Mr. Speaker, I will try to be as brief as possible.
I am pleased to rise in the House to say that I support a government bill—at second reading, at least. It is a jewel, and I hope we will see bills like this more often.
The government has a very hard time consulting people and developing bills that truly address the realities of everyday life. We have seen that over and over with all kinds of bills. I could name a few, but I would rather focus on Bill C-51 right now.
This bill addresses certain points. What is most obvious is the lack of money. We have heard many times in the House that the program will not be funded.
It is very worrisome that this government claims to be a good manager of the economy but cannot see the need to have resources available when it proposes changes. The government has missed the mark.
Once again, I condemn the government for failing to hold enough consultations. If it had taken the time to consult people, especially the provinces that have been calling for a new witness protection program, it would have seen that resources are needed and that the provinces need support.
The fact that we have gotten to this point today is due in large part to the Air India inquiry. The Air India bombing was devastating. Many lives were lost. It took years, decades, before we could begin to understand what went wrong and what could be learned from this tragedy.
After Justice Major released his report on Air India, the Government of Canada presented its game plan. In its 2010 action plan, it spoke specifically about witness protection:
“Witness Protection -- Delivering better and more effective protection for witnesses.”
The bill before us today stems in large part from the fact that the Conservative government read the report and is trying to find solutions. I commend it for that.
The Conservatives said:
To further enhance its federal Witness Protection Program and address current challenges, the Government will: introduce more transparency and accountability into decisions concerning admission to the Witness Protection Program; promote the fair and equitable treatment of protectees by focusing more on their needs; and enhance the way sources of mutual interest to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the RCMP are handled.
Perhaps what is missing here is, again, financing all of these goals. It is great to list them, but it would also be great to finance them.
To understand what the government is trying to accomplish with the bill before us, we must go the Public Safety Canada website, which provides a definition of a witness entitled to protection under the witness protection program:
Definition of Witness
A witness is defined [by the witness protection program] as someone who gives or agrees to give information or evidence, or agrees to participate in a matter relating to an investigation or the prosecution of an offence. Generally, there are three categories of people who may need protection under the federal [witness protection program]: agents, who are directed by the police to accomplish certain tasks in the course of the investigation and are compellable witnesses; witnesses, including “innocent bystanders” who have information about a crime and decide to come forward, or individuals who, because of a relationship with the witness, may also require protection; and repentant witnesses or co-accused individuals who agree to testify against a fellow accused.
That is all very nice. However, let us not forget that during the Air India inquiry, one of our witnesses was killed before he could testify.
I think that proves how urgently this program needs to be overhauled. Because of the program, a key witness at such an important inquiry was unable to testify and was killed as a result.
Quite frankly, witness protection is not too much. We must not forget that there have been expenditures under the program before us. I will come back to that because it is important. The program accepted only 30 people out of 108, at a cost of $9 million. Therefore, for the year that ended in March 2012, $9 million was spent to protect 30 people. For an investigation such as the Air India investigation to be conducted properly, quite frankly the $9 million would have been a good investment at the time. We missed an opportunity to better protect people.
We have before us a bill that could help us, give us some avenues to explore and even offer solutions. It is not a bad bill. We can even applaud many of the measures. However, since the Witness Protection Program Act was passed in 1996, there have been few improvements.
In the past, the Liberal and Conservative governments did little to respond to criticisms. When Bill C-223 was introduced by a Reform member in 1999, we supported it. The NDP also wanted to move forward. Unfortunately, the Liberal government at the time thought otherwise and defeated the bill.
Once again, I congratulate the members of the House who really wanted to improve how witnesses who need protection are treated. The members across the floor will recall that the Reform Party has a lot in common with the Conservative Party. At least they will agree with me on that. A consensus among us would have been nice, so we could move forward with this bill. It is too bad the Liberal Party did not move forward on this when it had the chance.
Since then, there have been many calls for improvements. We must not forget that the hon. member for Trinity—Spadina introduced a bill on this in November 2012 in response to the problems that the Toronto area was having with street gangs.
The new bill would definitely help address these issues. It is important to keep moving forward, but we need to do so in co-operation with the provinces. Co-operation is seriously lacking. Provinces like Ontario and Alberta that have many Conservatives members—who, incidentally, should listen more—have been pushing for the program to be renewed and improved for quite some time now.
Based on the provinces' requests, the changes set out in Bill C-51 are simply inadequate. They need to go a lot further.
Inter alia, Bill C-51 does the following:
(a) provide for the designation of a provincial or municipal witness protection program so that certain provisions of that Act apply to such a program; (b) authorize the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to coordinate, at the request of an official of a designated provincial or municipal program, the activities of federal departments, agencies and services in order to facilitate a change of identity for persons admitted to the designated program....
