Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-416, an act to amend the Criminal Code and the Youth Criminal Justice Act (sentencing principles), which has been introduced by the hon. member for Portage--Lisgar. The bill focuses on the sentencing of aboriginal offenders and it would result in the removing of the obligation of the court to consider the particular circumstances of aboriginal offenders when passing sentence.
Let us look at the history. On July 13, 1995, Bill C-41 received royal assent. It was proclaimed in force in September 1996. In Bill C-41, Parliament for the first time set out the purposes and principles of sentencing. One of the new principles, found in section 718.2(e), was 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 effect of this private member's bill would be to eliminate the specific reference to aboriginal offenders in the Criminal Code as well as in the Youth Criminal Justice Act. I cannot support this proposal.
The purpose of this provision is to encourage restraint in the use of imprisonment for all offenders. Codified for the first time in Bill C-41, the idea of encouraging restraint in the use of incarceration is not new. A white paper published under the authority of the then minister of justice in 1982 included in its “Statement of Purpose and Principles of Criminal Law” that “in awarding sentences, preference should be given to the least restrictive alternative adequate and appropriate in the circumstances”.
Restraint in the use of imprisonment has been endorsed by numerous other commissions and in various law reform reports. By the time Bill C-41 was debated, however, the need to consider restraint had been given increased importance as a result of Canada's high rate of incarceration when compared to those of other industrialized nations.
According to Council of Europe statistics published on September 1, 1993 for 1992-93, Canada incarcerated about 130 inmates per 100,000 people, compared to the range in western Europe of about 51 in Holland and 92 in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the rate at which aboriginal Canadians were being incarcerated was even higher, in the neighbourhood of 785 per 100,000, or about six times the rate of the general population. It is worth noting that if aboriginal Canadians were jailed at the same rate as non-aboriginals, Canada's overall incarceration rate would be comparable to those in most western democracies.
There is a longstanding concern by the government and by the Parliament of Canada with the overrepresentation of aboriginal people in the criminal justice system. For example, this was addressed in “Taking Responsibility”, the 1988 report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Solicitor General; in the 1987 report of the Canadian Sentencing Commission; in the 1991 Department of Justice discussion paper, “Aboriginal People and Justice Administration”; in Law Reform of Canada Report 34, “Aboriginal Peoples and Criminal Justice”; in parliamentary debate on Bill C-41; and finally, in the Speech from the Throne on January 30, 2001, opening the first session of the 37th Parliament.
As I stated previously, section 718.2(e) of the Criminal Code applies to all offenders, not just aboriginal offenders. Parliament intended that it, along with the purpose and other principles found in section 718 of the Criminal Code, would breathe life into the notion of restraint in Canada. As I previously stated, the bill before us today would eliminate any reference to aboriginal offenders and I simply cannot support that change.
The purpose of including this specific reference to aboriginal offenders in the Criminal Code and more recently in the Youth Criminal Justice Act was to signal Parliament's concern over the especially high aboriginal incarceration rate and the socio-economic factors that contribute to this. It requires sentencing judges to be sensitive to these matters and for judges to consider the appropriate alternative sentencing processes, including restorative, culturally sensitive approaches such as sentencing circles, healing circles and victim-offender mediation.
There is no doubt that many of the accused who appear in our criminal courts exhibit some of the same socio-economic deprivations of poverty, substance abuse, lack of education and low self-esteem that one finds in all too many aboriginal Canadians. However, as the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed in its 1999 decision in Regina v. Gladue:
--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.
The court is therefore required to acknowledge that these special factors are to be considered and to consider what role they may have played in bringing that aboriginal offender before the court and to consider the full range of sentencing options that are appropriate in the circumstance. In other words, it provides an individualized sentence that is appropriate for both the offence and the offender. I fully support that approach.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that aboriginal people are vastly overrepresented in the Canadian criminal justice system. The government is continuing to make efforts to change this. However, the causes of overrepresentation involve complex social and economic factors of poverty, addiction and disadvantage. They are historical and not easily dealt with.
It appears that the courts are supporting the sentencing provisions in the Criminal Code that encourage restraint in the use of incarceration and I say for all offenders. However, the government continues to be concerned about the incarceration of aboriginal offenders and will continue to make efforts to ensure that aboriginals are not overrepresented in our prisons.
The references to aboriginal offenders in the Criminal Code and the Youth Criminal Justice Act are one part of the overall plan to reduce this overrepresentation. At the same time, the government is focusing on the root causes of crime so that long term changes will result. Examples are the funding of programs for aboriginals through the national crime prevention program, the aboriginal justice strategy and the youth justice renewal initiative.
The government is committed to working with aboriginal peoples to ensure that those changes we need within the system result.