Madam Speaker, I am very pleased to participate in this debate. I am not so sure that as a government member I am as sanguine and content with the subject of the motion, but as all opposition motions are, they attempt to hold the government to account, and we on this side of the House attempt to respond.
The opposition would like to have us believe that Canadians have lost confidence in the legislative agenda of the government. The fact is that the government has the full support of Canadians on a number of legislative items now before Parliament. Let us talk about these, particularly measures aimed at protecting the rights and security of Canadians.
Since the beginning of this session, a number of important bills have been debated in this House. I believe it would be worthwhile to examine them closely.
I will start with a bill that I believe is of huge importance in protecting our children: Bill C-12, an act to amend the Criminal Code in regard to the protection of children and other vulnerable persons. It is currently at third reading stage before the House. It proposes reforms in five key areas. It strengthens the provisions against child pornography. It protects youth against sexual exploitation. It increases the maximum penalties for specific offences committed against children. It facilitates the testimony of child victims and witnesses and other vulnerable persons. It modernizes the criminal law through the creation of the offence of voyeurism.
The bill has been crafted to bring to our children better protection against abuse, neglect and sexual exploitation. Canadians are well aware of the gravity of the issue of child pornography. Even though Canada currently has on the books some of the toughest legislation to combat child pornography, Bill C-12 proposes to go even further by directly responding to concerns flowing from the child pornography case involving the accused John Robin Sharpe.
This is a case wherein the courts convicted Mr. Sharpe of possession of child pornographic photographs. He was, however, acquitted on the one charge of possession of written materials for the purpose of distribution or sale. Even though the court found these stories morally repugnant, Mr. Sharpe was acquitted of this charge because they did not meet the existing definition of written child pornography, that is, they did not advocate or counsel unlawful sexual activity with children.
Bill C-12 directly responds to this concern and proposes several changes to the Criminal Code to broaden the existing definition of written child pornography. It proposes to prohibit written materials, such as those authored by Mr. Sharpe, that describe unlawful sexual activity with children where these written descriptions are the dominant characteristic of the material and are written for a sexual purpose.
To the concern expressed by some Canadians that some people could circumvent the law by demonstrating the artistic merit of pornographic material, the bill includes a different test that draws on the wisdom of the Supreme Court of Canada. It proposes only one defence, the defence of public good, which involves a two-step inquiry. Does the material or act serve the public good? If not, there would be no defence. If it does, then an additional second question is asked: Does it go beyond what serves the public good? In other words, if the risk of harm to society posed by such material outweighs the benefit that it offers to society, then no defence would be available even if it had artistic merit or educational, scientific, medical or other value.
The government has as well clarified the notion of public good defence, including its legal interpretation. As amended, Bill C-12 now defines the public good as including acts or material that are necessary or advantageous to the administration of justice or the pursuit of science, medicine, education or art. This new, inclusive definition closely models the language of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Sharpe case, thereby strengthening subsequent reliance upon this judgment to assist with the interpretation and application of the public good defence.
The government also recognizes that we must do better in protecting youth against sexual exploitation by those who would prey on their vulnerability in other ways. Therefore, Bill C-12 also amends the law in order to allow a court to infer that a sexual relationship is exploitive, having regard to the circumstances and nature of the relationship itself. Essentially, this provision would remove the right to consent of a person aged 14 to 17 years of age, allowing for the conviction of the exploiter even where the young person actually had given the consent.
An additional fourth factor has been added to the list of factors that are considered in law, namely, the actual age of the young person. This more clearly indicates that the court must consider this factor as well as the age differential between the two parties, the young person and the older person. Up to now it was assumed the court would take note of the actual age of the young person. It appears that the court simply accepted this age as a given and extrapolated from that to look at the age of the other person. Now the court must consider the age of the young person who is alleged to have been exploited.
Bill C-12 also proposes important reforms to facilitate the testimony of child witnesses and victims and other vulnerable persons. Although this part of the bill has received less attention, it has been largely well received and was developed in close consultation with the professional community that works with child victims.
Bill C-12 also proposes to create a new voyeurism offence to better protect privacy of Canadians. It would prohibit secret observation by any means or recording in specific situations where there was a reasonable expectation of privacy, for example, when the person observed or recorded is in a place where a person is expected to be in a state of nudity or engaged in sexual activity, as in a bedroom, a bathroom or a change room, or when the observation or recording is done for a sexual purpose.
Bill C-12 would also prohibit the publication or distribution of any recording made as a result of an act of voyeurism. It would also enable the seizure of copies of any such recordings to prevent them from being distributed or sold, as well as for the deletion of electronic copies of these recordings from computer systems, including the Internet.
