This week, I changed much of the tech behind this site. If you see anything that looks like a bug, please let me know!

House of Commons Hansard #149 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was economy.

Topics

Corrections and Conditional Release ActPrivate Members' Business

5:30 p.m.

NDP

Rosane Doré Lefebvre NDP Alfred-Pellan, QC

Mr. Speaker, I rise today in this House to speak to Bill C-293, An Act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (vexatious complainants). As the hon. member for Scarborough Centre and sponsor of this bill said, we had the opportunity to study this bill in committee during the last parliamentary session in the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security.

Since I am on that committee, I had the opportunity to engage in further discussion with the other members about this bill, which seeks to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. The purpose of this bill is to limit access to the complaints and grievance procedure by so-called vexatious inmates in order to reduce the volume of complaints. The way we see it, this measure does not deal with the real problem of the complaints procedure, and we think that the focus should instead be on the source of these vexatious complaints.

We had an opportunity to hear from witnesses who told us about delays affecting the entire complaints system. Those who speak in favour of a fair and timely complaints system said that there are extremely serious delays in the processing of complaints, about six months in most cases. We should consider solutions that truly respond to the problems raised in committee, solutions that would allow reasonable delays for processing grievances and would simplify the procedure, which would enable Correctional Services Canada to save time and resources.

At the April 24 meeting of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, Howard Sapers, the correctional investigator, explained that the Office of the Correctional Investigator was created following a bloody and fatal riot at Kingston penitentiary in 1971. The fact-finding commission set up to look into this incident determined that having no credible system to resolve inmate complaints was one of the main factors that led to the confrontation.

In his 2007-08 annual report, Mr. Sapers again mentioned the long-standing concerns of the Office of the Correctional Investigator regarding Correctional Services Canada's internal grievance system. Over the years, they have reviewed numerous complaints regarding access to the internal complaints and grievance procedure. According to Mr. Sapers, the procedure to file complaints and grievances varies and is seriously lacking in uniformity.

Ashley Smith's story is one of the most tragic examples of the poor handling of complaints. There is in fact a full report that shows how that inmate's death could have been avoided. In it, we can read how, despite the fact that the Correctional Service of Canada rejected her seven complaints about her conditions of incarceration, she tried to improve her situation one final time before her death by putting a complaint in a sealed envelope into the complaints box. Only after Ashley's death was the complaint seen as a priority. The report shows that the seven complaints, which had been considered routine, were in fact priorities.

So we see that we have a problem at the moment with the way in which the system of complaints and grievances in our correctional system is working. Mr. Sapers comes to the conclusion that, if there had been a fair, effective and flexible internal process, it would have been possible to considerably improve the excessively restrictive and dehumanizing conditions imposed on Ms. Smith. He feels that her complaints were rejected for no valid reason. In his report, he also recommends that the Correctional Service of Canada immediately review all cases of prolonged solitary confinement associated with mental health problems, paying specific attention to offenders who have already attempted suicide or who display self-injury tendencies.

In committee, we heard that a number of vexatious complainants tend to have mental health issues. Labelling them vexatious complainants will probably not prevent them from filing complaints, nor will it help them with rehabilitation. So the risk of reoffending increases and public safety suffers.

What we must consider is that the vexatious complainant label will in no way reduce the number of complaints to be dealt with in institutions, and I will explain why. When the administration is presented with a vexatious complaint, it cannot simply ignore it. It still has to be dealt with, categorized and filed. So the time spent in analyzing the complaint will offset the time savings that the designation “vexatious complainant“ is supposed to provide. This bill will result in more work for correctional officers and inflated administrative costs, all for positive outcomes that will be minimal in the extreme.

The Report of External Review of Correctional Service of Canada Offender Complaints and Grievance Process prepared by professor David Mullan, which I mentioned earlier, made 65 recommendations aimed at correcting and simplifying the process. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my question to my colleague opposite, the hon. member for Scarborough Centre, the bill does not take any of that into account. Not one recommendation was included in this bill. Although implementing these recommendations should have been the focus, the Conservatives decided to ignore the advice of the experts and internal and external review committees, which emphasized the importance of creating the positions of mediators and grievance coordinators.

The NDP supports legislative measures that will make our prisons safer and allow them to operate in a quick, fair and efficient manner. That is why we are in favour of creating these positions, which would help guarantee open access to the complaint and grievance process while reducing the volume of complaints by introducing more informal mechanisms.

Lastly, we understand that for administrative reasons, one year is the preferred timeline for Correctional Service Canada, but we are not convinced that imposing a ban for a full year would be advantageous for the complaints and grievance process. A lot can happen in one year's time. An offender can move or change institutions. His situation can change completely. So, instead of seeing an extension of the length of the ban as a good thing, we believe it could in fact considerably aggravate the situation for the individual in question.

In conclusion, I would like to point out that this bill does absolutely nothing to address the real problem of managing complaints in our prison system. The government needs to take real action, such as taking into account the recommendations of experts like Mr. Mullan and Mr. Sapers, in order to correct a very real, serious problem, to ensure the well-being of CSC employees and complainants, and to prevent terrible things like what happened at Kingston Penitentiary or like the death of Ashley Smith from ever happening again.

That is why I will be voting against this bill. I invite all of my colleagues in the House to have a closer look at this bill and understand why it will not change anything in the existing offender complaints process.

We have a duty as parliamentarians to take into account the opinions of experts. Here in the House, our duty is to pass legislation that is viable, constitutional and fair. Ignoring the advice of experts and the recommendations made to us is simply unacceptable, even irresponsible.

In the beginning of her speech, the hon. member for Scarborough Centre said that changes were necessary. As I have demonstrated, changes are indeed necessary, and all the experts say that changes need to be made now. What we have now is akin to putting a band-aid two feet away from the wound. It is of no use whatsoever. We should take the time to put all this on “pause”, to rewrite a nice little government bill—I urge the government to do so—that will really get to the heart of the problem.

