Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak in support of Bill S-16, an act to amend the Criminal Code (trafficking in contraband tobacco).
I want to begin my comments by saying that I agree with my colleagues across the way. When it comes to contraband tobacco, there are a number of challenges that have to be addressed. Certainly there is the issue of young people or individuals who smoke, the demand for tobacco and an increased demand for contraband tobacco, and the whole aspect of crime prevention.
However, up to this point the challenge has been the legislative gap. Law enforcement has only been able to charge individuals who are involved in this kind of illegal activity under the Excise Act. As legislators, we have a responsibility to look at issues like this and address them in their totality. That is why this piece of legislation is important and vital. However, it is not the only piece to combat the problem of contraband tobacco.
We do not want to target individuals, such as a young person who has contraband tobacco on their person. That is not what we are talking about. As my colleague from the Liberal Party mentioned, we are talking about organized crime and very serious traffickers who are involved in all kinds of other illegal trafficking.
I will begin by talking about the technical parts of this bill and some of the changes that would occur. I also want to talk about what Public Safety and the RCMP are doing in terms of the new unit we committed to in 2011, which is being formed right now.
Bill S-16 is another part of our government's plan for safe streets and communities. It focuses on tackling crime and putting victims' rights ahead of criminals. We are setting the conditions for fair and efficient justice.
The bill proposes to amend the Criminal Code to create a new offence of trafficking in contraband tobacco. This new offence would carry penalties that would better reflect the harm caused by the trade in contraband tobacco. Specifically, the bill would impose mandatory minimum penalties of imprisonment for persons who are convicted of this offence for a second or subsequent time. It would not be for the very first criminal offence, and it certainly would not be an offence charged under the Excise Act. A second offence would be under Criminal Code charges.
The proposed new offence against dealing in contraband tobacco would prohibit the sale, possession for the purpose of sale, offer for sale, as well as the transportation, delivery or distribution of a tobacco product or raw leaf tobacco that is not packaged unless it is stamped. The terms “tobacco product”, “raw leaf tobacco”, “package” and “stamps”, would have the same meaning as they have in section 2 of the Excise Act, 2001.
A first-time offender convicted under the new offence would face a maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment on summary conviction, and up to five years' imprisonment if prosecuted on indictment. Repeat offenders convicted of this new offence involving large amounts would face mandatory minimum penalties. In cases involving 10,000 cigarettes or more, or 10 kilograms or more of any other tobacco product or raw leaf tobacco, a second-time offender would face a mandatory minimum penalty of 90 days' imprisonment. A third-time offender would face a mandatory minimum penalty of 180 days, and a person convicted of a fourth offence or more would face a mandatory minimum penalty of two years less a day.
We believe this provides a very balanced approach. It is not an overly harsh approach, but one that certainly provides new legislation and tools that law enforcement need in order to combat contraband tobacco trafficking.
Bill S-16 would also amend the definition of Attorney General in the Criminal Code so as to give the Attorney General of Canada concurrent jurisdiction within the provinces to prosecute this new offence. Again, the Excise Act only applies federally. This would give provincial police the ability to lay these same types of charges under the Criminal Code.
I believe these proposals represent a tailored approach to the imposition of mandatory minimum penalties for serious contraband tobacco activities. The bill proposes minimum penalties only in cases where there is a specific aggravating factor, and that would be the quantity of tobacco product.
Contraband tobacco threatens the public safety of all Canadians, our communities and our economy. Many people think it is a victimless crime, that it is individuals wanting to buy cigarettes for less money. However, that could not be further from the truth.
There is a huge organized crime aspect to contraband tobacco, and it threatens all of us, certainly our children and our young people. It also has implications for relationships with our international partners, especially the United States. The trade in contraband tobacco fuels the growth of organized criminal networks and is attacking the health of our Canadian youth.
We only need to look at the closest schoolyard to see that impact. When we look at areas where schools have designated a smoking area, it is sad to say that there was a time when that was going down, but it is evident that more and more young people are starting to smoke. We even see smoking in the media and in Hollywood movies, even though smoking is taboo. Sadly it seems that more and more young people are smoking, and contraband tobacco only feeds that.
A study conducted in 2007, 2008 and 2009 on the proliferation of contraband tobacco at high schools in Ontario and Quebec reveals that nearly one-third of the cigarettes found at Ontario high schools and over 40% of those at Quebec high schools were contraband products. That speaks volumes about the problem that contraband is tobacco is causing and the impact it is having as far as young people beginning to smoke.
