Mr. Speaker, I have had the opportunity to talk about this bill before. I want to make an important thing fairly clear and it goes back to when I was first elected in the by-election. We need to think of the witness protection program as a tool to be used by our law enforcement agencies and our prosecutors that will ultimately make our streets safer.
I want to do what I can as an individual member of Parliament and as an advocate for the Liberal Party to make sure that we move forward on issues relating to crime prevention. This legislation is an initiative that not only deals with crimes, but it also goes a long way in preventing crimes from taking place in the first place.
During that by-election period, all three major political parties incorporated crime and safety into our election campaigns in a very real and tangible way. I suggested when I arrived in Ottawa that the crime and safety file would be one of the most important issues for me to deal with. With respect to this particular issue, I would be a strong voice on the floor of the House of Commons in Ottawa to express what is happening not only in Winnipeg North but the broader community of Manitoba and indeed from coast to coast to coast where there are many similarities in terms of issues that cause criminal behaviour.
I want to focus if I may for the next couple of minutes on the issue of gangs. Gangs do perpetrate many of the crimes that are occurring in Winnipeg on a daily basis. I do not want to be seen as being negative about the community I represent; it is quite the opposite. I feel very passionate about Winnipeg North. It has a great deal of rich cultural heritage. It provides all sorts of economic and social opportunities for everyone who lives there and in the broader community.
Government is not doing enough to prevent crimes from taking place on the streets. There is a sense that we need to do more. We need to work with the different levels of government when it comes to dealing with crime in order to have any impact.
Bill C-51 is a good example of how co-operation and determination can see good legislation ultimately pass. I have indicated before and I will reinforce it again that the Liberal Party supports this legislation. We want to see the bill pass in a relatively quick fashion, and to do that we just need to focus some attention on one aspect of the bill.
This legislation would enable Crowns and, in particular, our police agencies, to infiltrate gangs. It would assist us in minimizing the negative activities that are being committed in many different communities throughout our country.
It saddens me to drive around and see the result of the young children who are involved in prostitution or drug sales, or in addictions such as drugs or gambling. The negative impact it has on all of our communities is profound.
One of the ways we can deal with these important issues is to enable our police officers to infiltrate the different gang organizations.
To give a sense of to what degree it has become a problem, when I was first elected into the Manitoba legislature in the late eighties, and through the nineties, there was marginal, if any, real debate on gang activity in Manitoba. It was not until maybe the late nineties that we started to see some signs of it. Then at the turn of the century it really started to pick up. Nothing has come out with the impact of making a strong difference in the local community. The problem I see is if governments do not recognize that they need to start working together in a more co-operative fashion, the issues will continue to get worse.
When we think in terms of numbers, for instance, what used to be four to ten gangs in Winnipeg are now literally dozens of gangs varying in the type of violence or destruction they cause. Not all gangs are the same, but there is a certain amount of criminal activity occurring within most of those gangs. What we have seen over the last number of years is a dramatic increase not only in the number of gangs but also in the number of individual gang members. I remember sitting on the justice committee of the Manitoba legislature when we were trying to get a sense of just how many gang members there were in Winnipeg. Even though we could not be provided hard numbers because it was felt that was of a confidential nature, we were able to get a better sense. If memory serves me correctly, that better sense is somewhere just under 3,000. We know it is well into the thousands, but we could not get a tangible number.
Over the last number of years we have seen the number of people involved in gangs continue to increase. I appreciate the member for Saint Boniface, who was a north end police officer. She did a phenomenal job in dealing with the issue, of wanting to come to grips with it and help. I am sure she can sympathize when she drives around and sees the amount of gang graffiti that is out there. As best we can, we try to marginalize that. We know that when something gets tagged we have to get rid of it as soon as possible or it starts to really blossom and become an eyesore for our community.
I believe there is so much more that we could and should be doing. When I look at Bill C-51, I see a bill that does provide some hope for us. When we take a look at the origins, and here is a bit of a history on this, I would say that it came up in 1996. I believe it was former prime minister Jean Chrétien who formalized it. When I say formalized it, there has always been some form of witness protection program, but it was more of an informal type of thing. The legislation was actually enacted in 1996. At the time, people could sense the value of the program and what that program would be doing.
Back in 1996, I do not believe the authors of the legislation really had an understanding of the explosion of gang membership that was coming, in particular with our younger generations getting engaged in gangs.
