Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House to speak to Bill C-10. We supported it at second reading, but we had quite a number of concerns, particularly in terms of its compliance with the charter because it includes mandatory minimum penalties.
I am also concerned about the process that led to Bill C-10. The government did not consult the partners in the federation, namely the provinces, the territories and the first nations. We were therefore determined to carry out a thorough study in committee. That is what I hoped for.
The committee did a good job. It heard witnesses in various capacities talk about the scourge of contraband tobacco. I will have no trouble convincing everyone in the House that contraband tobacco is a scourge, period.
However, there might be a little hypocrisy around this issue in our society. Even as the government tries to control tobacco and fight contraband tobacco, it is raising taxes on tobacco and making a lot of money that way. That hypocrisy became entrenched over the years, and now it is complicating the issue. Add to that the ancestral rights of first nations peoples to manufacture tobacco, and the issue gets very murky.
The Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights had some good meetings. It heard from excellent witnesses, including chiefs of first nations. I did not hear a single first nations chief express support for contraband tobacco to the committee. Nevertheless, the chiefs were very realistic. They insisted on protecting their traditional rights to produce and grow tobacco as they have done historically within their territory.
That being said, they are also aware that contraband tobacco, which is often part of organized crime activity on their land, has the lure of easy money for their young people. It is a vicious circle because there is a great deal of poverty on first nations lands that tends to get ignored, and then we are surprised when the black market takes hold there. This does not help first nations chiefs to provide their people on their land with something worthwhile.
I have already done so in person, but since we have the time, I would like to publicly thank my NDP colleagues who served with me on the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights and who may not get the chance to speak to the bill in the House. They did exceptional work. I particularly want to thank the NDP deputy justice critic, the hon. member for La Pointe-de-l'Île, the hon. member for Brome—Missisquoi and the hon. member for Beaches—East York. They contributed a lot to this file through their personal experience in their own part of the country.
What is more, we proposed an amendment. I am still sad that the government did not see fit to approve the amendment that we proposed to respect R. v. Gladue. That decision calls on the courts, when sentencing, to consider the extenuating circumstances of the accused when the accused is from the first nations, especially considering that there are mandatory minimum sentences. That is the requirement that resulted from that decision, but according to lawyers at Justice Canada, Bill C-10 will take precedence over R. v. Gladue. We will see whether there are more appeals. I suspect there will be.
If one of the people arrested is a first nations member, it is very possible that the defence will make use of some of the arguments in the Gladue ruling. I think it would be wise to say that this did not trump the facts in the Gladue case.
True to form, the Conservatives are so terrified of adopting any amendment other than their own, and I find that very unfortunate. They may be rapped on the knuckles once again, as they have been in the last four or five major Supreme Court decisions. I feel like a mother who says “I told you so”, and I am a little tired of that. That is how I have felt for the past three years.
The opposition members are trying to do their job. I listened to the prayer recited by the Speaker at the beginning of the sitting. He asked Parliament to make good laws. I believe that is what we are trying to do both in the House and in committees.
Suffice it to say that the amendment was rejected. The mandatory minimum sentences will apply to repeat offenders, where a high volume of contraband tobacco is involved, and so my concerns about the sentences have been allayed. I still have no guarantee that the bill complies with our charters because the government does not see to be too worried about that. When we weigh out the two issues, public protection and contraband tobacco, which affects our children, we realize that this is extremely important.
The NDP has always taken the problem of contraband tobacco in Canada seriously, and Bill C-10 has not changed that.
I am going to digress for a moment regarding Bill C-10. When it was introduced in the House, we were told it was an absolute emergency, but it has been around for a long time now. If memory serves me correctly, the bill passed second reading in November. It was then referred to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, where we worked very diligently and quickly. Throughout the month of December, until the adjournment, we worked on this legislation. As soon as we came back after Christmas, in early February, we proceeded to clause by clause. What is intriguing is that the bill then fell into oblivion. We never heard about it again. Then, this week, I noticed we were going to debate Bill C-10. There are many numbers in my head, such as C-10, C-32 dealing with prostitution, C-587,C-590 and others. All these bills seem to deal with justice.
When I saw my name tied to Bill C-10, I wondered what the bill was about. It reminded me of the good old days when I was pleading before the court. We would prepare a case and arrive in court with witnesses. Unfortunately, for some very serious reason, the other side would ask for a postponement. We had prepared the case and met with witnesses and we were more than ready. We would return to our office, back at square one, and tell ourselves that we would wait for the next time. However, we sometimes had to wait a year or a year and a half and start all over again. Clients would sometime wonder why we were billing new hours. The answer was that we had to refresh our memory.
This is the impression I get with Bill C-10. I had to review the whole file because, in the meantime, we had debated several other justice bills and a number of issues that are now in the annals of the House. The government does not have to tell us this is urgent. The Conservatives seem to move into high gear at two very specific times: during the week preceding the holiday season and during the last two or three weeks before the summer recess. During these periods, we are incredibly productive.
I almost wish we could change the calendar so that it could be June all year long. Canadians across the country would be amazed at our productivity.
This week in the House, we debated Motion No. 10, which supposedly seeks to increase our work hours. It seems we are not working enough, but if that is the case, I am not sure why I am tired. In any event, I was listening to some of my colleagues, and their argument was that we had passed only nine bills.
