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House of Commons Hansard #208 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was witnesses.

Topics

PovertyPetitionsRoutine Proceedings

3:10 p.m.

NDP

Brian Masse NDP Windsor West, ON

Mr. Speaker, the last petition is with regard to the elimination of poverty in Canada. The petitioners are identifying that Canadian seniors and children are in too much poverty, and they would like to see the elimination of poverty as a goal for this country.

Multiple SclerosisPetitionsRoutine Proceedings

3:10 p.m.

Liberal

Kirsty Duncan Liberal Etobicoke North, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to present three petitions regarding CCSVI. Canadians living with multiple sclerosis are waiting to hear when patient recruitment will start for the promised CCSVI trial, which was to begin November 1 and which the CIHR website states began on that date, but which the Minister of Health's office wrote started in January 2013.

Canadians with MS wonder why they have to wait until February 20 for simple answers to simple questions. How many trial centres have passed ethical and hospital reviews? How many patients have been recruited, and when did patient recruitment begin?

The petitioners call upon the Minister of Health to undertake phase III clinical trials on an urgent basis at multiple centres across Canada and to require follow-up care.

Development and PeacePetitionsRoutine Proceedings

3:10 p.m.

NDP

Pierre-Luc Dusseault NDP Sherbrooke, QC

Mr. Speaker, I have the honour and pleasure to present a petition signed by over 125 residents of Sherbrooke who are opposed to the cuts that are being made to the funding awarded to Development and Peace.

This petition was presented to me a few weeks ago in Sherbrooke by the organization itself and by the Archbishop of Sherbrooke, Msg. Luc Cyr.

The 125 signatories to the petition are calling on the minister to provide this organization with the funding it needs to continue to do the work that has earned it much praise for many years now.

I hope that the government will listen to reason and support Development and Peace.

HealthPetitionsRoutine Proceedings

3:10 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Conservative Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise to present a petition signed by numerous constituents from my riding of Kelowna—Lake Country, as well as other constituents from across Canada, who are concerned with regard to tanning beds and the cause of cancer. They support Bill C-386, which was tabled by my hon. colleague from Selkirk—Interlake. They are calling on Parliament to enhance consumer protection in the tanning industry by strengthening labels on tanning beds and prohibiting youth from access.

PensionsPetitionsRoutine Proceedings

3:10 p.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Liberal Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, I present a petition signed by residents of Winnipeg North asking me to send a direct message to the Prime Minister that they believe people should continue to have the option to retire at the age of 65 and that the government should in no way diminish the importance and value of Canada's three major seniors programs: OAS, GIS and CPP.

Questions on the Order PaperRoutine Proceedings

3:10 p.m.

Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre Saskatchewan

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, I ask that all questions be allowed to stand.

Questions on the Order PaperRoutine Proceedings

3:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

Is that agreed?

Questions on the Order PaperRoutine Proceedings

3:10 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

February 11th, 2013 / 3:10 p.m.

Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

3:10 p.m.

Portage—Lisgar Manitoba

Conservative

Candice Bergen ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety

Mr. Speaker, it is a great privilege for me to rise today to speak in support of Bill C-51, the safer witnesses act.

Our government has been quite clear that one of our top priorities is to help build safer communities for all Canadians. One of the ways we are doing that is by providing law enforcement officials with the tools they need to do their job more efficiently and effectively. We have done a lot since day one. We have enacted legislation to stiffen sentences and increase the accountability of offenders, and we have enhanced the ability of all law enforcement officials to keep Canadians safe. We have taken steps to modernize the RCMP.

The legislation before us today strengthens our track record and will go a long way to enhancing our collective efforts to combat organized crime. Crimes committed by organized crime networks present a serious concern to both police and Canadians. Many organized crime groups are involved with the illicit drug trade, which we all know is growing.

