Mr. Speaker, I join with others in congratulating you on your elevation to the chair as deputy speaker. It is appropriate, and I congratulate you and your party, the official opposition, for putting you there. For all of us, I guess it is overwhelming that you are up there for all the right reasons.
Today we are talking about Bill C-37. This debate has been going on now for a few months, and we have picked it up after the summer constituency break.
On April 24, the Minister of Justice introduced Bill C-37, an act to amend the Criminal Code, increasing offenders' accountability for victims act, in the House of Commons and it has been given first reading.
The summary, as handed out by the Library of Parliament, states that a victim surcharge is an additional penalty imposed on convicted offenders at the time of sentencing. Bill C-37 would amend the Criminal Code to change the rules concerning victim surcharges. The surcharge would be 30% of any fine imposed on the offender. Where no fine is imposed, the surcharge would be $100 for offences punishable by summary conviction and $200 for offences punishable by indictment. In addition, the judge would retain the discretion to impose an increased surcharge where the circumstances warrant and the offender has the ability to pay. Some of those I will touch on in just a few moments.
Let us talk about many aspects of this legislation. We have talked quite a bit about some of the root elements of crime in this House. A lot of people think we talk about the economy, but we have probably talked as much if not more about crime during the last three years, and I have voted for some of the bills proposed to us. I felt they were reasonable and that the amendments to the Criminal Code were justified for reasons and circumstances we have before us today.
However, in looking at the situation, the base root of all crime, poverty, is one of the major issues. My colleague from Charlottetown was quite eloquent in his speech yesterday and he brought some of these factors out. I would like to reiterate some of those factors because I believe they bear repeating.
In times past, we confronted great challenges, not with slogans and silly appellations for parliamentary bills but by deploying our best and brightest in search of facts that would lead to meaningful and realistic solutions.
The growing gap between those who have and those who have not, the persistence of poverty and its relation to crime are real and present danger to social cohesiveness in Canada.
We cannot afford to stand aside and do what we are doing, which is little.
He also came up with a recommendation that I support.
We cannot dismissively say that poverty is a provincial matter...
This is something that has been brought out quite a bit in the House, and I believe it to be right. Although some areas of concern, most notably health care, education and housing, are dealt with mostly by the province, that does not mean we cannot further a national dialogue on how we go about dealing with issues such as poverty.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, the current government has a poverty reduction strategy that is being held up as a solid example of how we can reduce elements of poverty within our society. It has been carried out over many years in Newfoundland. It started with a strategic social policy and now we have this poverty reduction strategy, which is a strong element in reducing poverty rates within the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Many elements brought out in this poverty reduction strategy deal with specific instances where people find themselves wrapped up in elements of crime and in front of courts and judges. In many cases, the judges are given discretion as to what to do. In some cases, some of the laws we have need to be reformed to give the right sentence to a particular crime.
When we take all these elements of reforming our laws, whether it is through the Criminal Code or others, we have to encapsulate it into the narrative, and the narrative is about poverty reduction. That is the first part of it.
The second part of it is aid to victims of crime. The element we are talking about here tries to address that. Principally, it was a good start, but we sort of went off the rails as we proceeded further. Some of the circumstances that brought the legislation forward may have been justified at the time, but the end results will dictate that it will not be the case. The main thrust of the bill will not be fulfilled in many cases just by imposing these particular fines or fees.
Therefore, as my hon. colleague from Charlottetown mentioned yesterday, we should strike a royal commission on poverty in Canada. Elements of that should include addressing causes of crime and how we address victims of crime, as well as those who perpetrate the crimes. This should be done through the lens of reducing poverty, such as the poverty reduction strategy we currently have in Newfoundland and Labrador.
With the greatest respect to my colleagues on the other side, it is not right or just for any prime minister from any political party to suggest, as our current Prime Minister does, that poverty is a provincial problem, end of story. That is a very strong argument to be made in this House because it furthers the dialogue. Certainly we cannot just extricate ourselves from a particular debate because it has to do with health care and health care is a provincial issue. As a matter of fact, we are the authors, and we certainly are the enforcers, of what is called the Canada Health Act. The same goes for child care as well as aspects of education, whether secondary or post-secondary.
