Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague for bringing forward this motion about our government's commitment to protect our communities and especially our children from sexual violence.
I will repeat what I said in the question earlier. There are certain issues that demand the best of us, demand us to rise above partisan rancour and have mature dialogue about an issue close to all of our hearts: the sexual exploitation of children in violent attacks. The devastation it visits upon young lives is something I wish I knew less about. For someone to survive that and get to a healthy place is an enormous challenge.
As government, it must be one of our top priorities to ensure the safety and well-being of our children. It demeans this place when anyone casts aspersions on any member for doing anything other than trying to provide that protection. It is incumbent upon us in this debate, and in any debate on such a sensitive matter, to avoid the temptation to oversimplify issues or to seek an opportunity to gain a partisan point when such matters are happening.
The debate that has been happening today has been much more constructive. Unfortunately, I feel that some of the debate during question period was much less so.
Before I turn the specifics of the motion, it is important to begin with some needed context and a clear understanding of how the current system works when it deals with sexual offenders.
Canada currently has very robust measures in place. The national sex offender registry was established in 2004 under then prime minister Paul Martin's government by former public safety minister Anne McLellan. It was created as part of the Sex Offender Registry Information Act, which is a key element of the current system. Under this act, sex offenders have a legal obligation to register with police so they can be monitored in the community.
The database is maintained and kept up to date by the RCMP. It contains important identifying information about convicted sex offenders across Canada, such as physical description, name, address, and place of employment. Sexual offenders are included in this database upon conviction, and police forces across Canada have access to it. This helps police officers prevent and investigate crimes of a sexual nature. It ensures sex offenders are properly registered and monitored and it serves as a vital tool for identifying high-risk offenders.
When a high-risk sex offender is released from prison, the Correctional Service of Canada notifies local law enforcement and provides police with detailed information about the individual. This information includes a document such as the offender's criminal profile, records of institutional behaviour, and psychological and psychiatric evaluations. Local police can then notify the public.
A key point to highlight in this regard is that most provinces and territories already have legislation or policies in place with regard to public notification about sex offenders. The majority of police forces across Canada already publicize information on any released sex offender whom they consider to be a potential danger to the public. Canada already has a registry the police can use to keep track of sex offenders. Most Canadian police forces already alert the public about sex offenders in their communities.
That brings me to the notion before us and the new database the Conservatives are calling for in accordance with the former Bill C-26.
Most of that legislation has already been brought into force, and our government is currently examining the sections of the law that allow for the creation of this new public database. I should point out that while the Harper government adopted legislation to create the database, it actually never created it. When the previous government introduced it at the end of its 10-year mandate, it never put any money into actually setting it up.
I have heard fears expressed by some hon. members in the House, including in some of the comments made here today, that this database might be dismantled. One cannot dismantle something that has not been set up. The term “cancelled” was used. One cannot cancel something that has not been created.
The question is not whether to take it apart but whether to set it up. Our government is giving the matter careful consideration, taking into account the needs and concerns of victims, the importance of helping parents and communities protect their children, the evidence about the utility and effectiveness of sex offender databases, and the experience in other jurisdictions.
Obviously this move is first and foremost about public safety and protection. When former Bill C-26 was being studied by the justice committee in 2005, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection expressed the view that public notification about sex offenders in high-risk cases could be of great assistance to families and communities, and the victims ombudsman stressed the importance of ensuring that victims have access to meaningful information so they feel “informed, considered, protected, and supported.”
We recognize these concerns, and I specifically share them. The criminal justice system must always keep the needs of victims in mind and we must always do everything we can to prevent further victimization. The best way to do that is by implementing criminal justice policy that has been proven to keep the public safe and is evidence-based.
To that end, we are aware of the questions that have been raised about the effectiveness of public notification systems and whether such systems might have unintended consequences, some of which I referred to in my questions earlier.
One practical concern is that public databases might encourage sex offenders to go underground or be less likely to comply with police registries, which can have an adverse effect on the effective monitoring of these individuals and be quite detrimental.
Sex offenders may also move to jurisdictions where they are not as heavily monitored, and that could be of particular concern with the proposed database we are talking about today, because the law would only allow this new database to include information that has already been publicly released. It would be of no help whatsoever in jurisdictions like Quebec and New Brunswick, which do not have any public notification systems, and it could actually encourage sex offenders to move to these provinces to avoid public exposure and scrutiny.
Another concern is that people may use a public database to access information about sex offenders for the purposes of vigilante action, as has been in the case in certain jurisdictions. There is the possibility that such an action could be misdirected, especially if information in the database was incorrect or out of date.
