Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate on Bill C-23, the sex offender information registration act, and I am pleased to follow the discussion and presentation by the spokesperson for the Bloc.
As the Bloc Quebecois member has said, it is clear that we are going to support this bill in general, but with some reservations. We are going to ask the parliamentary committee to look at certain things in connection with this very important bill.
We, like the Bloc Quebecois, want to see a balance struck between protection of our children and protection of our rights. This will always be our goal, and time must be taken to hear witnesses when this very important matter is being considered.
As I tried to say in French, members of the New Democratic Party, like the spokesperson for the Bloc, wish to offer our general support for the bill and indicate that we believe it is a very important initiative. At the same time, as is our wont on all cases pertaining to constitutional matters and legal provisions, we seek to ensure that the rights and liberties of individuals are protected and upheld and that nothing we do by way of legislation in the House takes away those hard fought freedoms.
It is clear that we are dealing with a long overdue piece of legislation. This matter of a sex offenders registry has been before Parliament and in public policy circles for many months. In fact, I think back to a couple of years ago when this place dealt with this subject by way of a motion from Alliance members, I believe. It was subsequently pursued by provincial ministers of justice on a regular basis.
In fact, I think if it were not for the constant push by ministers of justice at the provincial level the bill in fact would not be here today. It is clearly a culmination of a long process and an outcry from Canadians right across this land for action to deal with a most serious and critical matter in our society today.
No one in this place can ignore the agony that families go through when a child or a loved one is raped or sexually assaulted. No one can ignore the fact that in our society there are pedophiles who are at large and will continue to offend and reoffend if serious actions are not taken.
Bill C-23 is certainly one step in the right direction. It is important because it will help police services investigate crimes of a sexual nature by requiring the registration of certain information relating to sex offenders. It is a tool and a provision that will allow the police to keep track of the whereabouts of those who have offended in terms of rape or sexual assault against children or any vulnerable member in our society. That is very important, because one does not have to follow this issue too far to know the extent to which our children and women in our society today are at risk of sexual assault and exploitation.
The primary objective with the legislation is to ensure the effective protection of Canadians. In this case in terms of Bill C-23, we are concerned about the potential victims of sexual crimes, primarily women and children, who are especially vulnerable.
I will first talk about violence against women. This is a matter that the House must continually come to grips with and I think that through this bill we have such an opportunity. I think we all agree that Canadian women have a right to live without the threat of violence, yet we know that for many women it is a reality. One study shows that 42% of women, and that is in comparison to 10% of men, feel totally unsafe walking in their own neighbourhoods at night. Nearly as many, 37%, are worried about being home alone at night.
We know that much of the violence against women manifests itself through sex related violence. We know that, and we have to continually be vigilant in finding ways to reduce the incidence of sexual violence against women, because we are tired of building monuments to victims.
Let me also talk briefly about sexual violence against children. Understandably, there is a feeling of sickness and rage every time we enter another search for another child's body. This bill actually will help us to channel those justifiable feelings to the positive objective of improving prevention.
There are a few other facts. It is estimated that only 10% of sexual assaults on women are reported to police. In Canada this means that more than half a million assaults occur each year. Another fact: Every minute of every day in Canada a woman or child is being sexually assaulted. Let us not forget in this debate, as in other debates we are having, particularly on Bill C-22, the divorce act, that 98% of sex offenders are men and that 82% of victims surviving reported assaults are women.
Tragically, recent well-publicized incidents confirm the fact that those most often committing assaults are in positions of trust. They are fathers, other relatives, religious officials, doctors, teachers, employers, friends and dates.
There are more facts to be put on the record. There are more examples of the kind of emotional upheaval that families go through when a child, a woman or a vulnerable person experiences sexual assault, but perhaps that is enough for now to highlight the importance of the bill and why we are in general support of Bill C-23.
There are some problems with the bill. We heard the member from the Bloc speak about some of those issues that we have to grapple with. Some of the provincial governments have raised other concerns with the bill. The concerns before us fill the whole spectrum. They range from those who believe the bill is not tough enough to those who believe the bill may infringe on civil liberties, and that is something we must sort out in the next stages of the bill, particularly when it is sent to the standing committee and witnesses are heard and testimony is received. I would suggest that we take seriously all those concerns.
