lies within the Indian Act and the lack of accountability that is there. It goes back over decades of chronic problems which have never been addressed.
When young aboriginal or non-aboriginal offenders come before a sentencing judge I submit that his or her goal should be to do whatever is necessary to make sure they do not come back before the courts.
Sometimes that might be a little bit of tough love. That does not mean, as the previous Liberal member just stated about the new youth criminal justice act, and I will look at my notes to make sure that I have that statement right, that it is not useful to sentence young persons unless they have committed major crimes. It will take them right out of the legal system. The member said that it is important to get them out of the legal system before it is too late.
I could not believe my ears when I heard the Liberal member state that. I would argue the very opposite: that it might be important to get that young offender, aboriginal or non-aboriginal, into the justice system. People in youth courts are not there to throw people behind bars and then throw away the key. It is very much the opposite. I would argue that they are there to help these young people. Do these young individuals need anger management? Do they need some kind of drug counselling program? Sometimes really tough discipline would be the best thing to bring into these young people's lives.
I do not disagree that many of the people brought before the youth courts, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal, have had horrific pasts. When these people come before the courts the best thing we can do is make sure that they are monitored very closely and that they are brought before the right probation officials. If they are put on long terms of probation and put on strict conditions such as curfews and other things that are enforceable and are closely monitored, there are a lot of things we could do to help them and ensure that they do not follow a life of crime.
I find it almost horrid that the other House sent back this amendment that gives special sentencing considerations to someone of aboriginal descent. Sentencing judges today take into account many factors, such as the background of the individual, the severity of the offence, whether the individual has been before the courts before, whether they want help and whether they have support. All of that is taken into consideration for aboriginal and non-aboriginal people now. Why are we bringing an amendment before this House that will, purely based on the race of an individual, give that individual special sentencing consideration? This is completely unacceptable.
The government has recognized the fact that there is a problem. The Minister of Justice has said that we have an opportunity to vote on the amendment, which relates to the serious problem of overrepresentation of aboriginal youth in custody. Again I come back to the quote of the justice minister that we have an opportunity to consider and vote on an amendment “which relates to the serious problem of the overrepresentation of aboriginal youth in custody”. This is a problem, but the Liberal government for the last ten years or so, and governments over the past decades, have had an opportunity to do something about it. This is not a problem that has just materialized overnight nor has it materialized over the last eight years since I have been in this place. This problem has been around for a long time. This government had an opportunity during the last eight years to do something about it. It had an opportunity to change the Indian Act and bring in more accountability. Nobody is arguing that should not happen. That is the root of the problem.
What has the Liberal government done? It is unbelievable. This is its solution to the miserable failings and lack of accountability within the Indian Act. If we go into aboriginal communities and listen to the aboriginal people in those communities who are most affected, they will also tell us that.
I cannot support this amendment and I do not believe my colleagues in the Canadian Alliance will support it either, although I do not know for sure. We will find out when it comes time to vote.
I urge the government to look at the real problem. We cannot just slap a band-aid on the problem of having a higher percentage of aboriginal youth in our institutions and youth detention centres. Just saying that we will give them special consideration and will put it into a statute for the sentencing judge is not the solution. We have to go to the root of the problem.
I agree that something that has been this complex over many decades will not be fixed overnight. The government has been in power for eight years. Since I arrived here in 1997 we have heard promises from the then Minister of Justice, now Minister of Health, that this was a priority, that we would see a new Young Offenders Act or a new youth criminal justice act. When we actually speak to the experts in the field they say that what has been done will bog down the system even more. It makes one wonder if the government is in touch with local communities and with the people in our youth courts.
It is critical when our young people get in trouble with the law that they are dealt with in a very swift and decisive manner so that they will not be back in the courts six or eight months later. Unfortunately when they are in the courts, the system is bogged down and they are given conditions that are not enforceable.
I know of countless cases where young offenders have been released under the supervision of a probation officer and are given conditions. The conditions are not worth the paper they are written on. They are not enforced. There are curfews, they are picked up and the police get tired of bringing them back in because they get a slap on the wrists sometimes or the conditions are not enforceable.
There are many positive things we could do to change this, starting with making it mandatory that when a young offender is placed on a curfew it is incumbent upon the parents or legal guardians to report a violation. Obviously we cannot hold the parents completely accountable if they refuse, but they should know that when there is a violation of probation conditions the parents have a legal obligation to report it to the authorities, have the offender picked up and have it acted on.
No one in the Canadian Alliance wants to put our young people in youth detention centres and throw away the key. They are some very troubled people in our society who need help more than anyone. Aboriginals and non-aboriginals need help. They need programs. Some need anger management and some need drug rehabilitation and sometimes the only place they can get those services is before the youth court, because then they will be under some sort of surveillance or guidance or under the eyes of a probation officer, and even that, as imperfect as it is, needs a lot of help.
Again I want to come back to the crux of this problem and talk about what we are talking about here today, and that is the amendment on Bill C-7 that has brought the youth criminal justice act back before the House. If this is the very best that the government can do for a problem that is so apparent to Canadians across the country, it is mind-boggling. I read the first three paragraphs of the current MInister of Justice's speech. He stated that we have an opportunity that “relates to the serious problem of overrepresentation of aboriginal youth in custody”.
The government's solution is just to give them special sentencing provisions, as opposed to trying to give them the resources and the tools needed to stop them from getting into the courts in the first place or to try to work with those people, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, when they do get into the courts.
I think it is absolutely dead wrong to start putting in provisions based purely on race. Again I acknowledge that there is a problem, but this is not the solution. We cannot just stick a band-aid over it and pray that it will go away. It will not.
I urge the government to look at the root of this problem and get serious about bringing in some effective legislation that will actually start turning these things around for aboriginal youth in our country.