Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to Bill S-16, An Act to amend the Criminal Code, to tackle contraband tobacco.
As the parliamentary secretary said, contraband tobacco is a serious threat. The NDP takes this very seriously. We know that contraband tobacco has just as many repercussions for public health and safety as it does for lost tax revenues.
I will focus more on public health and safety a little later. To begin with, we have long been calling on the government to do something about this and to work with the communities that are affected by this the most. Unfortunately, when I asked the parliamentary secretary about this I did not get a very good answer.
My riding, Brossard—La Prairie, is close to the border. When I was campaigning in 2008, I was asked questions about contraband tobacco.
We want to study the bill further. We want it to be referred to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, of which I am a member, so that we can ask questions and see where this bill is coming from and where we can take it.
Let us be clear. We are not giving the Conservatives a blank cheque. We want to support the bill in order to truly get into the details, consult experts, witnesses and the public, and see what we can bring to it.
These are things that could be interesting to look at in the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, on which I sit with our justice critic, the hon. member for Gatineau. We are already doing very worthwhile work there. I am talking about the committee in general. I am truly proud to be part of it.
My question to the parliamentary secretary was on consultation. This is a very important bill. We know that this is a major problem. However, far too often we have seen this government introduce a bill without having done any consultation. It is very important that the communities be consulted.
The bill must be examined in committee. When the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights receives a bill, we talk about some of the important aspects. We must ensure that the rule of law prevails and that the Constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are respected. In this case, we are talking about minimum sentencing. It is something that would be well worth looking into. It is also important that we listen to what the experts have to say.
As the hon. member for Compton—Stanstead clearly stated, there is a problem with regard to resources. The government is introducing a bill, but it is not providing more resources. On the contrary, in the most recent budget, the government made cuts to both police and border resources. That is a major problem. We also still have doubts about the consultation process.
The Conservatives have introduced a bill that will affect everyone—the provinces, the territories and aboriginal reserves—but they are not providing the resources needed to enforce it. That is something we are wondering about. We will have to look at this issue in more detail and examine it more closely.
Our public safety critic mentioned how important this issue is and the impact it could have. When we talk about smuggling, we sometimes think only about what is happening here. However, more and more contraband tobacco is coming from other countries. We need to look into that and take it into account.
Why should we work to combat smuggling? As I mentioned, the NDP supports the fight against contraband tobacco. It is a public safety issue.
I have here a report published by the RCMP in 2008, entitled the “Contraband Tobacco Enforcement Strategy”, in which the RCMP states that it is very concerned about:
...the increased involvement of organized crime implicated in illegal tobacco activities...[Profits] from illegal tobacco products are also funding other criminal activities, such as drug and gun trafficking.
Knowing that tobacco smuggling is a gateway for organized crime, we must do something to address the problem. We spoke about the impact that this could have in terms of global security. We must combat smuggling, but as I mentioned earlier, we must also ensure that the committees have the resources they need.
I would like to take my hat off to the government, just the same, for one little thing that it has done. It announced the addition of 50 officers to the RCMP task force on tobacco smuggling. This is a step in the right direction. However, we have to take a broader look at the issue and consider the fact that contraband tobacco comes in through the port of Vancouver and across our border with the United States. An additional 50 officers is a good thing, but still we know budgets are being slashed and positions are being cut. We cannot be sure that the people are actually in the field. It is clear with these cuts that the government is not moving in the right direction.
The parliamentary secretary mentioned that smuggling is a public health issue, and we too are very aware of this. As we know, contraband or illegal tobacco costs less. We also know who is involved: it is young people, primarily, who cannot necessarily afford to buy the legal products that are more expensive. They will therefore try to buy contraband cigarettes. However, studies have shown that this increases smoking among young people. It is true that this is a major problem, a huge problem, and we have to do something about it.