According to Statistics Canada, for example, cocaine trafficking, production and distribution in Canada has grown nearly 30% over the last decade. Today we also know that organized crime is becoming more global, more transnational and more pervasive. We know that organized crime groups are becoming more sophisticated to avoid detection and arrest.

We also know that most serious organized crime groups are very secretive, and they often pose unique challenges for law enforcement officials because they can be very difficult to infiltrate. In some cases, law enforcement officials rely on the co-operation of individuals formerly involved with these organizations in order to combat their activities or successfully prosecute the ringleaders. In other cases, they might rely on the testimony of key eyewitnesses. Those who do come forward or co-operate often fear for their own safety as well as the safety of their family and loved ones.

Public safety is the cornerstone of the witness protection program as it offers protection, including new identities, for certain individuals whose testimony or co-operation can be so vital to the success of law enforcement operations.

Although witness protection was informally available since 1970, Canada's federal witness protection program was officially established in 1996 with the passage of the Witness Protection Program Act.

Today, the federal program, which is administered by the RCMP, can provide emergency protection to witnesses under threat, offering such services as permanent relocation and also secure identity changes.

Since provincial governments are also responsible for the administration of justice, many provinces, including Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, have established their own witness protection programs, which differ from the federal program.

The federal program has a legislated mandate to provide national protection services to all law enforcement agencies in Canada, as well as to international courts and tribunals.

Legislation governing the federal witness protection program, however, has not been substantially changed since it first came into force, despite the constantly changing nature of organized crime and some calls for reform.

The safer witnesses act would help to strengthen the current federal witness protection program, a program that, as I have mentioned, is often vital to effectively combatting crime, particularly organized crime.

As the hon. Shirley Bond, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of British Columbia, noted when commenting on Bill C-51, in the fight against crime, protecting witnesses is essential.

Bill C-51 would enhance the protection offered to key witnesses who wish to co-operate with law enforcement officials in the fight against serious organized crime.

Chief Bill Blair of the Toronto Police Service perhaps said it best when he said:

In Toronto we have seen the fear caused by intimidation and the threat of retaliation in gang investigations. Witnesses with valuable information are deterred from coming forward.

Chief Blair supports this legislation, as it is “a valuable step in protecting public safety”, in his words.

Bill C-51 would also help to protect individuals and front-line officers involved in administering and delivering witness protection.

Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, recognized the protection put in place through our bill. The Canadian Police Association strongly believes that the legislation will enhance the safety and the security of front-line law enforcement personnel who are engaged in protective duties.

Mr. Stamatakis has stated that the Canadian Police Association appreciates the steps being taken by the Government of Canada to address those concerns. He went so far as to say, “On behalf of the over 50,000 law enforcement personnel that we represent across Canada, we ask that Parliament quickly move to adopt this Bill”. I could not agree more.

The safer witnesses act would also promote greater integration between federal and provincial witness protection programs and will help to ensure that individuals can access federal identity documents more quickly and easily.

Bill C-51 proposes important changes in five main areas, which I will outline. First, the changes will allow provincial and territorial governments to request that their programs be designated under the federal Witness Protection Program Act. This designation will facilitate their witnesses receiving a secure identity change without needing to be admitted into the federal program, which is the case today.

Should an individual in a provincial program require a secure identity change under the existing rules, he or she must be temporarily transferred into the federal witness protection program so that the RCMP can obtain the appropriate documents. This can obviously cause delays. It can also lessen the security of the program and present witness management issues for the RCMP.

The reforms that our government is proposing would streamline and speed up the issuance of secure identity documents through the RCMP. As long as a provincial witness protection program has been designated, a provincial official responsible for the program would be able to work directly with the RCMP to quickly acquire the necessary documents. Once designated, secure requests for documents would be handled more quickly and easily, since witnesses under a provincial program would no longer need to be admitted into the federal witness protection program.

