Mr. Speaker, thank you for allowing me to speak to this bill, which, let us be frank, is really somewhat technical.
Before starting, I would like to take a few moments to comment on the news. I am a little discouraged with this government. People who know me know that I am an optimist through and through. I love life. I am even a rather affable fellow: I keep my cool and I get angry only on very rare occasions. I am a little worried about this government, however. Frankly, we get the impression that this government has assigned itself the job of making life difficult for minorities. It is unbelievable that this government, which is not even a year old, would decide to cut off programs that deal with the status of women and that fight illiteracy.
We might think that in our society, illiteracy is a marginal phenomenon, that people who need to learn how to read are found in marginal groups. When we look a little closer, we realize that there are people in all walks of life who, as a result of problems in their lives, are illiterate. Not knowing how to write has nothing to do with people’s intelligence or with how well off they are. The phenomenon is somewhat related to social status, however. Statistically, there is in fact a higher risk that poverty, in the broad sense, will lead to illiteracy. Nonetheless, it would be a major sociological error to think that illiteracy affects only people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
We also know that this government has chosen to attack gay rights, at a time when considerable progress had been made. We have to ask ourselves: why reverse the gains that have been made and that are no threat to anyone?
Earlier, in reply to a question I asked him, the Minister of Justice said that there was no basis for this. I hope that we will never, in this House, be told that we are going to have to examine a bill that will, in the name of freedom of religion, allow disrespect to be shown for the homosexual communities, for lesbians or gay men.
We have a duty to keep a very close eye on this government. In the area of criminal justice, it has been a long time since we saw, in a democracy, a government that is not merely conservative, but completely reactionary. We have to ask who this government is speaking for. A demagogical line is being drawn between public safety and the desire for harsher sentences, and we know that there is not one member of this House who is not concerned about public safety.
In August 1995, in my neighbourhood, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, on Adam Street, near my office, I witnessed a car bomb explode. The explosion was part of a conflict going on between motorcycle gangs. All of the members who followed the news at that time will recall that a young man, Daniel Desrochers, lost his life in that explosion. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I immediately joined with all parties in this House to determine what we had to do to respond to this new phenomenon of organized crime. Organized crime was wearing a new face, it was different from what we had seen at the CIOC.
I recall having conversations with senior officials. I do not blame them because this was a new phenomenon. Some officials had the strange notion that it would be possible to break up the 38 criminal biker gangs by using provisions on conspiracy. It is one thing to conspire, and it is quite another thing to be actively involved in a criminal gang. A new law had to be created. The Bloc Québécois devoted itself to that task through the work of my former colleague, the member for Berthier—Montcalm, my colleague from Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot, and my former colleague from Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles.
That was a time when Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles was well represented. I am convinced that this mistake will be corrected in the next election.
So, it was necessary to create a new law, to establish new provisions and the Bloc Québécois at that time supported the new section 467 of the Criminal Code which established the criminal organization offence. It was not perfect and it was quickly recognized that the criterion of having five members who had previously received sentences of five years during the previous five years—the three fives rule—was not really operational in terms of the law. Why? Because the criminal biker gangs set up what could be called farm teams that recruited people who were not so well known to the intelligence services and the police. As a result, it continued to be difficult to bring those people before the courts.
Suffice it to say that it is sometimes necessary to establish new offences. Some of the social problems we were faced with call for a solution based in criminal law. Given the times we live in, we cannot follow the government in certain matters. Criminal activity has never been so low. Obviously, if there is a crime, some wrongdoing, a robbery or a sexual assault, that is one too many. That is clear. Nevertheless, as legislators we must think of the overall picture, of prevailing trends. It is clear that currently crime is on the decline; and that is true for all western societies.
Why is crime on the decline? Because we are living in a society where, in terms of population, people age 50 and over represent a much greater share of the population. There is an obvious correlation between population distribution and criminal activity. That is the first explanation. The second factor is that the economy is doing well. We are not in a period of recession, as was the case in the 1980s or the 1990s. Of course, that does not mean that we can cut the POWA program. Obviously industrial sectors are facing obsolescence, but overall the economy is doing well.
So if the government had said that its first legislative action was going to be to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to include social condition or status as a prohibited ground of discrimination, the Bloc Québécois would have acknowledged that the government had a degree of sensitivity. Instead, the first bill that the government brought forward relates to the issue of conditional sentences, against a backdrop of demagoguery the likes of which has rarely been seen before. God knows that I have had some experience of it. I have been here for 13 years, and I have taken part in a number of public debates.
I want to say a few words about conditional sentences before getting to the heart of the bill. I imagine that no one in the Bloc Québécois or among the other parties thinks that in every possible scenario we must allow prisoners to serve their sentences at home. Socially, one does not need a Ph.D. in criminology or political science to understand that there are some offences that call for real denunciation.
That is the purpose of sentencing. When we look at the objectives in section 718 of the Code, we see rehabilitation and denunciation. Denunciation means that there have to be exemplary sentences. Some offences are so heinous, arouse such disgust that we cannot imagine that people could serve their sentences in their communities.
But the Conservative government, with its obvious lack of nuance, says that this will apply to all offences punishable by more than 10 years in prison. Obviously, the fact that an offence is punishable by more than 10 years does not mean that a judge will hand down a 10-year sentence. We are well aware of this.
