I may be a rookie here but I remember Bill C-23 very well. We were in favour of the bill but the government decided to dissolve Parliament. So here we are, debating the same bill all over again, except that the number has changed.
The context is fairly important as we start, Bill C-13 is really Bill C-23. It contains so many important new aspects to make our criminal justice system work more equitably and to modernize it. It is why I was proud as a member of the Liberal justice team and as a member of the Liberal justice committee team to approve it and to send it on for eventual approval and royal assent.
Alas, the Prime Minister and his team decided that they were afraid of the environment. Their new Minister of the Environment had failed so miserably to act on the environment that they had to scuttle the whole Parliament because they were afraid of a couple of bills that might change things. In that mess, in that melee unfortunately, this good justice bill was killed and had to be reintroduced again.
One might ask, what difference does it make? It makes a difference to people who care about the criminal justice system. It may not mean a lot to people, but one of the biggest things we could have done in the last two years that I have been here would have been to modernize and make more effectual our criminal justice system, to move the maximum fine to be imposed for any summary conviction offence from $2,000 to $10,000.
A $2,000 fine is within the means of many people, but a $10,000 fine for a serious summary conviction offence, that does not warrant jail time, is a serious fine and might very well have a deterrent effect on those type of crimes for which a fine is appropriate.
There were many other amendments, which could be in effect and the law in the country now, that were just simply thrown away.
Language rights are very important in my province of New Brunswick which is officially a bilingual province. I represent the city of Moncton, which is an officially bilingual city. This is bread and butter for New Brunswick politicians. It is disturbing to me that the parliamentary secretary, when asked why Bill C-23, which contained many provisions to improve the delivery of justice services in both official languages was not given the priority of other bills, turned his answer to Bill C-2 and the tackling violent crime bill.
This love child of the Conservative justice agenda, why was it killed by the Prime Minister? Was he so afraid of other bills which showed the incompetency of his own ministers?
It seems shocking to me. It included: Bill C-10, involving mandatory minimums which was a bill improved upon at committee and which had passed the House; Bill C-22, which modernized issues surrounding the age of consent and the age of protection, and provided for the first time a close in age exemption which made the bill very palatable in protecting young people; Bill C-32, for which Mothers Against Drunk Driving had been clamouring for some time; and, Bill C-35, a reverse onus on bail provisions which in effect codified the existing treatment of the law by jurists in the country, jurists who are exceptional jurists.
I have said this for two years. It seems like I just got here but I am here again defending judges and saying that they were enacting the provisions of Bill C-35 long before we had to make it law. Finally, there was Bill C-27, with respect to dangerous offenders.
Those were all bills that were moved along and would be law now had the government not pulled the plug on its own agenda. It euthanized its own criminal justice program.
In light of the Conservative vote on the capital punishment issue today, it is not surprising that Conservative members believe in terminating things. They have terminated their own hopes and dreams for criminal justice.
However, as I move to what is probably bread and butter for me as a New Brunswick politician, the language of the accused, I want to highlight what the bill will do and what it has done in the past. It is important to note the existing context.
At the request of the accused, a judge will order that the accused be granted a preliminary inquiry, a pre-trial procedure, and trial before a judge without jury, or judge with jury, who speak the official language, one or the other, which may be the language of the accused.
If the accused speaks neither English nor French, a judge will order that the accused be granted a preliminary inquiry or trial, without a judge and jury, who speak the official language of Canada in which the accused can best give testimony. The court is also required to provide interpretation services. That is the existing set of laws.
What Bill C-13 does to improve upon that, in clause 18 of the original bill, is to suggest that once the accused appears in court, the judge is required to advise him or her of the right to trial in the official language of his or her choice, but this requirement, as it exists now, is only if the accused is not represented by counsel.
What Bill C-13 does, which Bill C-23 did and which we all agree on, is take away the issue of representation and says that the judge must advise the accused, whether represented or not, it was a false barrier, to his or her right to have a trial in the language of his or her own choice. That was a good change and it leads me into some of my further debate points when I say that the judge was required to advise the accused of his or her languages rights.
I know the member for Beauséjour is a member of the bar. He is experienced in certain criminal proceedings and would know, coming from a francophone milieu, that it is critically important that the gatekeeper for language rights in that context, the provincial court judge in most instances, has that positive duty to inform a judge of his or her right to a trial in the language of his or her choice. It is important to know that the judge is already doing that.