Under these changes proposed by the legislation before us today, federal organizations would be required to assist the RCMP in obtaining identity changes not only for witnesses in the federal program but also for witnesses in designated provincial programs. Provincial governments have been requesting an expedited process for obtaining federal identity documents, and we are acting on their request. These two changes, which our government has introduced, would help meet these demands from provinces such as Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

In fact, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Saskatchewan Gordon Wyant had this to say about the legislation:

These changes will help strengthen our criminal justice system by providing greater protection for witnesses. We support the proposed improvements to the Witness Protection Program Act as yet another step in making our communities safer.

A third area of reform proposed by Bill C-51 concerns the protection and disclosure of information about people within provincial and municipal witness protection programs. Under the existing federal Witness Protection Program Act, the prohibition against disclosure of information is limited to only information about the change of name and location of federal protectees. The bill would broaden the type of information to be protected and include information about the change of identity and location of provincial witnesses in designated programs as well as information about the federal and designated programs, including those who administer both the federal and provincially designated programs, which is so important.

Therefore, we would be providing greater protection to both the protectees as well as the law enforcement officials who are administering these programs. It is hard to believe it has gone this long without changes. It is very important that we all support this and get the bill passed. Again, this is consistent with provincial requests to strengthen disclosure prohibitions so that information about their witnesses is protected throughout Canada.

The fourth set of changes in the safer witnesses act would mean that the federal witness protection program would be able to accept referrals of persons assisting organizations with a mandate related to national security, national defence or public safety rather than only from law enforcement and international courts and tribunals, as is currently the case. Such organizations include the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and National Defence.

Again, these are very important changes. These legislative reforms would respond directly to a recommendation that was made in the final report of the Air India inquiry.

Finally, Bill C-51 would also address a number of operational issues, based on experiences gained in administering the current program over the past 15 years. For example, this would include permitting voluntary termination from the federal program and extending the amount of time emergency protection could be provided to candidates being considered for admission into the federal program. The change would be to extend the current 90-day availability of emergency protection to a maximum of 180 days. These changes have been recognized as important as the program has been used and administered over the last several years.

The changes our government is proposing to the Witness Protection Program Act are the product of extensive consultations with federal partners and provincial and territorial governments, as well as with stakeholders, law enforcement officials and many interested parties.

As I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, our government is committed to providing law enforcement with the tools and resources needed to protect the safety of our families and our communities, including an effective witness protection program. An effective program is extremely valuable in the fight against crime, especially, as we know, organized crime.

Our government is proposing to enhance the effectiveness and security of the federal witness protection program by making it more responsive to law enforcement needs. These changes are needed to better support law enforcement and those whom the program is designated to protect by providing better service to provincial witness protection programs and improving protection for those who provide it; through broadened prohibitions against the disclosure of program information; by improving processes to obtain secure identity changes for witnesses; and through an extension of the amount of time emergency protection may be provided.

The changes that our government is proposing would respond to many of the needs and requests of provincial and territorial governments. They would respond to the needs of law enforcement officials and other stakeholders involved in the criminal justice system. They also would respond to the needs of Canadians from coast to coast who wish to see our government continue to build safer communities for everyone.

I therefore urge the opposition members to consider the bill, to look at the merits of the bill and to support this common-sense proposal that we have put forward. I encourage all members to support the bill and, as police and stakeholders across the country have asked us, let us expedite this, get the bill passed quickly, and get better and more efficient protection for witnesses who help us combat organized crime in Canada.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

3:25 p.m.

NDP

Randall Garrison NDP Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Mr. Speaker, I assure the parliamentary secretary that we will certainly be working with her in committee to get the bill considered as expeditiously as possible. We always have to look for the possible poison needle in the haystack, as is our duty as the opposition. However, we will be trying to ensure this gets through as soon as possible.

My question is about the consultation with stakeholders. I would like to hear more about this, because this is an example of where the government members' listening to stakeholders has actually worked quite well.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

3:25 p.m.

