Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on behalf of the New Democratic Party to Bill C-39.
After listening carefully to debates from all sides of the House, it is my desire to express something that I hope will have a bit of a unifying effect on this debate. I believe that all members of this House want to have safe communities. I believe that all members of this House care about victims. I also believe that all members of this House advocate policies that they really believe will result in safer communities, better respect for victims and, what we all hope to achieve, a reduction in the crime rate in this country.
Where we differ, and debates should be marked by respect and care as we listen to each other, is in the various approaches and philosophies that may be advanced to achieve those ends.
Speaking on behalf of the New Democrats, we believe in the approach that we characterize as being smart on crime to attain those ends. I cannot emphasize enough that New Democrats believe in protecting victims. In fact, as I have said in this House before and I will say again and again, our party has been the one with the strongest record of protecting victims. We have always been a party that speaks out for the most marginalized in society: the poor, the disabled, people whose voices are often not heard in debates and those who do not have access to power. I would also point out that it is a well known fact in sociology and among people who are familiar with the issue of crime that crime most often is committed by and against those very groups. Most victims of crime are actually found in the most marginalized sectors of our society, the poor, et cetera.
The New Democrats have always brought those voices to the House of Commons and have always insisted that their interests be taken into account when we discuss any issue. Therefore, I am proud today that New Democrats can be said to be one of the strongest voices in this House for standing up for the rights of victims of all types.
I want to talk briefly about women because women are often the victims of crime. Our party has a policy commitment to advancing the equality rights of women that is second to none in this House. When we talk about advancing the interests of victims and bringing their voices to any debate that touches upon their interests, once again, New Democrats have a record that is something to be proud of.
I can also say that the New Democrats believe fundamentally that the best way to keep our communities safe is to take whatever measures are effective and that work to ensure that offenders do not reoffend. That seems like a simple concept but it is absolutely profound in its application. When someone breaks the law and is sent to jail, the number one goal ought to be to do what we need to do to ensure that while the person is in custody that the person when he or she gets out does not come out and re-victimize someone else.
This is where philosophy comes into play. There are those on the government side of the House who believe that the way to accomplish that goal is to increase the severity and duration of the punishment that those people experience. They say that more prisons need to be built and that more people need to be locked up for longer periods of time. They claim that if Canada invests billions of dollars in that policy approach, we will have safer communities. I respectfully disagree with that. I do not disagree with it because of ideology. I disagree with that because of facts.
Earlier today, I asked one of my colleagues on the public safety committee, the member for Edmonton—St. Albert, to name two jurisdictions in the world where the policy approaches that the government is taking toward crime, locking more people up in harsher conditions for longer periods of time, has resulted in lower crime rates. What was his answer? He refused to answer. He could not name one place on earth.
One would think that the government, with all its resources, with its ability to do research, with the entire civil service at its disposal, with its Department of Public Safety and Department of Justice, could do that research. It could provide this House with the kind of information we need that would support these policies. But not one state, not one government, not one country, not one province, can the government name where these policies have been put into place and have actually resulted in safer communities.
I do not call that an ideological attack. I call that a fact-based one. I am legitimately curious. We are not the only society on earth that is grappling with crime. Every society is. Around this world there is every kind of approach to crime one can imagine. There are more liberal approaches, more conservative approaches, tougher approaches, more lenient approaches. The northern European countries' approach focuses more on rehabilitation. Southern European countries and eastern countries, and countries all over the world such as Asian countries, have strong approaches to crime with very tough prison conditions.
What are the results? Why can the government not tell us which model it is emulating? Why can it not tell us which country or state it is using as a model that has adopted these policies that result in safer communities? The fact that the government cannot mention one causes me great concern simply as a parliamentarian.
This bill does have some interesting measures that are worthy of some discussion. Of course, I also think it is fundamentally flawed because profoundly, philosophically and policy-wise, it is simply mistaken.
Bill C-39 takes the absolute wrong approach to correctional policy. It does not promote public safety. It runs counter to reducing reoffending behaviour. It opens the door to violation of human rights. It runs counter to several Supreme Court of Canada decisions on the rights of people as they are treated by the justice system. It adopts a U.S.-style approach to prisons that is regressive, expensive and ineffective.