With respect to preliminary inquiries and the trial in both official languages, clauses 18 and 21 changed it so that they became more accessible. Trials in the proper language of the accused, either French or English, would be improved by this bill.
I might add, as an aside, that the translation of documents would be ameliorated certainly by these amendments and we are all in favour of that.
I guess where the rubber hits the road is what to do with the amendments presented by the Senate. My friend, the parliamentary secretary, discussed at length some of the amendments, and I want to counter on the two on which we might have a more elaborate discussion.
We know that this bill is aimed at modernizing our criminal justice system and making it more effective. That goes without saying. My party had indicated that it would support the passage of this bill when it was first introduced before prorogation. It was the bill that I mentioned earlier, Bill C-23.
In the context of this modernization, it is important that the rights of all Canadians be respected with regard to the use of official languages in court proceedings.
Canadians, particularly those in minority language situations, know they have certain rights under the Criminal Code, but it is the federal government's responsibility, and I suggest our responsibility as lawmakers, to ensure the application of those rights is clear and that the judicial process is not delayed.
The way the government presented its view of language rights in Bill C-13, a justice of the peace or court judge would only be charged with finding some way to ensure that accused persons are informed of their language rights. That is really not enough.
One of the amendments that we proposed should be supported. We are in argument with the government on this, at least according to the parliamentary secretary's speech. It is important to say from the outset that the judge already has a duty to advise the accused of his or her rights. The language says that the judge must ensure that the accused knows of this option.
I have witnessed many first appearances and I am very confident in the ability of our judges to advise accused persons of their rights. It is commonly done throughout the province of New Brunswick and in any federally appointed court system where official languages are important.
The amendment proposed by the Senate would ensure that the federal government takes on its responsibilities through its agents to inform any accused persons of their right to proceed in the official language they understand. The Senate amendment simply takes out any potential middleman in the administration of justice. The judge would inform the accused of his or her rights.
I do not think that it is an undue burden for a judge. If there is clear communication during court proceedings, we are simply providing for clear access to justice for all those involved. It falls in line with our democratic society's pledge to have an expedient judicial process and it takes out the aspect of appeal.
I think the government wants efficacious legislation but I cannot be sure sometimes because some of the legislation it presents is so poorly written and so hastily delivered, only for the purpose of a television spot on the news, it is not always clear. In this case, however, if the government would only support this Senate amendment, it could have efficacious and fair language policy through the Criminal Code.
Sadly, the other Senate amendment respecting the reporting on official language requests is not one that the opposition can support. We cannot agree with it because it would require the Minister of Justice to report on the language of proceeding or testimony in criminal matters across this country.
There can be no way that all attorneys general in all provinces and in all territories would have the means to uniformly report on this. As the parliamentary secretary rightly commented, it is not the minister's mandate. In saying this, I do not mean that the Minister of Justice is not competent. I mean that he is not competent in the law to do such reporting. For that reason, we support the government in its opposition to that Senate amendment.
I understand the Senate's concern with ensuring that there is accountability in respecting language rights but we can surely do a more effective job in ensuring this by using the other resources that are in the community.
I know well-known jurists and hard-working jurists in my own province.
They are Sacha D. Morisset and Christian Michaud, who are both members of the Association des juristes d'expression française du Nouveau-Brunswick. They often highlight the statistics with regard to French language trials in our province. If it can be done in New Brunswick, I am sure it can be done in Canada.
Again, we do not support that Senate amendment.
In short, we are very happy to get moving with this important legislation. We are happy the Senate took the time to improve the bill by suggesting that judges, who are the gatekeepers in our system, have the duty to inform an accused of his or her rights respecting language in this country.
It is bedrock in this community and this country that we offer services in both languages with respect, at least, to the Criminal Code of Canada and the criminal justice system.
On this one amendment from the Senate, I urge members of the government to agree with the Senate and with the Liberal Party and its justice team that it will make the situation with respect to the delivery of language rights in this instance a much better thing.
I am very proud to suggest that we support the bill and one of the amendments suggested by the Senate, which is one of the two that are excluded from the government's list in the final motion.
I want to move the following amendment. I move:
That the motion be amended by deleting the words “agrees with Amendments No. 2, 4, 5 and 6” and substituting therefore the words “agrees with Amendments No. 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6” and by deleting the paragraph commencing with the words “disagrees with Amendment No. 1”.