Conservative

Candice Bergen Conservative Portage—Lisgar, MB

Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague for his commitment and his party's commitment to help us get this through committee.

It is correct that there are numerous consultations that go on continuously, obviously with provincial stakeholders and counterparts. The Minister of Public Safety meets with his counterparts regularly. In fact they just met recently before the Christmas break. As well, we consult with front-line officers. We meet regularly with the Canadian Police Association and members of the chiefs of police. Consultation is indeed very important and it is something that our government takes seriously.

Obviously the member opposite has listened as well to stakeholders and provincial counterparts, and he and his party want this to be moved through quickly. We appreciate the support of the member and his party. Hopefully, going forward we can get this accomplished.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

3:25 p.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Liberal Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, I do understand that the Liberal Party also wants to see the bill sent to committee. However, I have a question. When we talk about the designation from other jurisdictions that would be taken into consideration if the legislation were to pass, can the member provide a list of which provinces?

I am also interested to know if there are programs at the municipal level. I know the bill makes reference to the municipal level, but are there cities that actually have them, and if so which ones? I am most interested in knowing that.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

3:25 p.m.

Conservative

Candice Bergen Conservative Portage—Lisgar, MB

Mr. Speaker, there are several provinces that have witness protection programs in place: Quebec; Alberta; Manitoba; and I believe, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. There are no municipal programs. Obviously the province would operate these.

What the designation would do is help expedite secure identity documents. Right now there can be quite a delay when provinces try to get secure identity documents for people involved in the witness protection program. Now they could have their program designated under the federal program. Once it is designated, that process would happen a lot faster, which would make it better for law enforcement and it would make those who are witnesses feel a lot more secure and feel they would be protected if they go forward.

Those are the provinces that currently have a provincial program in place.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

James Lunney Conservative Nanaimo—Alberni, BC

Mr. Speaker, Bill C-51, the safer witnesses act, is an important bill. The many important provisions in the act help secure identity changes for witnesses and help our law enforcement agents when they do risky undercover work.

Recently there were news articles about an important undercover case that exposed Hell's Angels' activities in British Columbia. It was very daring undercover work. Risky police activities are taken to help bring criminal organizations to the law.

When victims of crime also come forward and testify about nasty, terrible events they have experienced, I wonder if the member would expand on how the provisions of the bill would help someone such as the undercover officer, who put himself at great risk in the recent case in British Columbia, and how victims of crime would benefit from the protections in the bill.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

Candice Bergen Conservative Portage—Lisgar, MB

Mr. Speaker, putting victims first as well as recognizing the good work that front-line officers do is very important in all of the legislation our government puts forward. There is a couple of ways that the bill and the changes to the witness protection program would help our officers. First, it would create greater prohibitions regarding what kind of information could be disclosed about someone who is within a witness protect program or who has administered it, which is obviously law enforcement and its agencies.

It is pretty unbelievable, but up until now, all that would not be able to be disclosed was the name and location of someone who was in a witness protection program. There are so many more ways to track someone down, so we have expanded that to a much broader, much greater amount of information that would be protected for not only those people who are part of the witness protection program, but also the law enforcement people who help enforce it.

This would help victims. We hope it would also help us prevent and deter crime, find out where those organizations are working and allow law enforcement a greater ability to infiltrate, stop them and keep our communities safer.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

3:30 p.m.

NDP

Jean Rousseau NDP Compton—Stanstead, QC

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague for her speech and her bill.

My comments pertain primarily to the situation in Quebec. The Conservative government has been in office for nearly seven years now. During that time, there have often been requests from the RCMP and Sûreté du Québec in light of the growing violence in the province as a result of street gangs, organized crime and biker gangs.

The RCMP and Sûreté du Québec regularly ask for more money in order to detect these situations and run a witness protection program that is as effective and, more especially, as transparent as possible.

