moved that Bill C-343, An Act to establish the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Criminal Acts and to amend certain Acts, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am very proud to rise in the House today for the second reading of my first private member's bill, Bill C-343, an act to establish the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Criminal Acts and to amend certain acts.
The position of ombudsman for victims of crime was created in 2007. Like the ombudsman for the Department of National Defence and the ombudsman for offenders, or correctional investigator, the ombudsman for victims of crime exists for a reason: to defend the rights and interests of those in need of such advocacy.
Unlike the other federal ombudsmen, the ombudsman for victims of crime currently operates under a Justice Canada program and therefore is not independent from that department.
The main goal of Bill C-343 is to make the position of ombudsman for victims of crime equal to the position of correctional investigator. Commonly referred to as the ombudsman for offenders, the correctional investigator is federally appointed and operates at arm's length from the Department of Justice, unlike the ombudsman for victims of crime.
The ombudsman for victims of crime is currently not independent from the Department of Justice and is required to submit all her annual reports to the department instead of Parliament. Accordingly, if the ombudsman for victims of crime makes a recommendation or criticism in her report that is unfavourable to the Department of Justice, the department can remove it from the report at any time and thereby directly circumvent one of the chief purposes of the ombudsman for victims of crime, which is to be a voice for the victims and represent their rights and interests.
For victims of crime, having a voice and fair and equitable representation before the Department of Justice is critical to their healing process, which is all too often a difficult one. After experiencing a terrible trauma that is incredibly hard to survive, victims far too often have to fight to get their rights recognized at every stage of their journey.
The road to rehabilitation and healing is long and daunting. Victims have to provide a statement and testimony at trial, they have to be able to understand and digest all the legal jargon, and they might have to challenge a ruling. They also have to duly fill out a multitude of forms, even just to have the right to receive information.
Given that the ombudsman's responsibilities have significantly evolved since the position was created in 2007, particularly with the enactment of the victims bill of rights in 2015, it goes without saying that the rights of victims of crime must be respected and that, if they are not, the ombudsman for victims of crime must be able to properly represent those victims, independently of the Department of Justice. That is particularly true when a problem arises that is directly related to the department in question.
The rights of victims of crime are grouped under four categories in the bill of rights: the right to information, the right to protection, the right to participation, and the right to restitution.
It is important that the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights be updated to make the ombudsman for victims of crime an agent of Parliament who is independent from the minister and who is responsible for providing feedback and oversight.
For victims of crime, having an independent body to protect their rights is a matter of survival. All aspects of the Canadian justice system need to be fair and equitable.
Victims of crime and criminals must have equal rights, and ombudsman positions must also be equally independent.
Making the victims' ombudsman as independent as the criminals' ombudsman would be a big step in the right direction in proving to victims that they matter, and that all members of the House agree that it is unfair that in 2017, victims' rights are still not given the same importance as the rights of the criminals who destroyed their lives, that this must end, and that we need to give ourselves the legislative tools necessary to do just that.
For victims, passing Bill C-343 would ensure that the federal ombudsman for victims of criminal acts will operate at arm's length from the Department of Justice, and this is critically important to all victims. The ombudsman could do a better job of defending the rights and interests of those victims when they file a complaint against federal departments, particularly the federal Department of Justice.
I invite my colleagues to imagine themselves as someone who has suffered a terrible trauma after being victimized by a violent crime, someone whose basic rights enshrined in the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights have been violated during the court proceedings and who now wants to file a complaint against the federal Department of Justice. After a quick search on the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime website, they will soon realize that that office is an agency of the Department of Justice, and therefore an extension of the same department that is responsible for the wrongdoing.
Let us put ourselves in the shoes of a victim who thought they could rely on solid representation before the courts, when in fact they cannot count on the independence of the ombudsman representing them to the same extent as our soldiers and even criminals can count on their ombudsman. Who can such a victim turn to?
A very important part of the ombudsman's work involves identifying issues that affect victims of crime and issuing recommendations to help the federal government make its laws, policies, and procedures more compassionate toward victims.
The ombudsman must also help criminal justice system personnel and decision-makers develop a better understanding of victims' needs and identify systemic issues, some of which are created by the Department of Justice itself, that can have negative repercussions on victims. I believe that this part of the ombudsman's job is crucial for victims, and I have to wonder whether it can be done properly without full independence.
Not being fully independent makes things difficult for both the victims ombudsman and victims themselves. Trying to defend clients' interests before the Department of Justice without the independence and power to conduct a formal investigation to determine whether a complaint is legitimate and make recommendations to right a wrong is frustrating for the ombudsman, and it is frustrating for victims too.
Victims of crime deserve strong and independent representation. It should be a fundamental right, a right that criminals have always had. By passing Bill C-343, the position of ombudsman for victims of crime will no longer be a program. The victims are calling for a meaningful recognition of the office to ensure its long-term existence.
The time has come to make the victims ombudsman an agent of Parliament. Passing Bill C-343 provides the current government with an ideal opportunity to strengthen its position on transparency in the selection process for this type of appointment. Passing Bill C-343 is an opportunity to send a strong message to victims of crime.
In other words, everyone here in the House believes that it is high time we gave victims of crime equal rights relative to the rights of criminals, and that their recognition is in no way partisan. Every party is concerned about the well-being of victims. This is not a one-party issue.
In closing, for victims of crime and their loved ones, I hope that every member will support Bill C-343.