Madam Speaker, I am pleased to have an opportunity to talk about the effects of Bill C-10 and the amendments we have brought forth from the Senate, which are up for consideration.
These amendments deal particularly with one aspect of the act, the provision for a new international tort, called the justice for victims of terrorism act. In essence, it allows Canadians to sue countries or terrorist groups for the consequences of acts of terrorism. It is a new tort altogether for Canada. It never existed before. We debated this in committee but not very much in the House. However, there are now six amendments coming back from the Senate.
It is interesting that when we talk about the process involved with this particular piece of legislation and what the Minister of Justice just said concerning the acceptance of the amendments, this particular aspect is quite instructive as to the approach taken by the government with this bill. It has put together, as the minister said, nine bills. Four had been previously introduced by the Minister of Justice himself and four in a previous Parliament when there were other members of the House, not the approximately hundred new members here today. Four were introduced by the Minister of Public Safety and one by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration.
This particular bill went to committee. The member for Mount Royal, who participated quite actively in this aspect of the bill in committee, had proposed a number of well-thought-out amendments. We had heard experts testify before the committee, which I will go into a little bit later. That member has a degree of expertise in legal matters, having been a law professor for some 30 years at McGill University and being a recognized expert in international humanitarian law. He brought forward a number of thoughtful amendments that in his submission to the committee were intended to improve the bill. To suggest that they got short shrift is an understatement. We spent two hours of a committee meeting discussing those amendments, and none were accepted. They were all voted down, apparently under instructions from somewhere outside the committee, and we got nowhere.
The next day we came back, after having discussed eight clauses of the bill. The bill was quite extensive, having some 208 clauses. Eight of them had been discussed at the first meeting in a sincere attempt to improve the bill, but were not listened to. We came back the next day at 8:45 for a two-hour meeting to continue discussing some 200 further clauses in the bill, which included some nine different pieces of legislation, as the minister just said, and we faced a motion that the matter be dealt with that day. There was no warning, no consultation, no discussion or consideration.
We had listened to numerous witnesses over a series of meetings up to then, with expert witnesses from the Canadian Bar Association, the police associations, and also correctional officers, experts and academics in the corrections field and child law field. We heard from the Barreau du Québec, with its expertise and work in the criminal defence and prosecution bars, similar to what we have with the Canadian Bar Association. We had an enormous amount of material to consider and a whole host of suggestions, many of which were embodied in amendments presented to the committee through the usual process for consideration.
However, from the approach taken by the government, we faced the prospect of having one day for the first eight clauses and another day for all of the rest. If the legislation were not dealt with by 11:59 p.m., it would be deemed to have been brought forward, passed and sent back to the House for consideration. That is the kind of approach the government took with this legislation, despite the minister's claim here this morning that he wanted to listen to all the proposals and amendments and everyone who had anything to say. In fact, we went through that process and discovered in the end that everyone was going through the motions. They were moving their mouths and tongues, but no one on the other side was using was their ears and actually listening to what was being said. That is very unfortunate in a democratic country.
As I had occasion to say in joining the debate on whether we would deal with the legislation in one day or not, this seems to be Parliament where the other side thinks that because it has a majority of some 11 members, a razor thin majority as the member for Winnipeg Centre says, it has the right to do anything it wants at whatever speed it wants and claim that it has a strong mandate from the people of Canada.
As I said to the committee, I was here in the 33rd Parliament when the right hon. Brian Mulroney was prime minister. I believe there were about 295 members in the House at that time. Sitting on the government side with the Progressive Conservative Party were some 211 members out of some 295 members in total. However, in that Parliament, when legislative committees met, they had discussions and heard from witnesses and amendments were moved by the opposition and were accepted. I moved a number of amendments to a particular piece of legislation to establish the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. Those amendments were accepted in committee. We travelled, we heard from people and amendments were proposed by government and opposition members. There was a collaborative approach in recognition that the people on the committee were elected to Parliament and had the knowledge and wisdom to bring something to legislation.