I would like my colleague to explain to us how this bill will help to achieve that objective.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

Candice Bergen Conservative Portage—Lisgar, MB

Mr. Speaker, we have been very responsive to the needs of front-line officers, including the RCMP and provincial police throughout this country. In fact, we have 11 police officers who are part of our caucus and who have worked on the front line, so we listen to them and we consult.

We have been providing tools such as these legislative changes. We have provided 30 different pieces of legislation to help crack down on crime, which is what police are asking us to do. We have heard from front-line officers in our study on the economics of policing. They have said it is not more money they need; they want the tools to fight crime. They are looking at ways to be more efficient. We have given them the tools as far as legislation is concerned to crack down on gangs, guns, drugs and organized crime. This is just one of them.

Unfortunately, the opposition members did not support many of the bills we put forward. I do not know if they have any police officers in their caucus. We do have 11 of them and we are listening to our caucus members as well as police from across the country. We will continue to give them the support they need. We would ask the opposition to support our legislation and not to vote against us when they have a chance to support police officers.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

David Wilks Conservative Kootenay—Columbia, BC

Mr. Speaker, I wonder if the parliamentary secretary could tell the House what checks and balances will be in place to ensure that the identity of a federal protectee is not exposed.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

Candice Bergen Conservative Portage—Lisgar, MB

Mr. Speaker, currently there are a number of checks and balances in the program. However, one inefficiency we found was that a very small amount of information about someone involved in the witness protection program is prohibited from being disclosed. As I mentioned earlier, it is only the name and location. Not only as a check and balance but to greater protect witnesses, more information must be protected. The methods of finding people have become much more sophisticated. Therefore, we have to make sure that a greater amount of information regarding where witnesses have been relocated, their change of name, the jobs they are doing and what they did previously is protected. Again, it is not just for witnesses. It is also for members of law enforcement who are part of that process.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

3:35 p.m.

NDP

Paulina Ayala NDP Honoré-Mercier, QC

Mr. Speaker, sometimes the protection can be as simple as police protection, but other times it might require a secondary residence at a safe location.

However, there are costs involved. According to the RCMP's website, sometimes the cost of protecting witnesses hinders investigations, especially for small law enforcement agencies that have a tight budget.

Will the government commit to investing more in witness protection in the future?

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

Candice Bergen Conservative Portage—Lisgar, MB

Mr. Speaker, the witness protection program is administered by the RCMP, which has a sufficient budget to continue with that program. It is not administered by local police departments, which clearly are under provincial jurisdiction.

We have provided funding. For example, we provided one-time funding of $400 million for the police officer recruitment fund to help recruit more officers. We are giving police the tools they need.

For the hon. member's clarification, the witness protection program is administered federally by the RCMP, not by local police, under the federal program.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

3:35 p.m.

NDP

Randall Garrison NDP Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am going to say honestly that I am pleased to rise in the House to speak to Bill C-51 at second reading, not so much personally, as I was already up speaking this morning, to Bill C-42, as was the parliamentary secretary, but because, like many members, we have had challenges even getting to the House today.

As the NDP public safety critic, I have the honour of speaking in the House quite often. Unfortunately, too often, it is on bills motivated by the Conservatives' tough on crime attitude. The parliamentary secretary asked why we do not support all of their bills. I would like to take just a moment to talk about this tough on crime attitude, because this is an attitude that too often results in policies that are ripped from headlines.

At best, it is based on a faulty concept of deterrence and the idea that harsh sentences somehow deter crime. There is actually no imperial evidence to show that. The only way deterrence functions is when the investment is made at the front end of law enforcement. It is the certainty of being caught and the swiftness of prosecution that puts people off committing crimes.

Most criminals do not sit at home thumbing through the Criminal Code to see which offence to commit based on the length of the sentence. Obviously they are motivated by other social, economic and personal factors. If resources are put at the front end, we get better results. That is one reason this legislation looks a lot better to us than most of the bills that come forward from the Conservatives.

