Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to stand on behalf of the New Democratic Party of Canada to speak in favour of Bill S-2, which would make many necessary and important changes to the sex offender information registry in this country. Bill S-2 is the reintroduction of Bill C-34 from the last session, including amendments made by committee.
New Democrats support the bill and the concept of reviewing this legislation. We also support hearing from various stakeholders on how to improve the registry, both to improve public safety and to respond to the legitimate concerns of the police forces that work with this registry every day.
Bill C-34 was strengthened by amendments, including New Democrat amendments, to require sex offenders to provide their vehicle information and swiftly report any changes in their personal or work information to the registry. It is important to note that the public safety committee worked well and co-operatively in reviewing this legislation at the time this bill was brought forward, which I will talk about in a moment.
Despite all party support and the co-operative approach by the public safety committee, it has taken a year and a half to get this bill to the stage it is at today. Bill C-34 was introduced in June 2009 under a different minister but it was killed by prorogation. The government, of course, controls the House of Commons' agenda and it did not call the bill for debate until now.
It is relatively concerning and regrettable when we so often see the politicization of crime as an issue in this country. As I always do in my speeches on crime, I call on all members of Parliament to work co-operatively, intelligently and factually so that we can take real measures to make our communities safer, instead of just preying on people's fear and pursuing policies that we know do not work, that we know do not make us safer and that we know are prohibitively expensive.
It is important for Canadians to know that this legislation, when it was introduced some years ago, contained a mandatory review clause so that, within two years of being introduced, the public safety committee, or whichever committee was responsible at the time, would be charged with reviewing how the legislation and the sex offender information registry worked in this country.
That is a wise provision to put into legislation and we should do more of it in this House of Commons. We should periodically review legislation to ensure it is achieving the results that we had hoped it would achieve but otherwise we may not know.
At the time the public safety committee was doing that review, we had heard from many witnesses, had gone through each major section of the bill in tedious detail and had caught a number of items we thought could be improved upon.
As the committee was writing its report to the Minister of Public Safety so he would have the benefit of its hearings and testimony from experts, police officers, government officials, people who work in the criminal justice arena from every angle and others, the government and the minister did not even wait for that report to come out on the mandatory statutory review. Instead, the government hastily and swiftly put this legislation together and introduced it into the House. In examining that fact, I think there is strong evidence that the government was playing politics at that time.
Why would the government not wait for the public safety committee to give its report and have the benefit of all of that study, testimony and co-operative agreement before it then drafted legislation, particularly when it was only weeks away? Why would the government do that other than to play politics with the crime issue?
The other reason that was regrettable is that, as one would expect with legislation drafted in haste for political purposes, the legislation had problems with it. I will give an example.
One of the things we found in the original legislation was that one of the critical pieces of information that a sex offender was not obligated to report to the registry was information about his vehicle, the make, model, colour, licence plate and registration number. As we all know, in some cases, sex offenders will utilize their vehicles as a way of luring children. They will go to playgrounds and try to lure children into their cars by offering them candy or luring them with a pet. This registry did not require sex offenders to report that information to the registry, both for cars they owned or leased. We caught that in committee and the New Democrats put forward an amendment to say that that was information that should be in the registry.
However, because the government and the minister did not wait for the report from our committee, they put legislation before the House that did not have that information in it. That just shows that not only is playing politics bad politically for this country, but it is bad from a public policy point of view and from a legislative point of view.
What is the sex offender registry? It is a national data bank that contains information on certain sex offenders who have been found guilty of designated offences under the Criminal Codes, such as sexual assault, child pornography, child luring and exhibitionism, or who have been declared not criminally responsible on account of a mental disorder but, nevertheless, engage in those activities.
Pursuant to the Criminal Code, it is the Crown that had to initiate the registration process. If a court ruled that the offender should be registered in the national registry, an order was issued requiring the offender to report to a designated registration office within 15 days following the issuance of the order of the offender's release.
In April 2009, the public safety committee was informed that the national registry contained the names of over 19,000 sex offenders in Canada. The registry was originally designed to help police officers investigate crimes of a sexual nature by giving them access to reliable information of offenders found guilty of crimes of a sexual nature or, again, found not criminally responsible on account of a mental disorder.
