Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak in favour of Bill C-23, a government bill that will create a new federal act respecting the registration of information relating to sex offenders and that will make crucial amendments to the Criminal Code.
Before speaking to the specific dispositions of Bill C-23, I would like to give a history lesson for the members of the House and for Canadians who are watching. I would like to take time to briefly describe the continuum of actions and measures that the government has undertaken since 1993 to better protect Canadians from sexual abusers.
Since forming the government in 1993, we have taken a series of measures to better protect Canadians from sexual abusers and we will continue to do so, as Bill C-23 is clear evidence.
As early as 1994 we conducted extensive consultations with individuals and organizations with special responsibility for the care and protection of our children. These included children's aid societies, school boards, big brothers and big sisters organizations, Volunteer Canada, our police services across the country, victims and many other groups. Those who were consulted asked for as a first priority, and we delivered, a made in Canada solution that targets abusers who seek positions of trust with children and other vulnerable groups.
The national screening system was first launched in the summer of 1994 by the Ministers of Justice, Health and the Solicitor General of Canada. This was followed up in August 2001 when the government passed legislation to give police access to criminal records of sex offenders who had received a pardon in order to undertake screening purposes.
For screening, the Canadian Police Information Centre, or CPIC, provides criminal records at no cost to local police forces who help child assisting agencies conduct criminal record background checks. Thousands of such screenings are carried out every year on behalf of volunteer organizations across the country.
It is worth noting that many other efforts have been undertaken by the Department of the Solicitor General and Justice Canada to protect Canadians from sex offenders. For instance, in 1997 we proclaimed Bill C-55, which strengthened the dangerous offender rules in part 24 of the Criminal Code, and also created a new sentencing provision called long term offender.
As a result of these changes, prosecutors in almost every province of this country are aggressively pursuing dangerous offender and long term offender options. In fact, the average number of successful dangerous offender applications per year has doubled since reforms were implemented in 1997.
As for the long term provisions contained in the 1997 legislative package, that targeted individuals who were clearly a threat but would not meet the threshold as a dangerous offender. This new designation recognizes that released sex offenders who receive supervision and treatment in the community experience dramatically low recidivism rates than an offender who was released at warrant expiry without conditions requiring supervision or treatment.
In addition to their custodial sentence, long term offenders can be sentenced up to 10 years of community supervision and conditions. As of July 2002, more than 150 long term supervision orders have been imposed by the courts. I think that goes a long way to showing how the government has taken seriously our responsibility and commitment to protecting our Canadians against sexual abusers and offenders.
In fact, in 1996 the national flagging system was developed in co-operation with our provincial partners, so that prosecutors are now able to identify offenders who should be considered for dangerous offender status in the future.
Protection orders under section 810 of the Criminal Code were also introduced to allow the court, on application by the crown, to order special conditions to restrict the movement and conduct of sexual offenders after their release and even when they are no longer under sentence.
With those measures we have imposed tougher controls on sex offenders. All of those actions underscore the commitment of the Solicitor General and the Government of Canada to ensure the protection, the safety and the security of our children and Canadians overall.
I hasten to add and to emphasize that all those measures have been developed in collaboration and with the support of our provincial and territorial partners. This is probably one of the areas where this government has made great strides in working in partnership and in collaboration with our provincial and territorial counterparts. It is in this same co-operative manner that consensus has been achieved among all jurisdictions on Bill C-23, the bill we have before us today, which will create a sex offender registry.
Finally, the former solicitor general, the hon. member for Cardigan, in the House in March 2001, stated emphatically that he supported a motion to establish a national sex offender registry, as did all other members present. They could do so because Canada already possessed one of the most effective criminal history registries in the world in our Canadian Police Information Centre, or CPIC.
I think that I have shown how our government's commitment to better protecting Canadians from sexual offenders has been translated so far into concrete action.
Now let us go back to the legislation at hand, Bill C-23, an act respecting the registration of information relating to sex offenders. As I was saying earlier, this bill will create a new federal act respecting the registration of information relating to sex offenders and will make crucial amendments to the Criminal Code. Its provisions will allow for the creation of a national sex offender registry for the use of all our provincial and territorial partners. As many members know, premiers had unanimously requested that the federal government help them establish an integrated registration system that their respective administrations will be able to use.
