Mr. Speaker, I am very happy to rise in the House to speak to Bill C-51, which is intended to make witnesses in Canada safer.
Naturally, the NDP will support the underlying principle so that the bill can go to committee. However, the NDP is once again asking the government to broaden criteria for witness protection program eligibility to ensure the safety of all Canadians who might be in danger.
To that end, my colleagues in the House will recall the remarks made by the member for Trinity—Spadina last November. She stood up, as I am standing today, to urge the government to support the work of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and our local police forces. The federal witness protection program does not have enough funding, its selection criteria are too narrow, and there is not enough co-operation among the three levels of government when it comes to protecting witnesses.
My colleague from Trinity—Spadina also pointed out that our local police forces and the RCMP have a very hard time convincing witnesses to speak out against street gangs, a scourge that also affects my riding, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine.
The NDP is committing to building safer communities. One of the ways we plan on doing that is by improving the federal witness protection program and giving police forces additional tools to combat street gangs. I speak from experience with the urban context in my riding, but it is just as important to protect potential witnesses who live in the suburbs or in rural areas across Canada.
In Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, the police are working hard to combat the influence of street gangs. My riding is a suburb of Montreal. We are talking about Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Uptown and the suburbs of Lachine and Dorval. Street gangs and human trafficking are serious problems in an area of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. There is a lot of prostitution, drugs and $25-an-hour hotels, if you know what I mean.
Eastern Lachine also has a lot of problems with drugs and street gangs. Members of the Dalbé-Viau high school community, which is in the area, are afraid because people often come to recruit students after school. The police are very focused on the issue of street gangs in my riding.
When the local population feels safe, it co-operates with the local police force in order to better serve the neighbourhood. However, our police forces do not have enough resources. For local communities in Canada, strengthening the federal witness protection program will improve co-operation with local police forces and the RCMP in their efforts to fight violence and will increase the safety of our communities.
I am talking about the lack of resources. The east end of Lachine has a big problem with street gangs. However, we are lucky because the local newspaper, Le Messager Lachine & Dorval, publishes two pages every week where police station No. 8 provides information about crimes that were committed and asks for help from the community.
I believe this is a good example of a local newspaper working together with the police force. However, it also shows that the police force really must lack resources, since it has to go through the community newspaper to ask for help from witnesses to crimes involving street gangs. This does not happen in other parts of my riding. When such crimes are committed in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, the newspaper does not work with the police force. The police have to go out and find witnesses, because it is not easy and they are very afraid.
Earlier I talked about prostitution in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine. As indicated by a Conservative member, one who has worked very hard on the issue of human trafficking, victims are often the ones who become prostitutes. It is very difficult to seek them out and get their testimony. These victims are afraid for themselves and their families. They do not always trust the police; they have to be sought out. If they are not given adequate protection, of course they will be less likely to give testimony.
Since 2007, the NDP has been asking the government for this on behalf of Canadians who do not have legitimate protection. We are thrilled that this is finally before the House today. We have been calling for this for some time, and as my colleagues have mentioned, this government has been in power for seven years. The Liberals did not take care of this matter either. We need to do something, and fast.
I would like to focus on three key points that, I think, still need to be discussed regarding Bill C-51: expanding the eligibility criteria, co-operation with the provinces, and insufficient funding.
As for expanding the eligibility criteria, for quite some time now, the federal witness protection program has been criticized for its eligibility criteria, which are too strict, because not many witnesses are admitted to the program.
According to a Public Safety report, only 30 of the 108 cases assessed for the program were accepted in the year ending on March 31, 2012. This translates into an admission rate of 28%. Since we are good parliamentarians, this compels us to really look at the program's shortcomings and ask some questions here today.
We are talking about witness protection. But the government says it is tough on crime. I do not understand. To be tough on crime, we need help from witnesses. That is the key to solving crimes. If there are no witnesses to provide information, charges cannot be laid. It is key that we protect witnesses because if we do not, they will not come back. No witnesses will ever come forward, and that will not set a good example for others. In the case of street gangs, it is often internal witnesses that come forward. If gang members know that one of their gang friends told the police about a crime that had been committed and then that friend is never seen again, it is a given that they will not want to testify.
The eligibility criteria have been expanded. Bill C-51 says the following, and I quote:
expand the categories of witnesses who may be admitted to the federal Witness Protection Program to include persons who assist federal departments, agencies or services that have a national security, national defence or public safety mandate and who may require protection as a result;
Bill C-51 will expand the eligibility criteria for the witness protection program—and I am very happy about that—in particular, by including a new group of eligible people, those who assist federal departments.
Consider the case of a person who wants to testify against an organized crime group or a street gang. Think about the stress such individuals will experience and the courage they will need to testify. Add to this the fact that these witnesses will most likely be testifying against someone they know. This is where the federal witness protection program comes into play.
As I said earlier, federal departments and agencies that have a mandate related to national security, national defence or public safety will also be able to recommend witnesses for the program.
Human trafficking is a real problem in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. Many young women work as prostitutes, often without earning any money themselves, because they have a pimp. The documentary Avenue Zero addresses this issue. It raises a number of questions and paints a picture of the human trafficking problem in Canada today. The documentary was filmed in various parts of the country and ends in my riding. It is not a Quebec production as such, but the closing scenes were filmed on Saint-Jacques Boulevard in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, where a number of seedy hotels used by prostitutes are located.
