Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to take part in the debate on Bill C-53 to amending the Criminal Code, especially the provisions on property acquired through crime. In some ways, this is surely the most important of the criminal law bills.
We have seen a certain amount of legislative activism, of course, over the last few years in regard to the criminal law. It has not always been to the liking of defence attorneys. This is a debate in which we are always trying the find the middle ground between the powers that the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness must have and the rights of people representing the accused who are always deemed innocent.
It is true that we are tipping the legal balance a little further today because it is not very common in the criminal law to reverse the onus of proof. Before looking at things in depth, we should realize that this reversal of the onus of proof pertains only to some very specific crimes. First, these offences are related to organized crime. They are related, therefore, to criminal organizations like those described in Criminal Code sections 467 and following. They are usually related to crimes involving drug trafficking.
Still, this bill is historic. I can recall that in the early 1990s biker wars were raging in certain big cities, including Montreal.
It should also be remembered that in Quebec there was an assassination attempt in the mid-1990s on the journalist Michel Auger. We are reminded that 160 people have died, victims in some cases and organized crime members in others, in the conflict among rival groups.
In the early 1990s, I remember meeting the Minister of Justice at the time and his senior officials. It was Allan Rock, currently Canada's ambassador to the United Nations. He was a very nice person who wondered himself about the most effective way of fighting organized crime. That was relatively new, it must be said. I am not speaking of organized crime but of organized crime moving into public spaces, with car bombings and raids and murders in orderly places like cities. That was relatively new.
Of course the elders among us, or the ones with the most experience—let us not confuse the two—will remember the CIOC, the Commission of Inquiry on Organized Crime. This was headed by Justice Robert Cliche.
Its hearings were televised and I remember my parents and a lot of other people in Quebec watching them. What they got out of it was perhaps a more detailed understanding of the ramifications of organized crime in various sectors of the society of the day, including the construction industry.
In the early 1990s I met the Minister of Justice, or at least some of the senior departmental officials, as well as the mother of Daniel Desrochers. No doubt hon. members will recall that, on August 9, 1995, a car bomb on Adam St. in Hochelaga—Maisonneuve took the first innocent victim, this young boy who went to Hochelaga school in the Maisonneuve sector. This boy died because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
At that time, during the 1990s, senior Justice officials were convinced that organized crime could be eradicated just by using Criminal Code provisions against conspiracy. Police and investigators I met with explained to me that this was not possible because there has to be active participation for there to be a conspiracy.
I note the nod from my colleague from Abitibi—Témiscamingue, who remains a member of the legal profession. We remember the likes of Maurice “Mom” Boucher, for instance, who was the one giving the orders and is now behind bars for 25 years, with no possibility of parole. We know very well that the ones giving the orders are not the ones who commit the offence. It was clear that conspiracy provisions would not work for dismantling major organized crime rings.
I met with investigators, police officers, lawyers and criminologists who convinced me that new provisions had to be included in the Criminal Code. At the time, in the mid-1990s, that was not obvious. The example of my colleague from Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, who was the Minister of Public Safety at the time, comes to mind; he has been justice minister and he is a defence counsel as well. He had very legitimate concerns about this issue, given that the presumption of innocence is something sacred in criminal law. Without the presumption of innocence, there can obviously be abuse.
Now, we are going a little further, arguing that tools are being given to the Crown. There are counsels who might feel somewhat uncomfortable at times, but I believe that is only temporary.
On the face of the wording of the bill, it is clear that these tools provided to the Crown are designed to be used once a conviction has been pronounced. The order sought to reverse the burden of proof applies to possessions presumably obtained illegally. The conviction, however, has already been pronounced, based on all the rules of fairness and natural justice one can expect as part of a trial.
This is nevertheless a very major tool that is being provided. It is hard to understand how individuals who report very modest incomes for income tax purposes can own property worth several million. How can someone who declares an annual income of $12,000 afford a boat, three houses, two triplex buildings and a millionaire's lifestyle?
Now, tools are being provided which respect this balance. I would not want this balance to be upset. I realize that the presumption of innocence, the burden of proof and adjudicative fairness are very important rules that ensure a degree of civility in our justice system.
What will this mean in actual fact? The Crown will have to prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the accused is guilty of a criminal offence. We are talking about offences related to organized crime and, in essence, drug trafficking. These offences are indictable offences carrying minimum five-year sentences. Once the individual is convicted of a criminal offence, an order of forfeiture should be made against certain property, although not necessarily all of an individual's property. In its order, the crown should specify the property it wishes to seize on the grounds that it is the proceeds of crime. Here is where the reversal of onus of proof occurs. The accused will have to show how and by what means he acquired that property.
Since my time has almost expired, I want to say rapidly in closing that all parliamentarians should unanimously vote in favour of this bill, which should then, in all due diligence, be referred to the Standing Committee on Justice, Human Rights, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.