The existence of such a system would give more weight to their individual efforts and would guarantee a national approach. I must point out that the national sex offender registry that I am talking about here is in fact made up of three elements.
First, there is the legislation before us today. It had to emanate from the Parliament of Canada for the system to be truly national in scope and to be the same across the country. Then, there is a national database, which will be managed by the RCMP on behalf of all police forces in Canada.
Finally, there will be mechanisms for administration and use of the registry system, which will be the responsibility of the various police forces in their respective areas of responsibility.
What is of primary importance is that all these elements combined create a new and extremely useful tool for police investigation of sexual offences when the perpetrator is unknown. The police will be able to consult the registry quickly, screen it according to specific criteria, and locate possible suspects in the vicinity of the scene of the crime
I emphasize the rapidity of the process, because that is the very essence of the system. Police forces are aware that there is very little time for action when a child has been abducted. When a child has been abducted, and is going to be sexually assaulted and killed, the tragic outcome usually occurs within hours of the abduction.
Unless police forces can intervene promptly, this outcome cannot be prevented, even if the crime is eventually solved. This bill, the Sex Offender Information Registration Act, will make it possible for the police to determine very quickly whether any individuals convicted of sex crimes reside in the vicinity of the crime scene, identify them, and decide without delay whether they need to be investigated further or dropped from the list of suspects.
This is, briefly, how the system works. Persons found guilty of a sex crime as designated by the Criminal Code will be required to register with the police within 15 days after the court order is made, or after their release if they were in custody.
They will be required to remain in the registry for a minimum of 10 years, often for their entire lives. This means they will be required to report any change of address or name within 15 days, and to present themselves in person once a year to renew or update their information in the registry. Otherwise they will, under this bill, be found guilty of a criminal offence punishable by up to two years in prison in the case of the second offence, and fines of up to $10,000.
When offenders first report to the police registry office, as required by this new bill, they will be required to provide certain information, such as their address, telephone number, date of birth and employer's name, as well as any distinguishing marks or tattoos. On subsequent visits they will be required to update all registry information concerning them.
The government is aware that this new tool, if it can save lives, is also a massive intrusion into the private life of those who have to be registered. The majority of them will be registered in the database long after having serving their sentence and most of them--according to our estimates, 65% after 30 years--will not be found guilty of a similar offence. Those who really try to get their lives back on track do not need to have their efforts annihilated by the stigma of being a registered sex offender.
That is why the legislation does not give the public access to the database. The information can only be consulted by authorized persons for specific purposes. There will be criminal sanctions for the misuse of the information. Public protection, which is the main purpose of the bill, will be ensured through the use of this information by the police.
On the issue of who should have access to the database, I would like to go over what other jurisdictions have experienced. In jurisdictions where the public had access to a similar database, there has been abuse and misuse of the information, at times the public was alarmed by mistake and some people even acted like vigilantes.
In more than 20 U.S. states where the public has access to this information, the courts have ordered the database to be closed and protection measures to be taken to avoid any abuse. In some cases, they ordered the creation of commissions or tribunals to assess each and every individual record to determine if the registration of the offender was justified.
The federal government and its partners, namely the provinces and territories, have sought to avoid problems by implementing a judicial process, providing procedural guarantees and clearly limiting the number of authorized users and uses.
The guarantees contained in Bill C-23 were carefully designed in partnership with the provinces and territories. They will allow for the establishment of a system that is fair and just, while still efficient and effective. The guarantees will prevent any court challenges from weakening or shutting down the system because of unwarranted repercussions on the lives of those registered, including their rights and freedoms, all without compromising the effectiveness of the registry.
Persons whose sentences would normally include registration in the database will have the opportunity to defend themselves in court to prevent their registration. After the crown attorney requests it, defendants may argue that the registration of information pertaining to them would have, and I quote, a “grossly disproportionate” impact on them.
Furthermore, defendants will have the opportunity to make the same argument after being registered for five years, then again after 10 years and 20 years of being registered. They will have the opportunity to make an application for termination of the order that requires them to provide information, once they have been rehabilitated under the Criminal Records Act.
These guarantees will not only protect the rights of persons from being registered when they should not be, but they will also prevent the courts from using the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a mechanism to shut down the whole registration system.
