Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to rise on this very important Bill C-23. In the few minutes that are mine, I will try to describe the Criminal Records Act and what they are trying to do with Bill C-23.
I want to start by saying that the Bloc Québécois and I feel that this bill is probably not necessary to protect victims, because they are already adequately protected by the Criminal Records Act.
There was an incident, and we all know how today's fine government reacts. A hockey coach, Graham James, committed some really terrible acts, for which he was sentenced. He served a prison term for sexual assault on two well-known hockey players, Sheldon Kennedy and Theoren Fleury. He served his time, was released, and now lives in Mexico. He got a pardon and the government blew a fuse because it thinks he should never have been able to do this.
I will define what a criminal record is for the benefit of the people listening to us. It is created after someone commits a crime. I should say right away that someone who commits a traffic offence or a hunting or fishing offence does not get a criminal record. Those are offences against provincial laws, or even some federal laws, such as the Migratory Birds Convention Act. There is no criminal record in those cases. A record is created when someone commits a criminal offence and pleads guilty after having seen the evidence or is found guilty after a trial. I will give an example to explain.
Someone is sentenced to five years in prison and three years of probation for armed robbery of a bank. As soon as the sentence is spoken, he automatically gets a criminal record for the rest of his days. Theoretically, he will be stained for life, but the stain can be removed. I will get back to that in a moment. What is important to emphasize is that a person who has been sentenced will have a criminal record that will follow him for the rest of his days, unless he gets a pardon.
It is called a pardon, but actually it is more like a suspended criminal record. A person who was pardoned, in everyday legal jargon, if asked about any prior convictions, does not have to say he has a record. The government wants to change this system by introducing a bill to suspend criminal records. Why? A person who is sentenced to five years in prison plus three years of probation has a criminal record. The government says not enough concern is shown for the victims, but that is not true. The Criminal Records Act gives the National Parole Board all the power it needs to ensure that people who get pardons are entitled to them and have earned them.
In the case we are concerned with, it is not true that anyone can get a pardon quickly and automatically. That is not how things work in real life.
An individual is sentenced to imprisonment for five years with three years’ probation, which makes a total of eight years. That is easy to count. The individual has to wait five more years before being able to make an application for a pardon, or, as we are calling it here, an application for a record suspension.
How does it work in real life? The individual serves their sentence, and then they are paroled, subject to conditions, and are still supervised until the end of the five-year sentence. The three years’ probation that the judge ordered when they were sentenced is added. So after serving the five-year sentence, three years are added, during which the individual must keep the peace, be of good behaviour and report to an officer, as the law provides and as the court may direct. The conditions of probation are set by the court.
Let us assume that all goes well, the individual serves his sentence, is released, is a good person, is reintegrated into society, and after three years’ probation has committed no offences and has not breached parole in any way. The individual will then have to wait five years, because that is what the law provides.
For a crime committed by an individual at the age of 18 or 19 or 20, which unfortunately happens all too often, that individual will be under judicial oversight for the next 13 years, at least: a five-year sentence and three years’ probation, plus five more years, because he has to wait five years before applying for a pardon.
All of that absolutely does not happen automatically. The opposite is true. In my former life, when I practised criminal law, I represented people like that, and we filled out the forms. An individual can apply for a pardon on his own, but he can also have a lawyer to help. Generally, the individual gets assistance because the procedure is very lengthy. When I say very lengthy, that is a minimum, and it varies considerably based on the crime committed.
I will come back to the example of armed robbery that I gave at the beginning of my speech, for which the offender was sentenced to five years with three years’ probation. Generally, the National Parole Board will examine the individual’s case very carefully before granting a record suspension, to use the term in the bill. Even in sexual assault cases, the board that grants the suspension does a lot of checking.
The individual must first apply, fill out a form and send his criminal record, fingerprints and recent photos to the nearest RCMP office, which forwards it to the board. At that time, an investigation is carried out. This investigation is not necessarily public because it is the individual who has applied. All police forces in Canada, Quebec and all other provinces are contacted to verify whether this individual may, by chance, be hiding offences to which he has pleaded guilty or has been found guilty of. Naturally, if this is the case, this individual's application for pardon or record suspension will be rejected. He will then have to wait a long time to be pardoned.