We also know that studies show if young people begin smoking at an early age, it is much harder for them to quit. It is much harder for them, even as adults who may want to stop smoking. It becomes very difficult. We can see by the evidence that contraband tobacco is certainly fueling the proliferation of our young people who are smoking.
Obviously a problem of this magnitude requires a comprehensive set of responses, as I said at the beginning of my speech. Bill S-16 contributes to this response by strengthening our criminal law framework's response to trafficking in contraband tobacco. Bill S-16 is only a part of the government's broader response to combat the trafficking and cross-border smuggling of contraband tobacco.
Another key element of our response is the establishment of a 50-officer RCMP anti-contraband tobacco force. This was the commitment we made in 2011 and we are following through on this commitment. This new force builds on the existing RCMP strategy, which focuses on reducing the availability of and demands for contraband tobacco, and again, the involvement of organized crime that plays such a big role in the contraband tobacco problem in Canada.
Another critical part of our broader, law enforcement response is the fact that the RCMP and Canada Customs have seized record quantities of contraband tobacco.
As I mentioned earlier, organized crime plays a central role in Canada's contraband tobacco trade, with the result that most of the organized crime groups across the country involved in illicit tobacco markets are also involved in a number of other forms of criminality. It is never just one contraband product that they are trafficking; they are usually involved as well in other banned illegal substances, guns, and the smuggling and trafficking of humans.
The problem is further complicated by the international aspect of the illicit tobacco trade. On this issue, it is important to recall that Canada and the United States share a long history of law enforcement co-operation. Recent and ongoing threat assessments have identified organized crime as the most prevalent threat encountered at our shared borders. As we work together with our partners and with our friends to the south of us, we recognize that the problems that we have at the borders, and indeed smuggling of guns, tobacco or whatever might be smuggled, is primarily done by organized criminals in Canada and the U.S.
This includes significant levels of contraband trafficking, as I said, ranging from illicit drugs and tobacco to firearms, primarily handguns. Handguns are the primary firearm that is being trafficked and used in organized crime activities. I mentioned human smuggling, which is sadly becoming a greater problem. Our government is certainly addressing human smuggling and even human trafficking.
Recognizing our mutual interest in the security of our shared waters on the coasts, the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway, Canada and the United States explored the concept of integrated cross-border maritime law enforcement operations. Commonly, this has been referred to as the shiprider agreement. It would permit marine law enforcement vessels to be jointly crewed by specially trained and designated Canadian and American law enforcement officers who are authorized to enforce the law on both sides of the international boundary line in the course of integrated cross-border operations.
Again, this represents a very practical and efficient solution to illegal activity at our borders, especially in our waterways. It would give law enforcement authorization in America but primarily in Canada. We are obviously looking to the Canadian side, where we would be able to work together with our partners to combat this problem, as well as other organized illegal activity that could happen at the border. Designated law enforcement officers from the RCMP and the United States Coast Guard, and other law enforcement agencies from Canada and the U.S., would now be able to conduct seamless policing operations to disrupt organized crime and criminal activity at the border.
Canada and the United States piloted a project between the RCMP and the U.S. Coast Guard that authorized integrated cross-border maritime law enforcement between these two organizations.
The shiprider pilot project had immeasurable impact upon cross-border criminal activity, including removing the border as an impediment to effective border policing. Again, this is a very practical and very efficient way of border policing. For example, during the 2007 pilot project, the RCMP and the U.S. Coast Guard officers participated in more than 187 boardings, which resulted in the seizure of 1,420,000 contraband cigarettes.That is a huge number of cigarettes that were intercepted and stopped because of the pilot project, which has been very effective.
A framework agreement to govern deployment of regularized shiprider operations was signed in May 2009, following the successful pilot project. Legislation seeking to implement the agreement was enacted in 2012.
Today, the contraband tobacco market is largely driven by illegal operations in both Canada and the U.S. Ontario and Quebec have the highest concentration of contraband tobacco manufacturing operations, the majority of the high-volume smuggling points, and the largest number of consumers of contraband tobacco. Certainly, members of Parliament from both Ontario and Quebec will be recognizing this as a problem in each of their provinces. However, we do recognize that it is a national problem to be addressed at the national level.