At worst, the tough on crime agenda appears to be based on little more than retribution, and retribution is not an effective approach to crime. Although it may make some people feel better for a short period of time, it results in policies that are expensive and that rarely show any positive results. In contrast, we in the NDP believe in evidence-based measures, which will help us build safer communities.

I am honestly pleased to stand in the House today to support Bill C-51 at second reading. We have seen a couple of hopeful signs from the Conservatives with this legislation, and also with Bill C-54, which deals with measures for those not criminally responsible. We have seen more consultation from the government on these two bills. We have seen more attention to evidence on these two bills than we have seen before. In this case, action is long overdue. We are glad that the government finally listened to stakeholders, as we have been asking it to do this since 2007.

In November 2012, the NDP member for Trinity—Spadina repeated our call for action to expand eligibility for those going into the witness protection program. This is particularly important in the struggle against street gangs. The previous narrow definitions excluded them from the witness protection program. We and government members have heard from many community representatives, and from many law enforcement agencies, that to get co-operation to help break street gangs, inclusion of possible witnesses in this program would be very important.

Since 2007, the NDP has also specifically called for better coordination of federal and provincial programs and better provision of services to those provincial programs, which is another positive measure we see in the bill.

We have always called for better overall funding for the program. I will come back to that question.

While we support what the bill attempts to do, which is improve the witness protection program, we are concerned that the Conservative government will refuse to commit any new funding. In fact, the minister said during the introduction of the bill that this would have to be funded from existing funds.

While there is no legislative flaw we can see at this point in the bill, which ensures that we will support it at second reading, we are concerned, because as I often like to say, the proof is in the funding. If we make these improvements, but law enforcement agencies do not have the funding they need to operate the program, we have not moved very far forward.

Whatever the improvements here, the demand that the RCMP and local police departments work within their existing budgets will likely hinder the implementation of the proposed amendments and the improvements in the bill.

The RCMP's own website states that there are instances when the cost of witness protection may impede investigations, particularly for smaller law enforcement agencies. When municipal departments, which are extensive across this country, try to make use of the program, they must reimburse the RCMP fully for the costs, which can be very high. This is an ongoing cost for them. Most of them have no provision in their budgets for making use of this program. It means, oftentimes, that front-line law enforcement officers have to make difficult choices, because they cannot get those who need protection into the program, because the funding is not available to support those individuals once they are in the program.

Again, the witness protection program is often crucial to getting the co-operation the front-line police need so that they can get convictions that will take key organized crime figures out of the community. If there were adequate funding, the same would be true for getting key witnesses to testify against street gang members to help break up those street gangs.

The federal witness protection program has long been criticized for its narrow eligibility criteria, for its poor coordination with provincial programs, and for the low number of witnesses actually admitted to the program. In 2012, 108 applications were considered for admission to the program, and, largely due to funding constraints, only 30 people were accepted.

What does that mean? It means 78 cases for which we might have been able to get a conviction and might have been able to make progress on organized crime, because that has been the focus of the program to this point. We did not get that because of inadequate resources.

There are some important improvements, as we acknowledge, in the bill. Bill C-51 proposes a better process to support provincial witness protection programs. This would be especially important for expediting getting new identity documents for those in provincial programs. Before, as the parliamentary secretary mentioned, this required transferring them to the federal program and transferring them back, with an enormous amount of bureaucratic time-wasting and cost. We are pleased to see that.

The expanded definition is important. In addition to including witnesses in street gang cases as possible entrants to the program, it would also expand the program to include agencies with national security responsibilities.

It would also extend the period for emergency protection. That is one of the key issues local law enforcement figures have raised. Sometimes people need to go into this program very quickly, and sometimes it takes a while before they can get into a more permanent situation. Extending that emergency protection is important.

Provinces such as Ontario and Alberta have been pushing for a national revamp of this program, including recognition of their existing programs. Again, the designation of programs and recognition of those programs is a positive feature of the bill.