I want to mention a timely and topical piece that ran today. The head of Correctional Service Canada, Don Head, today announced that his department estimates it will have to spend $2 billion over the next three years because of the Conservative government's approach to crime. It will have to lock up an additional 4,500 Canadians. To put this in perspective, right now there are approximately 13,500 offenders in the federal corrections system. This would add another 4,500 people to that, approximately 30% more people, in the next 36 months.
Mr. Head said they will have to hire thousands more staff. The department will have to spend much more money on programming. It will have to double-bunk prisoners because it simply does not have the space to house the number of people the government wants to lock up in the next three years, in violation I might add of international conventions to which Canada is a signatory, saying that we would not double-bunk prisoners in cells overnight.
That $2 billion estimate is lower than the Parliamentary Budget Officer's estimate, but I would point out that it is higher than the figures the Minister of Public Safety has indicated so far. Before we spend billions of dollars, Canadians very legitimately ought to ask if this is a good approach and if it will work.
A good analogy that all Canadians can relate to is how we treat our children. What is the proper approach to dealing with a child who misbehaves or breaks a rule? The Conservative government has a one-sided approach that says to punish that child. Just punish them. That will work for certain children in certain circumstances. I grant that punishment is one aspect of our corrections toolbox. That simply has to be there. With respect, where I think the government is misguided is that punishment is not the only tool and it is not the tool that should be used predominantly.
What happens if a child is dyslexic and misbehaves in school, not because he or she is a bad child, but because that child is actually masking the fact that he or she cannot read?
What happens if children have FASD, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and their fidgeting and inability to follow rules is not because they are bad people but because they suffer from brain damage? What happens if a child has low cognition or a low IQ?
These are the kinds of people who are in our federal institutions. I say with no hubris whatsoever that I have done something that I dare say 90% of the people in this chamber have not done, and that is that I have visited more than 24 prisons in this country. I have to say I was surprised when I walked into my first federal institution almost two years ago. I had never been in a federal prison before.
What I found was that there is no monolithic population. Our prisons are not filled with 100% bad, scary, evil people. There are some people like that in there. For probably between 10% and 20% of people in federal prisons, that is exactly where they should be at all times. The public needs to be protected from those people.
After that, the truth is that the population in prisons is on a continuum and on a gradient. There is every single type of person in that prison. There are people who are illiterate, who have brain damage, who are of low intelligence, who suffer from FASD, who have had traumatic events happen to them, and who are in prison because of their addictions and their mental health.
I went into the RPC in Saskatoon about a month ago. I asked the people who work in that prison, not the prisoners, what percentage of people in that institution committed crimes that are directly related to their addiction, and the answer I got was 70%. These are people who are in a bar, get drunk, get in a fight or something, and this is what happens. I am not excusing any of that. Any kind of breach of the criminal law is wrong and it needs to be dealt with and dealt with appropriately.
The question I ask is, for those people who are in prison, what is best way to make sure that when they come out they will not do it again? That is what I want and it is what the people of Canada want. I certainly know it is what the people of Vancouver Kingsway want. They want to be safe.
They want to know that when they walk in the streets or in that bar on a Saturday night or in the stores or parks or schools that they are safe. That means that those people who come out of prison are not going to hurt them, and 96% of people who enter federal institutions do come out.
What we do know is that simply locking them up for longer and in harsher circumstances will not work for the vast majority of these people. I am not saying this because of morality or compassion; I am saying this from pure cold-hearted logic. It does not work. That is what I will go back to. If the government can produce studies that show where these policies have worked, I would be very interested in seeing those studies and having my attitudes adjusted accordingly. It cannot do that.
This bill does a number of things. This bill makes it harder for people to get parole. It extends the length of time that offenders convicted of offences have to serve. In other words it keeps people in jail for longer.
It requires the active participation of offenders in attaining objectives of a correctional plan, and that is part of their release plan. That is a good thing, except it also fundamentally changes two things in our prison system.