I encourage the Conservative members in particular to think about that. We have an incredible opportunity to do the right thing, and not just for vexatious complainants. We are talking about vexatious complainants, but this is also about taxpayers; we are the ones who keep penitentiaries running. There are also those who work in penitentiaries: Correctional Service Canada officers and all those who handle complaints.

To conclude, it is our duty to pass good legislation in the best interest of all Canadians and it is certainly our duty not to turn a blind eye on such a big problem by pretending that we are fixing it.

Corrections and Conditional Release ActPrivate Members' Business

5:40 p.m.

Liberal

Francis Scarpaleggia Liberal Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

Mr. Speaker, this has been a very enlightening bill. I personally was not aware of the complaints process that exists inside penitentiaries until we debated this bill and studied it in some depth in committee.

The first comment I would like to make is that the complaints process inside our penitentiaries is not about being soft on crime, coddling criminals or inmates or, using the rhetoric of the government, hugging a thug. I am sure that when people hear there is a complaints process within our penitentiaries, these might be the kinds of images that come to mind, but that is not what the complaints process is all about. I know the hon. member for Alfred-Pellan touched on this in her speech.

The point of a complaints system is to prevent cruel behaviour that could harm inmates. Inmates are in prison not to be harmed; they are there so that society is protected and so that they follow a rehabilitation program and reflect on their actions. The point is that there must be some regard for their welfare even though they are incarcerated.

The complaints system comes out of the violent and deadly riot that took place at Kingston Penitentiary in 1971, during which five correctional officers were taken hostage and brutally tortured. In the end, two prisoners died and 13 others were seriously injured. The damage done to Kingston Penitentiary was severe and shocking, and in the aftermath, a royal commission headed by Justice Swackhamer was established to investigate what had led to the bloody riot. In his report, Justice Swackhamer stated that the lack of adequate attention paid to offender complaints was a contributing factor to the riots and made the following observation:

Grievances of all types are bound to exist among the prison population. Whether those grievances are justified or not, they require to be dealt with so that the order and morale of the institution may be maintained. At present, we heard that such grievances can only be resolved, if at all, when the inmate submits them to the administration. It is clear that the inmate frustrations are created and thrive because the inmates' only avenue of complaint is to the very administration which is frequently the source of its dissatisfaction. It is perfectly evident that at Kingston Penitentiary the total absence of any formula by which such matters could be effectively aired was a factor in the disturbance itself.

The point of a complaints system is very much to keep our correctional officers safe. The job they do is not easy. They obviously work in situations in which they must be vigilant, situations in which there is a certain amount of tension, and problems can occur that can cause physical harm. We have to make sure that correctional officers, who do very good work on behalf of our correctional system, are protected. Therefore, the complaints mechanism is really like a safety valve in many ways.

As Correctional Service Canada itself has said:

Providing offenders with a fair, impartial and expeditious complaint and grievance process...has many benefits. It encourages offenders to deal with issues in a pro-social manner; it empowers them and provides another forum whereby their concerns can be heard and dealt with appropriately. The process can also be used as a monitoring tool to identify trends that are linked to increased tension or discontent among the inmate population.

Bill C-293 seeks to rectify a problem that has arisen over the years. No system is perfect; we know that. When we create a system, after a while we have to re-examine the system to see if we can change it and reform it and make it better to meet changing circumstances. We all understand this as parliamentarians. We come to this place to make laws and institutions better.

Bill C-293 seeks to rectify a problem that has arisen over the years within the inmate complaint system created after the Kingston Penitentiary riot, wherein a very small number of inmates lodged repeated complaints deemed of little or no merit. In other words, these were deemed not to have been made in good faith.

The bill creates in law a category of complainants called a vexatious complainant with the intent of sidelining those complaints to free up the corrections bureaucracy to process more expeditiously what are deemed to be more legitimate prison complaints.

The original version of the bill that we debated at second reading a few months ago stipulated that an inmate designated as a vexatious complainant would be required to provide new supporting information to accompany any subsequent complaints if he or she wished to have those complaints reviewed.

The sweeping changes in the amended version of the bill from committee removes the possibility of the Correctional Service of Canada investigating further complaints, new information notwithstanding, unless the complainant obtains special leave from the commissioner of corrections to have his or her complaint reviewed.

The original bill also stipulated that a plan be developed to assist the offender to break the cycle of complaints. However, perhaps more important, it contained an exception stipulating that a decision-maker could not refuse to hear a complaint that would result in irreparable, significant or adverse consequences to the offender if not resolved. There is no such provision in the amended version of the bill.

The amended bill allows the commissioner to designate an offender as vexatious once the commissioner is satisfied that an offender has persistently submitted complaints or grievances that are frivolous, vexatious or not made in good faith. However, like the original version of the bill, the new version does not define the term “vexatious” or “frivolous”, though such a definition does exist in the commissioner's internal directives.

The vagueness of this internal definition has proven persistently problematic for correctional staff. A 2009 CSC audit recognized this problem and recommended that the definition of frivolous and vexatious complaints and grievances in the internal directive be clarified, along with the definition of “high priority”, “urgent” and “sensitive”.

There is also no indication in the original or amended bill as to the number of so-called vexatious or frivolous complaints that will trigger a vexatious complaints designation. The bill appears to leave this threshold entirely up to the discretion of the commissioner.

These open-ended notions of the definition of vexatious complainant and of the frequency of complaints deemed vexatious required for this designation to apply leave the door open to interpretation, which in turn will make it difficult for corrections personnel to confidently implement the legislation.

It will also make it difficult for Canadians to fully understand how this new process will function in a fair and constructive manner while pursuing its main objective, which is to stop the flow of egregious complaints that can burden the corrections system and draw scarce resources within it away from treatment programs that reduce recidivism and lead to safer communities.

