Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-35, the main purpose of which is to require an accused, when charged with certain serious offences involving firearms or other regulated weapons, to demonstrate that pre-trial detention is not justified in their case. This is a reverse onus, specifically for firearm-related offences.
From the outset I would like to present the philosophy defended in this House over the years by the Bloc Québécois. We are very respectful of the society handed down to us by our parents, our grandparents and our great-grandparents. It is society's choice to say that we are innocent until proven guilty. And that is the society we inherited from those who came before us.
When a society is built on such a principle or such a philosophy, in other words the presumption of innocence, every time we challenge this presumption of innocence we are also challenging the very foundation of our society. We must do so sparingly and with all due respect to this system. We have to take our time weighing the matter. We have to avoid being swayed by the media frenzy surrounding crimes and try to protect the very foundation of our society.
Our neighbours to the south like to hold highly publicized trials that are the glory of television channels and other information networks because they can sell advertising. When these reports are filed—even special reports are filed—not only do the networks make money from the crime, they glorify it. This is not the type of society our ancestors left us. We have to try to be very circumspect and not be influenced by the media when it blows a specific case or matter out of proportion and tries to influence the entire justice system. That is what the Bloc Québécois opposes, out of great respect for the society we inherited from those who came before us. That is why, when it comes to discussing reverse onus, we like to get to the bottom of things.
In the past, we were very interested in certain specific cases, including the fight against organized crime. We proposed, in this House, reverse onus with respect to the proceeds of organized crime. Now, thanks to the Bloc Québécois' action, criminals are the ones who must prove that their money is not the proceeds of crime. It is not up to the State to prove that it is. This had been very difficult to do in some cases, because these people hired specialists to destroy all incriminating evidence and to prove that their fortunes had been legitimately acquired.
I think that reverse onus is good for society as a whole. The Bloc Québécois proposed this after conducting thorough research and realizing that the presumption of innocence did not work when it came to organized crime. The State's burden of proof made it impossible to find any evidence about how the money had been acquired.
In this case, from the very beginning, the Bloc Québécois has considered the matter carefully. During first and second reading, before the bill was referred to committee, the Bloc was against it because of the presumption of innocence and the fact that a person who is presumed innocent can be released on bail, and because it was up to the State to prove that the person should not be released on bail. After hearing all of the witnesses in committee, the Bloc Québécois eventually came to the conclusion that this bill reflects existing jurisprudence.
This bill does not actually change anything. People who have committed a crime with a firearm automatically remain in prison until they appear in court. This is why the Bloc Québécois, after having heard the witnesses and experts who came to shed light on the debate, quickly realized that in the end the bill reflected what actually happens.
In this connection, I will simply read the statement by one witness, William Trudell, Chair of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers. He said: “...it’s our experience on the ground that people charged with gun-related offences are not released”. That means that this bill is not proposing much of a change, contrary to what the government is letting on. It will not change things so as finally to reduce crime. No, this bill does no more than reflect what takes place at present, the current state of affairs in jurisprudence, that is, the court decisions. I will reread this statement by the Chair of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers: “...it’s our experience on the ground that people charged with gun-related offences are not released”.
Bloc Québécois justice critics have said in this House that all the witnesses, almost unanimously, acknowledged this state of affairs. All the bill before us does therefore is acknowledge a practice in effect in Canada’s and Quebec’s courts of justice. They very quickly brought us around to this idea.
After having heard the witnesses, the experts in their fields, we are now in favour of bill C-35. The Chair of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers knows what he is talking about. If the bill is acknowledging what actually takes place in the courts, we can only agree with that.
Furthermore, the Criminal Code already includes some exceptions to reverse onus in bail hearings. It talks about breach of bail conditions, organized crime—I was explaining the Bloc Québécois position earlier—terrorism, trafficking, smuggling and production of narcotics, murder, treason and war crimes. When someone commits one of these crimes, it is up to them to prove to the state, to the Crown, that they can be released, and not the other way round. It is not up to the Crown to prove to the judges that this person should not be released.
The following offences will be added to the exceptions to which the reverse onus applies: attempted murder with a firearm; discharging a firearm with intent to wound; sexual assault with a weapon; robbery; aggravated sexual assault; abduction; hostage taking; extortion; trafficking; possession for the purposes of trafficking; and any firearm-related offences committed when the accused was under an order prohibiting him from possessing a firearm.
Henceforth, people accused of any crime committed with a firearm will have to demonstrate to the Crown that they are not a danger to the lives of their fellow citizens in order to be granted pretrial release. This is actually an established practice, a reflection of what happens now in our legal system. Since this is what really happens, the Bloc Québécois is in favour of it.
However, we need to watch the Conservative government’s position very carefully, especially in regard to firearms. On the one hand, it has decided to eliminate the firearms registry, while on the other, it is reversing the onus of proof in crimes committed with a firearm.
This is important because it helps me further clarify our position on the gun registry: the Bloc Québécois is still in favour of keeping it. I know that some hunting enthusiasts are listening to me now.
In Quebec, 94% of gun owners have registered their guns in accordance with the law. The problem we have with the system is located in western Canada, where a majority of the citizens have not obeyed the law.