We certainly can further the dialogue when it comes to these elements of provincial jurisdiction. For example, I have been a strong advocate for stronger sentences and stronger action to reduce human smuggling. We certainly have made attempts in the House to come down heavily on people who perpetrate the crime of human smuggling, and rightly so. However, let us look at the other aspect of human smuggling, the victims. We do not address that in the House. Why? It is because many people say it is provincial jurisdiction. It is, because of one of the elements that was brought in many years ago. The Conservative minister of the day said he would make it easier for victims of human trafficking from outside of Canada to remain in Canada to deal with their situation. However, unless we create a dialogue among the provinces and territories about health care providers, because they provide the ultimate care to victims of human trafficking, we become ineffective in dealing with victims of international human trafficking. The provinces would not recognize these people because they do not have a particular health card. We have to look at that element of aiding people who are victims of human trafficking, but it is not discussed and it should be, as another part of it.
I do not mean to derail from the topic we have right now, but I just wanted to point that out under the narrative of why we need to further a national dialogue that may place itself into provincial jurisdictions. That is a strong element that we should deal with in the House and I do not think we are doing it. The authors of this bill may have wanted it to be that way, but from the dialogue we are receiving in the House, and seeing the debate in the House, that is not happening.
Going back to poverty, that is the particular issue. Homelessness was talked about today. Many people would ask why we should deal with that, because the provinces do. We should all deal with it, to further that dialogue.
There are many causes, but the root cause of many of crimes do deal with poverty, and the numbers would dictate that. I will get to that in just a moment.
In a recent article in one of our leading newspapers, anti-poverty advocate and Conservative senator Hugh Segal said the following:
While all those Canadians who live beneath the poverty line are by no means associated with criminal activity, almost all those in Canada’s prisons come from beneath the poverty line. Less than 10 per cent of Canadians live beneath the poverty line but almost 100 per cent of our prison inmates come from that 10 per cent. There is no political ideology, on the right or left, that would make the case that people living in poverty belong in jail.
These are strong words from a Conservative senator with a vast amount of experience as a former clerk of the Privy Council and so on and so forth, and author of many articles about this and other issues that concern Canadians. I think these words are crystal clear and certainly his assertions are correct.
More than 70% of those who enter prisons have not completed high school; 70% of offenders entering prisons have unstable job histories. Four of every five arrive with serious substance abuse problems. Sending more people to prison, appearing tough on crime, or enacting legislation that is punitive at its core is not going to solve the problem of crime in Canada.
Again, the intentions are to look after the safety and security of victims, or certainly the well-being of victims in this particular case, and principally it may have started out that way. Some of the ideas put out there by some of the Conservative speakers made a lot of sense.
No one has any less compassion for a victim of crime than anyone else in this House. I do not think it is germane to this debate who has more or less compassion for a victim of crime. However, it has to be done effectively and it has to be done so that it counts.
In closing, I have one other quote from Senator Segal:
In a modern, competitive and compassionate society like ours, these numbers are unacceptable.
In this particular case there are many reasons why supporting these particular measures would not find be effective. Provincial and territorial victims services are funded in part by a federal victims surcharge under the proposed amendments to the Criminal Code. The surcharge would be 30% of any fine, and $100 on a summary conviction.
Currently offenders who can demonstrate undue hardship may request that the victim surcharge be waived. The proposed amendments to the Criminal Code would make a victim surcharge mandatory for all offenders. That is what the government is trying to do. However, the removal of the undue hardship defence signals a lack of concern for the particular situation of individual offenders and a lack of faith in judges or our justice system, as other speakers brought out.
Therefore, the effectiveness of this is called into question, despite the government's efforts to be true and certainly to rectify the situation for victims.