What is fascinating is that about 15 bills will likely be passed in two weeks. One has to wonder if that means that we are being more productive or less democratic because we will have less time to speak to these bills and fewer people will have the opportunity to speak on each topic. I think the answer is obvious.
Bill C-10 is a good example. It has been sitting on someone's desk since February when it could have been passed quickly the week after it came back from committee. There were no formal or serious objections that would have prevented the bill from passing. This bill could have been passed by now.
These are important points to raise. I would never let anybody tell me that we are not working hard on these issues because we take them very seriously. Sometimes, we rise to speak to a bill at second reading to raise some of our concerns. There is no denying that we are concerned about this bill.
I know that the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco is made up of many people who benefit from tobacco sales. I was not born yesterday, and I see where their interests lie. In their testimony, some police forces also told us that they will need resources. This is an extremely important message that came out of the committee's examination of Bill C-10.
The first nations have their own to-do list for their territory. We need to stop making cuts to first nation police services. If Bill C-10 gives the police new tools by adding an offence to the Criminal Code that existed only under the Excise Tax Act, then from now on all police forces can begin dealing with contraband tobacco. However, we have to give them the resources they need. We need police officers on the front lines.
Some witnesses also told us that contraband was increasingly coming from countries other than Canada, for example, China. This is an issue for border services, and this agency will need resources. All we ever hear about on the news and here in the House is successive budget cuts being made to border services. How do we expect this agency to combat the large-scale smuggling that organized crime groups are conducting through well-organized networks?
This is not just about tobacco; it is also about arms and drug smuggling. It is all connected. The government is always a bit hypocritical, since it introduces bills and claims to want to fix everything, but it does not provide tools for the people on the ground so that they can do their jobs properly. I find that worrisome. Nevertheless, all of the witnesses we heard from in committee made the facts clear, regardless of their reasons.
For example, I know that the Canadian Convenience Stores Association wants us to put an end to contraband tobacco. When contraband cigarettes are available, no one buys cigarettes at the convenience store. The association does not want to put an end to tobacco use; it wants to put an end to illegal competition in its industry. The association is right. We must stop being hypocritical. If we decide that tobacco is a legal industry in Canada, even though we know that it kills, these stores should be able to happily sell it and make money legally.
That is why I really liked the question my colleague from Abitibi—Témiscamingue asked the parliamentary secretary. She asked him if there were ways other than Bill C-10 to eliminate the scourge of tobacco. She and I both know that it is not easy to quit smoking. She can share her personal experience with that. In my case, I have been chewing Nicorette since 1999. People in the committee had quite a laugh when I told them that. In December, I was proud to tell them that I had quit Nicorette, but unfortunately I have to admit to everyone that I have started up again. It must be the Conservatives' fault I guess, because either I chew Nicorette or I get even more aggressive than usual. That is what I thought: everyone is eager to recommend that I chew Nicorette. That is what I do. Maybe I will stop one day. My point is that it is a constant battle.
We tell kids not to smoke, but tobacco companies attract them with all kinds of products. I know that is why I started smoking when I was young. It was cool. We thought we were so smart. Had I known how bloody hard it would be to quit 30 or 40 years later, maybe I would never have started. Young people know that now.
There are other ways, as my colleague from Abitibi—Témiscamingue said. There has to be a concerted public health effort, not just changes to the Criminal Code. There has to be a concerted effort to raise people's awareness that this product kills. That is what the warnings on cigarette packs say: this stuff kills, causes all sorts of problems and places a heavy burden on our health system. We have to do everything in our power to bring tobacco use rates down as quickly as possible.
We will tackle the issue of contraband tobacco immediately. I hope that it will help, but I am not convinced that it is the silver bullet or that it will solve every problem. I want to reiterate that for the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice. This bill will come into force on a date to be fixed by order in council. That is better than when we are sometimes told that the bill will come into force within 30 days of the bill being passed, which means that it applies immediately. I feel that it is of the utmost importance that the government use the time before the bill comes into force to sit down and talk with the first nations that have a considerable number of issues with and concerns about the bill. It is not that they support contraband tobacco. However, as Gina Deer, Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, said:
Bill C-10 proposes an infringement on our inherent aboriginal and treaty rights pertaining to the production, transportation, sale, and regulation of tobacco products.
If that is how Chief Deer perceives Bill C-10, a government representative needs to sit down with the chiefs to correct that perception. I think that the government's vision has to be explained, and first nations and the government need to discuss it as equals. The government did not have the decency to do that before it introduced the bill.
We are supporting this bill, even with its flaws. I am still waiting for the Conservatives to introduce a perfect bill. I do not think it is going to happen any time soon. That said, the committee did a fine job. I would like to thank my committee colleagues for their work, and I would also like to thank the witnesses who came to enlighten us on this subject, which is not always straightforward.
I appreciate the work being done by police, in particular. They do not have an easy job. As I said earlier, when we talk about contraband tobacco, the discussion often turns to other types of contraband or illegal activities such as organized crime and dangerous individuals. Police officers are putting their lives in danger every day. We must appreciate their work, but we also need to give them the tools and means to do their job. They have all been critical of that.
That also includes police forces in first nations territories, the aboriginal police who do this work and whose programs have been eliminated by the government. At some point you have to put your money where your mouth is. If the government wants to take action, it must provide the tools.
Bill C-10 is not very long and everyone should read it. For those who are worried about mandatory minimum sentences, they apply to repeat offenders and cases involving large quantities of contraband tobacco, as I was saying.