Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to what is a very complex, complicated bill that is actually being treated without the proper oversight from the government.
We have heard from other members of the House the problem with the bill when it comes to the costs, which is something that is resonating from Canadians. As we hear, the financial crisis is getting worse. In fact, I believe the Minister of Finance right now is speaking to it just outside this place. We have a government that said that the priority would be the economy and yet, at the first opportunity to deal with the economy, what do we see? We see an omnibus bill, which is an ominous bill, that would pass down costs to provinces.
Just yesterday, the Minister of Finance stood and, with great vitriol, said that the government would never do what the previous Liberal government had done, which was to push costs down to the provinces. Well, that is what this bill would do. Billions and billions of dollars in costs would be pushed down to the provinces, be it members' home provinces, or mine, right across the country.
What we do not see is the evidence as to why we need this legislation. What we have is the politics, which is what we have heard time and time again from the government. In fact, since 2006, it has been the brand of the government to get tough on crime, often waiting until the next election and the next election to bring in its legislation because it is also helpful to the Conservatives to manipulate this issue.
There is a lot in the bill. I will touch on a couple of things that are important. I already touched on one in my question to the minister with regard to foreign affairs and the transfer of prisoners. I was interested in the minister's response when I asked him how he was dealing with the fact that we had a diplomatic note sent to us from the United States last year telling us that we needed to take care of the problem of Canadian citizens who are arrested in the United States. The United States told us that we were not taking care of them and that we needed to bring them back to our own country. What do we do? We outsource the problem to the United States in this case.
The reciprocal is interesting. The United States has a convention and a policy that it does not let that happen. We created a diplomatic spat over an issue around whether we will take care of Canadian citizens who are arrested abroad. I could tell many other stories about the problems of Canadian citizens stranded abroad but I will save that for another day.
The point is that, in this legislation, the minister stood just minutes ago and said that we should not worry about it because he would be given, as a minister, a lot of room to interpret and, therefore, be able to deal with the issue. The problem right now is the way in which the minister and the government are interpreting it. Canadians who are arrested in the United States are often left there, and there are inconsistencies. We have percentages from 14% of applications that are actually received and dealt with by the Americans, to upwards of 62% over one year. In other words, there is a total inconsistency in the application for the transfer of prisoners.
Why does that matter? The claim of the government is that this is about public safety. When prisoners finish their time in the United States, they then come back to Canada. We can talk about the situation of prisons there in a minute. However, if the government is concerned about public safety, there is no supervision of those prisoners after. The minister says that we should not worry because that will be taken care of, that at a time when the government is cutting services to do the actual supervision that is required.
Here is the problem. We have the Americans coming to us with a diplomatic note, which, in Foreign Affairs, is substantive. They do not write diplomatic notes every day. It is when there is a problem that cannot be resolved between countries. A diplomatic notes raises the red flag to say that we are not doing enough. The response from the government is to basically ignore it and say that the American prisons are much tougher and we would rather they stay there.
The Conservatives have been in power since 2006 and it is saying that they would rather the prisoners stay in the United States because it is a better situation and we want them to stay there and, when they come back, they can just go out on the street without supervision. Talk about cognitive distance. We have it in front of us with this one example of transfer of prisoners.
By the way, it is not just the NDP. I know that does not always sell with my friend across the way as a salient argument. We are talking about diplomats from the United States. We are talking about people who deal with the criminal justice system, the advocates and lawyers, who are saying that this is a real problem that we need to deal with, never mind the people who are trying to deal with crime prevention. The bill fails just on that one piece. It actually undermines our credibility internationally with our best friend and closest neighbour.
I will turn to the issue of taking a stronger stance against perpetrators of terror, which is also in the bill. On the surface, I think we could all agree, it is important that there should be ways of dealing with anyone who is involved in or funding terrorism. It is about preventing terrorism but we have concerns with what the bill would do. We believe this is a valid issue that should be dealt with, no question, but there are some components in the bill that are worthy of putting out.
The bill would create a cause of action that would allow victims of terrorism to sue individuals, organizations and terrorist entities in Canadian courts for loss or damage suffered as a result of terrorist acts as defined in the Criminal Code. Second, it amends the State Immunity Act to remove state immunity for states that are on a list of countries, established by cabinet, that have supported or currently support terrorism. The bill would allow victims to sue foreign states that are on the list.
That sounds fine, and I would say there are some good things in that, but there are significant steps that we need to look at. There are a couple of concerns I want to underline because they are very serious. If we are going to do this, we need to do it right.
The question is whether amending the State Immunity Act would cause retaliation against Canadians. What are the risks? I have not heard from government why it is limiting the cause of action to a certain list of states. This is where we have to focus in. If we just list certain states, then we are saying that it is open for others and we would be defining terrorism in a very limited way. That is where I think the bill needs some work.
Also, there is the question of the merit in extending the cause of action created by the bill to victims in other forms of state violations, such as human rights and torture. Frankly, I would have liked to have seen us fold that in. I believe my colleague from the Liberal Party had legislation to amend the State Immunity Act.
Right now a person can go after someone for economic cause and sue someone in another country, but if they have been tortured, they can not. We have had many cases in this country, the Mr. Arar case being one, where they cannot use our courts to seek justice. It is a human rights issue and it is an issue we need to take on. I have no idea why the government did not include it.
I was happy to support my colleague, the former justice minister in the Liberal government, who brought legislation forward to do that. It is sensible to amend the State Immunity Act for those Canadians who have had the unfortunate experience of being tortured by other governments and sometimes with the complicity and knowledge of our own government. It is absolutely critical that we do that. It is not in the bill and it should be. That is a failing facet of the bill.
