Mr. Speaker, today I rise to speak to Bill C-77, very important, though tardy and still incomplete, legislation. The last time there were major reforms in our military justice system was 1998, in what was then Bill C-25. At that time, Bill C-25 specified there would be a five-year review of those extensive reforms that had been mandated in law. That review was completed by the very distinguished former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Antonio Lamer, in September of 2003, 15 years ago.
The conclusion reached by Justice Lamer was that after five years of experience with the reformed justice system, it was generally “working well”, but he went on to say that it was, “not entirely without room for improvement”. That was a very moderate statement as Justice Lamer was wanting to make. He then submitted 88 recommendations for those improvements.
Justice Lamer made recommendations in three main areas: actions to increase the protection of the independence of military judges; actions to improve the grievance process within the Canadian military; and actions to address some major deficiencies in the overall military justice framework.
Now, here we are 15 years later and we are still dealing with important issues in this bill, a bill that was delayed three times by intervening elections. However, both the Liberal and Conservative governments, as we heard them tossing at each other earlier in this debate, have been slow to act on these important changes.
On the first recommendation of the independence of military justice, the Conservatives did act early in the last Parliament in a separate bill, which was then Bill C-16. This was dealt with on an urgent basis because a deadline had been set for changes regarding the independence of judges by the Court Martial Appeals Court decision in the case of R v. LeBlanc. This deadline was met with royal assent on November 29, 2001.
For me, there is the proof that we could have dealt with all of these things very expeditiously. There was a will in Parliament, the Conservatives had a majority and we could have gotten through all of these reforms seven years ago. However, all of the other recommendations had to wait.
When the Conservatives finally did introduce in the last Parliament Bill C-15, in October of 2011, it contained many, but not all, of the needed reforms. Even then, progress on the bill was slow. It took two years to pass through the previous Parliament and it only received second reading a year after it was introduced. The bill sat for an entire year without any motion, debate or effective action on it.
Finally, in May of 2013, the bill passed the House and, for once, the Senate did act expeditiously and the bill received royal assent in 2013. However, here is the kicker on this one. Most of the reforms mandated in the bill did not come into force until September 1 of this year. Therefore, even though the bill passed five years ago, it was only last month that its provisions came into effect, again 15 years after those reforms were recommended by former Justice Lamer.
Why is that the case? It is pretty simple. Our military justice system remains woefully under-resourced no matter whether Liberals or Conservatives have been the government.
Justice Lamer's recommendations specifically recognized four important principles to guide reform in the military justice system. His first was, “Maintaining discipline by the chain of command is essential to a competent and reliable military organization.” None of us in the House would disagree with that recommendation. It is important to keep in mind because, as my hon. friend from Selkirk—Interlake—Eastman pointed out, there are times when the military justice system has to be faster and perhaps harsher than the civilian system.
His second principle was that it was necessary to recognize the particular context of the military justice system, meaning that we, “need to have a system that will properly operate under those special conditions that our men and women are placed in, often abroad, under conditions from peacekeeping to peace-making, in what is often a hostile environment, and indeed sometimes outright war.”
His third principle, perhaps one that is most important to me, is that those who risk their lives for our country deserve a military justice system that protects their rights in accordance with our charter, just like all other Canadians.
His fourth principle said that it was necessary to recognize, also an important point, that any doubts or lack of confidence in the military justice system may have negative impacts on morale as a result of concerns about injustice. The system has to be fair and be seen to be fair so it serves the interests of those who are risking their lives to serve our country.
Returning specifically to Bill C-77, New Democrats are supporting this bill at second reading, and we have recommended expediting this passage at all stages. After all, 15 years later, it is time to get this in gear.
Bill C-77 does complete most of the rest of the reforms to the military justice system that were first proposed under the former Conservative government, but unfortunately were left out when Bill C-15 was adopted in the last Parliament. I am not quite sure why it took the Liberals three years to get this bill before us, because the Conservatives had introduced essentially the same bill in the dying days of the last Parliament.
For me, the most important part of those reforms in Bill C-77 are those that add greater protections to victims in the military justice system. These were missing, they are missing, and these changes would align the military justice system with the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights. It is important not only that those who are accused are treated fairly, but that those who have been victims of the offences are also treated fairly in the military justice system.
As I said, this bill would implement most of the rest of the reforms first proposed under the former Harper government and would modernize the military justice system, but there are still some areas in which it is lacking. We believe there are two areas in which improvements could be made without undue delay to this bill.
One important provision in Bill C-77 is found in section 23(c.1). This section would allow military judges to take into account the circumstances of aboriginal offenders when determining sentencing. This change is obviously welcome, as it is in keeping with the Supreme Court Gladue decision of 1999 with regard to how the criminal justice system operates in the civilian realm.
However, we believe it is possible, given that this is 2018, nearly 20 years later, that we may be able to improve the wording of that section to allow greater clarification of its intentions and the impacts of this section.
The second improvement we would like to see involves the subject of my questions earlier to the minister and to the Conservative spokesperson. This is the omission of reform that would help deal with the serious problem of suicide within the Canadian military.
In October 2016, the government announced a suicide prevention strategy, a strategy with 160 provisions to address a problem that is very real in the Canadian Forces. We are still seeing one to two members of the Canadian Forces die by suicide each and every month. That is a total of more than 130 serving members who died by suicide from 2010 to the end of 2017.