An offence that is punishable by 10 years, that could be the case for counterfeiting currency or pirating software. It can also apply in the case of simple possession of marihuana. So obviously the marker for detention in the community cannot simply be the 10-year sentence criterion.
On the other hand, some offences—such as child neglect and abuse—are not punishable by 10 years’ imprisonment. But do we want people convicted of that kind of abuse to be serving their sentence in the community? Of course not.
For organized crime, section 467, that I spoke about earlier, contains certain provisions—sections 467.1, 467.2 and 467.3—that provide for offences that are not punishable by more than 10 years in prison.
We therefore see that this is a very odd sort of government. And it is very plain that it is completely at odds with the values that Quebeckers uphold. I also think that in the next election we will be looking at a government that is refusing to resolve the fiscal imbalance issue.
It really is quite unbelievable. The Prime Minister was elected because of the Gomery Commission. He talks about transparency, accountability, keeping his word. He goes before the Chamber of Commerce in Sainte-Foy and he makes a speech.
We told ourselves that, if the leader of the Conservative Party had something to say about this, it was because he believed in what he was saying and he was saying what he believed, and that he would turn the commitment he had made into a reality. He undertook to solve the fiscal imbalance. In fact, the Séguin commission had mentioned a shortfall of $50 million a week for the Government of Quebec, in light of its responsibilities in such areas as education, culture and income security.
Imagine our disappointment when we heard the Prime Minister say on Le Point a few days ago that he was not in a hurry and that we would see.
He wants the consensus of all the provinces. All those who read the O'Connor report know full well that a consensus of the provinces regarding the fiscal imbalance and equalization will be hard to get. They do not agree on either the inclusion of natural resources or what has to go into the actual equalization formula.
Let us stay on topic. I want Quebeckers to remember how this government is on the verge of becoming dangerous for our democratic values.
The bill that the government has submitted, however, does contain some relatively positive measures overall. It is fairly inoffensive, seeking to reform some procedural provisions, such as the one on service.
The former premier of Quebec loved to quote the old Latin adage Audi alteram partem. Premier Bernard Landry also said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”. He used this expression in an election campaign, but of course I am not here to talk about him although I must say that former Premier Landry was a great debater. He was a very great premier, let us never forget.
That being said, the bill before us is interesting in some respects because it will harmonize the rules of service. According to the principles of natural justice, it is unthinkable that an accused person might be brought before the courts without knowing exactly why the law is concerned about him. When one is brought before the courts, one must not only have a clear idea of the charge, but one must also have complete access to the evidence. This was the ruling by the Supreme Court in 1992 in Stinchcombe.
Of course this revolutionized the whole justice system, as my friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board knows. Incidentally, I just learned that he and I share a common passion, as he was an Olympic wrestler. Of course, we are not in the same weight class since he has put on a few kilos over the years, but I know he is in great shape. He goes to the gym regularly and it would be a great pleasure for me to take him on in a friendly competition if he so wished.
That being said, the bill contains interesting aspects on the whole issue of evidence.
We are interested in looking a little further to better understand this bill, but we are reassured with regard to this aspect.
Another positive aspect is the use of telecommunications to forward warrants to be executed in a different jurisdiction than the one where the search took place. It is called a change of venue.
There are also changes to the process with respect to the challenge of jurors in order to help preserve their impartiality, among other things. This is an interesting aspect since the use of jurors comes from the common law system. It may be the only direct way for our fellow citizens to take part in the judicial process if they are not the victims or the accused, or if they do not themselves work in the justice system.
However, the challenge of jurors is not that simple since it is a random system, something we must not forget. Parties may challenge jurors on the basis of their background, their bias, their statements, their roles, etc. We are indeed very happy to learn that there will be an updating of the way jurors can be challenged.
I was somewhat concerned after reading one aspect. We will see what it means in due course. An appeal of a superior court order with respect to things seized lying with the court of appeal is not always a simple matter, because some appeals are appeals as of right—an appeal de plano—while other appeals are appeals with leave.
The majority of appeals are made with leave to appeal, which clearly involves some degree of discretion. For example, in the case of a conditional sentence of imprisonment, it was not clear whether a conditional sentence order could be suspended. It appeared that the department had agreed and that it is not a provision that is reflected in the bill. That is, perhaps, a less positive aspect. We will see exactly what meaning is to be given to it, but that does not compromise our wish to see the bill referred to committee. However, overall, it is less positive.
In closing—I have the feeling that my time is quickly expiring and if all is well, Mr. Speaker, please let me know—I want to speak about one aspect about which we have some questions. The severity of the sentence can be appreciated depending on whether it is a summary prosecution or a criminal charge. We consider that a criminal charge is generally more serious in terms of the offence, the penalty and the judicial process because the laying of a criminal charge leads, more often than not, to a trial by jury.
Now, on the subject of fines and summary conviction offences, the maximum fines have been increased from $2,000 to $10,000. I am concerned about that. However, it is true that the amounts had not been revised for 20 years. We will see what the witnesses have to say on that subject.
This is a strange government, somewhat removed from the values of Quebeckers, but it has introduced a bill that deserves consideration not because it deals with the substance of the matter but with the rules of procedure. We will be pleased to work in committee to obtain the most information possible and to ensure that we produce the best legislation possible.