Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak to Bill C-41, particularly since I serve the men and women on the Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt who do an extraordinary job serving our country. I pay homage and give thanks to them and their families for all that they do, have done and will do in the future.
On June 16, the Minister of National Defence introduced Bill C-41, which is designed to strengthen military justice in defence of the Canada Act. It was given first reading in the House of Commons. The bill would amend the National Defence Act to strengthen military justice following the 2003 report of the former chief justice of the Supreme Court, the Right Hon. Antonio Lamer, and the May 2009 report of the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.
Among other things, the proposed bill provides for security of tenure for military judges until their retirement and permits the appointment of part-time military judges. It specifies the purposes, objectives and principles of the sentencing process. It provides for additional sentencing options, including absolute discharges, intermittent sentences and restitution. It modifies the composition of a court martial panel according to the rank of the accused person. It modifies the limitation period applicable to summary trials. It allows the accused person to waive the limitation periods. It sets out the Canadian Forces provost marshal's duties and functions and clarifies his or her responsibilities. It also changes the name of the Canadian Forces Grievance Board to the military grievances external review committee. It makes amendments to the delegation of the Chief of Defence Staff's powers as the final authority in the grievance process.
The Liberal Party understands the need to reform the Canadian court martial system to ensure that it remains effective, fair and transparent. The Liberal Party also believes that Canadian citizens who decide to join the Canadian Forces should not thereby lose their rights before the courts. As well, the addition of new penalties, in particular, absolute discharge intermittent sentencing and compensation, is important if we are to have an equitable system.
The rationale for our position is as follows.
There is a significant disparity between the military justice system and the civil system. This disparity must be eliminated as much as possible. It is also worth noting that this disparity does not represent an advantage, but rather a disadvantage, in being subjected to military law, which imposes harsher sentences and applies a less flexible system than the civil system.
It is for that reason the Liberal Party is supporting this bill. We would certainly would like it to be moved forward to the next stage.
Part of this comes out of Chief Justice Lamer's report. I want to read a quote from him as I think it is instructive in terms of illustrating why we need to change the status quo. Justice Lamer said the following:
To maintain the Armed Forces in a state of readiness, the military must be in a position to enforce internal discipline effectively and efficiently.
I have no argument there. He goes on to say:
Breaches of military discipline must be dealt with speedily and, frequently, punished more severely than would be the case if a civilian engaged in such conduct.
The Liberal Party has a problem with that. Individuals who are giving of themselves in the Canadian Forces should not be treated more harshly under a military system than a civilian system. We do not think this is very fair at all.
Let us bore down into some of the specifics, and a little history is important.
The government's legislative process in response to Justice Lamer's report was first introduced in the House of Commons back in April 27, 2006. It was Bill C-7. Bill C-7 died on the order paper when the government prorogued Parliament in September 2007. A successor bill, Bill C-45, was introduced in March 2008, but it met a similar fate as Bill C-7. It too died on the order paper in the 39th Parliament because of a federal election.
Therefore, it is not true that the government wants to move this speedily along. It has had two kicks at the can already and, through its own hand, has ensured that bills like this died on the order paper.
Let us take a look at some of the more specific aspects of the bill, which could be quite instructive. One deals with military judges. The bill actually provides that military judges have security to tenure to retirement age and would serve to enhance the independence and effectiveness of military judges in their role in the military justice system in part by creating a reserve force military judges panel. It is important, though, that these individuals have experience of being in the forces, in the field and in the theatre, as our forces members do.
One of the ongoing challenges in dealing with veterans is that there are not enough people on the Veterans Review and Appeal Board who understand what military folk and their families have to go through and what military members are confronted with in the field, which is completely different from the lives that we are privileged to share in our country. As a result of that absence of understanding, in my experience, justice is not being provided to our veterans when they go before the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. The people on the board are frequently individuals who are appointed for partisan reasons. That has always happened, to be sure, but we need an element of competence on the board. One of the problems we have is an absence of competence and knowledge with respect to what our military men and women endure in the field.
The government would be well served to make sure that individuals who are on this review board and other review boards such as we have for our veterans must have the competence and understanding of what our forces members see and do within the context of being a member of the forces and what they are confronted with in the field.