When we are speaking just of serving members, obviously that excludes the very high rate of suicide among veterans, which the government was not even able to track when the report was issued in 2016. Today, we know at least 70 of those who served in the Afghanistan mission have died by suicide, some of those still in the military; some of those having retired and become veterans.
Self-harm is listed as an offence in section 98 of the National Defence Act. Three offences are included in that section 98. Section (a) deals with malingering, and obviously in a time of crisis, avoiding duties should be subject to discipline. The second, section (b), is dealing with aggravating disease or infirmity, and I question whether that is really a necessary inclusion, it seems a lot like malingering to me. It seems like it is repeating in (b) what it just said in (a).
It is the third section, section (c), that concerns me. It says that anyone who:
....wilfully maims or injures himself or any other person who is a member of any of Her Majesty’s Forces or of any forces cooperating therewith, whether at the instance of that person or not, with intent thereby to render himself or that other person unfit for service, or causes himself to be maimed or injured by any person with intent thereby to render himself unfit for service, is guilty of an offence....
Section 98, as a whole, goes on to set the possible penalties for self-harm as up to life imprisonment.
I ask members to think about individuals serving in the armed forces and suffering from mental health issues and needing help. Are they likely to go forward to their commanding officer and say that they are about to commit a disciplinary offence? This is an obstacle to getting the treatment those people need. It is a matter of human compassion. It is also a matter of getting help so that Canadian Forces members who have been trained, invested in and are part of a team can remain effective. Therefore, it is not only a moral question, it is also very much an efficiency question in the military.
This is a major obstacle, as I said, to serving members' seeking help, and omitting this section would have no impact on or injury to other serving members. The minister's response to my question seemed to implicate that there was some problem in omitting this section, but I would assert, and will bring forward some witnesses at committee, that harm to other serving members is already covered in other sections of the code of conduct so that this section on self-harm or asking someone to harm them or someone else really does not need to be there. All of those possible behaviours they could think of that the minister seemed concerned about are actually covered somewhere else.
I want to speak for a moment about a tragic case that I know best, and that is of Corporal Stuart Langridge, whose family I have come to know well, as they reside in my riding. Corporal Langridge twice attempted suicide while he was a serving member. He failed the first two times, but he did not seek the help that he needed. His family firmly believe that this section that makes it an offence was part of the reason that he did not seek help. Therefore, this section making it a disciplinary offence hindered rather than helped their son and, unfortunately, on his third attempt he succeeded and died by suicide. This led to an unfortunate attempt to cover up the details of his case, but that is not the topic here today and I do want to set that aside. The goal here is removing, as I have heard from families, from veterans and from serving members, a major obstacle to those who need help with serious mental health issues in getting the help they need. Making self-harm an offence is clearly a relic of old thinking about the scourge of suicide that continues to plague not only our military but this entire country.
One last major reform that was not dealt with in Bill C-16, Bill C-15 and in this current bill, Bill C-77 is that of the right to trial by jury. We had, as was noted earlier in the debate, a Court Martial Appeal Court ruling last week, which ruled that civil offences are not offences under military law if they are not connected to military duties, an oversimplification of the case, in the case of Master Corporal Beaudry. The government has appealed that decision, which was a split decision in the court, and has requested a stay of that decision until the Supreme Court can hear the case. The military justice head prosecutor, Bruce MacGregor, has said that this potentially affects about half the caseload of the military justice system. I am not going to take a position today on what the proper decision in that case should be. That is the job of the Supreme Court, not politicians. However, we can all recognize today that there may be further work needed if that decision is upheld by the courts.
Experts like retired judge Gilles Letourneau and the highly skilled lawyer from Montreal, Michel Drapeau, have argued that this is a question of fundamental rights, and that it will not affect military discipline. However, there have been concerns raised on the other side about the slowness of the civilian justice system and whether it can fully consider the context in which those crimes might occur.
My biggest concern is that this ruling raises questions of the ultimate disposition of sexual assault cases that were originally declared unfounded by the military police. The military police recently announced that 23 of those cases will be reopened for investigation. I am concerned about that because if this decision stands and those cases are transferred to the civilian system, they might fall under the time limits set in the 2016 Jordan decision, resulting in a dismissal because of unnecessary delays. Those are very complicated implications that we have yet to see play out from this court decision.
Let me say once again that the NDP believes that Bill C-77 should pass expeditiously, and we will support it. However, in doing so, we should not neglect the opportunity to make some improvements, most importantly, to remove self-harm as an offence in the military code of conduct.
Finally, let me restate the importance of these improvements to our military justice system. They are important to discipline, they are important to morale, and they are important as a right of those who serve.
Members of the Canadian Armed Forces are held to a high standard of discipline, therefore, their judicial system should also reflect that high standard. Those who risk their lives for our country should not be denied their charter rights when facing trial.
Other countries have recognized this issue and changed their processes. It is time for Canada to catch up in this area. It is past time that we take the necessary steps toward ensuring that our military justice system ranks as a model system and a system of which members of the Canadian Armed Forces can be justifiably proud.
Bill C-77 takes important steps forward, but there is still more work left to be done.