For federal departments and agencies with a mandate related to national security, both those that function under national defence and those that function under public safety would now be able to refer witnesses to the program. I will say in a minute why that has been a gap of very great concern in the past.

Because there is no direct reference to eligibility for the program for witnesses in street gang cases, many stakeholders have been concerned that street gang witnesses may not fit these new criteria. We are assured by the government that they will. We look forward to talking about this question in committee to make sure that this critical area is indeed covered by these changes to the witness protection program.

At committee I will be asking those questions to make sure that the federal government is truly committed to the inclusion of street gang, youth gang and national security witnesses in this program. This will be an important step toward building safer communities in Canada.

We believe that the bill addresses the key problems. There are still a few things it does not do. Again, we would like to talk about those in committee.

Bill C-51 does not include provisions for an independent agency to operate the program, as was recommended in the Air India inquiry report.

There is kind of a conflict of interest when the RCMP manages the program and also manages the investigations. It is able to use the incentive, I guess one would say, of the witness protection program to get co-operation, and then, later, it makes the decision about who is actually eligible to be in the witness protection program. The Air India inquiry report suggested that there should be an independent agency to make those decisions that involve the RCMP as both the investigating authority and the decision-making authority on who gets protection from the program.

When we look at national security, the inability to protect witnesses was a major obstacle to prosecutions in the Air India bombing case. That is why, in the report, there was a lot of attention given to the witness protection program. One witness, Tara Singh Hayer, publisher of the B.C.-based Indo-Canadian Times, was assassinated in 1998. This made the affidavit he had given the RCMP in 1995 inadmissible as evidence in the case.

I would say that Mr. Hayer was not a likely candidate to go into the witness protection program because he was a very brave individual. However, two additional witnesses, seeing what had happened to him and not being eligible to go into the witness protection program, refused to provide evidence to the RCMP or the Air India inquiry because of what they had seen happen to another witness who had provided information, and the fact that he was assassinated.

Justice Major, in his report, acknowledged that he felt unable, because of the restrictions in the witness protection program, to provide the protection that would be necessary for prosecution in the case of Air India.

The RCMP has also called for intensive psychological examination of potential protectees, a national support centre for the program, and has also supported the call for an external advisory board in their case to serve as a watchdog on the decisions being made.

We recognize that these are all potentially outside the scope of this bill, but I still think it is worth having a discussion in committee about some of the other things that the RCMP has said are necessary for the efficient operation of the witness protection program.

New Democrats believe that strengthening the program will improve co-operation with local police and the RCMP in the fight against gang violence, and in doing so will help make our communities safer. It has a proven record of success in the fight against organized crime.

While the Conservatives have been slow to respond to this issue, and we on our part have been calling for these changes since 2007, we are pleased to see that the government has listened to the stakeholders in this case and brought in this new legislation to expand the program.

Bill C-51 does address key legislative concerns with regard to the witness protection program and therefore warrants our support. Despite our ongoing concerns about funding, the NDP recognizes that Bill C-51 still falls short on some key changes to the program, such as having a more transparent and accountable process for admissions into the program. Again, the Conservative government has ignored the important recommendations of the Air India inquiry with regard to this independent review of who is admissible into the program.

We do feel that Bill C-51 provides the basic legislative fix that we need. We will wait to see if the Conservatives are going to provide the resources to make it really count for local communities. As I often say and will say again, the proof is in the funding. Local police wish to make use of this program. They welcome these changes. They are waiting to get to work on some of the street and youth gang problems they have when this tool becomes available to them. However, it will not work if they do not have the funding at the local level.

At the public safety committee, we are doing a large study on the economics of policing. I think it has made all members of Parliament aware of the constant downloading of costs and responsibility onto police forces.