Thus, the individual files an application, which is forwarded and then studied. All police forces are contacted to determine whether or not the individual has other offences that he has not disclosed. If there are none, it can take between six and eighteen months. In my experience, it takes a minimum of one year before the individual is notified that his pardon, or record suspension, has been granted.
Thus, this is a very long process. The Bloc Québécois will agree to study Bill C-23 in committee because we must carefully examine how to proceed. I have to say one thing. Unfortunately, someone with a criminal record is marked. This is what generally, and unfortunately quite often, happens. Take the example of an individual who, at the age of 18, commits a break and enter and is sentenced to a few weeks or months in jail, plus one year of probation. Everyone in this House knows that we have a propensity to forget. The individual is sentenced and then later forgets about it. A few years later, he applies for a job. Therein lies the problem with not obtaining a record suspension or pardon. Some jobs are not open to those with a criminal record. They cannot be a member of the bar, and therefore a lawyer or notary, nor can they be a doctor or surgeon. Some universities ask if applicants have a criminal record. Those who have forgotten to declare it will be automatically rejected.
This is something we want to check when this bill goes to committee. We should not do anything to hurt someone who is rehabilitated. We are going to agree on that. I just said that big, important word, “rehabilitated”. The Conservatives always say we are more concerned about offenders than victims. Individuals who are entitled to a record suspension are those who have truly been rehabilitated. They have recognized their problems, dealt with them, served their sentence and been pardoned; they have paid their debt to society. We need to stop getting carried away. Obviously, someone who has been charged with and convicted of murder may have a great deal of difficulty getting a record suspension. The offender is convicted and serves a 25-year sentence. This bill does not target these people. It is aimed much more at petty criminals. I am in no way suggesting we should pardon every crime without checking.
With respect, I believe a person can be rehabilitated. We all know people who have made foolish mistakes in their youth, and I can give some examples. In my former life as a criminal lawyer, I had clients who had driven while impaired and unfortunately had been in an accident. I can tell you that this is traumatic, but on top of the crime he has committed and the wrong he has done to a victim, the offender receives a sentence. However, he will likely be able to obtain a pardon for this sentence once he is completely rehabilitated.
We need to be careful not to deprive individuals of the right to a record suspension if they have made every effort to rehabilitate themselves. This is what worries me about this bill, and we will have to look at it very carefully in committee.
I agree that we need to be tough on criminals, but do we need to be as tough on someone who is completely rehabilitated? I have an example. I represented someone who was sentenced to 36 months in prison for eight break and enters. This person has been completely rehabilitated since then and today works as an expert mechanic. If he had not been pardoned, he never would have been able to get this job.
That is the problem with this bill. We must not deny a rehabilitated individual a decent job if he has served his prison term and successfully completed his probation under supervision. Such a person is completely rehabilitated and after spending some time in society, is entitled to have his youthful mistakes erased.
Some people will point out that there are mature individuals, 40 or 50 years old, who commit sexual assault. With all due respect to my opponents, this bill is not intended for those individuals. A criminal who commits offence after offence is not the focus of this bill. I have some examples. A repeat offender will never receive a pardon. His criminal record will never be suspended. This bill is for individuals who have made a mistake or two over an extended period.
Unfortunately in our society, many people make mistakes and keep making mistakes. Many university applications and job applications ask the applicant if they have ever been convicted of a criminal offence. Having successfully applied for a pardon—or a record suspension—the individual is not required to answer that question. He can say he has never been convicted. By virtue of serving his sentence, resolving his problems with society and receiving a pardon from the governor in council, the individual's record is suspended. That is what we will be looking at in this bill in the coming weeks and months, if we are given the opportunity to do so.
Another aspect of this bill causes me great concern. Someone who is pulled over and suspected of driving while impaired would be taken to the station and asked to do a breathalyzer test. He gets a result of 0.7, which is not so bad, but he would be charged with impaired driving. His fingerprints would be taken and so would his photo. That is what could happen under this bill.
This is completely unacceptable and goes against the charter, under which a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. This aspect of the bill should be withdrawn. A person's fingerprints and photo cannot be taken if they have not been found guilty or if they have not pleaded guilty. This bill would change that process and that is unacceptable. We think this is very dangerous. This aspect will have to be explored further.
For now, we are voting in favour of this bill so that it can be studied in committee.