If we are to presume a fair and effective complaints system in Canadian penitentiaries, it is vital that the commissioner of corrections in designating a complainant vexatious consider the comments of the correctional investigator, Howard Sapers, when he appeared before the public safety committee to comment on the bill:

Bill C-293 sends a wrong message, as it trivializes inmate complaints and it reduces CSC's accountability. Inmate concerns are a unique means to judge the professionalism and the humanity of our Correctional Service. Importantly, what can be viewed as frivolous can be rather significant upon review. What to most people would be very insignificant becomes, because of the nature of prison life, a matter of serious concern to inmates.

Therefore, I hope that in its regulations and directives the government will consider these points and ensure that the process that comes out of this legislation via regulations and directives is one that is fair and effective. I think that would be good for our corrections officers and for society as a whole.

Corrections and Conditional Release ActPrivate Members' Business

5:50 p.m.

NDP

Sylvain Chicoine NDP Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, QC

Mr. Speaker, during the introduction of this bill at second reading, I spoke in the House to express my concern about the potential impact this bill could have on the proper operation and security of our penitentiaries.

During first reading of the bill, I was concerned about the fact that the commissioner was being granted the discretion to designate an offender as a vexatious complainant without placing limits on this power by establishing clear criteria. In my opinion, without such criteria, we cannot guarantee that decisions will be made in a fair and equitable manner.

Something else that concerned me at that time was that the bill did not take into account the reality of the inmates being designated as vexatious complainants. The agencies working in penitentiaries and the Office of the Correctional Investigator stated that many of the complainants who could be designated vexatious by the commissioner were actually people who have mental health problems or who are not well educated.

We have to remember that, when this complaint and grievance process was implemented in the early 1970s, the objective was to channel inmates' frustrations by using a constructive process that would allow inmates to participate in improving the living conditions in penitentiaries. So the objective was to improve safety by ensuring that inmates did not use violence to express their discontent and frustration.

It was also felt that this process was a tool that helped ensure transparency and accountability, allowing us to assess the effectiveness of correctional policies and identify problems in Canadian prisons.

Another benefit of this complaint process was that it made it possible to identify individuals with problems, whether mental health problems or low levels of education. Once identified, they could be directed to programs adapted to their circumstances.

The government should focus its efforts on increasing the correctional investigator's capacity to investigate so that he can quickly identify the problems in prisons.

Yes, the volume of complaints is a problem. However, we do not believe that reducing access to the complaint and grievance process is the answer.

In my view, this new bill is likely to cause more frustration for inmates who are unable to access the grievance process. This could in turn increase the level of violence and reduce the safety of inmates and prison workers.

We believe that the most effective way to guarantee open access to the complaint and grievance process, while reducing the volume of complaints, is to create mediator and grievance coordinator positions.

The Conservatives ignored all the recommendations of the experts and the external and internal review committees. Many of them said it was important to create those types of positions, which would allow prisons to maintain an open-access complaint and grievance process, while reducing the volume of formal complaints through informal resolution.

Our approach is also supported by many experts and stakeholders in the corrections field, including prison law and criminology experts.

Nevertheless, the member for Scarborough Centre seems to have ignored all this, as have the Conservative members of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security. Not only did they ignore the experts who came to share their points of view, including the correctional investigator, but they also ignored the recommendations in David Mullan's report on the external review process, which was commissioned by the government itself.

In his report, Mr. Mullan made a number of recommendations regarding various aspects of the complaints and grievance process, including recommendations concerning staff and training. Mr. Mullan made recommendations to improve the informal complaints resolution process. Several recommendations touched on reducing the administrative burden of the complaints process, accountability and involving the offender in the process.

None of the 60-plus recommendations in the Mullan report were implemented or taken into consideration during the drafting of Bill C-213 or in the amendments that were made to the bill later.

Yet the recommendations made sense and the government itself commissioned the report. Why did the Conservatives not implement the recommendations in the Mullan report? Is it because the recommendations are not in line with their ideology even though the experts agree on this issue?

When I was a member of the committee, it became clear to me that the only approach that was acceptable to Conservative ideology was punishing criminals. That is what this is about.

I did not support the introduction of this bill at first reading. Unfortunately, the final version is even more disappointing because the only clause left states that, if the commissioner believes an offender has submitted vexatious complaints, he can prohibit that offender from submitting any further complaints.

I feel that the Conservatives did not listen to James Bonta, an expert witness who testified during the electronic surveillance study. Mr. Bonta is a clinical psychologist who presented a psychological explanation of punishment to the committee. I will read a portion of his testimony:

Punishment can deter or suppress behaviour, but only under certain conditions....It has to be immediate, it has to be the right intensity, it has to be predictable, and it has to be done with the right kind of person....

It works really well for people who think in the future, who have little history of being punished, and who think things through. Is this your typical offender? Offenders tend to be concrete thinkers who think in the here and now. They have a long history of punishment. They were raised in families in which most of them were physically abused. Some were sexually abused....

I'd strongly encourage you not to expect deterrence to have a great impact on the behaviour of your moderate- to [even] high-risk offender. You need to put your hope and your money into rehabilitation programs.

It is a clinical psychologist who made this statement to the committee. The first reading version of the bill had a provision to implement this type of corrective program or plan in order to break the complaints cycle. This was a worthwhile approach, but the provision in question is also one of the first ones that the Conservatives members of the committee removed from the bill.

The end result is that most of the provisions were removed from the first version of the bill, leaving only one provision that allows the commissioner to prohibit offenders that he designates as vexatious complainants from filing any new complaints, and another that allows the commissioner to review the complainant's status annually rather than every six months in order to reduce the administrative burden.

We are therefore not at all convinced that a review after one year would help the process, even if it does reduce the administrative burden. Leaving an offender in the system for one year can only increase the administrative burden while jeopardizing the safety of inmates. This will only make the situation worse. The parliamentary secretary on the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security took most of the provisions in the first reading version of the bill and included them in the regulations.