Also with respect to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, a number of the members of that board should have experience in health care, in medicine. It is crucially important because many of our veterans are suffering from medical problems and need people who have medical knowledge with respect to what they have to endure and can assess them.
The other thing is on sentencing reforms with respect to the bill. The Lamer report recommended a comprehensive review of the sentencing provisions in the National Defence Act with a view to providing a more flexible range of punishments and sanctions.
On the purposes and principles of sentencing, these changes would ensure that we articulate the purposes, objectives and principles of sentencing in a military justice world. That is really important for everybody to understand and to have clarity into why things have been done.
The proposed amendments would provide for additional sentencing options in the form of absolute discharges, intermittent sentences and restitution orders. The amendments would also provide for the use of victim impact statements, as we have heard before.
I would like to speak to the summary trial limitation period. The National Defence Act provides that an accused person cannot be tried by summary trial unless it commences within one year after the day on which the service offence is alleged to have been committed. These amendments would add an additional limitation period for summary trials that would require that the relevant charge be laid within six months of the commission of the alleged offence.
One question we have is whether this would result in more court martials for less serious matters. In other words, although we are trying to make sure that the system is more balanced, in the end would our military folk be confronted with a system that is more punitive than what need be for minor offences?
I want to address a couple of issues with respect to justice for our veterans in particular. The pension reform issue is a very big one for many of our veterans. The current situation is that spouses of veterans who are married after the age of 60 cannot share equitably in their pensions. This must change. The world is a different place now and the rules as written have been around for many, many decades. For the sake of our veterans, and I believe it applies to RCMP officers too, for those who marry after the age of 60, there must be fair and equitable treatment under the law for their spouses with respect to their pensions.
In my riding of Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, we have a very extraordinary program. It is Cockrell House. It is named after World War II veteran Jack Cockrell. This house, quite remarkably, is meant to deal with a situation that many Canadians would be appalled to find out occurs in our midst, and that is to deal with homeless veterans.
Cockrell House provides housing for homeless veterans, and due to the leadership of a very remarkable developer named Russ Ridley in my riding, as well as the Mayor of Colwood, Dave Saunders, who have come together with veterans such as Dave Munro, Angus Stanfield and others to create this house, our veterans actually can go this house and live there for up to two years while they receive treatment for their mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, operational stress injuries and socio-economic problems that they may find themselves in.
I was visiting there recently with our critic for veterans affairs and it was heartbreaking but inspiring to see these men and women who were there in the house. It was heartbreaking in the sense that some veterans had been living in the bush for years. Can we imagine, veterans who have served our country, living in the bush for years on end? That is the situation we have today, and this is not a problem isolated to Vancouver Island, but rather, this is a national problem.
We do not know how many veterans are actually living out in the bush, who are homeless, but we know there are probably more than 1,000. There should not be one veteran in a homeless situation in Canada. They gave to our country and make an enormous sacrifice for us. We have a reciprocal duty to take care of them.
I commend retired General Hillier for his work in trying to deal with this, but I would ask communities from coast to coast to please take a look at the model of Cockrell House on Vancouver Island, because it can help. It is a partnership between the private sector, the developer, the local community and our veterans to ensure that we have a home for our veterans who have fallen under hard times. I would ask the Minister of Veterans Affairs to please take a look at this, because it is an issue of fundamental justice for our veterans and for their care.
We are seeing younger and younger veterans who have been traumatized and are seeking justice for what they have endured. They are seeking care for what they have endured.
For them on the issue of Afghanistan, I have to say that while our troops are doing an extraordinary job in Afghanistan, that mission has not been backed up by the diplomatic work that has to be done. In order to support them, what is missing are huge pieces of the puzzle that will enable the Afghan people, the Afghan government and us to be able to see some semblance of security and stability in the country. In particular, we have failed to see the government, with our partners in ISAF, put together a plan with our Afghan partners to have an on-the-ground diplomatic initiative to flip elements of the insurgency.
