Mr. Speaker, I would like to explain at the outset that the NDP will oppose this legislation. Over the next 20 minutes that I have available, I hope to explain why record suspension is not the way to go, and record expungement, which I will describe, is the way to go. Record expungement for simple possession is the basis of my private member's bill, Bill C-415, which will be up for second reading debate in the chamber on Thursday.
I have risen on previous occasions in this place to call Bill C-93 a half-baked measure, and I am still of that opinion. Let me explain: It is too little and it is too late.
It is too little, because record suspension is just that, putting a criminal record aside where it could potentially be used again against the individual. It ignores the historical injustice, the disproportionate impact of cannabis possession offences on marginalized Canadians, on blacks and particularly on indigenous people.
It is too late, because it is almost six months since October when we had the historic legalization of possession of cannabis. Here we are, almost at the end of this parliamentary session, starting second reading debate on the bill. It has to go before committee. It has to go to the Senate. It has to go before Senate committees. I am anxious that this will not be law in Canada, as it will die on the Order Paper until the next Parliament addresses that.
It is especially disappointing because the Liberals have had years to do this. Their excuse was to wait until possession was legal on October 17, 2018. Now we are almost six months later, in the dying days of this Parliament, and suddenly talking about it.
I hope that cynicism is not warranted. I hope there is goodwill on the part of the government to fix the bill and move it forward expeditiously. However, I have my doubts.
My private member's bill, which is the counter to this piece of legislation, would require an application process for expungement. In an ideal world, my bill would have had automatic expungement, which is the case in Delaware and California, where officials sweep the records, find out whether a person has a record, for simple possession in effect, and if so, the record is deemed never to have existed. It is gone. It is zapped from the system.
This legislation would require an application. My bill does too, but that is because, as the House well knows, it is a private member's bill, and due to a technicality called the royal recommendation, I could not ask the government to expend money. I was not able to do what has been done south of the border with automatic expungement. That would apply universally and automatically and benefit, disproportionately, indigenous and racialized Canadians.
Let us just stand back from this. We have an activity which is perfectly legal now, but for which hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps that high, have a record for past consumption of cannabis, possession of cannabis, when it was illegal, and now they cannot get on with their lives.
Why does that matter? It matters because blacks cannot rent apartments because they have a criminal record and are on the bottom of the list in a tight housing market. As I will explain later, there are way more people in Halifax who were charged with a cannabis offence and have a record for cannabis than the non-black population.
Believe it or not, it is most glaring in Regina, Saskatchewan. This is government data; this is not me. This is from records disclosed under access to information. An indigenous person in Regina is nine times more likely to have a record for cannabis possession than a non-indigenous person. A black individual is five times more likely in Halifax and three times more likely in Toronto to have the same. An indigenous person in Vancouver is seven times more likely to have a cannabis record. This matters. We would call this law, adverse effects discrimination. We would call this constructive discrimination.
That is why it is so galling that the government wants to bring in a half-baked measure in Bill C-93, rather than doing what is done in California. In San Francisco, there is an automatic intelligence system that simply sweeps the records to make them disappear for those who have a possession of cannabis offence on their record.
Let us contrast this with what the government wants to do today. To its credit, it wants to bring in a bill that says people no longer have to pay $631 for having a criminal record suspended, which is what Mr. Harper introduced, and they no longer have to wait for five years. I congratulate the government for that minor step in the right direction.
In the U.S., a person's record is automatically expunged in the states I have mentioned. These records are deemed not to exist. This matters because it allows people who are asked by a landlord whether they have a criminal record for anything to tell that landlord they do not. When asked by an employer if they have a criminal record, people who have only a cannabis possession charge from several years ago in their background can say they do not, because under expungement, it is deemed not to exist.
The government tells us not to worry and that we do not understand, because there is a human rights statute federally and in all the provinces that says people cannot face discrimination on the grounds that they have a criminal record for which a pardon has been granted. Tell that to an inner city landlord in downtown Halifax or to an inner city employer or small business operator in downtown Vancouver.
It is ludicrous. Why would the government not do the right thing, getting this all done at the same time and done properly, rather than bringing in this half-baked measure? It is too little, too late, which I am sad to say is my theme.
