Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Bill C-23 today. Since the last time this came up in the House, we have gone through the committee review process, and I would now like to share some of my thoughts.
I would like to begin, though, by reiterating why we, New Democrats, are opposed to Bill C-23. First, it grants egregious powers to American officers on Canadian soil. I want to make it clear that we recognize the benefits of preclearance, which is already happening. That is why we have to wonder why expanding a system that is already working very well means giving American officers all of these additional powers. We never did get an answer to that question from the minister or other experts who testified in favour of the bill.
The government's main argument, which we heard earlier in the parliamentary secretary's speech, is about the economic benefit of expanding the preclearance process, which would happen in more airports, train stations, and eventually, border crossings.
If that is the only argument in favour of doing this, we need to ask ourselves what justifies these additional powers.
Let us go through some of the powers to be given to American agents, on Canadian soil, through the bill and through the deal that was been signed by the Government of Canada and the U.S. administration.
First, there is the excessive powers of American agents in a situation where a traveller chooses to leave a preclearance zone. The minister assures us this is okay, that it simply has to do with the safety and integrity of these preclearance zones. We have police, CBSA officers, and other forms of security in airports already. Therefore, it is difficult to understand why an American agent would be given the power, on Canadian soil, to question a Canadian who chooses to leave the preclearance zone and, even in some cases, detain that individual under the vague language in the bill.
A Canadian would rightfully say that this seems reasonable, that if someone leaves the preclearance zone, it must be suspicious. That is not the case. We have seen some of the treatment Canadian citizens receive at the border. They are victims of American agents based on their religious beliefs, or the colour of their skin or their country of origin. This was testimony at committee. Who is to say that Canadians of certain origins might decide that an abusive line of questioning is not something they are willing to accept, so they decide to take their bags and go home. That would be sufficient reason to leave the preclearance zone. Unfortunately, under the bill, and under the agreement, that would allow the American officer, on Canadian soil, to potentially go all the way to detain them and interrogate them. We find that unacceptable.
The other very important matter has to do with strip searches, another issue raised by the parliamentary secretary. We can all agree that we give up some of our rights when we go through customs. For instance, we allow our luggage to be searched. Still, I have difficulty understanding why we should allow American agents to search Canadian citizens on Canadian soil.
The bill states that if no Canadian agents are available or willing to do the search, perhaps because they do not consider it necessary, an American agent may do it. The minister justified this by saying that it is nothing to worry about because in the 60 years that preclearance has existed, no Canadian agent has ever been unavailable or unwilling to do a search.
Just because the exception happens to prove the rule in this case does not mean that this legislation safeguards the rights and freedoms of Canadians.
Legislation cannot be drafted on the premise that the exceptions prove the rule. Our legislation must be robust and comprehensive in order to ensure that there are no potential loopholes that would allow the rights of Canadians to be violated on Canadian soil.
The other issue is with regard to the carrying of firearms. The bill, based on reciprocity found in the agreement, would exempt American agents from elements of the Criminal Code that would normally prevent an American agent officer from carrying firearms on Canadian soil.
The minister has assured us that there are memoranda of understanding that it is reciprocity, and that this would only happen in places where Canadian border officers are already carrying firearms. The example the minister gave was at Pearson airport where the Peel Regional Police ensures security. The American agents would not be carrying firearms because Canadian agents do not. It is the local police that ensure the security of the airport.
I asked the minister in committee if he could tell me, given the fact that the bill would specifically create these Criminal Code exemptions, if there was any other legal provision or protection beyond memoranda of understanding, which have no legal authority, and the agreement, that would prevent an American border officer from carrying a firearm. The response received was no response at all. There are no guarantees to say there is any legal remedy for an American officer that might be in said airport, for example, at Pearson, on Canadian soil carrying a firearm. That is not acceptable.
In committee, we identified a number of problems with the process. I asked officials from the Department of Public Safety a question in order to find out what regulatory changes would be made. The government is making regulatory changes to address the cases of people who are exempt from certain procedures. Take, for example, employees who work in a port and who would need access to a preclearance area to do their job every day. They would not be subject to American authority while at work, which is the least we could expect. These are the kinds of exemptions that the regulations would change.
In committee, we debated a bill that makes fundamental changes, yet no one was able to tell us what regulations would be changed. Everyone knows that regulations are not subject to debate in the House because parliamentarians do not vote on them. One fundamental problem with the changes made by the agreement and by Bill C-23 has to do with the minister's discretionary power.
I will give the department credit because it did provide a written answer to my questions. However, in the written answer, the department indicated that it was uncertain which regulations would be affected. We think it is unacceptable that we are not being given a definitive answer on this.
The government's main argument around all these issues around Canadians' rights potentially being violated by American border officers on Canadian soil is not to worry because Canadian law and charter rights apply. That is what the bill says, but what would the bill actually do?
In committee, witness after witness reminded us that, because of the State Immunity Act and how the bill is drafted, there really is no legal remedy. Even the Conservative public safety critic sitting on the committee, the member for Parry Sound—Muskoka, agreed that there is no legal recourse.
Why is that important? The protections accorded to us as Canadians by law and charter, if those rights are violated, what do we need to do? We need to go to court to uphold those rights. If we cannot bring the American officer to court, based on how this bill is drafted, then there is no remedy. Those charter protections are just words on paper and not given force of law and force of our constitutional rights. That is totally unacceptable to us.
A specific argument was raised both in committee and here in the House. The Liberals claimed they were bound by the agreement to enact certain provisions, and that they were sorry if some members did not like it. They added that the agreement was negotiated and signed under the previous Conservative government and under the Obama administration, and not under the current president, and we have to live with it.
It takes courage to say that this is a bad agreement. After the study in committee, where we heard from groups like the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, various associations representing Canadians from countries targeted by President Trump's executive orders, and the Canadian Bar Association, we concluded that it was a bad agreement. It takes courage to tell the Americans that we will not allow the rights of Canadians to be jeopardized because of the presence of American agents on Canadian soil. I think that is the minimum we can do.
The Prime Minister himself actually said that if Canadians are subject to racial profiling or their rights are violated at customs, at least it will happen in Canada where they are protected by Canadian laws and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
What this really tells me is that we currently have a serious problem regarding how American agents are treating Canadian citizens at the border. The situation is completely unacceptable.
The previous government signed the agreement. The former public safety minister, now the member for Bellechasse—Les Etchemins—Lévis, signed the agreement with his American counterpart, but the Conservatives did not get the bill through the House to set up the legislative measures needed to implement the agreement. I gather from what they said in committee that the Conservatives felt there were problems with the agreement. They may not be as disappointed as us about the loopholes this will create, but even the Conservatives on the committee recognized that it would not be appropriate for an American officer to strip search someone on Canadian soil.
It is about time, when it comes to dealing with the Americans, that we have a government that understands that when we negotiate, we do not just give. We have to get something in return, and in this agreement, beyond the expansion of where pre-clearance takes place, all we have seen here is the government being really willing to roll over, and give all these new powers to American agents on Canadian soil.