One thing the parliamentary secretary did not talk about was the quality of the product. Contraband or illegal products may come in from other countries. As my colleague, our public safety critic, mentioned, some products have labels that look almost exactly like the labels on totally legal products. However, there is no quality control of contraband products. This is another aspect that must be considered when we look at the whole issue of illegal or contraband products. This is why the NDP wants to take action on this issue.
I also mentioned lost revenue. According to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, since 2008, it is estimated that tax revenue loss resulting from sales of illegal tobacco products has fluctuated between $1.5 billion and $2.4 billion. This is a huge amount of money that could be used for other purposes. Once again, contraband products are linked to organized crime. The money goes into the criminals’ pockets rather than being invested in social services or in programs that could be better managed. This is another reason why the problem must be tackled.
With regard to the bill itself, when RCMP officers talk about contraband, they are talking about any tobacco product that does not comply with the provisions of all applicable federal and provincial statutes. This includes importation, stamping, marking, manufacturing, distribution and payment of duties and taxes. They talk about a legislative framework for contraband tobacco that is not necessarily limited to what is proposed in Bill S-16.
Let us take a look at what currently exists, even before passage of Bill S-16. I am not sure that I agree with what the parliamentary secretary said. He said there is no instrument and that police forces cannot use certain laws. The opposite is true. First of all, offences are linked to contraband tobacco and offenders can be prosecuted under the Excise Act, 2001, or a number of general provisions in the Criminal Code. Under the provisions of the Excise Act, 2001, certain offences are already punishable by fines and prison terms of up to five years, so there already are some instruments. At the present time, the Criminal Code has no offence specifically related to contraband tobacco. However, all police forces can enforce the provisions of the Criminal Code. Consequently, by adding offences relating to contraband tobacco, Bill S-16 enables all police forces to take action on contraband tobacco.
What, specifically, does Bill S-16 do? It creates a maximum sentence of imprisonment for six months, in the case of a first offence, on summary conviction. It is imprisonment for five years in the case of an indictable offence. More specifically, it creates mandatory minimum prison sentences for repeat offenders—it is important to point this out—where a large volume of tobacco products is involved. This means 10,000 cigarettes or 10 kg of other tobacco products. To be precise, the mandatory minimum sentence for an indictable offence is imprisonment for 90 days for a second conviction, imprisonment for 180 days for a third conviction and imprisonment for two years less a day for subsequent convictions.
Contraband tobacco is a serious and grave problem that we have to tackle. The people watching us must understand the extent of the problem. According to a summary prepared by the Library of Parliament, a recent study found that national estimates range from 15% to 33% of the tobacco market being contraband, with greater percentages in Quebec and Ontario. This problem has been raised numerous times in my riding, not just by people I meet when I go door to door, but also by stakeholders.
Recently, in 2012, the Committee on Public Finance of the National Assembly of Quebec conducted a study on measures to counter the consumption of contraband tobacco, which found that in 2007, more than one-third of the cigarettes smoked in Quebec and Ontario were contraband and over 90% of these illegal cigarettes came from aboriginal reserves and lands.
The study report also discusses the issue of consultation, which I raised in my first question to the parliamentary secretary. There do not seem to have been any consultations done before the bill was introduced, and we have some questions about that. The lack of consultation is not surprising. I have seen this often since 2011, when I was elected, particularly in the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. The Conservatives are not in the habit of consulting the provinces or aboriginal people, particularly when it comes to bills that directly affect them.
What we want to verify in committee, however, is that this government has done its homework in this regard. In Quebec and Ontario, for example, contraband tobacco is a major issue. Those provinces have been working on the problem for years. We want to make sure that legislation at the federal level will not run counter to what the provinces are doing already.
Consultations are therefore important, because there are provinces already working on this issue. In fact, the first recommendation in the 2012 report of the National Assembly of Quebec says just that. I am going to read it, because I think it is very important:
That the Government of Quebec create a joint commission involving five parties, namely the governments of Quebec, Ontario, Canada and the United States as well as the Mohawk nation, to fight contraband tobacco and to develop an action plan dealing, among other things, with:
A “win-win” agreement among the governments and aboriginal people to stop the large-scale tax-exempt sale of tobacco to non-aboriginal people.