That seemed to be totally absent in our committee, and certainly in the approach taken by the current government here. I say that only as a preface to the substantive remarks that I want to make here, because there are substantive issues and problems with the proposed legislation, Bill C-30.
The minister talked about mandatory minimum sentences. Here there is a small anomaly, which I have to acknowledge, on the part of our party. The NDP, generally speaking, is opposed to mandatory minimums, and I will go into the reasons why. However, on our part, there were two exceptions to that in the last Parliament. One was regarding sexual predators against children. We believe there is a strong consensus in this country on mandatory minimums for sexual offences against children, the Internet predator offences that are contained in the bill and sexual assaults generally against children. The second was regarding the provisions contained in the gun bill, that is, in regard to the use of guns in the commission of a crime. Mandatory minimums should be imposed in those circumstances to send a very strong message that the use of guns for crime in this country is not tolerated at all.
However, I think there is even a lesson in that. We supported that as a party, but I think we learned our lesson about a month ago when a supreme court judge in Ontario had occasion to recognize a significant problem with the mandatory minimum sentence of three years. In this case, someone had had a loaded gun in his hand when the police had broken down his door when looking for someone else. Under the provisions of the Criminal Code, a mandatory minimum sentence of three years was required in this case. The judge had no choice under the law but to issue a mandatory minimum sentence. However, in that case, and I suspect it is going to be appealed, the judge declined to impose the mandatory minimum, although the law provided for that as the sentence.
The judge, because of the circumstance of this fellow taking a picture of himself and putting it on the Internet, and for some reason people feel the need to do that, showing he was some sort of tough guy and holding a gun in his hand, she decided that to impose a mandatory minimum of three years in jail would amount to what would be considered, under the Criminal Code, to be cruel and unusual punishment and she declined to impose that sentence. Whether that will stand up under appeal, we do not know. However, I would be very surprised if the prosecutor did not appeal the case to the Court of Appeal for Ontario to ensure that law was as the judge stated in that case.
There is the issue of mandatory minimums, and a lot has been written about that. There is a general sense that there is something wrong with the notion of mandatory minimums. The government has decided that this is a principal tool of Parliament to impose sentences on people who contribute to particular crimes. However, our society is based on the notion that judges determine what is an appropriate sentence in a particular case because they have the opportunity, in real time, to determine what is an appropriate sentence in a case.
The minister talked about people appearing in committee and being concerned about having strong sentences for offences. I guess if we asked Canadians whether they or their families had been victims of crime and should the penalty fit the crime, everyone would answer yes. I do not think anyone would say that a punishment should be too strong or too weak, but that the punishment should fit the crime. People agree with that. People who have been victims of violent crimes obviously think the punishment ought to be very high.
Our system of civilization demands that we have a punishment that fits the crime, which involves not just the person's actions but also the responsibility of the individual for the crime and all of the surrounding circumstances, including the history of the person. Someone who commits a crime in one particular circumstance may get a stiffer sentence than some other person who committed the same crime. Why? Perhaps the individual was a repeat offender, or had a history of crime, or the victim was particularly vulnerable or there were aggravating circumstances that surrounded the crime. We cannot have the legislature deciding all of the circumstances. That is not our job.
Principally the Criminal Code says that the maximum penalty shall be a certain amount and then it is up to the judge to determine what sentence fits that crime, a particular offender and the circumstances that surrounded it. This is the principle of justice that prevails.
For example, some amendments were proposed to try to ameliorate some of the arbitrary sentences put forward. We talked about the experience in the United States, which has quite a lot of mandatory minimum sentences. We talked about the reasons why they were negative. The opponents to mandatory minimum sentences, which the committee heard, said that they had little or no deterrent or denunciatory effect. That is particularly true for children. That is why changes were made to the Youth Criminal Justice Act regarding stronger sentences for young people. They have little or no deterrent effect. Experts told the committee that.
The problem with mandatory minimum sentences is that they maintain rigid penalty structure limits on judicial discretion, thereby preventing the imposition of just sentences by having a mandatory minimum.