What I was saying is that the person's identity must be changed. But the provinces simply are not in the position to be able to do that themselves.
But the RCMP is able to help people change their identity. They need licences, a new ID card, a new social insurance number and perhaps even a passport. Many federal documents are required. And no organization is in a better position to help these people than the RCMP.
All this is funded by the federal government in co-operation with the provinces, and that is what I dislike. It is critical that we find a way to better fund the bill before us today.
I hope that when this is debated in committee, the government members will propose improvements to the bill so that the programs will be better funded in co-operation with the provinces. The request that the provinces are making, that the program be better funded, is key.
An article was recently published in Maclean's. I want to quote certain parts of it that support what I have been saying and the claims from the provinces and other stakeholders. We hope to see these claims when the bill is studied in committee.
In December 2012, the Conservative government made the following announcement:
The Conservative government plans to introduce long-anticipated legislation today to modernize the federal witness protection program...
Revelations five years ago that a protectee committed murder while in the program triggered a wave of review and discussion.
The legislation is expected to include a more independent process for deciding who gets into the secretive program, as well as improved training and more sophisticated practices for handling protectees.
Some members have sued over the program, while others have been kicked out.
The proposed federal changes follow recommendations from a Commons committee, an inquiry into the 1985 Air India bombing and extensive consultations with the provinces.
Several provinces have their own witness protection programs, but often they provide only short-term assistance. In addition, obtaining new federal identity documents for protectees requires co-operation with the Mounties.
The proposed changes to the Witness Protection Program Act, passed in 1996, are expected to simplify the process of obtaining these crucial documents and generally improve relations with provincial agencies.
Ontario and Alberta have been pushing for more federal recognition of their witness programs as part of the national revamp.
I want to emphasize that there were consultations and that the problems raised during those consultations were, for the most part, related to expensive technical issues. Once again, there is no support to move ahead with what needs to be done. I think that the government could come up with a bill that better meets the needs if it were to take the provinces' comments seriously.
We would like to see a more transparent system, a system that does a better job of meeting needs for the purpose of determining who is eligible for this program. So far, this is not necessarily clear because even the government has a hard time answering the question. Still, this is a step in the right direction. We want the Conservatives to start providing the necessary resources to ensure that the current program meets the needs in our communities.
Many have stated that the need to protect people is greatest right in communities, in street gangs. We want people affected by street gangs to feel comfortable testifying so that, ultimately, our streets can be safer. To make that happen, people need easier access to this program. They have to know that they will be protected. I doubt that is the case now. I am not sure that they would put their faith in the bill before us. Once again, this bill would benefit from more thorough debate in committee.
To date, the government does not seem to have recognized that operating a regional police force is very expensive. The fact that it costs the provinces a lot of money and that no money will be coming from the federal government is a problem. Unfortunately, that is often the case with the government. It legislates changes at the provincial level or drops a federal responsibility hoping that the province will pick up the slack. Then the province has a hard time paying for a program it does not have the means to pay for. In the end, the federal government will tell people that it has conquered the deficit because it has decreased spending when all it will really have done is transferred costs to the provinces and municipalities, which will have to find ways to make up the shortfall.
The Harper government is terrified of increasing taxes. That is all well and good, except that it leaves the provinces no choice but to increase their own taxes.
For the taxpayer, provincial and federal taxes are all the same: they are taxes. The Harper government has nothing to brag about. I would even say that it should be ashamed.
In the provincial witness protection programs that involve crimes of a federal nature, the RCMP takes over and charges local police departments the full cost, something that many local departments cannot afford. The RCMP's own website states that there are instances when the costs of witness protection may impede investigations, particularly for small law enforcement agencies.
The municipalities I know that have their own police force and smaller municipalities with smaller police forces will find it very difficult to fulfill the obligations that the federal government is imposing on them, or at least that the bill we are studying in the House plans to impose.
Once again, it is an improvement, and I congratulate the government, but we must do much more. Unfortunately, this government has a great deal of difficulty understanding just how great the need is and how crucial it is that the need be met.
Our society is protected by the combined efforts of the federal, provincial and municipal governments. Together, we can help solve the problems we face. However, it does not help to impose new criteria without providing the resources required to enforce or even implement the criteria. The government is creating a situation that is doomed to failure. This must be avoided at all cost.
The NDP has long been calling for better co-operation between the federal government and the provinces. We are pleased to see an improvement in that regard. That being said, without the necessary funds, it will be hard to ensure that the programs being proposed here today will get very far. I think this is going to create even more problems for the local police forces, which will have a hard time meeting the obligations imposed by the federal government. We must prevent that. Closer co-operation would have truly improved the situation, but that is not what we are seeing today.
I am very pleased to vote in favour of this bill, at least at second reading, but it is time for the Harper government to start realizing that we need better co-operation.