She mentioned that this bill was a legislative burden that would make the administration of the grievance process more expensive. She therefore proposed an amendment, which was passed, to include the administration of the grievance process in the regulations rather than in the act. She wanted the commissioner's authority to prohibit a complainant from filing a new complaint to be included in the act but enforced by the regulations.

These regulations would be submitted to the Standing Joint Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations. Our critic, the member for Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, had also proposed an amendment to ensure that the commissioner, when making a decision, would take into account mental health issues and low levels of education. However, the parliamentary secretary would only include these factors in the regulations. Therefore, we believe that this is an empty promise because there are no guarantees that these provisions will be included in the bill.

I would like to remind my colleagues opposite that the Standing Joint Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations examines the regulations after the fact. In my opinion, this will allow the government to avoid debating this bill, because the experts do not agree with its position.

In closing, I would like to emphasize that this bill only addresses a very minuscule part of the problem. Improving the efficiency of the process is the problem, not just dealing with vexatious complainants who only represent a handful of Canada's inmates.

The government has chosen to ignore the opinions of experts and the Mullan report, which they commissioned. They have decided to punish inmates—and we are only talking about a few inmates, as I mentioned—rather than introducing a bill that really tackles the problem by supporting the grievance procedure while enabling inmates to reform. This bill is not the answer, and it is obvious that we will not support it.

Corrections and Conditional Release ActPrivate Members' Business

September 20th, 2012 / 6 p.m.

NDP

Christine Moore NDP Abitibi—Témiscamingue, QC

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak about Bill C-293, which intends to create a category of vexatious complainants in the correctional system's complaints and grievance procedure. This bill amends section 91 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.

I would like to quote section 91, which has to do with access to the grievance procedure: “Every offender shall have complete access to the offender grievance procedure without negative consequences.” This section ensures that all inmates in the correctional system have free and equal access to the grievance procedure in the event of problems or threats to their health or safety, for example.

The section is not there by accident. The complaints and grievance procedure in prisons was instituted by a parliamentary subcommittee in the 1970s. At that time, numerous revolts and violent incidents were tainting prisons and making the environment dangerous for everyone—inmates and employees alike. The complaints and grievance procedure was a way to let inmates use something other than violence to express their concerns and resolve their problems.

Today, we are being asked to amend this section that provides inmates with the opportunity to express themselves and to try to deal with a problem or frustrations by a means other than violence. The proposed amendments are as follows:

If the Commissioner is satisfied that an offender has persistently submitted complaints or grievances that are frivolous, vexatious or not made in good faith, the Commissioner may, in accordance with the prescribed procedures, prohibit an offender from submitting any further complaint or grievance except by leave of the Commissioner.

The general idea is to give the commissioner the discretion to prevent certain complainants from filing grievances. Naturally, not every complainant, but only those who the commissioner deems to be vexatious, in other words those whose complaints are frivolous and not made in good faith.

I would like to re-examine the idea of a frivolous complaint. The member for Scarborough Centre, who introduced this bill, gave an example of a complaint that she considered to be frivolous involving a radio. I will cite the example she mentioned in a previous speech.

...an inmate who had an issue regarding a radio that he owned which, after his transfer to a new institution, no longer worked...He then filed another complaint on the same issue while his first grievance was still being evaluated in conjunction with the institution that he had been transferred from.

For someone unfamiliar with prison life, filing a complaint about a radio may seem frivolous. However, my colleague has overlooked some considerations. First, it is very important to remember that, in a correctional facility, what may seem insignificant, frivolous or vexatious to us may, on the contrary, be very important to the inmates. Some things in life that are not important to us, can be important to inmates.

To overlook this difference in perspective is to oversimplify things in this discussion on grievances and complaints. This type of complaint can also very often conceal other frustrations or problems that the inmates are unable to articulate such as conflicts between inmates, long-standing stress, harassment or problems with depression. In this case, the radio was simply the last straw.

In reality, deeming this example futile or not legitimate is in fact a very simplistic solution. It ignores another latent and perhaps more serious problem or one that urgently needs to be resolved. In this case, an inmate with a more serious latent problem who makes repeated complaints would now have his problem deemed not legitimate and he would be prohibited from filing more complaints. The situation would be unresolved and would worsen, without any escape route for that inmate. This is obviously not the right solution.

In this case, this type of complaint is not necessarily about settling a dispute over a radio, but instead provides information on the more general situation in the institution and with the inmates, about the tensions inside the prison walls or with the staff. If we consider this perspective, it is important to keep the line of communication between institutional management and the inmates open and free.

Actually, according to the 2010-11 annual report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator: “The offenders complaints and grievance system is an important barometer for gauging the experience of the inmate population.”

We also must bear in mind that 48% of complaints have an extended response time. The time taken to deal with a complaint varies according to its code and coding complaints is a problem as well.

According to the document entitled “Audit of Offender Complaint and Grievance Process, Internal Audit” published by Correctional Service Canada in 2009, 67% of priority complaints were classified as such and only 13% of urgent cases were classified as urgent. What is more, only 64% of harassment complaints were correctly coded.

Making a second complaint, or repeated complaints, about the same subject may be an attempt to attract attention to a problem that is more urgent than it appears, or to a complaint that might have been improperly coded and not handled in a timely fashion. As a result, I stress again that the examples of repeated complaints, or complaints considered to be frivolous, that the hon. member for Scarborough Centre gave in order to justify this bill, do not seem very relevant to me, given all the limitations and different perspectives that it completely ignores.

The hon. member for Scarborough Centre acknowledges that the burden of complaints is very onerous for the prison system and that it is a problem that needs to be solved. I agree with that. But she feels that the bulk of the complaints and grievances comes from a small number of inmates who see writing frivolous complaints as a way to pass the time and that, by forbidding them to file complaints, the problem will be solved.

I am going to quote some examples from the Office of the Correctional Investigator's report for 2010-11:

Correctional Service Canada has reported a noticeable rise in the volume of offender complaints and grievances for the top five subject categories.

