Mr. Speaker, today I rise to add my voice in support of Bill C-51, the safer witnesses act. As we have heard from my hon. colleagues, the bill would make important amendments to the witness protection program, which first came into effect in 1996. Before that time, Canada offered witness protection services to those who could provide critical information during a police investigation and court proceedings. However, it was practised on an informal basis. The 1996 act introduced more formality into the process.
As with many laws that have been on the books for a while, the original act is now in need of amendments to reflect our changing environment and to strengthen the protection provided to witnesses, as well as to those who protect them.
As we have heard in the House and at committee, the proposed legislation contains recommendations that have come from a few sources. They include the 2008 report by the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, the 2010 Commission of Inquiry into the Investigation of the Bombing of Air India Flight 182, and stakeholder consultations with the federal departments and agencies, the provinces and law enforcement agencies.
I would like to focus my remarks today on a couple of areas of proposed changes within the bill, which directly address the concerns we heard from our provincial stakeholders.
There are witness protection programs in five provinces, namely Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. The federal program differs from the provincial ones in some areas. Typically, the provincial programs are aimed at victims of violence who need support before and during a trial, which could include accompanying the witness to trial, temporary relocation or limited financial support. They have their own administrative criteria and are designed to meet the needs of their own law enforcement agencies.
The decision whether to refer a witness for possible admission into the federal program or provincial program rests with the individual police forces dealing with criminal investigations. They make their decisions on a case by case basis, depending on cost, threat level and the length of time the protection is needed. For complex federal cases, provinces may choose to refer their witnesses for consideration of admission into the federal program.
One of the loudest calls we have had from our provincial counterparts is the need to streamline the current process for obtaining secure identity changes for their protectees. The concern among the provinces is that the RCMP can currently only assist federal protectees for the purpose of obtaining the federal documents required for secure identity changes. What this means is that the provinces must temporarily admit their protectees into the federal witness protection program to allow the RCMP to assist in this process.
Many of our provincial stakeholders have asked that we change the current system, which they have told us can result in time consuming paperwork and delays. We agree. When we are talking about protecting individuals from potentially life-threatening risks, we cannot afford delays in processing their secure identity changes. We also agree that improving federal and provincial collaboration will help us move ahead with a more seamless witness protection service across the board.
As such, under Bill C-51, we propose to streamline this process through a new framework that will allow for provincial programs to be officially designated as witness protection programs. The designation process will work as follows.
First, a provincial authority responsible for the program, such as the attorney general, would make a request to the Minister of Public Safety who, once satisfied that the program has the capacity to protect its witnesses and its information, may recommend to the Governor-in-Council to designate the program. Once the program has been designated, the provincial official will be able to send a request to the RCMP for assistance in obtaining the federal documents required for a secure identity change for a provincial witness without having to first admit the witness into the federal program. Designation would only need to occur once.
I would note that we have also heard calls to remove the RCMP from the process completely so the provinces can request the secure identity documents directly from the federal departments. However, we believe it is more prudent and safer to keep the RCMP as the single point of contact for all document requests of this nature. There are many benefits to keeping the RCMP as a single point of contact. It helps ensure efficiency and enhances the security of the information and the safety of all those involved in the process. For these reasons, Bill C-51 would retain the RCMP as a liaison between the provincial and federal programs for the process of secured identity change.
A second area of change that directly addresses concerns of many of our provincial stakeholders relates to expanding the prohibitions of this program. As it currently stands, the Witness Protection Program Act only protects information about federal protectees. This is a legitimate concern raised by our provincial stakeholders and one which we have addressed in Bill C-51.
Under the proposed changes, the prohibitions of disclosure would be extended to include information about the witnesses, their designated witness protection program, as well as those who provide protection to these witnesses. This prohibition will apply across Canada. I should note these measures have been strongly supported by organizations that represent front-line police officers.
In addition, exceptions to the prohibitions of disclosure would also be clarified, allowing authorities at both the federal and provincial levels to fulfill their mandates, while still being mindful of the need to ensure the safety of protected persons.
At the federal level, this authority is the RCMP commissioner, while at the provincial level it is the official in charge of the designated program. For example, federal agencies will be able to share information about those protected persons who are also offenders being considered for release. At both levels, authorities would have the power to disclose information about protected persons if it was essential for the administration of justice, including if a serious offence were about to be committed.
It is clear that the Witness Protection Program Act is in need of amendments on a number of fronts. Bill C-51 is practical and comprehensive legislation that would do just that.
The provincial programs are a vital part of our network of witness protection in Canada and we are pleased that this bill has received positive response from the attorney generals of Saskatchewan and B.C. as well as the Canadian Police Association.
I am also pleased to hear today in the House that for a change the opposition parties have openly said that they will support the bill.
This legislation sends a clear signal that we are on the right track. I therefore encourage all hon. members to continue their support of the good measures this government brings from time to time.