I recall very vividly a victim who gave testimony to a female RCMP officer responsible specifically for human trafficking. The victim recounted how it had taken her a very long time to testify against the people who were abusing her and forcing her into a life of drugs and prostitution.
It makes my skin crawl. She initially testified that she did not always trust the police because it was hard for them to think of a prostitute as a victim. She stated that she was now very happy because she knew that the City of Montreal was working hard to make officers assigned to neighbourhood police stations more aware of the fact that, in the world of prostitution, prostitutes are not always the criminals, but rather the victims.
She explained how she needed a lot of time and courage, how she feared for her life, and for the lives of her sister and parents. She had to go to the police, but that was hard to do without being spotted. Once she arrived at the station, she had to tell everything she knew and the police recorded it all.
These actions require extraordinary courage. There is no denying the existence of vast sex trafficking networks in Canada. Proposed legislation on human trafficking is before the House right now because trafficking is going on around us and the victims require protection.
When I see that there were 30 people under witness protection, I have to ask myself some questions.
The same goes for drugs. Often, the people involved are young. The Polyvalente Dalbé-Viau is a high school in Lachine, which is in my riding. Lachine has a troubled history because of street gangs. There was once a cannabis café in Lachine. That brought a lot of problems to my neighbourhood. Since then, people have been going to the school and recruiting young people to sell drugs, recruiting young women to go into prostitution, and bullying. If nobody wants to testify against such people because there is no protection, as I said earlier, then what is the point of the program?
Another purpose of Bill C-51 is very useful:
(h) extend the period during which protection may, in an emergency, be provided to a person who has not been admitted to the federal Witness Protection Program;
I think that this is important too because the bill will extend the emergency protection period. It will eliminate some technical problems related to coordination among provincial programs.
The second point I want to discuss about the federal witness protection program is co-operation with the provinces. I think that is very important. As a number of my colleagues mentioned, a certain level of coordination is necessary, but right now, that coordination is not consistent. Ontario and Alberta have called on the government to revamp the witness protection program. Bill C-51 would allow for the designation of provincial and municipal witness protection programs so that some provisions of the act apply, which I think is very good.
It would also authorize the RCMP commissioner to coordinate, at the request of appropriate, non-political officials of a designated program, the activities of federal departments, agencies and services in order to facilitate a change of identity for persons admitted to the designated programs.
As I said, I think that is very important.
And, since the government does not seem to be paying attention, I will repeat what we have been saying all day: there is not enough funding.
It is clear that changes cannot be made and more people cannot be protected unless there is more funding. That makes no sense at all. How can the Conservative government improve the witness protection program if it does not allocate the necessary funding and personnel?
The government must invest money to bring these measures to fruition, as called for by the RCMP. Why did the Conservatives refuse to provide additional funding for this program? No one knows.
It will be very difficult for local police forces and the RCMP to work with the existing budget and effectively manage the growing demand for this program.
If I recall correctly, the current program cost $9 million during the 2012 fiscal year, which is not that expensive. However, if we want to protect people, we have to allocate the money needed. One plus one equals two. This will put a huge operational burden on witness protection groups.
As my colleague and friend mentioned earlier, it is difficult for local police forces to set budgets for protecting witnesses. The context varies from one city to the next. A city like mine, Lachine, has lots of expenses related to all kinds of other things. In my opinion, based on the new criteria, many witnesses will be accepted into the program. We cannot keep accepting people and then refuse to pay for them. That makes no sense. Perhaps the Conservatives do not realize how much money this could cost.
The RCMP websites states the following:
There are instances when the costs of witness protection may impede investigations, particularly for smaller law enforcement agencies.
The RCMP website states that, under the current criteria, there is not enough money to conduct in-depth investigations. There is a shortage of witnesses and no money to protect them.
Today, the Conservative government is telling us that it will admit more witnesses because it is expanding its criteria. That is a good thing; I agree. It is a step in the right direction. But they are telling us that they will admit more witnesses without providing more money. That does not make sense.
We are also concerned about transparency. In May 2010, the RCMP submitted a report to the Minister of Public Safety in which it requested that the witness protection program be enhanced. We were never informed of this. We managed to obtain a copy of this report in December 2012 through the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act.
The government has difficulty being transparent and this is another prime example of that.
In conclusion, this is definitely a positive piece of legislation. I am very pleased that the criteria are being expanded. I believe that protecting victims is the most important consideration in these cases but that this is an area that needs improvement, as proven by the fact that only 30 witnesses were admitted to the program in 2012. If we want to punish crime, we must first be in a position to call witnesses in order to ensure that a crime was indeed committed and that the investigation will be conducted efficiently. In my opinion, it will be difficult to use these new tools without the necessary funding. When the bill is studied in committee, I hope that the government will be open to discussing the possibility of making amendments.
Today, the parliamentary secretary often repeated that the objective of the bill is to expand the criteria. That is fine, but we have to be able to use these new criteria and apply them with the help of the requisite resources.