For all those people who registered their firearms, paying for renewal was a major irritant. The government decided, with the Bloc’s support, to eliminate this charge. We were happy with the government’s decision to keep the registry but not make users pay for it. In Quebec, 94% of firearm users registered their weapons and were quite happy to obey the law. That left 6%. Some got all worked up because they were told that the registry infringed on their rights. But people know that once their guns are registered, their rights will be respected. The people who use the registry, especially the police, do it before going to a certain address in order to determine whether there are any guns in the house, and if so, what kind.
When this is explained, citizens, even gun owners, fully understand that, in rare situations of violence, it is very important that the police have access to this information before they go to someone's home. If the registry were maintained and respected by all citizens, including Canadians in the west, there would be no problem. The problem is that there are gun users who decided to protest the system for a variety of reasons.
In Quebec, when I sit down with gun owners who have registered their weapons and I explain the situation, it does not bother them. They fully understand that this makes sense. If they committed violent crimes themselves, it would be important for the police to know that they have weapons at home, for the safety of police officers and the people in the neighbourhood.
In a society, we must set important benchmarks and make a distinction between individual and collective rights. Yes, every individual has rights, but their neighbours also have the right to know if they have any weapons, and for several reasons. The ideology that individual rights allow citizens to keep weapons in their homes, while others do not need to know about it, is an American ideology, common among our neighbours to the south.
But here, we have the right to create a society that protects individual rights and that allows citizens to own firearms for the purpose of a certain sport, for example. However, it is also important to know that the individual who practices that sport uses an attack weapon and that he or she can harm other individuals. This is important, even if it is a handgun used for hunting.
People talk to me about many things, such as duck hunting, where you use a .12 gauge shotgun. You can use this gun to rob a bank or corner store. You can do a lot of things. It is important to stop making that distinction and to look at the emotional capabilities of individuals. We have to look reality in the face. People have the right to practice a sport with a gun. However, they must realize that the community is entitled to know that they own guns in case there is a robbery at their home. It could be a case of home invasion. When the homeowner is away, someone could enter their home. It is important to know if there are guns inside the residence.
Things are always a little complicated with the Conservatives because we never know in what direction they are headed. One thing is certain. Increasingly they have this unfortunate tendency of aligning themselves with what is happening in the United States and with Americans. In relation to crime, that is not a model to be adopted. Let us not go there. Americans have increased sentences and they have more crime than in Canada. That is the reality.
That is not the type of society that our ancestors—our parents, grandparents and great grandparents—wanted to leave to us. The Bloc Québécois has a great deal of respect for this way of life that we have adopted. We will always be there to defend the interests of and respect for individuals in the justice system and to defend the presumption of innocence, among other things, which is one of the tenets of our society.
People are always presumed innocent until proven guilty. That has served us well in the past. Today, the problem is that the media have seized on that, as we have seen. I keep repeating this, and I know it may be a bit redundant, but the Americans and their media make a lot of money when a crime is committed by giving it as much media coverage as possible. That is not the sort of society we want to live in.
Clearly, when we make this distinction and take away all the media coverage of a crime, we need to be able to strike a balance and decide what type of society we want to live in. Quebeckers and Canadians have chosen to live in a society where people are presumed innocent.
As I explained, there are some cases that call for the presumption of innocence and others that call for the reversal of the traditional burden of proof. The Bloc Québécois did not hesitate to suggest reverse onus in cases such as crimes committed by biker gangs or organized crime, especially in relation to the accumulation of property by organized crime. At the time, the State had to prove that property had been acquired through the proceeds of crime, whereas now criminal organizations must prove that they acquired property legitimately.
Obviously, this has caused a major shift in how these people are defended. More and more, their property is being seized, and they have no money to defend themselves. I believe this is as it should be, because it was too easy for them to use this money to deny justice or thumb their noses at the justice system. They told themselves that they would get lawyers because they had money to go to court and so on. The Bloc Québécois therefore proposed a major step forward.
My colleagues heard witnesses and our critic, the member for Hochelaga, whom I commend on his excellent work on the committee. After hearing the witnesses, he realized that this bill was putting in place a reality that already existed in our courts. And witnesses told us that this bill will not change anything, because even now, when people commit crimes using a firearm, they are not released pending trial.
Once my learned colleague realized that this was the case, he recommended that we change our position and support this bill, which we are doing. We are serious democrats, we are very mindful of what is happening in Quebec society. For that reason, the Bloc Québécois will support Bill C-35.
However, this bill will still be very, very, very suspect in terms of the advances made by the Conservatives in relation to justice, because—I will say it again and it cannot be said often enough—they have this annoying tendency to become very Republican in how they interpret justice and very American-oriented when it comes to increasing minimum sentences and not giving our society or our judicial system a chance to hear the members of this House, and in fact filling up the prisons.
Believe it or not, the fastest-growing industry in the United States is prison construction. It is a very profitable industry and it is running very well, except that this is not the type of society that the Bloc Québécois wants. On the contrary, when we see the crime rate, we realize that crime does not go down when sentences go up. It is a proven fact: crime goes up. In fact, when a criminal has decided to commit a crime, the criminal does not bother to read the Criminal Code before committing the crime, to know what sentence he or she is going to get. Forget about that. If people think that, their imaginations are—