Mr. Speaker, I would appreciate it if you could let me know when I have one minute left.
I am pleased to rise in this House to speak to Bill C-15. We have to make sure, first and foremost, that the men and women who work to defend us are able to represent us in the armed forces and have the tools to avoid putting their lives at risk unnecessarily. We also have a responsibility to provide them with an operational framework that is appropriate and fair.
And that is what Bill C-15 on the military justice system, which is now before us, claims to do. This bill originates in the responsibility of the Minister of National Defence to arrange for an independent review of the amendments to the National Defence Act every five years. That requirement is set out in clause 96 of Bill C-25 which was assented to in 1998.
In 2003, Justice Antonio Lamer was instructed to examine the provisions and application of Bill C-25. He concluded that “Canada's military justice system generally works very well, subject to a few changes”. Justice Lamer proposed those few changes in the form of 88 recommendations, some of which were addressed in Bill C-7, which became Bill C-45, and then C-60.
After Bill C-60 was passed and assented to, it too was the subject of a review, this time by the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs of the House of Commons. That report was released in 2009 and is entitled “Equal Justice: Reforming Canada’s System of Courts Martial”. Bill C-41, which is now Bill C-15, was to act upon the nine recommendations in that report, which addressed both the Lamer report and Bill C-60.
The justification for having a separate justice system for the armed forces has been repeatedly demonstrated, and in 1992 the Supreme Court of Canada did so very eloquently in R. v. Généreux. One piece of tangible evidence of the importance of having a system that is specific to the military, as Justice Lamer himself admitted, is the fact that certain offences in the Code of Service Discipline do not have the same importance in the civilian justice system, and sometimes there is no equivalent for those offences: for example, disobeying an order of a superior officer.
The Minister of National Defence referred in committee to the old adage that our justice system is a living tree, meaning that the military justice system has to evolve. The Senate committee summarized that very well when it said that “the military, as an organization, benefits when the rules that govern it largely reflect those that apply to Canadian society in general”.
However, we must be careful not to fall into the other extreme, and make sure that, notwithstanding this overriding disciplinary aspect, people who work in the armed forces do not lose their rights that are guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The Senate committee also stated that “with the exception of section 11(f) of the Charter, the rights enumerated in the Charter do not distinguish between proceedings under the military and civilian justice systems”.
As well, the Supreme Court of Canada has held that this separate justice system does not violate the individual’s rights since it is still able to guarantee the individual “the right to equality before the law and to be tried by an independent and impartial tribunal”. It is therefore essential to ensure that the actors in the military system are effective, independent and impartial.
Let us now come back to the crux of this bill, which, I must say, has become weaker with every version. Although, according to a Supreme Court justice, Bill C-45 did not resolve the problem it was created to address, Bill C-15, which we are currently discussing, does not take into account all the work done in committee during the examination of the previous version of the bill, Bill C-41.
In fact, some amendments that were adopted in the past were not included in this new version of the bill. Yet, these amendments changed practices that did not fit with the desired evolution of the military justice framework.
I hope I have enough time left to talk about the three main amendments proposed by the NDP, which were adopted in the past but excluded from Bill C-15.
The first is the reform of the summary trial system, so that a conviction at a summary trial in the Canadian Forces no longer automatically results in a criminal record. During hearings before the Senate committee, many witnesses expressed their disagreement with this practice. There is even more cause for concern given that most offences are dealt with in this manner.
Michel Drapeau, one of the witnesses, said:
There is currently nothing more important for Parliament to focus on than fixing a system that affects the legal rights of a significant number of Canadian citizens every year....
From where I stand, I find it very odd that those who put their lives at risk to protect the rights of Canadians are themselves deprived of some of those charter rights when facing a summary trial.
In committee last March, the amendments to Bill C-41 proposed by the NDP called for the list of offences that could be considered to be minor, and not merit a criminal record if a minor sentence were imposed for the offence in question, to be increased from five to 27. The amendment also adds to the list of penalties a tribunal may impose without them being entered on the record, for example, a severe reprimand, a reprimand, a fine equal to one month's salary and other minor sentences. That was significant progress in terms of summary trials, but since that amendment was not included in Bill C-15, we want it to be included now.
The second amendment concerns the military grievances external review committee. Currently, the grievance board does not allow reviews by people outside of the military system. It is made up of retired members of the Canadian Forces. We would like the committee to be perceived as an independent, external civilian body. There is a problem with the makeup of the committee and the appointment process if the armed forces want to maintain that reputation. Committee membership should therefore include individuals from civilian society.
The NDP's amendment suggested that at least 60% of the members of the grievance committee should never have been a Canadian Forces member or officer. This amendment was agreed to in March 2011 for Bill C-41, but it was not included in Bill C-15. It must be put back in the bill.
One major flaw in the current military grievance system is the fact that the Chief of Defence Staff can resolve certain financial matters arising from grievances. That goes against a recommendation in the Lamer report. Despite the fact that the Minister of National Defence supported the recommendation, the government has failed to act on it for the past eight years. The NDP proposed an amendment to do with this at committee stage of Bill C-41. Even though it was agreed to in March 2011, it was not included in Bill C-15, and the NDP will fight to put it back in the bill.
The third amendment that I would like to talk about would strengthen the Military Police Complaints Commission. Bill C-15 amends the National Defence Act to establish the time required for the Canadian Forces Provost Marshal to resolve complaints and protect complainants from being penalized for having filed a complaint in good faith.
Giving the Military Police Complaints Commission more power, effectively turning it into a watchdog, was virtually ignored. There should be a legislative provision to give the commission more power so that it can be authorized to investigate and report to Parliament.
In conclusion, the fact that the Conservatives deliberately botched the bill and removed some of the key elements that resulted from the hard work done by the members of the House of Commons committee and all parliamentarians in this House is further proof of this government's lack of respect and consideration for the parliamentary process.
Why did the Conservatives not keep the amendments proposed by the NDP and adopted at committee stage last spring, when Bill C-41 was studied, after long hours of debate that seemed to have moved the bill in the right direction?
By not including these amendments in Bill C-15, the Conservatives are undermining the important work done by all members of the Standing Committee on National Defence and also the recommendations made by Canadian Forces representatives during the last session of Parliament. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence rose in the House to give the first speech at second reading. He said:
...the government, the Supreme Court of Canada and even the Constitution recognized the importance of maintaining a robust military justice system.
This government also recognizes, as did Chief Justice Lamer in his 2003 report, that there is room for improvement.
If the parliamentary secretary really meant what he said, why did he ignore all the improvements made by this Parliament in committee? Although truly unfortunate, that is the Conservative government's approach. Not only has it dropped the amendments agreed to in committee, but it has ignored a number of recommendations, picked the ones it wants and rejected the rest.
The official opposition will oppose the bill at second reading, knowing that the bill will be referred to committee. And we truly hope that the amendments agreed to when the committee studied the issue will be included in order to make this a more balanced bill.