In its pre-budget consultation brief to the Standing Committee on Finance, the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco also made the same recommendation and called for more co-operation on that front.
A 2009 report from the Government Task Force on Illicit Tobacco Products raised another point: first nations communities in particular need to participate and collaborate in all initiatives to combat the problem of contraband tobacco in Canada.
We must certainly ensure that any measures aimed at addressing the problem also include consultations with first nations, as well as the necessary resources. Fighting contraband takes resources. Reserves need police resources to manage the problem.
There is also a problem with border resources. My colleague from Compton—Stanstead gave a real-life example that proved that people in these communities do not have the funding or the tools they need to address this problem. When introducing a bill that is designed to tackle this issue, the government also needs to ensure that the resources will follow. That is true for contraband that originates in the United States and contraband from foreign countries.
My colleague, our critic for public safety, the MP for Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, has mentioned to me that cuts to CBSA would not help. There are issues with contraband coming into the Port of Vancouver and not having resources to actually look into containers, not having the manpower to tackle that issue. That is a huge problem.
We did not see anything in this budget or the previous budget to ensure that we have the necessary resources to tackle that issue.
The NDP does not always oppose mandatory minimum sentences, which this bill provides for. We have supported this notion in the past, but we always have some reservations about it. We always need to ask ourselves whether this tool is really necessary. This issue really needs to be examined in committee, because it is important to look at the impact this can have on provincial prison populations and determine the additional costs, not only at the federal level, but also at the provincial and municipal levels. We also need to make sure the charter is being respected.
As I already mentioned, given that this bill came from the Senate rather than the government, once again, it bypasses the mechanisms that ensure that the charter is being respected. Unfortunately, that is a problem.
Coming back to some of the concerns raised regarding what the bill proposes, a report released by the Barreau du Québec states:
Nothing in the report [the RCMP's 2011 to 2012 progress report on contraband tobacco] challenges the effectiveness or adequacy of the measures currently set out in the Excise Act, 2001, the Criminal Code or other provincial criminal laws for the purpose of prosecuting offences related to contraband tobacco.
It goes on to say:
In fact, the RCMP did not make any recommendations regarding amending the legislation, and particularly the Criminal Code, which in its current form is already an effective tool that police officers can use to prosecute offences related to contraband tobacco.
These are some of the questions we are asking ourselves, and they need to be examined more thoroughly. That is why we want to send this bill to committee. We understand that it is very important to address contraband tobacco for public health and safety reasons, as I mentioned. All of these questions are crucial. Many people, including some of my constituents, have told me that we need to tackle this problem. However, we also need to look at the tools that are being used and the tools in this bill and go forward from there.
On an issue as important as this, one that involves amending the Criminal Code, it is really unfortunate that Bill S-16 had to come from the Senate, the other place, which is unelected. We have to wonder whether that is the ideal place to introduce such a bill.
As everyone in the House knows, the Senate is mired in scandal. We wonder how appropriate it is to introduce Senate bills in the House. Why go through the Senate? It is a good question that is hard to answer.
As far as civil society is concerned, I have met with people in my riding and I have also met with a number of groups, because this is a major problem. There is the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco and the Canadian Convenience Stores Association, which has been running a campaign on the ground for years.
These groups represent convenience stores and chambers of commerce. There is public support for tackling contraband. In my opinion it is essential.
It is also important that all levels of government—including federal, provincial, municipal and first nations—meet this challenge...It is important that governments collaborate with aboriginal communities to find innovative solutions.
They are quite pleased that 50 RCMP officers are being assigned to this problem because that was one of their recommendations. This is a step in the right direction.
Resources and consultation are the problems. One thing is for sure: when the NDP forms the government in 2015, it will consult the public, including aboriginal communities, before introducing such an important bill.