Locally, there is so much that can be done. We are working together with law enforcement in both provinces, the RCMP team as well as other integrated teams but, legislatively, we have to address it at the national level in order to be able to look at the areas where it is growing and address those problems.
The 2012 national threat assessment on organized and serious crime, prepared by Criminal Intelligence Service Canada, has identified 58 organized crime groups which are involved in the contraband tobacco network. We are not just talking about somebody going across to the United States, buying cheap cigarettes and bringing them back for their relatives or selling them to neighbours. We are talking about a very serious problem. If we do not deal with it as a criminal activity, it will continue to grow.
I know we appreciate the involvement of stakeholders that also recognize this problem. That is why we have introduced this legislation.
These criminal networks reinvest profits from the manufacture and distribution of contraband tobacco into other forms of criminality, including the trafficking of illicit drugs, firearms and human smuggling.
Furthermore, and again this is a key part of this issue, the RCMP reports that violence and intimidation tactics continue to be associated with the contraband tobacco trade. As any organized criminal activity will prove, there is an increase in violence, in the threat to public safety and other criminal activity associated with this.
The federal government launched the RCMP's contraband tobacco enforcement strategy in 2008. They worked together.The contraband tobacco enforcement strategy focuses on reducing the ability of, and demand for, contraband tobacco, and the involvement of organized crime.
In addition to the enforcement measures of this strategy, the task force on illicit tobacco products was formed to identify concrete measures to disrupt and reduce the trade in contraband tobacco. We worked together with our partners and other agencies throughout the country. This task force brought together a number of different facets and stakeholders, and law enforcement to look at how we reduce the demand for, stop the production of, and disrupt the illegal activity surrounding contraband tobacco.
Based on the recommendations of the task force, the Government of Canada announced in May 2010 an investment of $20 million for a series of measures to disrupt the supply of and demand for contraband tobacco. Again, I know the opposition talked about resources to do this. We are really taking a very strong, measured approach where we have the legislation that we need but we are also providing resources to tackle this problem. That is the way we have to look at it; we cannot just come at it from one angle but from a number of levels.
These measures are paying off. Since the inception of the contraband tobacco enforcement strategy in 2008 and up to May 2012, the RCMP has laid approximately 4,925 charges under the Excise Act, 2001, and disrupted approximately 66 organized crime groups involved in the contraband tobacco trade throughout Canada. Again, this is paying off.
There is still more work to be done, but we can see that the RCMP is able to target, intercept and stop this activity. What they need now is an ability to charge under the Criminal Code and to have mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders and those who are trading in large quantities of tobacco.
During that time period that I mentioned, approximately 3.5 million cartons or unmarked bags of cigarettes were seized nationally by the RCMP, along with numerous vehicles, vessels and property. Those numbers are staggering, when we think that that number of cigarettes is being sold illegally, getting into the hands of our children, sometimes tainted with who knows what, as my colleague has mentioned. There are so many problems surrounding contraband tobacco. We can just look at the numbers: 3.5 million cartons sized by the RCMP.
We are proud that the strategy is having an effect. Again, we believe that this bill will just add another layer of strength to the contraband tobacco enforcement strategy.
Taken together, these initiatives are having a measurable and positive impact on reducing the contraband tobacco market. It is clear that the illicit tobacco market is dominated by criminal organizations, motivated by the lure of significant profits and relatively low risk.
Enforcement actions are therefore directed at increasing the risks associated with contraband tobacco activities, dismantling illegal manufacturing facilities, disrupting the supply lines, apprehending key figures, confiscating conveyances such as trucks and boats, and seizing the proceeds of crime. Again, it is a whole strategy where, piece by piece, law enforcement can take apart the organized crime element of the contraband tobacco activity. These actions will achieve a disruption in the flow of illicit tobacco and weaken the organized crime groups involved in the production, distribution, smuggling and trafficking of contraband tobacco.
To achieve these goals, the RCMP has engaged in joint targeted initiatives with law enforcement partners and other stakeholders across Canada and even, as mentioned earlier, internationally. These initiatives range from short-term to long-term investigations, from simple to complex, and include varying awareness campaigns.
While we do recognize we have made gains, we also do realize that as legislators we need to do more. We need to make sure that Bill S-16 passes, that criminal activity is indeed targeted, and that there are mandatory minimum sentences associated with organized crime for individuals who are trafficking large quantities of contraband tobacco.
That this question be now put.