Indeed, many of the top grieved subjects correspond to topics and priorities that the Office has reported upon in recent years: general 'hardening' of the conditions of confinement; declining quality of dynamic security and staff-offender interactions; inconsistent quality of and accessibility to health care services; access to programming; restrictions on group privileges and individual rights.

So what I gather from this report is that, according to the Office of the Correctional Investigator, the increase in complaints is not a result of frivolous complaints. No, the increase in complaints is rather the result of the inability of recent governments to consider the true priorities in the prison system, priorities that the office has been mentioning in recent years.

The New Democrat members who were on the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security when this bill was studied were in favour of creating mediator and grievance coordinator positions in the correctional institutions, a proposal that the Conservatives felt was irrelevant.

I would like to quote another section of the same report from the Office of the Correctional Investigator:

Institutions that retain a Grievance Coordinator for more than one year appear to process complaints and grievances more efficiently and at a higher rate.

Institutional Heads who place a high importance on the Offender Complaint and Grievance Process appear to reflect a higher percentage of resolved complaints/grievances and a lower percentage of overdue complaints.

I would like to mention that the report is available online. Therefore, I would like to advise the member for Scarborough Centre to read it. I would like to close by saying that I will not be supporting this bill because I think it will lead to more violence in the correctional systems and it in no way addresses the true problems underlying the fact that people file repeated complaints.

Corrections and Conditional Release ActPrivate Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Conservative Scarborough Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, first, as a newly elected member of Parliament, I was quite excited to be very close on the list and was able to have a private member's bill presented to the House and have it come this far. I thank all my colleagues on the Conservative side of the House for their support of the bill. I also thank the members of the Liberal Party for their support.

We have heard that across Canada the vast majority of Canadians support it. Even the offenders serving time in jail who want their legitimate cases to be heard support it. It is kind of funny that the only people who do not support the bill are the members of the NDP. It is very hard to understand. The only thing I can think of is that it is the NDP opposition ideological thinking that has somehow obliterated its common sense. It just does not make any sense.

As I have stressed throughout every speech in the House, the bill seeks to correct a costly loophole in our correctional system. It would hold offenders accountable for their actions. It would show respect for taxpayers. It would support our hard-working front line correctional officers. Most important, it would fix a small portion of the system that is broken in order to make it work as it was originally intended to.

On that note, I am going to give a final plea to the NDP opposition members. I urge them to give their heads a shake. Instead of supporting the poor convicted criminals who try to abuse the system again and again, I ask them to stand with the vast majority of Canadians and support the bill when it comes to vote.

Corrections and Conditional Release ActPrivate Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Joe Comartin

It being 6:14 p.m., the time for debate has expired. The question is on the motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Corrections and Conditional Release ActPrivate Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

No.

Corrections and Conditional Release ActPrivate Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Joe Comartin

All those in favour of the motion will please say yea.

Corrections and Conditional Release ActPrivate Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

Some hon. members

Yea.

Corrections and Conditional Release ActPrivate Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Joe Comartin

All those opposed will please say nay.

Corrections and Conditional Release ActPrivate Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

Some hon. members

Nay.

Corrections and Conditional Release ActPrivate Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Joe Comartin

In my opinion the yeas have it.

And five or more members having risen:

Pursuant to Standing Order 98, a recorded division stands deferred until Wednesday, September 26, immediately before the time provided for private members' business.

A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved.

Employment InsuranceAdjournment Proceedings

6:15 p.m.

NDP

Anne-Marie Day NDP Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, QC

Mr. Speaker, I congratulate you on your recent appointment and I thank Ms. Savoie for her good work. I can name her in the House now that she is no longer a member of Parliament.

I am pleased today to get back to an issue that is very important to Canadian workers who have lost their jobs: employment insurance. When Parliament was still hard at work many weeks ago, I asked a question to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, which had to do with the funds used to continue operations of the Employment Insurance Financing Board of Canada, when millions are being cut in essential services at Service Canada.

We were in the middle of debate on the reforms to employment insurance found in Bill C-38, that Trojan Horse bill that was hiding all kinds of legislation that will have a number of negative effects on our economy, our social programs and our environment. I think that my question deserves more of an explanation than what I received as an answer. That is why I am here today.

Canadians deserve more transparency from this government. It must be accountable for its unjustified actions that affect Canadians. This is a matter that concerns me greatly. Millions of dollars in cuts have been made to Service Canada in recent years; available resources should be allocated to providing the best possible services to Canadians, who, when applying for employment insurance, are already dealing with mostly casual employees.

In the view of the NDP and of thousands of Canadians, essential services for the unemployed have become inadequate and inaccessible. Workers all across the country who lose their jobs have to wait for weeks, if not months, without seeing hide nor hair of their first benefits. It has become practically impossible to speak to someone at Service Canada about one's own file and one's own situation.

The unemployed see their bills piling up; entire families are falling into complete financial peril. How many people do we know who can go two whole months with no income and still manage to meet their needs? Are we that rich in Canada that we are able to do that? Meanwhile, Service Canada employees can no longer keep up with the demand, or are let go as a result of the draconian cuts that followed the most recent budget.

The government claims that Canadians had a choice to make: eliminate the deficit or have good public services. That choice is completely absurd. Eliminating the deficit is an excellent idea as long as it is not done at the cost of public services and on the backs of Canadians. They need the front-line services and they must not be deprived of them.

Essential services must be maintained and this government will not be fulfilling its commitment to Canadians by closing hundreds of points of service and revamping appeal procedures in order to make them even less accessible. Accessibility to EI is at an all-time low in Canada. Under the Conservatives, although all workers pay into employment insurance, only 37% of them have access to it when they need it.

In conclusion, the government has put in place rules that are so strict that less than one in four people will henceforth qualify for the program. Let us also recall that the government has not contributed to the employment insurance fund since 1990. The contributors to the fund are people without jobs, people with jobs and employers.

