Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House to speak to Bill C-32, Victims Bill of Rights Act, at report stage.
This charter codifies the federal rights of victims of crime to information, protection, participation and restitution. It also amends some related legislation. Basically, this charter is meant to grant rights to victims, who have often been the forgotten parties in our justice system.
We are at report stage, but it took eight years and countless photo ops and press conferences for the Conservatives to finally decide to introduce their bill. I would really like to believe the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice when he said that they consulted 185 groups and 300 online submissions, but I am not sure they actually heard the message.
All the parties represented on committee agreed on the charter, although we tried our best to improve the charter so that it would produce the desired results for victims. My heart breaks for these victims. However, this is a first step, so we will take it. It is important to be positive in life.
That said, we could have done so much better. We already spoke about this charter at length at second reading. The parliamentary secretary has already named a number of witnesses, and I will not repeat that. However, I will say that about 40 people appeared before the committee over the many days we spent listening, reflecting and presenting amendments that we felt reflected the concerns of victims.
At least we had enough time to hear all the witnesses we called in. As an aside, Saskatchewan submitted a brief in the form of a letter and Alberta's justice minister provided testimony via video conference to share his arguments.
It is too bad, because victims groups, victims rights groups, and legal groups all agree: the responsibility of enforcing this bill of rights will fall to the provinces. We all realize that. It is clear that the provinces will bear the burden of codifying these rights to information, protection, participation and restitution.
It is too bad that we did not get opinions from all the provinces, but at the same time, as one witness in committee said so well, this suggests that the provinces are not very interested in this Canadian bill of rights.
More often we were told that this bill of rights simply codifies federally what is already being done on the ground. The victims rights groups showed us that this is applied haphazardly and in different ways in various regions across our large country. That might be the good thing about this victims bill of rights, but the provinces still need to be on board. As a crown prosecutor who testified before the committee wisely said, if every tribunal applies these rights differently, then we are no further ahead.
We could have done so much better. The government rejected a number of sound amendments. I will read a few.
I am especially saddened to hear that victims rights groups, or the victims themselves, came before the committee to tell us that the problem with the charter is that there is absolutely nothing binding in it.
We often rise in the House to criticize the government for its mandatory minimum sentences and the fact that it basically forces the courts to go in a certain direction and does not let them be the judge or use their own judgement and experience to hand down the best decisions. We have a charter that offers too much flexibility, to the point that just about anyone can do just about anything with this charter.
The message for the victims is sad, but also positive. The positive aspect is that we are finally talking about the victims and we are all united in this. Something has to be done, something has to happen. A heartfelt plea has been made and heard. We must not allow this to be forgotten, so that in three, four, five or six years we will not have to go back to the drawing board and do things right.
I want to give some examples of how this is not very binding. The bill of rights provides for a complaint mechanism. We cannot tell the provinces how to do their job. At the federal level, no one is quite sure how this complaint mechanism will work. To whom do people complain? What we are being told is that if someone files a complaint, the decision will not be binding, so as not to create problems. This means that we have a complaint mechanism, but ultimately, it will not do much.
I also want to talk about the right to information. I think it is rather absurd to say that victims have a right to information, since victims will have to assert that right. The amendments that the NDP proposed in committee were basic amendments. They had nothing to do with how the processes work. They did not affect outcomes or protections for the accused. They were in full compliance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but at the same time, they made certain aspects of the bill of rights stronger, such as the right to information. All victims have the right to information, but not as it is currently set out in the bill of rights, which states that they must request it.
It is a matter of onus. The onus is still on the victims. Victims have to ask for their rights, whether it be the right to information or the right to be kept up to date. Things will be done only at the victims' request. In my opinion, the crux of this bill of rights is found at the very beginning of Bill C-32. That is the very heart of the rights set out in this much-touted bill of rights. Without that, it is just a bunch of statements of principle that do not amount to much.
The bill enacts a bill of rights and then states:
Every victim has the right, on request, to information about...
In clause 7, it reads:
Every victim has the right, on request, to information...
Clause 8 indicates:
Every victim has the right, on request, to information...
If we want to do right by victims, if we want to really give them rights, if we want to give them their rightful place in the justice system, then at some point we need to do more than introduce a bill filled with platitudes.
We are not objecting to Bill C-32. I agree with everyone that it is a small step in the right direction. I am pleased that the government accepted an amendment from the opposition, one of the amendments that I proposed. I am not trying to flatter myself because I feel as though my proposal was completely watered down. We were asking for the House of Commons committee, the Senate committee or the committees for both chambers designated or established for that purpose to examine the application of the enacted Canadian victims bill of rights two years after clause 2 came into force. The Conservatives changed the timeline to five years.
That is rather unfortunate, as is the fact that they did not agree to listen to the provinces, which were asking for a little more time to apply the bill of rights.
Money will be the sinews of war when it comes to the application of the bill of rights.