Madam Speaker, I am very pleased to speak to this bill to amend the Criminal Records Act by substituting the term “record suspension” for the term “pardon” and extending the ineligibility period for applications for a record suspension. It also makes certain offences ineligible for a record suspension and enables the National Parole Board to consider additional factors when deciding whether to order a record suspension
The Bloc Québécois is in favour of a review of the Criminal Records Act in committee. We would have preferred this to be done more rationally and intelligently through a review in committee rather than through a cobbled together bill full of poison pills. In any event, we are accustomed to the Conservatives' attitude and their way of doing things.
The Conservatives' usual modus operandi for this type of thing is to wait for a heinous event to be reported in the media. They latch on to the story, act outraged and then draft a bill that proposes repression, punishment, double punishment and non-pardons. To top it all off, they put on a big show to give the impression that they are taking care of public safety and victims.
For this bill, the government used the same modus operandi: a media event concerning the 2007 pardon of hockey coach Graham James. Then Bill C-23 is announced with great fanfare to supposedly get tough on crime when it comes to pardoning pedophiles. The bill apparently targets pedophiles.
In fact, the bill is full of poison pills that will affect not only pedophiles—it does indeed do that—but everyone from purse snatchers to marijuana smokers to ordinary thieves.
I am not the only one who says so. In an article in Le Devoir, Ms. Cornellier said:
Once again, the government is taking advantage of an incident, a controversy, to push changes that will have drastic consequences. Making certain criminals who have served their time ineligible for pardon can compromise rehabilitation efforts and, as a result, the long-term safety of society. Whether the minister likes it or not, the possibility of a pardon, in the most serious cases, is an incentive to make an effort towards social reintegration. In more minor cases, for example with old marijuana possession convictions, it can help clear up some troubles.
Now there is someone who understands what the government is doing.
Is the Bloc Québécois in favour of examining the Criminal Records Act to review automatic pardons for pedophiles? Yes. Do we think that pedophiles should be subject to more careful and in-depth analysis by the National Parole Board? Yes, obviously. But does this bill deal with only pedophiles? No.
With this bill, the Conservatives are once again using a media event—the Graham James case—to present a complete overhaul of the pardon system, which works fine as it is. In fact, 97% of those who have received pardons have not reoffended. That means that 3% have. Do we need to be more vigilant with them? Yes, but does that mean that we need a complete overhaul of the pardon system? I do not think so.
It is a matter of looking into what kinds of crimes those who fall into that 3% have committed. We would have to ask ourselves how we can improve legislation to specifically address that 3%. That would be an intelligent analysis. Is that what the bill does? In my opinion, no.
Let us look at the current system. First, a pardon does not erase the fact that a person was convicted.
A pardon just means that a person's record is suspended. The record is removed from the Canadian Police Information Centre. Information on other convictions is also removed. If a police officer searches for the person's name in the information centre after the pardon is granted, he will not find it. But if the person commits another crime, the record becomes public again. It is therefore suspended as long as the person obeys the law.
Currently, if an offender who has been pardoned for a sexual offence applies for a job that involves contact with children or vulnerable persons, a police force or any other authorized organization can, with the applicant's permission, check whether he was ever pardoned. If the applicant was convicted of child-related offences, it is up to the employer to decide whether or not to hire him.
Moreover, a person convicted on indictment must currently wait five years to apply for a pardon. That is five years from the time the sentence has been completely served, meaning that the offender's fines have been paid, he has completed his probation period and he has finished paying his debt. Beginning at that point, he must wait five years from the time he was convicted on indictment before applying. It can take from 6 to 18 months to get an answer, and sometimes even longer, depending on how complex the case is. A person convicted of a summary conviction offence must wait three years to apply.
With this new bill, the length of time people will have to wait before applying will increase from five to 10 years and from three to five years. I want to raise another point before I talk about the 10-year ineligibility period. The effect of a record suspension is limited to Canada. Certainly, if the American authorities have the record in their system, a person may be refused entry into the U.S. at the border. Records generally remain in the American system even if the person has been pardoned.
Only the Minister of Public Safety is authorized to provide information about a pardoned individual's file. He may provide such information only under exceptional circumstances and only if he believes that providing the information is relevant to the administration of justice or public safety in Canada or if it is related to another state.
What does the act cover now? Let us consider the first point on which I believe everyone in the House will agree, which is that any person convicted of “an offence involving sexual activity relating to a minor...unless the applicant can demonstrate s/he was “close in age” and that the offence did not involve a position of trust/authority, bodily harm or threat of violence/intimidation” would be ineligible for a record suspension.
Who could disagree with that? The committee will have to consider whether that can be improved upon.