Bill C-12 is an important bill, one that the opposition and all members of the House should support and bring into law as quickly as possible. One might ask, then, why is the opposition intentionally opposing its passage? Why is it now putting up roadblocks? Why has it introduced what we call a hoist amendment at third reading? Perhaps members opposite will have a comment on that at the end of my remarks. The bill is aimed at protecting vulnerable persons and is, I suggest, too important to be the object of political games here in the House. I call upon the opposition to stop its tactics and pass the bill.
A second important justice bill currently before the House is Bill C-10, which is the bill to amend the Contraventions Act and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. This is another important piece of legislation. Regrettably, however, it is another bill for which the opposition has introduced a hoist motion at third reading in an attempt to prevent the bill from becoming law.
Canadians do not agree with the opposition. I suppose it is fair to say there may be Canadians out there who do agree with the opposition, but I, sitting on this side of the House, believe that the vast majority of Canadians agree with the intent of the bill.
The government committed itself in 2003 in the Speech from the Throne to act on the results of parliamentary consultations with Canadians on options for changes to our drug laws, including adjusting the penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. On May 27, 2003, the government introduced a bill that delivers on that commitment. I know; I worked on the House committee that worked very hard for a number of months, indeed, over a year, on this issue.
Presently under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the offence of possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana or one gram or less of cannabis resin is punishable by up to six months' imprisonment and/or a fine of $1,000. Very recently, two parliamentary committees--we have mentioned them here--examined the question of the use of drugs. The House of Commons Special Committee on Non-Medical Use of Drugs and the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs conducted thorough research and held numerous public hearings on the legislative provisions dealing with all drugs. Both committees concluded that changes to the legal scheme regulating these drugs were necessary.
Astonishing data emanate from recent research. Just to give a round number, about 100,000 Canadians use cannabis on a daily basis. Approximately 23% of Canadians have used cannabis at least once in their lifetime in spite of the fact that it is a criminal offence to possess this substance. In the last five years, cannabis offences have increased by more than 50%.
Canadians would like to see a reduction in the negative social impact of a criminal conviction. The opposition does not see it that way. I believe the opposition is out of step and out of touch with Canadians on this.
Canadians have also expressed concern over the unfair and unequal application of the law across the country. Police and court activity in respect of the possession offence varies considerably from region to region across Canada. In large urban areas, offenders often receive no more than a verbal warning, and if charged and tried will likely receive either a conditional or absolute discharge. In other parts of Canada, however, for the same offence an offender is more likely to be charged and, if convicted, to receive a fine and possibly a more serious penalty.
Based on these facts, it has been the commitment of this government to reform our legislation dealing with cannabis. The government has a responsibility to Canadians to adapt and address these current concerns. With this proposed legislation, our drug law would be reformed so as to reflect the Canadian reality.
The objectives of the bill are: to discourage the use of cannabis; to reduce the discrepancy in the enforcement of the law concerning the possession of small amounts; to improve law enforcement by peace officers; to modernize the law so that it better reflects the views of Canadians on consuming cannabis; to reduce the adverse consequences of a conviction for this activity; to maintain the crime status of possession of cannabis; and to combat large commercial cannabis grow operations. The bill contains large increases in penalties upon conviction for being associated with promoting or using these cannabis grow operations.
I have to point out as well that cannabis is one of a large and even a huge number of drugs that have been and are being used in our communities. The drugs being used vary. They include prescription drugs. OxyContin is one that has often been named as a culprit. It is a drug that is abused, over-prescribed and diverted from prescription use into illegal street use. I believe I recall that in one Atlantic Canadian city the street drug of choice was not cocaine or heroin but OxyContin, which of course is available at drugstores.
We all know that we have a serious drug issue, not just in urban Canada but across the whole breadth of our Canadian society. We must continue to take steps to educate and to deal with this. Not only do we have diversion from prescription use, but we have the old standbys. I do not want to pretend that it is just another routine drug description, but we have heroin making its way up and down the marketplace. We have cocaine and crack cocaine and we have all the other drugs which people have heard about and read about in their papers.
Among all those drugs, alcohol appears to be the drug that causes the greatest harm to Canadians, followed in close order, I believe, by nicotine. Tobacco is a bad one and extremely costly. We then get into heroin and cocaine, and we work down the list of addictions, and the cost to society.
This is my own view but I look at the overall picture, I regard cannabis as a bit of piker in the list of drugs that harm Canadian society. It is still a drug and it is still abused but it is not a drug that has a huge swath of addiction nor the broken lives and deaths that are associated with other drugs. I include alcohol in the deaths, broken families and ruined lives. While cannabis and marijuana use is an issue, and I will even rank it as an important issue, it is not the killer or as addictive as are all these other drugs.
As a country I suggest we have to focus on where the real harms are first. We will include all the drugs, including cannabis, but we must focus on where the real harms lay.
In conclusion, even though the opposition members do not like all of the government's agenda, I call upon them to please stop delaying passage of the bills to which I have referred today. This is social justice legislation that is of real importance. I call upon the opposition members to join with those members of the House who will vote yea in passage of these two important bills.