At the time Bill C-26 was being examined at committee, the Canadian Bar Association noted the possibility of innocent people falling victim to vigilantism if they were mistaken for offenders. Vigilantes have also been known to target the families of people on sex offender registries. These kinds of concerns need to be weighed against the benefit that a publicly accessible database would bring. We need to examine the evidence to determine, based on facts, whether this proposed database would make our communities safer, and that is exactly the work we are undertaking.
One thing we do know for a fact is that treatment and reintegration programs like Circles of Support and Accountability have been proven effective at reducing recidivism among sex offenders.
Circles of Support and Accountability is a Canadian-made, community-based program that is world renowned for its effectiveness in dramatically lowering rates of recidivism and preventing victimization. It was started by members of a Mennonite church in Ontario and involves some truly amazing volunteers who hold sex offenders accountable, support their reintegration, and protect Canadian communities.
Circles of Support and Accountability works primarily with people who have committed one or more sexual offences and who require support to live a positive, crime-free life. This program has shown time and time again that it leads to fewer victims of sexual predation, which is exactly what each and every one of us in the House wants.
The Harper government had research demonstrating that Circles of Support and Accountability reduced the rate of reoffending for sex offenders by almost three-quarters, from 22% to 5.6%. It is truly almost unheard of for programs to have that kind of efficacy.
As a bonus, Circles of Support and Accountability saves money. Again, the Harper government's own research shows that every dollar invested in the program resulted in nearly fivefold savings in costs to the justice system and to victims. The Conservative government unfortunately cut all federal funding for that program despite its efficacy and despite how science proved it was working.
At the time, Barbara Kay wrote a column in the National Post entitled “Ottawa's curious decision to cut funding to successful sex offender program”. In her words, “The cost [of Circles of Support and Accountability] is modest, the process benign, the burden on the community nil, the harm reduction proven.” She concluded that the government's choice to stop funding appears to be an incredibly misguided decision.
We recently reinstated that federal funding, allocating $7.48 million over five years to the national crime prevention strategy. We have also doubled the annual funding for the national flagging system program. The programs was established to track high-risk, violent sexual offenders and to ensure that prosecutors are aware of potential information regarding an offender's likelihood to engage in violent behaviour. It was recently evaluated and shown to be a very effective way of identifying and tracking high-risk offenders.
As members can see, we are investing in programs that have been proven effective in keeping communities safe, and we are carefully examining additional measures, notably the database that is the subject of today's motion, to better understand the benefits and potential unintended impacts. While that examination continues and while the work of making sure we get public safety right continues, particularly when it comes to our children, we are not in a position to support the motion today.
It is our government's intention to consult with communities, various stakeholders, and law enforcement experts to ensure that we have a firm understanding of the potential effectiveness of this initiative before we decide whether to move forward with its implementation.
We also have to ensure that any future database is compatible with systems already in place in some provinces and territories. Different approaches across various jurisdictions may create implementation challenges, especially since the proposed database would capture only those offenders who are already subject to a provincial or territorial notification. That is why we will be consulting with our provincial and territorial partners. These consultations will inform our way forward on this issue and ensure that we are implementing and funding evidence-based criminal justice policies to protect our children and keep Canadians safe.
The Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness and officials in the public safety department will be working very hard to that end over the upcoming months. In the meantime, we will continue to support the existing national sex offender registry as well as proven and effective programs like Circles of Support and Accountability and the national flagging system.
The most important consideration is that the programs we fund and the measures we implement must have demonstrated positive impacts on public safety. This is not a matter of who cares more or less about protecting our children. We know we all care. It is a matter of doing what works best to protect them, not based on a gut feeling, not based on what sounds best in a sound bite, but based on where evidence leads us. Right now we are doing the work of getting those facts so that we can decide whether or not to create this new database, and, if we do, how to best go about it.
This is a highly charged issue, but it is important for the public to know that the systems and controls that we have in place now—put in place in part, as I mentioned, by both Prime Minister Martin and Prime Minister Chrétien and by successive governments—established a framework to ensure community safety, and that when police feel somebody is dangerous, they can be used to notify the community. It is hyperbolic in the extreme to suggest that the only thing keeping our kids safe is this particular database, when in fact the database in question is aggregating existing publicly available information.
On that basis, I think we can have a constructive dialogue about the particular utility of this database, but given the very real concerns that were raised around its misuse, it is only appropriate that we take a prudent and appropriate amount of time to get this incremental piece right. In the meantime, there are a raft of things that we know from evidence we can do and are doing to keep our children safe. I know that is a priority for us and I know it is a priority for every member of this House.