Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-416, an act to amend the Criminal Code and the Youth Criminal Justice Act introduced by the hon. member for Portage—Lisgar.
This bill would result in amending the Criminal Code and the Youth Criminal Justice Act so that a court would no longer have to consider the particular circumstances of aboriginal offenders when passing sentence. The amendment would apply to both adult and youth offenders.
The specific section of the Criminal Code that is at issue is section 718.2(e). It states that:
--all available sanctions other than imprisonment that are reasonable in the circumstances should be considered for all offenders, with particular attention to the circumstances of aboriginal offenders.
The proposed bill would delete these last nine words as well as similar provisions in the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
The primary purpose of this principle is to encourage our courts to use restraint when considering imprisonment as a sentencing option. It is important to point out that this principle of restraint applies to all offenders, not just aboriginal offenders.
However, based on the fact that aboriginal offenders continue to be drastically over-represented in our criminal justice system and in our prisons, the principle stresses the importance of paying special attention to aboriginal offenders. Based on the history and current plight of aboriginal peoples in Canada, this special recognition is both necessary and justified. I therefore cannot support Bill C-416.
This relatively new principle of requiring courts to consider the circumstances of aboriginal offenders came into effect in 1996 by virtue of Bill C-41. This is one of a number of principles that were codified in that bill. Since that time, the courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, have had an opportunity to consider this sentencing principle. I would like to share some of the comments that the Supreme Court made about paying particular attention to the circumstances of aboriginal offenders.
In 1999 the Supreme Court concluded in Regina v. Gladue that in sentencing aboriginal offenders section 718.2(e) required judges to consider the unique systemic or background factors that may have contributed to the offender having committed the crime, and then to consider whether there were traditional or cultural sentencing practices or sanctions that may have been appropriate for that particular offender in the circumstances.
The Supreme Court stated that aboriginal offenders:
--differ from those of the majority because many aboriginal people are victims of systemic and direct discrimination, many suffer the legacy of dislocation, and many are substantially affected by poor social and economic conditions.
In Regina v. Wells, a unanimous 6 to 0 decision in 2000, the Supreme Court upheld a lengthy prison sentence for an aboriginal offender who had sexually assaulted an aboriginal woman. When considering whether a conditional sentence would be appropriate, the court stated that the application of section 718.2(e) did not mean that a sentence for an aboriginal offender would automatically be reduced since the determination of a fit sentence required consideration of all of the principles and objectives of sentencing set out in part XXIII of the Criminal Code.
The court stated that while section 718.2(e) mandated a different methodology for the sentencing of aboriginal offenders, it did not necessarily mandate a different result. Section 718.2(e) did not alter the fundamental duty of the sentencing judge to impose a sentence that was fit for the offence and the offender.
The court further restated the principle set out in the earlier decision of Gladue, that at the more serious end of the range of offences it would be more likely that non-aboriginal and aboriginal offenders would receive similar sentences. The court confirmed that the section did not mean that aboriginal offenders must always be sentenced in a manner that gave greatest weight to the principles of restorative justice and less weight to goals such as deterrence and denunciation.
In the Wells decision, the Supreme Court confirmed that the trial judge, in imposing a 20-month sentence, correctly applied the sentencing objectives of denunciation and deterrence to a serious sexual assault.
The Supreme Court in Wells said, however, that in appropriate circumstances, a sentencing judge may accord the greatest weight to restorative principles notwithstanding the fact that an aboriginal offender committed a serious offence.
The court stated that a just and appropriate mix of accepted sentencing goals depended on the needs and current conditions of the particular community where the crime occurred. The court also rejected the notion that restorative sections were necessarily lenient. In fact, the court pointed out that making reparations to the victim and the community might be more onerous than serving a short prison sentence.
The Supreme Court, after fully considering that section, concluded that this provision did not give preferential treatment to aboriginal offenders but sought to treat aboriginal offenders fairly by recognizing that their circumstances were usually different.
I fully support the balanced approach that has been set out by the Supreme Court in applying section 718.2(e) of the Criminal Code.
I am also pleased that section 718.2(e) of the Criminal Code has encouraged the development of programs and services to assist aboriginal offenders across the country. For example, in Toronto, a “Gladue court”, if we want to call it that, has been established and that makes section 718.2(e) work the way the Supreme Court has set out.
The government continues to be concerned about the over-representation of aboriginal offenders in the criminal justice system. This was confirmed by the statement made in the Speech from the Throne in 2001, opening the first session of this Parliament. It said:
Canada must take the measures needed to significantly reduce the percentage of Aboriginal people entering the criminal justice system, so that within a generation it is no higher than the Canadian average.
In conclusion, there is no doubt the aboriginal community is vastly over-represented in the criminal justice system. The government is continuing to make efforts to change this; however, the causes of over-representation involve complex social and economic factors, addictions and disadvantages. These are historical and not easily dealt with.
Despite indications that the courts are supporting the sentencing provisions in the Criminal Code that encourage restraint in the use of incarceration, the government continues to be concerned about the incarceration of aboriginal offenders. The government will continue to make efforts to ensure that aboriginals are not over-represented in our prisons. Paying particular attention to the circumstances of aboriginal offenders at the sentencing stage is only one small part of the overall plan to reduce this over-representation.
Our society needs to focus on the root cause of crime so that long term changes will result. For example, we are funding programs for aboriginals through the national crime prevention strategy, the aboriginal justice strategy, and the youth justice renewal initiative.
The government is committed to working with our aboriginal people and all Canadians to contribute to a safer and more just society.