The historic standard as established by the Supreme Court of Canada is that when citizens enter our prisons they lose some important rights. They lose their right to liberty. They lose their right to be in society. That is a profound loss. However, they retain every other right that all Canadians have. That is why people can still vote in prisons. That is why people still have the right not to be tortured. That is why people have the right to health care. The Supreme Court of Canada said that when Canadian citizens walk into prison, they do not stop being a citizen. They will be punished severely by losing their liberty, but they do not lose those other rights. That is a hallmark of a modern, advanced, mature, democratic state. What this bill would do is alter that.
The second thing it would do, which I think is extremely concerning, is that it changes the approach to prisoners, to allow our corrections system to take whatever measures it thinks are appropriate to deal with prisoners, as opposed to the least restrictive measures to accomplish the goal.
Here is what that means. Just like with our children, it means that when a person abrogates a rule or misbehaves we take the least possible measure that is necessary to change the behaviour, not the most extensive one. The bill would change that.
This is because the government is proceeding on what I think is a flawed basis. It is proceeding on what is called the road map that was authored in 2007 by Rob Sampson, who was the minister of privatization under Mike Harris in the Conservative government of Ontario. When he became the minister of corrections, he advocated strongly for the privatization of Ontario's prison system. That is like putting a fox in charge of a henhouse.
The road map does not engage in a careful, evidence-based review of Canada's correctional system. It cherry-picks statistics to give a distorted view of crime trends. It ignores the history of our prison system. It ignores the jurisprudence that provides the judicial context to imprisoning Canadians. It was designed to tell the government exactly what it wanted to hear. It was written in haste. It was done in less than six months from start to finish, and it did not hear from all the stakeholders who Canadians would want to have input, if we are making sure all voices that have experience in the prison system are brought to bear on this.
One thing the bill does that is good is that it allows victims to have enshrined in law the right to have input into parole hearings. I say let us take that one step further. If it is good to have victims' input at parole hearings because we want to have their voice reflected, is it not important that we have the voices of all stakeholders in determining prison policy in this country? The government did not do that with the road map and that is a flaw.
I want to tell a story because this is not just about statistics and about philosophy. We had before the public safety committee a number of witnesses who testified when we were studying the provision of mental health and addiction services. We had a young woman named Amber Christie as a witness who had been imprisoned 30 times. I want to quote what she said:
As I sat and reviewed the documentary footage made of Ashley Smith's time in prison, I couldn't help but find myself being able to identify with her. I myself have been in prison 30 times. Of those 30 times, 29 of them were spent either all in segregation or the majority of time in segregation. I can identify completely with the desperate need to have human contact and the loneliness and isolation that you feel being locked in a cell with nothing to do all day. I remember I would look forward to meals because I could read the labels of my drink containers over and over and over again. I was not segregated because of behaviour issues or security issues, but because I was withdrawing from heroin.
I was still unable to have anything in my cell to help me stay occupied, such as a book or a pen or paper. I looked forward to count, when the guard would come and count us and hopefully we'd have a nice guard to sometimes tell us how their day was. It was human contact.
I will pause here to state that this description is all too accurate for too many people in our corrections system suffering from mental illness and addiction. These are the conditions that the government wants to move us closer toward, and it will do absolutely nothing to make our communities safer. In fact this approach would make us less safe as is evidenced by the 29 repeat visits Amber made to prison before she got the help she needed. Here is what she had to say about the conditions in prison that finally allowed her to break free of that cycle of recidivism. She said:
I continued to go through those revolving doors until my last stay in corrections in 2005. For the first time I was sent to Alouette Correctional Centre for Women and for the first time I was not segregated. This happened to be the first time...I was checked into health care, and to my amazement I was sent to a unit.
From there on I got a job in the institution, as it was a work camp, and I reconnected with family outside of prison with the help of a wonderful doctor.... I also received health care when I was in prison, something I rarely ever encountered in other prisons.
...there was a program that was happening all around me that was hard to go unnoticed. There were babies in this prison. ... The way the prison was being run was more like a rehabilitation centre.... It was amazing. Not only was there a library and a gym there, there was a native elder there to talk to. As well, there was drumming and dance every Tuesday night. As a mother myself, I have to say that it helped me to remember the things I was giving up, and I know that the other inmates dealt with their problems....
I was released from prison in October 2005, and I have not been back since. ...this prison changed my life. I had been in many prisons before, but this prison treated me like I was a person and not a number.
That speaks louder than anything else I can say.