Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord.
I rise tonight to speak in favour of Bill C-54 at third reading. I must say that from the day the government first announced its intention to introduce this bill, I have supported the bill in principle. I believe the matters we are seized with in Bill C-54 are very important, even though the number of individuals affected is very small.
The unfortunate incidents which have brought us to this debate tonight are obviously extremely wrenching for all the victims and their families. Yet, at the same time, there is a real danger that the very small number of extreme incidents resulting from mental illness will cloud our collective judgment when it comes to addressing the broader issues of mental health in Canadian society.
I believe the bill we have before us today is a reasonably balanced bill. It is certainly not as good as it might have been, but it is better in some key ways than what was originally introduced.
To me, the most important improvement was the addition of an amendment proposed by the NDP to add a mandated five-year review of the legislation by Parliament. This is a very good way to make sure we have this right. We will look at it again in five years to see what the impacts have been.
However, the most important reason for supporting this bill is the significant progress it makes in enhancing victims rights, especially in the cases where the accused is found not criminally responsible for his or her actions.
I want to draw attention to four ways in which the rights of victims, and in particular their safety, are improved in Bill C-54.
The most important one is the entrenching in law of the right of victims, upon request, to be notified when the perpetrator is discharged. We have had one case when someone ran into someone in the community who they thought was still in custody. Obviously, that could be very shocking It would be upon request, but victims should certainly have that right.
Second is the provision to allow orders to be made that forbid communication between the perpetrator and the victim.
Third is the provision that adds a requirement for the review boards that makes these decisions about the release of perpetrators to consider the safety of victims when decisions are being made about the perpetrator.
The fourth major improvement, and again it was not in the original bill but was added via an NDP amendment, is the provision that is closely related to the first improvement. It would give victims the right to be notified of the address of the perpetrator if the perpetrator is released, thus making it less likely that they will have inadvertent contact with the perpetrator, which can obviously be very traumatic.
The second reason I have for supporting this bill is the fact that it now makes public safety the paramount consideration for provincial review boards in decisions relating to those found unfit to stand trial or found not criminally responsible for their actions.
The change here is that public safety becomes the most important consideration; it is not just one item on a list of considerations. Our criminal justice system always ought to function with public safety in mind, so these cases should be no different. We also need to remind ourselves that public safety, as the main priority, does not diminish our responsibility to consider these cases and to make sure they function within the bedrock of our legal system, which is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The third reason I have for supporting this bill is the fact that it creates a high-risk designation for those who are found not criminally responsible for the most violent incidents. I want to stress that we are talking about a very small number of cases where the perpetrator is found not criminally responsible. It starts with a small number of those decisions, and then there is a very small number among that group.
The definition that is provided in the bill is quite sound. It talks about applying a high-risk designation to those found not criminally responsible for serious personal injury offences where there is a substantial likelihood for further violence that would endanger the public, or where acts were so brutal as to indicate a risk of great harm to the public. We are not saying that all of those found not criminally responsible will end up falling into this high-risk category, but only those who provide a great risk to the public.
This is a designation that would be made by a court and that could only be removed by a court. The result of such a designation would be to deny granting unescorted absences from a secure health facility. It would place limits on the reasons for escorted absences. It would also provide the possibility, just the possibility, of lengthening the period for review of the status of the perpetrator from one year to a maximum of three years, again at the discretion of the court.
When we are talking about creating this high-risk designation, it is important to remember the context. When considering the case of someone found not criminally responsible, provincial review boards have three choices.
The board's first choice is an absolute discharge if the person does not pose a significant threat to public safety. This means release back into society with no restrictions or supervision. I emphasize that very few of those who are found not criminally responsible are granted an absolute discharge at their first hearing. This is due to the obvious necessity of taking time to allow therapy to work. In fact, at the annual reviews in B.C., only 18% of cases are granted an absolute discharge, while the rate in Ontario is even lower at only 5%. If we look over time, studies revealed that 35% of those found not criminally responsible spend more than 10 years in the system, so it is not true that those who are found not criminally responsible are released immediately as the system exists now. However, the change we would make here is to ensure that there would be additional consideration: a second set of eyes to look at those decisions when those high-risk designated perpetrators are considered for release.
The second choice available to the expert provincial review boards is a conditional discharge. Just as it sounds, this option allows a return to society under conditions which include things like specifying a place of residence, a treatment regime or reporting requirements. These are conditions very similar to those used in the parole system.
Finally, the third choice is to retain the perpetrator in custody in a secure health facility.
I know there are those who are very worried about the creation of this high-risk designation, but its importance here is the reassurance that it would offer to both victims and the public alike, as a person designated as high risk would not be eligible for conditional or absolute discharge until both the review board and the court are convinced that the perpetrator is no longer high risk.
There is no doubt that the current system has left the public and families of victims feeling exposed. This is true if we are talking about the case of the beheading of Tim McLean on a Greyhound bus in Manitoba in 2008, where the perpetrator was held in a facility where the grounds were not fenced, and was allowed out on his own onto those grounds very soon after the events; and where the perpetrator was allowed escorted absences that were perceived to be much too early and caused a very strong public outcry. Many people were not reassured by the explanation that the perpetrator was fine so long as he was taking his medications.
This reassurance is also needed if we are talking about a case like the three Schoenborn children who were killed by their father in B.C., again in 2008. His ex-wife was understandably concerned when the perpetrator was granted escorted absences in the same suburban Vancouver community where she lived.
From the moment the government introduced this legislation, I felt it would be in the public interest to adopt it in principle, and I believe we have had significant improvements at the committee level.
However, before concluding, I would like to take just a moment to address some of the concerns expressed by those opposed to the bill.
First, I would say there should be no confusion. This bill in no way would affect the availability or the use of the defence of not criminally responsible by anyone accused of an offence.
Second, I would say that I understand the concern that the focus on the most violent incidents involving mental illness may inadvertently contribute to the unfortunate stigma surrounding mental illness in our society. However, it is my hope that in fact this bill would accomplish the opposite by helping reduce the fears surrounding these extreme incidents.
Finally, I would say that I share the concern of all those who have pointed out the deficiencies in the way we deal with mental illness in our society, especially in terms of the lack of services and supports for those individuals and families struggling to deal with the impacts of mental illness on a daily basis.
In conclusion, I believe that in Bill C-54 we have before us a balanced bill, one that could have been further improved with the additional amendments that were offered by the NDP, but nevertheless a balanced bill. Most important, I believe that Bill C-54 would deal more justly with victims and their families in cases where the perpetrator is found not criminally responsible. We have a bill before us that would make it clear that public safety must be the paramount consideration in all these cases. Finally, we have a bill in front of us that would address those very few cases involving extreme violence and high risk of recurrence, and it would do so in a way that would ensure a thorough review of the case in order to guarantee public safety and to reassure the families of victims.
For these reasons, I will be supporting Bill C-54 at third reading.