The registry has always contained information essential to police investigations, such as the offender's address and telephone number, the nature of the offence committed, the age and gender of the victim, the victim's relationship to the attacker, any aliases that the offender used and a description of any distinguishing marks or tattoos the offender might have.
I want to pause and say that through some good work done by the committee, we added to that list and put in language to the effect that added the person's modus operandi or any distinguishing ways that the offender repeatedly carried out his or her offences. That was also helpful information to police officers because they could identify patterns very quickly when they were investigating a potential sexual offence, particularly against children.
It is important to note that the public never has had, and would not have through this legislation now, access to the national registry. Only police officers can access it and only when they are investigating a crime of a sexual nature or, as I will talk about in a minute, when they are working to prevent a crime of a sexual nature.
Querying the national registry allows police officers to identify possible suspects among sex offenders living in a particular area when a crime of a sexual nature is suspected of having been committed, and also as a process, it should be noted, to eliminate certain people from a list of suspects in order to move the investigation in a new direction.
During her appearance before the committee, chief superintendent, Kate Lines, of the Ontario Provincial Police said that the registry:
...saves a lot of time for investigators, who can now move in another direction […] Taking someone off the list rather than identifying them has great value when investigative time is of the essence.
With that point in mind, the crucial factor in designing the registry and proposing amendments should be ensuring that those who pose a danger to the public are registered, but also equally important, that those who pose no danger are not on the registry because that wastes police time investigating pointless leads in those crucial minutes when lives are at stake.
Here are some statistics that were presented by Ms. Lines to the committee that illustrate the importance of a rapid response in these cases, particularly in cases where there is a potential child abduction. When a child is abducted in this country, Ms. Lines told us that 44% were dead within 1 hour of the kidnapping, 74% were dead within 3 hours and 91% of those children were dead within 24 hours.
What we need to do as parliamentarians is design a properly functioning sex offender registry that can give police accurate and quick access to the registry, and anything that slows down the police in those crucial minutes following a potential or real abduction of a child should be rejected out of hand by parliamentarians.
That brings me to something in the bill that is of concern. It is the use of automatic registration for a long list of offences. I would respectfully argue with the House that is another issue where politics and ideology dominated public policy and fact.
When our committee was studying the bill, we heard evidence from a variety of witnesses and we had debate and dialogue about the very issue of whether we should be going to an automatic registration system in this country. What that means is that automatically, upon conviction of a list of sexual offences, the person's name is put into the sex offender registry. The status quo right now and before the bill is passed is that there is discretion in the system. Right now, an application must be made to the court upon conviction and then the court will or will not order that person to be put on the registry.
The evidence we heard at committee from prosecutors was that sometimes prosecutors forgot to put that application before the court upon obtaining a conviction for a sex offence. Our committee addressed that concern and the New Democrats put forward an amendment to address that concern. The amendment was that immediately upon conviction, without any action required by anybody, the application would be before the court for designation to the sex offender registry. The problem would have been solved.
However, we then wanted to preserve judicial and prosecutorial discretion to ensure that in the odd case where it was not appropriate for a person to be put on the sex offender registry, that the opportunity was there for the court and the prosecutor to decide. Why do we want to have that discretion? Because we do not want to put people on the sex offender registry who should not properly be there because. if we do, we will slow down police officers when they are investigating an important issue. Police officers may end up having to knock on doors, make calls or talk to suspects who really have nothing to do with this kind of offence. That slows them down and it puts children at risk in this country.
The other thing that is important to remember is that, upon conviction of a sex offence, the burden falls on the accused to show why he or she should not be put on the sex offender registry, and that burden is a very heavy one. The accused must convince the court that his or her interest in not being put on the registry outweighs the public's interest in ensuring their safety is protected.
This is what we heard from a government witness about that issue. Mr. Douglas Hoover, who is counsel for the criminal law policy section of the Department of Justice, said:
We've had a number of Court of Appeal decisions on “grossly disproportionate” to confirm that the onus has to be on the offender. He has to step up. He has to prove this to the court's satisfaction. This is a very strict test. I think the Court of Appeal in an Ontario case used the term “in the rarest of circumstances”, which is similar to the language in a Nova Scotia Court of Appeal decision on the DNA.
