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.