Employment InsuranceAdjournment Proceedings

6:20 p.m.

Simcoe—Grey Ontario

Conservative

Kellie Leitch ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to respond on the continued support this government provides to unemployed Canadians.

The facts are simple. While the NDP members talk a lot, they do not act. When our government took unprecedented steps to invest in Canadians to support them through a tough economic period, the NDP voted against those measures.

While our economic action plan continues to provide skills and jobs for Canadians, the NDP is once again affirming its support for a job-killing carbon tax. NDP members can try to make excuses, but the simple fact is that their voting record demonstrates that they do not support investing in skills, in the trades or in economic development.

Our government is committed to supporting unemployed Canadians who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. We have provided unprecedented support while they are looking for work and upgrading their skills, but we think we can do better to help all Canadians who are unemployed in getting them back to work faster.

Last May, we announced that the employment insurance program would be improved to better serve the interests of Canadians. We are taking action to ensure that the program continues to be flexible and fair and helps Canadians to find jobs.

We know Canadians want to work, but they often face challenges finding jobs. This is why Canadians receiving EI benefits will now be able to receive enhanced job postings on a daily basis from multiple sources. This will ensure they are made aware of the jobs that are available in their local areas.

Our government will also define what is meant by suitable employment as well as what constitutes a reasonable job search. This will strengthen the requirements for EI claimants to actively look for and accept suitable work.

In addition, measures will be taken to connect EI with the temporary foreign worker program. This link will ensure that employers look to Canadians first to fill vacancies and that temporary foreign workers are employed where they are needed most.

Finally, in response to what we have heard during consultations on premium rate setting, we have introduced legislation to ensure predictability and stability in the EI premium rate.

Over the next few years, the CEIFB will continue to set the rate, but the government will limit the annual rate increase to 5¢ until the EI operating account is balanced. Once the account is returned to balance, the EI premium rate will continue to be limited to 5¢ changes from year to year. The premium rate will be set annually at a seven-year break-even rate to ensure that the EI operating account is in balance at the end of that period.

Given the changes in the EI rate-setting process announced in budget 2012, the government will review the size and structure of the CEIFB to ensure that independent rate-setting is done in the most cost-effective manner.

Let me briefly touch on another subject.

Just today the Minister of Human Resources tabled legislation that would support Canadians by making them eligible for sickness benefits should they fall ill while collecting parental benefits. The legislation would implement the new EI benefit for parents of critically ill children and new financial support for parents of murdered and missing children.

I hope my fellow hon. members can appreciate how this initiative would help employers, Canadians, their families and our economy.

Employment InsuranceAdjournment Proceedings

6:20 p.m.

NDP

Anne-Marie Day NDP Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am talking about hundreds of jobs lost. That means that hundreds of unemployed workers will not have access to employment insurance. Yet the parliamentary secretary is talking about the carbon tax.

What has that got to do with it? As our teenagers would say, whatever...

Hundreds of jobs have been cut at Service Canada. The 2011 Conservative budget cut funding for Service Canada by $276 million. They slashed their budget by $183.2 million in 2012. Where are they heading? That is unprecedented. They talk about sustainable development. They want to change the subject and go off on a tangent to talk about the carbon tax. We can also go off on a tangent. We have to take our workers into account. We have to think about our workers.

We are currently seeing an utter lack of commitment on the government's part towards the unemployed, just for the sake of an absurd Conservative logic. The unemployed do not want to lose their jobs. They want to work. They are victims of an economic turmoil that the government is not able to control. The Conservatives are not able to protect jobs and workers. With a fiasco like that, no wonder Canadians are losing confidence in their government.

Employment InsuranceAdjournment Proceedings

6:20 p.m.

Conservative

Kellie Leitch Conservative Simcoe—Grey, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is important to ensure that the employment insurance program is working effectively and in the interest of all Canadians.

We announced measures that will help unemployed workers find jobs.

Today the Minister of Human Resources tabled legislation that would support Canadians by making them eligible for sickness benefits should they fall ill while collecting parental benefits. The bill would also implement the new EI benefit for parents of critically ill children and new financial support for parents of missing or murdered children.

Our government is delivering on our campaign commitment to Canadians.

Furthermore, I have to say that I was quite concerned when the NDP just yesterday evening voted against the ways and means motion put forward last night in order to introduce this bill.

I have just two questions for NDP members. What does the NDP have against providing financial support to parents to assist them in this most difficult time when their child is ill or missing or murdered? Why would the NDP not offer support to Canadian families in this time of need?

Foreign AffairsAdjournment Proceedings

6:25 p.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Green Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, I rise this evening to bring up again a matter that was first discussed when I put the question to the Prime Minister on April 24 of this year. It was one of those rare occasions when I put a question to the Prime Minister and he answered it himself.

The question was to explore the contradiction between his government's position that in the Summit of the Americas, which deals with Latin America and Canada and the U.S., we would not allow Cuba to participate, and we joined the U.S. in this exclusion, while at the same time we are expanding our agreements for trade with China. We are expanding the access to Canadian resources for Chinese companies that are increasingly buying up Canadian energy resources and other resources. In answer to the question, the Prime Minister was, at best, attempting to be humourous, saying that China could not be in the Summit of the Americas because it is not in the Americas, and he went on to say that the Summit of the Americas was exclusively for countries that were recognized as democracies.

It weakens the Summit of the Americas to exclude a country as important to the region as Cuba, and we really are on thin ice here in terms of any kind of distinction that can be made in terms of human rights and reasons to exclude communist Cuba while embracing communist China. Having gone through records of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, I see clearly that Cuba is making far more progress than China at being open to, for instance, religious freedoms.