At the end of the day, we are seeing is an expansion of scope, to a certain degree, in terms of who can be brought in as witnesses under the program. There is a general feeling among law enforcement agencies that with the amendments, at least in part, it is going to allow for additional discretion to deal with gangs.
I see that a positive thing. That is why I wanted to emphasize, in the best way that I could, just how serious a problem gang activity is today in Canada, and in a very indirect fashion to say that we need to give more attention to the issues of gangs, gang violence and the different types of gang activities in our communities across Canada.
This message is not only for members of the House of Commons. It is also important that this message be given to different law enforcement agencies, our court system and so forth. The message is that there is a great deal of concern in our population about what we can do to deal with the issue of gangs in our communities. I wanted to highlight that point before I got under way on some other comments.
On the bill itself, members will know I am somewhat sensitive in terms of the process, and maybe it is because of my capacity as the deputy House leader for the Liberal Party. At the end of the day we would like to have seen a process that would allow all members who wished to do so to participate in the debate.
The bill itself, in first reading, came back in late last year, just before the House rose for the Christmas break. The Christmas break does not mean holidays; it quite often means that members will be doing more of their work in their constituencies.
February 12 was when it came back to the House for second reading. It passed relatively quickly, and then it was fast-tracked, to a certain degree, through the committee stage. Now we have it here today.
At each stage, there was general support for the legislation, and there was good reason for that support. It goes back to when former prime minister Jean Chrétien introduced the legislation back in 1996.
People understand that serious crimes take place. Quite often in order to be able to bring justice to a criminal act, there is a need to tap into individuals who would put their lives or their family members' lives at risk if they get engaged.
Most people realize that we have some sort of witness protection program, but they may not know the details. I suspect most might think there is one national program, and if someone is in the program, that is it. In fact, there is a national program, there are provincial programs and there are even some more local municipal-type programs. There is a great deal of variance among them.
In order to ensure more consistency, more accountability and more transparency, it was felt that it would be best to bring in legislation to formalize it in a more tangible way.
It was brought in through the RCMP, an institution that is world-renowned for what it has done in the past, is doing today and will continue to do into the future. It has an excellent reputation.
We were given this opportunity in legislation to try to put into place better standards and some sort of guidelines, if I could put it that way.
If we look at the bill, we will see that clause 7 talks about some of the factors that should be considered prior to determining whether a witness should even be permitted into the program. It makes reference to risks to witnesses, danger to the community, the nature of the inquiry, the importance of witnesses, the value of information, evidence to be given by witnesses, the likelihood that witnesses could adjust to the program, cost, alternate methods of protection and other factors that the commissioner might see as relevant. It almost like a catch-all. These are the types of things that were put into the act in its original form.
Bill C-51 would expand that to include such things such as national security matters or national interests. Over the last eight or 10 years, the threat of terrorism has continued to exist in a very real and tangible way, so it only seems natural that there would be legislation that would attempt to deal with it. The former prime minister brought in the original legislation, so it is only natural that the Liberal Party of Canada would support making changes that would make it even better legislation, and that is what we are seeing.
Liberals have some concerns, of course. If we look at the budgets, we see a couple of interesting numbers that I would like to throw out. I read in one newspaper article that there was a briefing note that showed the 2009-10 budget was about $7.5 million. The annual report indicated that the budget had grown to $9.1 million in 2011-12, which demonstrates that there is an increase in the program.
The commissioner is required to produce annual reports, and the 2011-12 annual report showed that 108 individuals were considered for admission to the program during that period. Of those, 30 were accepted, of whom 26 came from RCMP investigations while four were admitted on behalf of Canadian law enforcement agencies. The total cost of the program, including RCMP and public servant compensation, totalled $9.1 million. It is an effective tool, and I would argue that it could be an exceptionally cost-efficient tool. If we effectively administer and use the program to meet its potential, it could prevent a lot of crimes from taking place.
I would like more co-operation to exist among the different administrations of the different levels of programs. We are starting to see that in Bill C-51. It is another good reason to support it.
It would also expand the temporary emergency protection from 90 days to 180 days. If people are in the program, it does not necessarily mean that they are in it forever. Quite often, it is just during a trial or while going through court proceedings. There is a much smaller percentage of people who need to change their identities, relocate their families, and so forth.
I appreciate the opportunity to address Bill C-51 today.