We have some questions about the 10-year and 5-year provisions. This bill would increase the waiting time from 5 years to 10 years for convictions on indictment and from 3 years to 5 years for summary convictions. What does that really mean? I decided to have a little fun checking out the Criminal Code. Here is what I found in section 437, which is about false alarms:
Every one who wilfully, without reasonable cause, by outcry, ringing bells, using a fire alarm, telephone or telegraph, or in any other manner, makes or circulates or causes to be made or circulated an alarm of fire is guilty of
(a) an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years; or
(b) an offence punishable on summary conviction.
The Criminal Code is full of minor offences that deal with all kinds of things, such as removing a natural bar without permission. But a person convicted of an indictable offence must wait 10 years after paying the fine to request a pardon. How will that affect the person's ability to find a job? We have to understand that a criminal record can close many doors when it comes to employment.
When I read this bill, an image came to mind. When I was studying criminology, I remember that we were told that a long time ago criminal records did not exist. Criminals were identified by branding with a hot iron. Branding worked for livestock. It meant that criminals would be marked for life and, in addition, it was extremely humiliating. Branding was a kind of permanent criminal record. It could not be erased and criminals would experience rejection and humiliation for the rest of their lives. They would live like pariahs. The branding was often chosen based on the crime: “T” for thieves, or “C” for counterfeiters. According to the French Penal Code from 1810, criminals were branded on the right shoulder: “T” for hard labour, travaux forcés, or “TP” for hard labour for life, travaux à perpétuité. I was very surprised to see that in Canadian military prisons “D” was used for deserters. We have make sure that we do not regress to those times.
We are concerned about the idea that people who have been convicted of more than three offences resulting in prison sentences of more than a year would be ineligible for record suspension. Take a typical case of an 18 year old who committed three robberies. That person would not be able to redeem himself even if, after two or three years, he no longer wanted to be a delinquent and decided that he wanted to go back to school and rebuild his life, and really wanted to turn things around. This young man, at the age of 25, married with children, wanting to start a career and be a good person, would not be able make a criminal record request because he had committed three offences, so it would not be allowed. He would live in constant shame, all because he made the wrong choices in his youth. And despite having turned his life around, he would be branded for life. It is the same symbolism.
The Conservative government is a little like the Javert character in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. Javert is the police officer who has always believed that once a man becomes a criminal, he is always a criminal and there is no such thing as pardon or rehabilitation. He regarded the law as divine law. He thought that Jean Valjean would remain a criminal his entire life, but Jean Valjean demonstrated that, on the contrary, he was capable of pity, clemency and rehabilitation. Poor Javert was completely devastated, jumped off the Pont Notre-Dame and drowned in the Seine.
We are wondering what the connection is between doubling the time required to obtain a pardon in all cases and James Graham, who was charged with pedophilia. There is no connection. The only point that links this case, which got a lot of media attention, is that there were a few changes to the terminology. Apart from that, nothing else really made sense, because the system already works just fine. I repeat: 97% of people who received pardons have never reoffended.
Applying this measure across the board does not make sense. Society has implemented this means of suspending criminal records precisely in order to allow men and women the opportunity to find decent jobs, support their families, pay their taxes and get away from their criminal past. I believe this last point is the only one that guarantees a safer society, and not the Conservatives' obsession with ever-lasting punishment.
What do the Conservatives think today? Do they believe that by making life more difficult for reformed individuals, people who have not reoffended, we will be better protected? If those people are starving, if they and their family members do not have good jobs, do not earn much money or have any income security, do they think we will be collectively richer and safer? I do not think so. Do they believe that life has meaning only if people pay for their mistakes for the rest of their lives? I do not think so. Should we be happy or pleased about the suffering and difficulties facing those who have fallen and made mistakes, when three to five years after they have served their entire sentence and have never reoffended, they try to redeem themselves? Is that what Christian generosity is all about?
This bill sends a clear signal that what the Conservatives want is to get rid of the word “rehabilitation” in every case. Unfortunately, that is what they are all about.
There are cases that call for extra caution, for extra careful thought and analysis before a decision is made to grant a pardon or not. Every case is different. I think the people at the National Parole Board are smart. They are experienced people whose job it is to look at every case. We can give them additional tools, and we have to have confidence in a system with a 97% success rate. The success rate is not 3%, but 97%.
Sexual offences, especially those involving minors, need to be looked at carefully, and the act needs to be reviewed as it pertains to such offences. We agree. But please, let us avoid the Conservatives' tendency to exaggerate and put all offenders in the same boat. They would have us lock everyone up and throw away the key.
The Bloc Québécois feels that a thoughtful, rational, non-partisan study of the Criminal Records Act could be good for victims, for our society and for the rehabilitation of offenders and I would even say former offenders.
With this criterion in mind, we will support sending this bill to committee. Clearly, public safety must be the top priority in deciding whether or not to grant a record suspension, and it can be ensured by rehabilitating offenders and pardoning people who have been rehabilitated. We will not build more just societies by branding people for life and making them wear scarlet letters.
I still have a minute left, but I have nothing more to say. Everything has been said.