In Cuba in March there was an open mass in which Pope Benedict was able to perform a mass for Cuban Catholics with President Castro in the front row. In contrast, in China any Roman Catholics who wish to have services hold them in houses in private and are at risk of arrest or detention if they are caught. Certainly the most repressive region on earth, according to many of the reports, is within China, with what is happening now in Tibet with suppression of Tibetan monks and the Tibetan Buddhist religion. We also see repression of other religious groups in China, whether Falun Gong or others. Freedom of religion does not exist at all in China. Since the Olympics in China, Human Rights Watch reports there has been a greater crackdown on freedom of expression within China. Regarding the record on capital punishment, the Chinese government executes prisoners at a very alarming rate. On the other hand, Cuba has commuted the sentences of some people who were on death row, and as of 2010, which is the last year for which I could find statistics, there were no prisoners in Cuba on death row.

There is very clearly some reason that the government prefers communist China to communist Cuba. The obvious reason is that communist China is prepared to pour billions of dollars into the oil sands. However, I ask members opposite if this is sufficient grounds for Canada to sell away our principles, our concerns for human rights, our concerns for freedom of religion or our concerns that we exert ourselves on the world stage as partners with other nations. Surely we should invest in and trade with Cuba. We should also invest in and trade with China. However, it is very important for Canadians to ask how much of Canada we want China to own.

If we are to proceed with a greater relationship with China, we surely must see the text of the agreement that the Prime Minister has already signed with President Hu of China, so we know what rights the Chinese corporations will have to sue Canada whenever they do not like our laws.

Foreign AffairsAdjournment Proceedings

6:30 p.m.

Calgary East Alberta

Conservative

Deepak Obhrai ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs

Mr. Speaker, before I respond, may I take this opportunity to congratulate you on being elected to the office of Deputy Speaker. We are looking forward to working constructively with you, having known you for many years.

In reply to my colleague from the Green Party, let me say there is absolutely no contradiction between our policies towards China and towards Cuba. We treat both of them with four Canadian values. We raise the issues of human rights when we have bilateral meetings with them, and Canada's foreign policy includes promotion of democracy, rule of law and human rights.

Canada has had with a relationship with Cuba that goes back to 1945, and not only that: Canada maintains a relationship as one of the only two countries in the hemisphere never to have broken diplomatic relations with the island.

Canada's policy on Cuba is different from that of the United States. We do not have an embargo against Cuba and we do not support their isolation. We believe that by engaging Cuba, we can support its move towards democracy and greater human rights. It is the same policy that we apply to China.

Canada supports democracy and human rights. It is very important for the member to understand what happened at the Summit of the Americas in 2001 in Quebec City, when the Conservative government was not in power. The leaders unanimously agreed that countries would only be joining OAS if they had showed movement toward democracy.

At this current time, the movement to democracy has not gone forward. That is why we are very adamant, but that does not mean that there is isolation toward Cuba; rather, we believe what we are doing here will open up Cuba.

On what the member is talking about, the great things that are happening in Cuba, this will encourage all of that. We will be partners with Cuba in trade and development and we will also be partners in the promotion of democracy and human rights in Cuba.

Foreign AffairsAdjournment Proceedings

6:30 p.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Green Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my friend, the hon. parliamentary secretary, for his response.

Surely there is more that Canada can do. I agree that it is spectacular in our history that through the entire uprising of the Cuba Revolution, which led to Fidel Castro becoming president of Cuba, we never closed our embassy in that whole time. We maintained consistent relations. I think that is something of which many Canadians can be proud, and surely now we could be the country in the hemisphere that says, in agreement with most of Latin America, that the U.S. has this wrong and that it is time to say that Cuba should be part of the Summit of the Americas so that we can have the kind of dialogue that takes place on a regional basis.

I would also suggest to my hon. friend the parliamentary secretary that the way in which we are currently embracing China means that our forthright advocacy for human rights and religious freedoms in China is taking a back seat to offering them up our resources as we offer ourselves as a compliant resource colony instead of as a partner that pushes for human rights.

Foreign AffairsAdjournment Proceedings

6:30 p.m.

Conservative

Deepak Obhrai Conservative Calgary East, AB

Mr. Speaker, let me be very clear to my colleague and friend on the other side: the policy that we have towards Cuba is made in Canada, not in the U.S.A. This is our policy.

The member is absolutely right that we have not closed our mission and we have not closed diplomatic relations with Cuba. Thousands and thousands of Canadians go every day to Cuba; Cuba is a destination of choice for many Canadians.

In reference to China, the member talked about human rights and the sale of natural resources that she is claiming we are going to be selling off. Let me be very clear that the government engages with China on all issues of human rights. Whenever we meet with them, we talk bilaterally about issues of human rights and bring them to the Chinese leader.

Again, engaging with the Chinese leader is more important. As far as the resources are concerned, let me be very clear: they will comply with the investment act of Canada, not the investment act of China. They will follow our rules, our regulations, and that would become a key element, should that happen.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to answer the questions.

Fisheries and OceansAdjournment Proceedings

6:35 p.m.

NDP

Philip Toone NDP Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to add my congratulations on your appointment as Deputy Speaker of the House. It is a well-deserved distinction.

I would also like to thank the parliamentary secretary for staying here this evening to answer my questions. It is very much appreciated.

I would also like to congratulate our new colleague, the hon. member for Kitchener Centre, on his recent appointment to the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans.

I rise here this evening to follow up on a question from April 24. At that time, I had asked why the Conservatives were putting our fishery at risk. The minister denied that the changes to the Fisheries Act would jeopardize the fishing industry. He even went as far as claiming that, on the contrary, the changes will enhance habitat protection.

However, if we look closely at the changes to the Fisheries Act and particularly those dealing with fish habitat, it is clear that several of those changes pose a serious risk to the future of the fishing industry.

First of all, the definition of “fish habitat” was changed in the legislation. How can the Conservatives claim to protect fish stocks when the legislation does not even identify its habitat? This creates a legal uncertainty that precludes proper regulation.

Second, the definition of serious harm includes only the death of fish or any permanent alteration to, or destruction of, fish habitat. Such harm is extremely difficult to prove in court. How can we count the number of dead fish in an isolated case? How can we determine whether this damage is permanent? It would be extremely difficult.