I am not the only one with this opinion. I am pleased to say that the Liberal member of Parliament for Beaches—East York acknowledges the limitations of the bill. He said:
Only full amnesty recognizes the disproportionate impact of cannabis prohibition on people of colour and the fact that cannabis should never have been criminalized in the first place.
Our government’s solution is better than nothing, but it’s not enough to be better than nothing when we have an opportunity to make historic injustices right.
I am quoting a Liberal member, not someone who has an axe to grind, if you will, on this issue. This is a Liberal who realizes we can do so much better.
One of the arguments the Liberals have used to explain why we cannot have expungement is that many people would be affected and it would cost so much money and take so much time. However, that is not true anymore, because we have new data suggesting that only some 10,000 people would be positively affected by the bill. That is not a very large number. Why can we not expunge their records rather than simply giving them this record suspension, after which records move from one filing cabinet to another and can come back and bite people later in a subsequent event if the state deems that they have committed another crime?
What about a crimes such as failure to appear? These are called administration of justice offences. They are not like the actual offence of cannabis possession. They occur when people do not pay a fine or do not show up in court. In these situations the criminal justice system is continually on a person's back, even though the root of it all was a cannabis possession charge.
I have been advised that indigenous women are sometimes affected down the road in this way when they have custody issues with their children. This occurs not because of the cannabis offence but because of the other matters on their record that have resulted from that. It is ludicrous.
The government says our most important relationship is with indigenous people. Here it could make a tiny but critically important change in the lives of so many. Why would it let this opportunity pass to expunge the records of people so they could say they have no criminal record, allowing them to get their foot on the social ladder in order to get employment, housing and the like? I do not understand the government's reluctance in this context.
Professor Kent Roach is one of Canada's leading criminal law specialists. Recently, in the Criminal Law Quarterly, he wrote, “The government's approach to cannabis convictions in the wake of legalization is even more problematic than the expungement act,” which is another bill I will come to.
He continued, “It has announced plans to allow the National Parole Board to grant pardons under the Criminal Records Act. This again requires case-by-case applications. This places challenges on the most disadvantaged people who have been convicted of cannabis possession.”
He goes on, “By not relying on expungement, the government's approach leaves applicants vulnerable to records of convictions and arrest being retained by the RCMP and other federal departments and to questions from prospective employers and landlords about whether they ever had a criminal conviction. It falls behind states such as California and Delaware in terms of reform.”
He then goes on and says about my bill that it “...takes a better approach by proposing to expunge cannabis convictions including the destruction of records of convictions.”
I am not here to score political points. I am not even running again in the next election. I am fully convinced that automatic expungement is the way to go. It is what people deserve. I implore the government to amend this bill and do the right thing by so many people who are affected, whose lives are on hold until we get this right.
Record suspension simply removes criminal records from the main database, CPIC, the Canadian Police Information Centre, and puts the data somewhere else, where it can be used prejudicially later and potentially shared with other departments, thereby having a negative effect.
Expungement means those records disappear for all purposes and for all time. A record suspension or pardon indicates the government is forgiving or excusing individuals for criminal behaviour, and that is all; expungement acknowledges it was wrong to criminalize it in the first place.
At this time, let me give the House the other government excuse for not doing the right thing.
It brought in, to its credit, Bill C-66, which was called the Expungement of Historically Unjust Convictions Act. That bill dealt with same-sex sexual activity, which is no longer criminalized but was in the past. The government said it was going to deem those offences to no longer be on a person's record—gone.
I have two things to say about that.
Number one is that since October, from the last statistics, do members know how many people have even bothered to apply, of the 9,000 eligible? It was seven. That hardly gives confidence that this application process is going to make a difference.
Number two is that the government says, “Oh, member for Victoria, do you know what we will do? We will say that this is to be reserved for things that are constitutionally over the line, such as same-sex sexual activity.”
There is no principled reason for that smokescreen. I have talked to criminal law specialists and constitutional specialists across the country who say that this argument is not valid. Second, even if it were valid, which it is not, what about the constructive discrimination I just talked about, the adverse effects discrimination, whereby the policy and application affect blacks and indigenous people dramatically more than others? What about that?
Not doing the right thing for cannabis expungement as for same-sex sexual activity, which the government is prepared to expunge, makes no sense at all. It is another Liberal smokescreen.