When we asked witnesses at committee what percentage of their calls for service were actually what people regard as crime, they responded that it was around 20%, saying that 80% of the time the police spend working on other issues. What that really means is that they are working on things like mental health, addictions, and all those other social problems of exclusion and marginalization. In our society we have made what I would call an unconscious decision that we will leave all those responsibilities to the police. One good sign of that, which we often see, is the difficulty of finding emergency social services, even in urban areas, after five o'clock. Who will one call after five o'clock when most people have their mental health and addiction crises? Those offices are closed.

The police become the agency called to deal with those problems. This is one of the huge, and probably the most important, cost drivers in policing. I know that the Minister of Public Safety suggested that police salaries were in fact a cost driver and that they took away resources from other things they needed. We on this side believe that the police who serve our communities as highly trained professionals need to be paid a fair, professional wage. We recognize that most of the time wages—and certainly in municipal and provincial departments—have been set through a process of free collective bargaining. Therefore, it not the police salaries that prevent resources being available for things like the witness protection program, but government budgets and all those other demands that we place on the police every day of the week.

As I said at the beginning, we know that the police are out in snowstorms doing all kinds of things that are not strictly fighting crime but providing emergency assistance to the public. I am looking forward to the work in committee not just on this bill but also on the study on the economics of policing to help find some ways to get the cost of policing under control by getting the focus back on building safer communities.

We in the NDP are committed to this concept. We need measures based on real evidence that will lead us toward solutions that make our communities safer. One way of doing this is through an improved witness protection program that helps keep our streets safe by giving police additional tools to fight street gangs.

The parliamentary secretary talked about an expedited process. I want to again reassure her, as I did in the questions asked at the beginning, that on this side we are committed to getting this bill to committee as soon as we can, and giving it a high priority in committee and bringing in the witnesses we need to talk to as quickly as possible. We will not prolong the process beyond what is needed, because we know that local police forces are in fact waiting for this tool to be made available to them in order to do some very important work in community safety.

At this point, I am happy to conclude my remarks by saying that this is one case where the New Democrats believe that the government has listened to stakeholders and has consulted. It might be a little late, but we are pleased to see that it brought in this legislation, and we will be looking at the next budget to make sure that the resources that police forces need, particularly the RCMP, are there to ensure that this new and improved witness protection program can actually be used by those on the front line.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

3:50 p.m.

Portage—Lisgar Manitoba

Conservative

Candice Bergen ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety

Mr. Speaker, I want to tell my hon. colleague how much I appreciate his remarks, the thoughtfulness that has gone into the New Democrats' approach in looking at this bill and the fact that they are in agreement with us and, more importantly, stakeholders, provincial and territorial leaders and Canadians that the witness protection program needs to be fixed.

I appreciate some of the comments he made regarding the Air India inquiry and having a separate investigative body. I want to let him know that we consulted with provinces on that. They had some concerns and would rather that we deal with them directly.

The area that we agree on, to allow other public safety agencies such as CSIS and the Department of National Defence to refer individuals to the witness protection program, was in direct response to the Air India inquiry and its recommendations. It is clear that the member has had some experience and done some consulting with stakeholders. I wonder if he could talk a bit more about the people he represents, whether this will be looked at favourably and help in our fight not just against organized crime but also against threats that come internationally.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

3:55 p.m.

NDP

Randall Garrison NDP Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Mr. Speaker, I know that the parliamentary secretary likes to cite the Conservatives as having 11 former police officers on their side and that I usually respond to that by saying I am former municipal police board member and also did international policing research. Therefore, there is no monopoly on expertise in either caucus.

In my own experience on a municipal police board, the funds were not available and it was very difficult to convince a municipal council to include a line item in the budget for witness protection. It already saw policing costs as high and clearly saw witness protection as a federal responsibility. It was very difficult for municipal police forces to use the tool because they were faced with a big bill for which it was difficult to get budget money. That is why when the budget comes out, New Democrats will be looking very closely at what the government is doing to make sure that the funds are available and that these improvements are actually utilized by front-line police.