Third, the government introduced the notion of ecologically significant areas but did not define it. Who in this government will be able to define what is an ecologically significant area? And how will it be defined? For the Conservatives who abandoned Kyoto, it does not seem as though they even think the planet Earth is an ecologically significant area. What about a river or a marsh?

We know that each element of the ecosystem is essential to the survival of our fisheries resources. This means that every area is ecologically significant.

Fourth, the new law would protect fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fishery, or fish that support such a fishery. In light of all of the cuts being made to science and the experts being fired, this government does not seem to have the ability to establish the fish food chain with certainty.

Fifth, individuals will no longer have to conduct an environmental study before taking action that could harm fish. They can do it voluntarily or at the minister's request. In a world where companies are focused on externalizing costs, does the minister really think that environmental studies are going to happen?

Indeed, this gives the minister far too much discretionary power to decide whether or not to conduct an environmental study. This government is a leader when it comes to disrespecting the environment.

In short, these changes eliminate the possibility of legal action to protect the fishing industry from potential harm to fish habitat. This legislation will not protect our fisheries. It will undermine the Fisheries Act. By leaving out definitions, it gives the minister far too much leeway when it comes to protecting our environment and our fisheries.

It is extremely naive to believe that environmental assessments will be conducted on a voluntary basis. Is the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans taking his role as protector of the fisheries seriously?

Fisheries and OceansAdjournment Proceedings

6:35 p.m.

Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge—Mission B.C.

Conservative

Randy Kamp ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and for the Asia-Pacific Gateway

Mr. Speaker, I, too, congratulate you on your well-deserved appointment.

The Fisheries Act was established to define federal responsibilities for the management of fisheries and the related protection of fish and fish habitat. The habitat protection provisions of the Fisheries Act, before the recent amendments, were broad in scope, requiring the protection of all fish habitat regardless of their contribution to productive fisheries.

Concerns about the broad and even unintended scope of the application of the regulatory regime have been raised by stakeholders across the country. Farmers and landowners have criticized the department over the years for applying its mandate and resources to protect areas with low or no contribution of fisheries, while sometimes insufficient attention is paid to the most significant threats. Also, significant new risks to fisheries have emerged that are not appropriately considered in the Fisheries Act, such as those posed by aquatic invasive species.

Stakeholders have asked us to focus on the significant impacts to significant fisheries. Stakeholders have also asked us to find ways to work more effectively with the provinces and conservation groups. They have asked us to apply our resources strategically to ensure that Canada's fisheries can benefit Canadians today and for future generations.

In responding to these challenges, the Government of Canada is renewing and strengthening its current approach to fisheries protection. As such, through the Jobs, Growth and Long-Term Prosperity Act, this government amended the Fisheries Act to help ensure the sustainability and ongoing productivity of Canada's commercial, recreational and aboriginal fisheries.

The amendments focus the government's protection efforts on recreational, commercial and aboriginal fisheries. They draw a distinction between vital waterways that support Canada's fisheries and those which contribute little to productive fisheries, such as drainage ditches and storm-water management ponds. They also identify and manage real threats to the fisheries, including direct impacts to fish, aquatic invasive species and habitat destruction. Yes, contrary to what opposition members have said, fish habitat and its protection are still an important element of the Fisheries Act.

The amended Fisheries Act provides us with the ability to identify ecologically significant areas and provide enhanced protection for these critical zones. In addition, infractions under the Fisheries Act are now aligned with what is set out in the Environmental Enforcement Act, which provides higher maximum penalties. The renewed Fisheries Act also provides us with the tools to develop effective regulations prohibiting the import, transport and possession of live aquatic invasive species, such as Asian carp which are threatening the Great Lakes.

It is important to add that the rules continue to protect waterways from pollution, as they have in the past, and provide additional clarity on the application of the law. Through these amendments, we are able to establish new, clear and accessible standards for projects in or near water. It makes good common sense that the government should be able to minimize or eliminate restrictions on routine activities that pose little to no threat and at the same time maintain appropriate, reasonable and responsible protection for Canada's fisheries.

The Government of Canada takes the protection of our country's commercial, recreational and aboriginal fisheries very seriously. Given the extensive nature of the fisheries from coast to coast to coast, we must focus our efforts on the effective protection of these significant fisheries. Their long-term sustainability and productivity are our priority.

Fisheries and OceansAdjournment Proceedings

6:40 p.m.

NDP

Philip Toone NDP Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I have some difficulty with the answer. I thank the parliamentary secretary for having presented the government's position, but I question the validity of the answer.

The idea that we had to reduce habitat protection in order to protect Canadian fisheries from Asian carp does not make much sense to me. Frankly, I do not follow the logic. If we reduce habitat protection, we are actually putting an awful lot of fisheries at risk. Asian carp, as I understand it, is a regulatory question, and I do not think we needed to change the Fisheries Act in order to defend Canadian waterways from Asian carp or any other invasive species for that matter. We have to protect fisheries in order to ensure that future generations can benefit from the same wealth that various coastal communities enjoyed in the past. I believe that the government is completely on the wrong track.

I would like the parliamentary secretary to comment on how invasive species and reducing habitat protection is in any way coherent.

Fisheries and OceansAdjournment Proceedings

6:40 p.m.

Conservative

Randy Kamp Conservative Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge—Mission, BC

Mr. Speaker, my colleague is missing the point. The changes we made to the fisheries protection section of the act, and are now implementing by developing the new fisheries protection program, are to develop a new focus on the protection of Canada's fisheries.

One of the threats to Canada's fisheries is aquatic invasive species. We felt it necessary to include in these changes the ability to make regulations to control them. Separate from that, another threat to the sustainability and ongoing productivity of Canada's fisheries is the effects on fish habitat. We have not reduced the protection of fish habitat. We are just focusing our protection in a more coherent way.