So while there were some early and I guess interesting decisions in the lower courts, we're confident that right now it is working fully as intended,
That was the kind of evidence that our committee heard and the kind of evidence that I am proud to say our committee listened to when we were busy writing our report and when we were telling minister that we did not want to go to a full automatic registration system. We wanted to fix the problem of prosecutors forgetting or neglecting to make the application, which we did, and we wanted to ensure it would be very difficult for an offender to prove to the court that he or she should not be put on the sex offender registry. We could then preserve the rare circumstance where someone should not be put on the registry. We did not want this because we felt sorry for the person convicted of a sex offence. We wanted this because we wanted to ensure the registry was effective and that police officers would not have any extra burden on them when they needed full speed to investigate crimes of a sexual nature.
What happened? The government did not wait for the report and introduces this bill and puts in automatic registration.
Reference has been made to the Ontario model. The Ontario model does have an automatic registration system, but there is an important difference. The list of offences for which a person convicted in Ontario of a sexual offence who gets automatically registered in the provincial sex offender registry is smaller than the one in this bill. This bill has a longer list of sex offences that, quite conceivably, may result in someone being put on the sex offender registry who should not be there.
I want to pause for a moment on the constitutional question. We heard evidence before our committee as well that automatic registration was currently being argued before the courts as to whether it was constitutional. This issue has not been fully settled by the Supreme Court of Canada. In his testimony, Mr. Hoover of the Department of Justice said that if we went automatic, the constitutionality would be an issue. Therefore, that is another reason to be concerned about automatic registration.
I want to also comment on the addition of the word “prevention”. Under the current legislation, police departments can access the registry only when they believe a crime has been committed which they reasonably suspect is of a sexual nature.
We heard evidence that it was too tight of a test. Police departments need to have access quicker and they cannot be held down when they want to access the registry. The New Democrats listened to them, we heard that complaint and we acted. It is important that we widen the scope so police departments can access the registry when they need to and not be hamstrung by very tight tests of whether they can get access to the registry.
The New Democrats also put a really reasonable proposal to have a review of this in the next couple of years to see how it was working. By allowing police officers now to search the registry when they might want to prevent a crime is a good thing, because we want the police to be proactive, but we are also not exactly sure how that will be manifested in practice.
Just like it was a good idea to have the review of the sex offender registry by the public safety committee, where we caught many things that needed to be improved, we thought we wanted to do the same thing with this. When it comes to dealing with sex offences, particularly against children, we can take no chances. Parliament should be vigilant at all times, to be constantly reviewing legislation to ensure it is nimble, accurate and effective.
What happened with that amendment? It is not in the legislation to review the bill in two years time, and that is regrettable.
I want to conclude by commenting about what we need to do for victims of sexual abuse. It is a well known fact that a very high percentage of sex offenders were themselves sexually abused as children, not all of them, but a high percentage. Earlier this year Steve Sullivan, the federal ombudsman for victims of crime at the time, testified at our public safety committee. He spoke about the need for the government to fund child advocacy centres in major cities across the country. He said that for two years in a row he had recommended that the government put a very nominal amount, several million dollars, to fund these child advocacy centres so children who were victims of sexual abuse would have a place to go to get immediate help.
Not only is it important to help those children, but it is a proactive way that we can deal very quickly with the pain and suffering of victims of sexual offences so as to maybe interrupt that process where they themselves might grow older and have deviant sexual practices themselves. Therefore, it is good for public safety.
The government ignored those proposals two years in a row, but I am happy to hear that recently the government indicated it might be willing to fund such advocacy centres. I applaud the government for any move it takes on that side. It will have the full support of the New Democrats for every $1 it puts in to help victims of sexual offences, particularly children.
We support the bill. We have some reservations about automatic registration and about the way the access to the registry in terms of prevention will work out. However, the New Democrats will support the legislation because, at the end of the day, we want to ensure that victims are protected as much as possible.
I urge all parliamentarians to support the New Democrats proposal to come back to this issue in two or three years time so we can review how the bill has worked and see how we can improve it yet again. Once again, we want to ensure we get the legislation right.
The federal registry is less than 10 years old. It is very important that we continue to fine tune it to ensure it achieves the objectives that all parliamentarians and all Canadians want to see, which is to keep our communities safer and to cut down on sex offences in our country.