Mr. Speaker, in essence, the provisions in the bill stem from several recommendations made in 2003 by the Right Hon. Antonio Lamer, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, concerning the National Defence Act. I should point out that the military justice system is an integral part of Canada's legal system, and its existence is recognized in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is separate from but parallel to the civilian justice system. The distinct military justice system within the Canadian Forces has an important role to play because it meets the specific needs of the military community in terms of discipline, efficiency and troop morale.
To begin with, it is important to note that several legislative attempts have been made to implement recommendations in the 2003 Lamer report. Prior to the last election, members worked studiously to amend the precursor to Bill C-15, Bill C-41. The NDP was successful in getting several amendments passed to better protect the interests of the men and women who serve in the Canadian Forces. For example, the NDP made changes concerning the authority of the Chief of Defence Staff in the grievance process. We were also successful in changing the composition of the grievances committee so that 60% of members would be civilians, and we were successful in ensuring that a person convicted of certain minor offences in a summary trial would not receive a criminal record.
The Conservative government took advantage of the fact that the bill died on the order paper and of its new parliamentary majority to scrap the compromise reached in the previous Parliament. That is wasteful and undemocratic.
We support several measures contained in Bill C-15. For some time, we have supported the modernization of the military justice system. After all, members of the Canadian Forces are subject to very strict disciplinary standards and deserve a justice system that is subject to comparable standards. However, we believe that the bill could go a lot further. We must take advantage of Bill C–15 to reform the summary trial and grievances systems, and to strengthen the Military Police Complaints Commission.
Let us start with summary trials. It is important to know that most disciplinary matters are judged at a summary trial level. Usually, they deal with less serious offences, such as insubordination, quarrels, misconduct, unauthorized absences, drunkenness and disobedience. There are two problems with this system, in our opinion. To begin with, several minor offences can result in a criminal record. These offences are undoubtedly very important in terms of military discipline, but they do not warrant a criminal record.
A lot of Quebeckers and Canadians would be shocked to learn that the people who served our country so bravely could end up with a criminal record for a simple offence such as insubordination. It is an even greater pity that this type of offence significantly complicates the lives of these individuals after they leave the military. Criminal records make it difficult to get a new job, limit opportunities to travel abroad and make getting an apartment more difficult.
The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association noted in February 2011 that the primary concern of the military officers imposing sentences in a summary trial is likely to be unit discipline and deterring future violations, not the effect that a criminal record will have on an accused in the civilian world.
Allow me to digress for a moment while I am talking about the transition of military personnel to civilian life. Just today, the Auditor General of Canada published a report that came down very hard on the Conservative government in terms of the transition of ill and injured military personnel to civilian life. The report revealed a web of red tape that complicates this transition. Here is an excerpt from that report:
Canadian Forces members and veterans, as well as...staff...find the transition process complex, lengthy, and challenging to navigate....[I]t remains difficult to access services and benefits in a timely manner. Reasons include the complexity of eligibility criteria, lack of clear information on support available, the amount of paperwork involved, and case management services that require further improvement.
In short, the Conservative government still has a long way to go to help our military personnel transition smoothly to civilian life, whether they are injured or not. We believe that the federal government should take advantage of Bill C-15 to make this transition easier by significantly reducing the military offences that carry a criminal record.
The Conservatives will say that Bill C-15 already reduces the number of offences that carry a criminal record. That is one of the good things about it; however, in our opinion, the bill should go much further. In the last Parliament, we proposed that the list of offences that could be considered minor and thus not worthy of a criminal record be expanded, if the offence in question received a minor punishment. The amendment also expanded the list of sentences that could be imposed by a tribunal without an offender incurring a criminal record, such as a reprimand, a fine equal to up to one month's basic pay or other minor punishments. Clearly, we will once again propose these amendments in committee.
Moreover, with the summary trial process, neither the procedures nor the rights of the accused are the same as in civilian courts. For example, it is not possible to appeal the verdict or sentence from a summary trial in a court of law. Any form of legal appeal is virtually impossible, because there is no transcript of the trial and the accused cannot be represented by counsel.
We in the NDP believe that if a person risks serious consequences such as acquiring a criminal record or serving a prison term, that person should be entitled to the best protection the law can provide, in terms of procedure. This principle was reiterated by the Supreme Court of Canada in Wigglesworth in 1987.
I have talked a lot about the issue of summary trials, but I also want to raise two other problems with Bill C-15.
For years, the Canadian Forces Grievance Board has been the subject of many complaints. We believe that part of the problem is that it is not an independent, external, civilian body. Some current members of the board are retired Canadian Forces members. To highlight the independent nature of the grievance board, clause 11 of the bill amends subsection 29.16(1) of the National Defence Act to change the name of this board to the Military Grievances External Review Committee.
We think that the government should follow through and require that at least 60% of the members of the grievance committee must never have been officers or enlisted personnel in the Canadian Forces. This proposal was adopted in March 2011, in relation to Bill C-41. However, it was not retained in Bill C-15. It saddens us that the Conservative government is thus undermining the serious work accomplished by all the members of the Standing Committee on National Defence and disregarding the earlier recommendations made by representatives of the Canadian Forces. It is important for this amendment to be considered again.
We also believe that the military grievance system could be substantially improved by granting more power to the Chief of Defence Staff to settle the financial aspects arising from grievances. We will have more amendments on this issue.
Finally, I would emphasize again the importance of protecting from unfair punishment the people who file grievances in good faith. We believe that the powers of the Military Police Complaints Commission should be strengthened so that it can act as a watchdog. The commission should have the power to investigate and to report to Parliament.
In conclusion, I hope the government will take the time to consider our amendments, in order to better protect the men and women who serve in our armed forces.