There is also the concern that the rigidity of mandatory minimums would result in some grossly disproportionate sentences. The case in Ontario of the individual with the loaded gun taking his own picture is an example of that.
In addition, opponents assert that mandatory minimums can make it difficult to convict defendants in cases where the penalty is perceived as unduly harsh. That involves a couple of factors. Sometimes, people who are charged with crimes may be persuaded to plead guilty if they feel they will be treated by the courts in a manner consistent with the actual severity of the crime. However, if they face a mandatory minimum, they will plead not guilty, seek a trial and they may be successful. The rate of acquittals in situations where people go to court trials can be quite high. If we have a jury and the jury is aware of the mandatory minimum, it has been less willing to convict in certain cases.
There is also a concern about the fiscal consequences of the penalties, increasing the burden on prosecutorial resources and substantial increases in prison population. We have heard from across the country that this would place a significant burden on provincial resources throughout the country.
Then the concern was that mandatory minimums would exacerbate racial and ethnic biases in the judicial system if they were applied disproportionately to minority groups. We already have a significantly disproportionate population of aboriginal people in our jails. They represent about one-fifth of the population of Canada in our jails, or more than that.
These are some of the reasons that people oppose it in principle.
In this case, we see even mandatory minimums for possession of six plants of marijuana. That would get a person a mandatory minimum sentence of six months in jail. More than six plants would get a person nine months in jail if there were an aggravating factor involved, and the minister talked about grow ops. One of the aggravating factors would be the plants growing on somebody else's land. That is aimed at renting a house and starting a grow op.
What if it is not a grow op at all? What if it is somebody who throws a few seeds on a farmer's field or on somebody else's land in the woods? Throwing a few seeds on someone's land in the forest is an aggravating factor. Therefore, if people threw half a dozen seeds and half a dozen plants grew, they would be subject to nine months in jail for something like that. That is horrendous. To put people in jail with all the other offenders is a very significant and severe punishment.
The Canadian Bar Association talked to us about this issue. Attempts were made, through amendments in committee, to have some safety valve for judges in dealing with mandatory minimums. However, they were not permitted. There was a lot of talk about the United States and how terrible things had happened with mandatory minimums, and it is very true. The United States has the highest rate of prison population as a percentage of the population of any country in the world. I have the Canadian Bar Association saying “by far the world’s highest incarceration rate”. A lot of that is attributed to mandatory minimums, the “three strikes you're out” laws in California and the various areas heavy sentencing policies. However, even in the United States, judges may depart from the mandatory minimums in defined circumstances, including where the offender did not have a significant criminal history or did not use violence or a weapon or cause serious bodily harm to any person.
Also, in the United Kingdom there are two formulations of an exemption provision in relation to mandatory minimums. These provisions are there to allow what is referred to as a particular circumstance that, “would make it unjust to do so in all the circumstances”. That is by far a much easier test than the cruel and unusual punishment provisions in our Charter of Rights.
Provision to ameliorate the effects of mandatory minimums, particularly in some of these matters where they are enacted in quite an arbitrary manner, were rejected in the committee and in fact were given very short shift. As we have heard today, the minister has adopted a policy of harsher laws, which he states is aimed at reducing crime, organized crime, and responds to what the Canadian people want. That is one view.
It is becoming increasingly clear that this approach, which I would call the “war on drugs”, the terminology that gets used in the United States and sometimes in Canada, needs to be taken in order to reduce organized crime and to prevent the proliferation of drugs in our society. However, there is another view, and we heard that in committee from witnesses from the Canadian Bar Association, people who have a great deal of history and experience with the drug trade and criminal law generally. They suggested that this approach did not work. It does not work in the United States or in Canada. In fact, it leads to a proliferation of criminal activity.
Last week, which is a little late in this debate because it was after the House, the people's democratic House, dealt with the bill, which was then before the appointed Senate for consideration, the Global Commission on Drug Policy issued a statement to the right hon.Prime Minister of Canada and to the senators in the Senate asking to reject mandatory minimum sentences. The Global Commission on Drug Policy is the author of this. It is talking particularly about Canada.
