Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have an opportunity today to speak to a bill that is extremely important to all of us and to all Canadians, and that is Bill C-4 dealing with our youth justice system.
I am supposed to be pleased but I am concerned with where we are going with it. I will outline my concerns as we continue on.
Bill C-4 is just the beginning of a discussion on the youth justice system but I would also like to address the larger issue of how we deal with youth crime in Canada, its impact and the consequences of failing to address these things proactively and with a long term vision.
It is too easy to react and I think Bill C-4 will give us the opportunity to seriously look at where we are going on issues like this in Canada and what we can do to ensure the safety of all Canadians but, more important, to ensure our youth have some positive direction and positive role models.
We know the consequences when those are not there and I think we need, as a society, to deal with those issues in a much more proactive way. Having an opportunity to speak on Bill C-4 and have the bill go to committee will give us a chance to examine it and look at where we can strengthen it.
The people of Taber, Alberta and those who were shopping in Toronto on Boxing Day of 2005 know all too well what the consequences are. Sadly, the families of people like Reena Virk, Jane Creba, Jason Lang and my own constituent, a young boy by the name of Jordan Manners who was shot down in the hallway of his school, know all too well the consequences if we fail to address youth crime effectively.
I mention Reena Virk, Jane Creba, Jason Lang, Shane Christmas and Jordan Manners because they are really the reason that I am speaking to Bill C-4 today. These special people are children who were victims of criminal acts perpetrated by other children. Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies any family or any society can bear is children fighting children and children killing children. It is not the Canada we want and we do not want to see that continue.
What can we do about it? How do we strengthen our laws? How do we strengthen the support systems in society so we can have a much better outcome at the end of the day in dealing with these difficult issues?
The children I mentioned were shopping and Jordan was attending school. They were just doing what children do and, because of that, they became victims and their families were shattered.
There was a day when we all felt a child-like innocence, a few years ago but I think we can all remember, a quality we all imagine is in the eyes of our children and grandchildren but, in reality, we as legislators need to make certain that there is an effective youth criminal justice system in place that can deal with the rarely seen but much darker side of childhood.
However, our response to youth crime cannot stop just there.
When Bill C-4 was first tabled on March 16, I again took the opportunity to review it carefully. I represent a riding in the greater Toronto area, a city that, like every other large city in Canada and on the planet, struggles to stem a rising tide of crime of a variety of types.
As an initial reaction to this legislation there are clearly element of the bill that appear to favour more punishment, much more so than rehabilitation. We need to ask ourselves where that balance is between the two.
While I accept that punishment is tremendously important, I would view the prevention and the rehabilitation sides of the youth criminal justice system to be every bit as important.
When I served on Toronto City Council and as the vice-chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, I saw first-hand some of those challenges. I watched as families dealt with tragedy, as politicians grappled with legalities, as social service agencies struggled with poverty and as courts wrestled to find the right balance.
I visited the families of many young people in my riding who had been either shot or knifed to death in some uprising with a gang. I sat and cried with mothers who lost their oldest child to violence in spite of every effort they made to try to prevent that from happening. They examined everything they did while raising their youngsters and asked what they could have done differently.
Many kids are being raised by single parents who are working and trying to keep the family unit together and make sure they are role models for their children. Sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes they only go wrong once in their entire life, but sometimes that once is too many.
As a result of some of the work I have done as a city councillor in Toronto and sitting as vice-chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, I also had a chance to talk to many police officers who constantly try to find that balance. I asked how they treat young people, how they either scare them enough that they will never do anything wrong again or make sure they understand that they will pay a price if they break the laws of our country, that it is not frivolous and they will pay a price emotionally, as will their families.
I developed a very practical tough-on-crime approach, but I also learned to appreciate the need for additional components that recognize the unique challenges presented when dealing with youth crime.
There was once an incident, when I was on the Police Services Board, with a young man who I had a chance to talk to in the detention centre. I asked him, “Why did you shoot that person”, and he said, “Why not?” I looked at him with shock and said, “What do you mean, 'why not'? You have killed someone; that is why you are in here. And you are trying to make me feel sorry for you”. He responded, “You don't care about me, so I don't care about you”.
What he was saying is that as a society, we do not care about them, so they do not give a darn about us either. It is hard to imagine anybody growing up with that kind of mentality, “You don't care about me and I will take your life as if it's nothing”. The reality is that is exactly how that young man felt. Ultimately, he went to jail for a very long time and I suspect he is still there.
Having all these things in mind, it would appear as though the drafters of this bill have little or no regard for the prevention and rehabilitation facets of the youth criminal justice system. Just like every other Conservative crime bill, this legislation is all about sentencing and jail time. The bill says very little about prevention, rehabilitation or working to put young offenders on the right track for life.