It is very sad to hear in this House when members of the government refer to the fact that we are battling “terrorists” in Afghanistan. The fact of the matter is that we are battling an insurgency. It is a complex insurgency made up of different groups with different motivations. There are people involved in the drug trade and common criminals. There is the Taliban, individuals who have a vicious view of the world and are absolutely brutal. Negotiating with those elements of the Taliban will probably not work out, but there are parts of the Taliban that actually can work in terms of bringing them into the power structures in the country.
The other issue is corruption. The ongoing corruption of Mr. Karzai's government and our support of him is a message to the Afghan people that we support his actions. By being seen to be almost blindly supporting what Mr. Karzai does and not demonstrating to the Afghan people that our support for him is absolutely conditional, we are seen as part of the problem, which means that our troops are being seen, in too many cases, as part of the problem, because they do not differentiate one from the other.
In the support of our troops and the extraordinary work that they are doing, it is crucial to ensure that we have an on-the-ground diplomatic effort to be able to hive off and negotiate and flip elements of the insurgency. Only by doing this will security come to Afghanistan. Only by doing this will the training option that we are engaging in now, to train the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police, be successful.
If the training element is all we do and if the other elements of the mission are simply going to be runts in what we do within the country, then Afghanistan five years from now will be little better than it is today, because we are not going to beat an insurgency by virtue of throwing more troops into the situation. The kind of war being fought requires very few people. It is done by stealth to create havoc in a country. It takes very little effort to do that and that is what we are seeing now.
The other aspect is that there has been very little effort to get India and Pakistan on the same page. India will support Mr. Karzai in a non-Pashtun government, and Pakistan will support the Taliban and Pashtun within Afghanistan. As we see, these two countries are playing a proxy war within Afghanistan. Unless India and Pakistan get on the same page, working in lockstep towards the security and development of the country, we are never going to see security in that country.
Why do we not have a regional working group? We are not alone there, but due to the extraordinary commitment and cost in terms of the blood of our troops and with respect to the treasury of Canada, surely we have the cachet to put our foot down and demand a number of things for the success of this mission.
To my knowledge, we have not done that. What we tend to hear in Canada are discussions on the military option with respect to Afghanistan, which is certainly a part of it, but we know that we are ultimately not going to be able to address an insurgency unless we deal with the diplomatic initiatives that are required.
On the development side, I met with the medical officers at the Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar city, as well as in a hospital in Kabul. These hospitals do not even have the ability to secure an airway, intubate and ventilate people. They do not have the ability to provide general anesthesia.
The levels of trauma they see within Kandahar city and Kandahar in general, as well as in Kabul, are atrocious. Yet we have been in the country nine years and there has been billions of dollars in aid spent within the country, and the Mirwais general hospital in Kandahar city and hospital in Kabul do not even have the ability to provide general anesthesia and are operating with local anesthesia. How horrific is that? That is absolutely cruel and inhumane punishment. It should not happen.
I beseech the government, through CIDA, to engage the Mirwais general hospital. I know we have given money to the Red Cross. I certainly understand doing that, but there has been a failure in that mission. There has been a failure in implementing the Red Cross' actions within the Mirwais general hospital and these people desperately need access to basic services.
I actually have the ability now to provide the equipment they need. I have a needs list for them. I have tried to engage CIDA to help. I have tried to get DND to help. All that is needed, quite frankly, is a very small area within a C-17 aircraft, smaller than two desks here. A space that size in a C-17 aircraft would provide lifesaving tools for people to use at the Mirwais general hospital. Increase the space to an area the size of eight seats here and there would be enough equipment for two hospitals.
I beseech the government. I would be happy to work with it so that our troops can deliver this equipment to both the Mirwais general hospital in Kandahar city and the general Hospital in Kabul. We can work together to enable those people to have access to the medical equipment that will save people's lives within the country. I am happy to work with the government to do this and I hope it sees this as a non-political endeavour but one that will certainly help our provincial reconstruction teams working within the country.
In closing, I know I added a few extra things that may be outside the realm of this bill, but I did it to provide information to the government that there are some options that we could work together on to help the mission, our troops and the Afghan people. I certainly hope that the government takes a look at some of those options, and I know my party would be very willing to work with it to implement these things for the good of our troops, the good of the mission and the good of our country.