We already heard the hon. members of the opposition express their views in the various debates. They believe there should be no limits regarding who should be included in the system. In fact, they seem to feel that the legislation should apply retroactively to all criminals who have been convicted of a sexual offence, regardless of what they have done with their lives since then.
However, this goes against not only the charter, but also the most basic principles of justice that form the foundation of our democratic, social and parliamentary systems.
For previously convicted offenders who continue to pose a threat to the community, there are effective measures that this government has put in place over the past ten years, as I mentioned at the beginning of my comments.
A mechanism can be triggered to inform neighbours or the community of the presence of a high risk offender in their neighbourhood. The national screening system can be used for hiring persons who are to work in a position of trust with children.
The orders seeking to ensure the protection of the public under section 810 of the Criminal Code can be used to subject this type of offenders to certain conditions, including supervision.
Moreover, any sex offender who has already been convicted of a sexual offence will be treated like a repeat offender under the provisions of the bill, and he will be required to provide information for the rest of his life.
These are effective measures and will ensure that, in high risk cases, resources are not uselessly wasted on trying to locate former offenders who have long left the area where they were convicted or released. And these measures do not increase the risk that the registry will be rendered inoperative by the courts on charter related grounds.
While opposition members may be prepared to take this huge risk, our government and our provincial and territorial counterparts are not.
Allow me to quote an excerpt from the letter sent by one our provincial counterparts, that is Alberta's Minister of Justice, the hon. David Hancock. Following the first reading of Bill C-23, he wrote the following:
The sex offender registry will be very useful to police in its efforts to try to apprehend people who commit criminal offences. The concerted efforts of federal, provincial and territorial ministers, deputy ministers and senior public officials are a very good example of all that can be accomplished when we cooperate.
This view is essentially shared by all our partners in this endeavour. Following a series of discussions during meetings of federal, provincial and territorial ministers, it was agreed, in Moncton, in February of last year, that we would do our best to reach a consensus on the establishment of a sex offender registry by the end of the year 2002.
Unfortunately, we did not succeed in doing that, but this is still early 2003 and we are close to succeeding in doing what all our counterparts wanted.
Over the 10 months that followed, we were able to reach a consensus, to develop and set up the necessary database, which will be operated by the RCMP, and to draft and introduce the legislation that is before us today, as a result of the consensus reached with our provincial and territorial counterparts. This is, in my opinion, an excellent example of the effectiveness our confederation is capable of.
Of course, not all jurisdictions achieved their individual objectives. However, their objectives would often have been incompatible, and even unacceptable, in the eyes of some of our partners.
So, in the interest of a genuine concerted effort, there had to be some give and take on both sides to come up with a model that would meet with general consent and, thus, be feasible.
This is the model before us today: a system that will be national in scope and in terms of its support, flexible enough to accommodate various applications within common parameters, and efficient when it comes to helping police and protecting children and, in fact, all Canadians.
We are moving quickly to put in place this legislative framework which already has the support of governments in all jurisdictions of Canada. I am convinced that the Solicitor General of Canada, the solicitors general and justice ministers at the provincial level, as well as all senior officials agree. This measure will have the support of government in all jurisdictions of Canada.
I am convinced that the hon. members of this House and the other place will also support Bill C-23, and I hope quickly pass it at all stages so that it can take effect as soon as possible.
To conclude, this bill is the result of a concerted effort by the federal government and all provincial and territorial governments, at all levels, be it that of ministers, deputy ministers, or senior officials, as well as police forces and communities. They have told this government, “We need a national registry including information on sexual offenders that will be made available to our police forces and managed by them to assist them in their work”.
The government has taken very seriously its commitment and its responsibility and, as I said, we have worked with the other stakeholders. Bill C-23 is the result.
I can tell all the hon. members here that all levels of government want this bill to get through all the stages in both Houses and receive royal assent as quickly as possible so that the police will be able to use this tool as soon as possible.
I am asking for your cooperation and your support on behalf of the Solicitor General, the federal government and all the provincial and territorial governments. We have to put our shoulder to the wheel and work hard to ensure that this bill is passed as soon as possible. I assure you of my full cooperation. If you have any questions, please contact me. I would be pleased to answer, to assist you and to discuss this with you. In conclusion, I urge you to vote in favour of this bill.