It is very interesting to hear the rationale for the omnibus bill. It is along the lines that the government believes it would deal with a perceived problem and sometimes a factual problem. The government's perceived problem is that crime is higher and is getting worse.
Crime is in the eye of the beholder, of those who have suffered as victims, as my colleague said. However, the programs we have in place for reconstructive justice and reconciliation, sadly and bizarrely, are not being funded to the degree they should be.
If we are serious about crime and serious about victims, then we have to be serious about funding those programs. Many of us have talked to victims and some of us are victims. The one thing victims want is justice, but there is no justice in using a hammer to whack a peanut. What we are talking about here is making sure there is justice for victims and making sure there is reconciliation.
I attended a conference in California on HIV and the law, and what is happening in the United States. The spectacle right now is that judges are forcing the State of California to release prisoners. Why? Because the “three strikes and you are out” policy and putting people in jail for drug crimes has failed.
There is a consensus, with the exception of our friends across the way, that the approach used in the war on drugs was an abysmal failure. Why? Ask people like Newt Gingrich,. My goodness, I never thought I would use him for validation, but it turns out he is now. God bless him, Newt Gingrich now says not to do what they did because it is costly and ineffective.
California has privatized its prisons. It has more prisoners than it can handle. Judges are forcing the state to release prisoners. California has absolutely no programs in the prisons to deal with treating addictions, which we all know is a major problem in our prisons and the U.S. prisons. What are we going to do? It turns out we are going to adopt its failed policy.
I would plead with Canadians to hold their members of Parliament to account on this because it is going to cost us more. There is the economic argument regarding downloading all the costs to provinces which right now have difficulty withstanding the costs associated with education, health, et cetera. There is the question of justice. Does this work? The evidence is pretty clear in other jurisdictions that it does not.
Then there is the question of politics. I have sensed a change in this country around why governments and politicians are using issues as important as justice and criminal justice for political gain. We only need to look at the government's talking points. Government members are not citing evidence from peer-reviewed studies; they are saying they have received a mandate so it is a blank cheque and they can do what they want.
It is very important that we look at this issue carefully. If the prisons are full of people who need help, they need to be given supports. Victims need justice, but we will not find it in the bill to the extent that it should be.
We do see little parcels of politics, such as, if the government wants to give the notion that things are really bad, it says that it is going to crack down. It is going to make sure that judges are not allowed to look at the circumstances, and instead it will direct them. The government will make sure that more prisons are built because that is its idea of justice. The government will make sure in the transfer of prisoners to keep them in the United States because the U.S. is tougher on crime; or on something as important as the State Immunity Act, it will not fold in the whole issue when it comes to victims of torture and other human rights abuses.
I wonder whether Canadians see in this legislation any change in politics that they were hoping to see, such as looking at the problem from an evidence-based point of view. If the evidence is such that crime has changed, and I acknowledge that, the indications are it is lower. Let us look at how to prevent crime and get smart on crime. This tough on crime idea is to put people in jail for longer and bring in mandatory minimum sentences. To be smart on crime, which is the way to go, is to look at preventing crime.
In many of the downtown core ridings in many of the cities across the country, the programs to help youth at risk are themselves at risk. I am thinking of recreation programs, arts programs, access for kids from lower income families to things to which middle-class families and families of better means can afford to send their kids. These programs have been cut.
Part of prevention is to make sure there is equity of access for kids. As a teacher who taught in a downtown school, I know what happens when kids do not have access to recreation, the arts, et cetera. They are given fewer choices and less opportunity. If we invested more of our dollars into prevention and opportunity for our kids, we would not have to worry about what will happen later in their lives. We would be able to prevent crime.
It goes without saying that when we look at prevention and reconciliation in the case of victims, we would be able to deal with crime in a strategic way, not a political way. Over the last couple of years, the framework that has been set in this country is that we will deal with crime in an overtly political way, which is unfortunate. It is unfortunate for victims. It is unfortunate for those who for many different reasons find themselves before the criminal justice system.
I want to finish my comments by underlining something that is a crisis in the United States, but we must not be arrogant because we have a similar problem and challenge. There is a disproportionate number of African Americans in the U.S. prison system. That is not news. It is a disturbing trend that has been going on for many years. We must not be arrogant about it in our country, because we have a similar challenge, and that is the disproportionate number of first nations people in our prisons.
Like many members in this place, I was very proud when we acknowledged the issue of what happened in the residential schools. That acknowledgement was a proud moment for Canada, but what did those words mean? If there is a disproportionate number of first nations, aboriginal and Inuit people in our prisons and we have not acknowledged why they are there, we are simply treating them in the same manner as is happening in the United States, as people who broke the law and let us just send them to jail. We have not only failed in terms of dealing with the situation on the ground, but we also have turned our backs to the spirit of what that reconciliation was supposed to be about in the House of Commons a couple of years ago.
On the issue of crime and justice, we need more justice. We need more prevention. We need to make sure that we honour our treaties with our allies in the United States. When it comes to looking at the State Immunity Act and making sure that we acknowledge that it needs to be amended, we have to take in the issue of torture, we have to take in the issue of human rights. If we do not do that, then we will have failed in that opportunity as well.
I hope Canadians will get in touch with their members of Parliament regarding what the government is doing on this issue. The costs are financial. This is about dealing with an issue which all Canadians are seized with, but doing it in an intelligent manner, based on evidence and making sure we take what I believe is an overtly political agenda out of an extremely important issue. We need to deal with it in a sensible manner for all of our citizens and all our constituents.