Mr. Speaker, like many Canadians, if not all of them, I am always curious to see what happens to reports that successive governments ask from very honourable people, from experts who are often non-partisan and credible in their field of expertise. Some of these reports are shelved, others are partially followed, while others spur the government into moving forward. The intelligent use of these reports is often a good indication of a government's will to act.
In the case before us, the results are rather disappointing. When the Right Honourable Antonio Lamer, a former Supreme Court justice and an expert on today's issues, tabled his report in the fall of 2003, we had before us 88 recommendations concerning military justice, the Military Police Complaints Commission, the grievance process and the Canadian Forces Provost Marshal.
After many attempts, Bill C-15 was expected to be an answer to the many recommendations of the Lamer report. However, once again, we are disappointed with the Conservatives' reluctance to solve the issue completely. The Conservatives are not, as their name indicates, progressive but, rather, conservative. Therefore, in order to move forward, it is better to rely on our side of the House.
So we are disappointed, because only 28 recommendations have been incorporated into the bill. What is most unfortunate is that important previous amendments that were adopted at the end of the last parliamentary session have not been included in Bill C-15. Allow me to point out here that for a government that so often proclaims itself to be the champion red tape reduction, this seems to be a contradiction. The work had been done. There was an agreement. But oops, into the recycling bin with it; well, at least I hope it is the recycling bin, for all this work. They are starting the process over again, but they are putting even less on the table this time. This is a strange way of advocating efficiency and optimization of the work within our own institution.
This brings us to the heart of this bill, and since time is short, I will focus on the issues relating to summary trials, because in my opinion, these are probably the issues that most affect the clients I served for 25 years. I am talking about young students who, for all sorts of reasons in their lives, choose a military career, whether because it is suited to their innate personal tastes, or they wish to pursue their education or to acquire some specialized skills. But the one thing that all of these young people have in common is that they are young. I am by no means persuaded that at the time of their enlistment, they are familiar with all the ins and outs of the commitment they are making.
The NDP has long been in favour of a much-needed overhaul of the military justice system. The military justice system in our country today is still a draconian system. It is a legacy from a military tradition that is no longer suited to our times. Changes are long overdue.
The bill that is before us, however, has to enable us to tackle the problems head-on. In spite of everything, this is a unique opportunity to examine our military justice system. So let us not shy away from the debate, and let us try, if possible, to improve this system again.
The members of the Canadian Forces have to meet high disciplinary standards, and it is easy to understand why. However, we are asking in return that the justice system that is applied to them be just as precise and exacting. That is the least we should offer our soldiers. This is a matter of the relationship of trust between the armed forces and the justice system they are subject to. That is why the NDP is disappointed with the result we see in this bill.
Bill C-15 does not adequately address the injustice created by summary trials. I will cite a few of the incongruities found in this bill. Do we think it reasonable that, in the military of a country that recognizes the rule of law and a democracy as advanced as ours, summary trials are held where the accused cannot consult counsel? Do we think it is acceptable for accused persons to be unable to read transcripts of their trials, for the simple reason that there is no trial?
I am well aware that the government is battling red tape, but even so, in matters as sensitive as justice, whether military or civilian, I think a trial transcript is a guarantee against errors and abuses.
I would like to quote retired Canadian Forces Colonel Michel W. Drapeau, who is an expert on military law. He was outraged about the legal consequences of a conviction in summary trial. He said:
...it is almost impossible for the court to address any challenge [by a convicted soldier], since no appeal of a summary trial verdict or sentence is permitted.
That is another incongruity in our system.
Colonel Drapeau went on to say:
As well, it is almost impossible for any other form of legal challenge to take place, since there are no trial transcripts and no right to counsel at summary trial.
That is another incongruity if ever there was one.
Again, is it acceptable for the judge to be the accused person's commanding officer? If that is not a conflict of interest, it sure looks like one.
In my opinion, all these provisions are much too severe in many cases. Yes, there is misconduct within our armed forces and this must be sanctioned. We understand that, but often these are minor offences that do not merit a criminal record.
I took a quick look at what could be considered minor offences. These include things such as quarrels, misconduct, absence without leave, drunkenness or disobedience. I taught teenagers and witnessed, identified, confronted, and dealt with all of these characteristics time and time again. It is often between the ages of 16 to 18 that a person thinks about enrolling in the army. These are very common—and temporary—characteristics among teenagers who are trying to adjust to the adult world. Every one of these behaviours taken independently in civilian life would likely not have serious consequences. But in military life it is a whole other story.
Let us remember that our armed forces must be disciplined and exemplary at all times, of course. Therefore, any improper behaviour or flouting of the rules, discipline or code of conduct that govern the armed forces must be fairly punished. But we also have to remember that our soldiers must not lose confidence in their own justice system.
Within the military justice system, the summary trial is the most common kind of tribunal, with 96% of all cases being determined by summary trial. Many soldiers experience this particular kind of military justice at some time in their career. It is a disciplinary method for dealing with infractions committed by Canada’s military personnel. The other 4% of cases are the exception, the court martial. It is a good thing that this is the proportion. It proves that lack of discipline in our armed forces is a rather rare phenomenon. Summary trials are available to deal rapidly with small infractions of the military sort. It can be done rapidly, within the unit, to maintain discipline.
The issue I want to raise concerns the legal consequences of these summary trials. Are all Canadians aware that a minor conviction in a summary trial leads to a criminal record? That is a fundamental problem.
I will repeat the example given by a Liberal colleague about someone who dropped a cigarette butt in a garbage can rather than an ashtray, where it belonged according to regulations. I can easily understand that in the military world, especially if one is near a munitions depot, it could be considered a serious risk. Still, there is an enormous difference between the treatment this offence would get in the military system and in the civilian one.
I will get straight to my conclusion. It is sad to see that the broad agreement on Bill C-41 has disappeared from discussions of C-15.
Thus, we may ask the government why it is content to do so little when we already had an agreement to do more.