It would seem that Rick Linden, a criminology professor at the University of Manitoba, agrees with this. He says the bill is designed more for political effect than to actually have an effect on crime. That is not surprising. We have seen a lot of that in this so-called law and order and crime agenda. Conservatives say the things people want to hear, but then they do not do anything about it.
Professor Nicholas Bala, a family law and youth justice expert at Queen's University, says the same thing. Professor Bala said, “This is an example of pandering to public misperceptions about youth crime”. Clearly, pandering to the general feel out there is very easy for all of us to do politically. At some points in our lives we have probably all done it; there is no question about it. However, on issues of youth justice it is extremely important that we do the right things and make the right decisions on rehabilitation, prevention and, ultimately, whatever punishment will have to be the issue of the day.
We just had a room full of young Olympians. We look at all those beautiful faces and see how proud they are of what they have achieved.
How many other kids out there would have liked to have had those opportunities? However, because of a variety of things that happened in their lives, they do not ever get that opportunity to be able to train and participate and grow up and be a successful Olympian.
As we go back to this bill and talk about the clarity issue, I believe strongly that criminals of all ages should be punished appropriately. While I support serious consequences for people who commit serious crimes, I believe youth must be treated differently from adults. I also believe that effective prevention of youth crime begins long before the actual crime is committed and continues long after a sentence has been served.
After all, in most cases offenders acquire criminal tendencies long before they take action. Furthermore, they will be expected to reintegrate into society at some point, and unless we take steps to ensure that the root causes of their behaviours are addressed, we can be certain that youth criminals will evolve into adult criminals.
Let us take a moment and examine what is actually in Bill C-4. The legislation proposes altering the pretrial detention rules to make it simpler for judges to keep violent or repeat offenders in custody prior to trial; adding specific deterrents to the sentencing principles for youth; expanding the definition of what constitutes a violent offence; allowing for more serious sentences for youth with a pattern of extrajudicial sanctions or so-called repeat offenders; requiring the consideration of adult sentences by provincial crown prosecutors for youth 14 and older who commit serious offences, like murder, attempted murder and aggravated sexual assault; and requiring courts to consider lifting publication bans on the names of young offenders convicted of violent offences even when youth sentences are applied.
Some of these things are potentially positive and are at least worth supporting so this bill can go to committee for further study.
My biggest concerns relate to what is missing from this legislation. It would seem that the government's answer to youth crime is to lock the offender up and hope the future takes care of itself. Well, we know that does not happen, because sooner or later they have to get out, and if we have not tried to rehabilitate them while they were in a detention centre or a jail, then they are going to come out worse than when they went in. People can argue with that, but there are all kinds of studies that show that.
I fear this is a shortsighted strategy that will quickly lead to increased rates of recidivism. The youth criminal justice system in Canada must protect society, punish the offender and seek to rehabilitate whenever possible.
Bill C-4 recognizes the first two elements of this criterion but does nothing to enhance or to recognize what is potentially the most important element. What is the government planning to do to address poverty and homelessness in our largest cities? What is the government planning to do to combat domestic violence and violence against women? What is the government planning to do to tackle anger and money management issues? What is it going to do to provide hope and opportunity for many of our young people who feel there is no hope and no opportunity for them?
It might seem as though I am throwing out a laundry list of things I would like to see, but in fact I believe that poverty, homelessness, despair, anger and desensitization to certain negative activities contribute to crime later in life. I go right back to “If you don't respect me, I don't respect you, so your life means nothing”, the quote I referred to from that young man I had spoken to some years back.
We know now that children who do not have support in their formative years are more likely to gravitate to other support networks. We also know that in some cases that support network becomes a gang.
We also know that children who witness repeated bouts of spousal abuse and violence can come to accept that as appropriate behaviour, a behaviour that leads to more ominous activities as the children grow.
I would never suggest that everyone living in poverty is a criminal in waiting. I actually believe that every child represents untapped potential and hope for the future.
Every child is a doctor in waiting, a lawyer in waiting or a scientist of tomorrow, and every child could be our next great leader. Because of this belief, I want to make sure we do not just focus our attention on punishing those who go astray. We need to work together to ensure all children have the opportunity to reach their full potential, even if they veer from the path briefly before they reach adulthood.
I am going to cast my vote in favour of Bill C-4, but I want to be clear that the work is just beginning. We need to get this one right. The families of Reena Virk, Jane Creba, Jason Lang and Jordan Manners and countless other Canadians have every right to expect that we get this one right and we make the changes that are necessary to ensure the safety of our society, but also make the opportunities for the many young people who need that encouragement to move forward.