I want to put on the table some of the concerns raised by the provincial minister of justice of the Government of Manitoba, the Hon. Gord Mackintosh, who in fact was central to the push that led to the bill before the House today. It was Gordon Mackintosh, back in September 2001, who actually presented a motion to the federal-provincial-territorial ministers of justice meeting calling on the government to establish, together with the provinces and territories, a national registry for sexual offenders.
He introduced that motion with the support of many provinces to try to force the Government of Canada to listen and to act. Fortunately today we are in a position where the federal government has listened, has acted and has brought before us a bill that is consistent with the wishes of the provincial and territorial ministers of justice as well as the wishes of many Canadians who are very worried about ensuring that the incidence of child sexual assault and rape of women and children is dealt with on a consistent and effective basis.
The minister from Manitoba, Gordon Mackintosh, has raised some outstanding matters that need to be pursued by the House and by the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. He raised the issue of retroactivity. That is a matter that has been before us throughout the debate. It is a matter of concern. The position of the Manitoba government is that it makes sense to look at a provision that deals not just with those who offend once this bill is proclaimed, but also gives some consideration to the fact that it ought to apply to those who are now serving sentences for sexual offences.
I think we ought to give that some thought. Our caucus has remained open to the question. I know that there are strong views on both sides and I think we need to really grapple with this whole issue of retroactivity and whether or not we are doing a disservice to Canadians at risk by not applying this provision retroactively to some extent.
The Manitoba government has raised the issue of photographs and whether or not the bill will in fact allow for the use of photos. There was some understanding that in fact the federal government has acknowledged that photographs are important and will be introduced at some time in the future. However, there appears to be no mention of the question of photographs in the legislation before us. I think we ought to deal with that issue here and now; otherwise it is clear that the legislation will have to be reopened and that we will have to deal with this issue all over again once the federal government decides to live up to its commitment to the provinces to include the matter of the use of photographs.
A third issue raised by the provincial governments that I think has to be taken seriously as we pursue this bill is the question of financial support for the new responsibilities that provincial governments will face once this bill is proclaimed. It is clear that there will be additional costs because, as we know from the proposals in the legislation, judges must in fact make written application to ensure that a person convicted of a sexual offence is added to the registry. That takes time.
We know that judges are now overburdened with existing demands and provisions. A new piece of legislation does require the government and all of us to look at the question of what resources are required and whether that is being considered as the bill goes through the various stages. It would be irresponsible on our part to pass legislation that in fact puts all kinds of financial requirements on the table and leaves it to the provinces to sort out. That would be irresponsible and unfair. I think it is important for us to now get commitments from the federal government as we pursue Bill C-23 about how it intends to support, fund and finance the new demands placed on our provincial judicial systems as a result of the implementation of Bill C-23.
I think it is clear that the House acknowledges the importance of having a registry that is mandatory and requires the documentation and identification of those who have offended sexually against children and other vulnerable members of our society. I think that there is this understanding. As a House, we are grappling with some of the intricacies of the bill and with how we can ensure that the balance is upheld between protection of the most vulnerable in our society and the adherence to our charter and our constitutional traditions. I think this is the mandate of the committee and I ask that we all take the process very seriously and ensure that the standing committee is given the time it needs to do this work.
For now let me say that my colleagues and I in the NDP support the broad thrust of the bill. We know that it is long overdue. We know there are some problems, but on the other hand we say thank goodness it is finally here and thank God we have such a proposal before us. Let us ensure that we do not lose sight of the objective at hand and that we do everything we can to make this a fine piece of legislation and a law that will actually work. Not only do we have to ensure that we track sexual offenders and ensure that if they reoffend they are picked up quickly, but through the bill we actually have to ensure that we find a way to prevent sexual assault of our children and vulnerable citizens. We have to do everything we can to make our communities safer and more secure for everyone among us.