I mentioned some of the problems we have with the sentencing for cannabis. I will read the last sentence. It states:
The clear path forward to best control cannabis in Canada and other jurisdictions throughout the world is to move away from failed law enforcement strategies and to pursue a public health approach aimed also at undermining the root causes of organized crime. Canada has the opportunity to take a leadership role in implementing such policies. And it would be completely in keeping with Canada’s global reputation as a modern, tolerant and forward-thinking nation.
Who makes up the Global Commission on Drug Policy? It is signed by six commissioners. Members will recognize some of these names.
Louise Arbour is a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. She resigned that position when she was appointed as the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to prosecute war crimes. That was a very significant position and a recognition of her stature, knowledge and ability. It was also a great honour for Canada to have her take that position. She was also a former United Nations high commissioner for human rights. She now serves as the president of the International Crisis Group for Canada, which is a very important player in international affairs.
That group offers very high level, considered and valuable advice to countries on how to deal with international crises such as we had in Libya, Afghanistan, Iran and other places where we are trying to find solutions that do not involve the heavy use of military force but work with existing nations to try to resolve international crises.
It is significant that a Canadian is on this commission. There is also Richard Branson, a well-known entrepreneur, founder of the Virgin Group of companies. Virgin Airways is one of his businesses and he is involved in various others. He is a commissioner. The other commissioners are: former president of Brazil, Fernando Cardoso; former president of Switzerland and minister of home affairs, Ruth Dreifuss; the former minister of foreign affairs of Norway; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; and the former president of Colombia, César Trujillo, who is also the former secretary general of the OAS.
These are very significant, high level, international players with experience and knowledge of how countries should deal with matters such as drug policy. There is a bit of a change that is being put forward which has been seen not only by these individuals, but by other countries.
They say in their letter:
Building more prisons, tried for decades in the United States under its failed War on Drugs, only deepens the drug problem and does not reduce cannabis supply or rates of use....Many Global Commission members have first-hand experience with the violent illegal markets that emerge in drug-producing regions, where corruption, organized crime and violence are inevitable consequences of cannabis prohibition that cannot be successfully addressed by strengthening anti-cannabis law enforcement. We hope that Canada—where both production and consumption are an issue—remains open to new and better ideas.
I did mention the people who signed this letter, but the commission said in its letter that it also includes: the former secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan; former United States secretary of state George Shultz; the business expert I mentioned, Richard Branson; the former chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker; and also the former president of Mexico.
Mexico and Colombia have significant histories with the drug trade and they know of which they speak. This is really only about cannabis and not about drugs in general, but what is suggested is that the approach Canada is taking to cannabis, as contained in the bill and elsewhere, is in fact wrong and that a harm reduction approach should be pursued.
They suggest, and I am not saying I agree with everything, that there be a new regime involving taxation and production regulation. We agree with the decriminalization of marijuana and that this approach is not working.
I do not think anybody has any details worked out yet. Instead of going down the path of further driving marijuana production into the arms of significant organized crime with legislation like this, it will make it more possible for what the police officers sometimes call the low-hanging fruit, the people who are easy to catch, the people who are not exactly involved in any significant way at the higher levels of operations, but the people who are closer to the street and closer to very modest involvement to be eliminated. They will be put in jail. They will be taken off the streets. What will happen then? The people with the guns and significant organized criminal activity will increase, not decrease.
The Canadian Bar Association, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, and experts come to our committee and say, “This is called the safe streets and communities act, but in fact the consequences of the measures that you are bringing here are going to make our streets less safe and literally have more criminals on the streets. Why is that?”
The minister does not seem to understand. He finds that laughable. However, we are told by experts such as Professor Nicholas Bala and others that if a young person is put in jail for a significant period of time, he or she is not deterred by a longer sentence. He said that young people do not think about the consequences of their actions. They do not think about the sentence for something they are going to do. That is one of the functions of being an adolescent. They are working on things like trying to think ahead. Some people are impulsive when they are teenagers.
I see the member for Winnipeg Centre nodding his head. I imagine he was impulsive as a teenager, as we all were.