I am not here to score political points; I am just trying to persuade the Liberals to do the right thing. Why would they not do it? That is what is so complicated for me to understand.
The NDP has been calling for this measure for years. I will not go through the whole background of it, but there are deficiencies in addition in the bill that is before us today. The Parole Board does not have the resources to do the job, so there are going to be even further backlogs for other applications from people seeking pardons. There is a whole industry, sadly, out there to help people get rid of their criminal records. If members go on the Internet, they will see everybody who wants to help if they give them a few hundred bucks.
The forms are complicated. Members might not think they are, but for a poor person with little education who is living in the inner city, this measure would impose another burden, and I do not understand why, when our friends south of the border figured it out much more readily.
There are also eligibility gaps in Bill C-93. Only those people convicted of simple possession are eligible, meaning anyone with prior record suspensions of crimes related to the simple possession charges will not be able to use this process. I gave the example of failure to appear or not paying the fine or the like. If there is another offence on the record, then they are facing an inability to apply.
Someone pointed out that if a person has a summary conviction offence and then four years down has another cannabis offence, there may be a total wait of nine years to apply under this bill. I do not believe that was intended, but it is a function of the drafting of the bill, according to experts I have consulted. That is problematic.
The Liberals have had six months since they brought in legalization to do this. This bill is maybe four and a half or five pages in English, so how on earth did it take that long? The elephant laboured and brought forth a mouse.
Bill C-75, which was 302 pages, was before the justice committee, and it rammed that one through. This bill is five pages in English and maybe nine pages in total with English and French. It took the Liberals that long to produce this tiny bill, this weak bill. Presumably they can just check it off on the list that another promise was kept, except if the bill dies on the Order Paper, as most people are anticipating.
This is a real problem. This is an opportunity for the government. My hope is that if the private member's bill that I have before Parliament for debate on Thursday goes to the public safety committee at the same time as this bill, perhaps there will be a way in which some of the provisions that I have suggested for expungement could be brought into the bill that is before us and we could get it right for the victims as they are.
It is not just me saying this. The Prime Minister has been quoted as follows: “...there is a disproportionate representation of young people, from minorities and racialized communities, who are saddled with criminal convictions for simple possession as a significant further challenge to success in the job market....” He seems to get it.
The statistics that the government has produced under access to information confirm what I am saying. I am not making up those shocking statistics about overrepresentation of blacks and, particularly, indigenous people. The Prime Minister gets the consequences, so why would the Liberals not do it right? I do not understand.
Professor Doob, the famous criminology professor at the University of Toronto, stated:
There is no justification for forcing those who were convicted to live with a criminal record for behaviour that will soon not be criminal. A procedure for dealing with the problem has been devised by the current government. They should ensure that relevant drug records are expunged for the thousands of Canadians who have them.
Senator Pate, who has been very powerful on this issue in the other place, has made similar arguments, and I hope that those points are taken into account by the Liberals opposite.
I have been working with a very talented lawyer in Toronto, Annamaria Enenajor, who is the director of Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty. She is a prominent lawyer in Toronto and clerked for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. She is volunteering for this important cause and she states:
...the government...leaves the impression that restrictions exist on the government's ability to issue expungements for the offense of simple cannabis possession that are beyond its control. This is false. There is nothing in Canadian law that prohibits our government from issuing expungements for offenses that, in their application, unjustly targeted racialized and indigenous communities. It simply chooses not to. This is a policy decision.
That is the nub of the argument. Let us do it right.
There may be some good arguments in theory. I talked about the theoretical ability to apply the human rights legislation when people have been given pardons and so on, but it does not work in the real world. We have an absolute dearth of money for legal aid, and legal aid rarely covers human rights complaints if one has been discriminated against because of one's record. Theoretically, I guess, the Liberals could hang their hat on that, but they sure have not visited many inner cities if they think that is a viable argument in practice. Many small businesses and landlords draft their own applications and may not be aware of human rights legislation.
We have a historic opportunity in the dying days of this Parliament to do it right. Let us expunge criminal records for small quantity cannabis possession and help those thousands of Canadians who need a head start and a chance to get their foot on the rung in the social ladder. Let us do the right thing for those people as soon as we can.