Madam Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to rise and speak on Bill C-238, an act to amend the Criminal Code regarding the possession of unlawfully imported firearms. I would like to thank my colleague, the member for Markham—Unionville, for his thoughtful and hard work on this critical issue.
I am extremely proud to represent the people of South Surrey—White Rock and to call this beautiful part of our great nation my home, but despite the many great things about this vibrant, wholesome community, my constituents and I share a growing concern about gang-related gun violence on our streets. Over the holidays, tragedy struck our community and nearby. On December 28, Tequel Willis was shot eight times as he exited a taxi in Surrey. Tequel was 14 years old. He was pronounced dead on the scene. He is believed to be the youngest-ever victim of gang violence in B.C.
A day earlier, emergency services responded to a call for help in Surrey and found 19-year-old Harman Singh Dhesi with gunshot wounds. He later died in hospital. Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents. In a four-day stretch earlier this month, 28-year-old Dilraj Johal from Surrey was found dead with gunshot wounds in neighbouring Richmond; Anees Mohammed, 29, was shot and killed in Steveston Community Park, which is in a riding close to mine; and Gary Kang, 24, was gunned down in his parents' Surrey home, which is actually very close to where I live. Something needs to be done to address this grim reality.
Our hard-working Canadian border agents who process around 100 million travellers annually have seized more than 4,200 guns at the border since 2014, but despite their best efforts, which I commend them for, experts believe many smuggled guns go undetected. While it is difficult to know exactly how many firearms get through customs illegally, some estimates suggest 70% or more of crime guns in Canada are smuggled in. We also know that two in five homicides committed in Canada in 2019 were committed with a firearm, 60% of which were handguns.
I am concerned not only because of the recent violence in my community, but also because my Lower Mainland riding shares a border with the United States. Along that border are two legal border crossings, Douglas and Pacific Highway. My community is also home to the Peace Arch Provincial Park, which runs along the border and allows visitors from both sides to visit without officially making entry into the neighbouring country. In addition to the southern border, B.C. shares a second border with Alaska, and the harbours along our Pacific coast receive international shipments every day.
Our neighbours to the south are our closest allies, our biggest trading partner and, in many cases, our friends and family, but the fact remains that it is much easier to access guns south of the border and too many of those guns are winding up on Canadian soil. That is why I support my Conservative colleague's private member's bill to increase the penalties for the possession of unlawfully imported firearms. Bill C-238 would address the problem in two ways: by increasing mandatory sentencing and making it more difficult for persons charged to be released on bail.
Let us first consider the mandatory sentencing. If one is prosecuted by indictment, this bill would raise the minimum sentence for possessing an unlawfully imported firearm that the person knows was obtained by the commission of a crime from one to three years, and the maximum sentence from 10 years to 14 years. Section 718 of the Criminal Code sets out six objectives for sentencing. The first three are (a) denouncing unlawful conduct, (b) deterring offenders and (c) separating offenders from society. The increased sentences under Bill C-238 would accomplish all three.
The longer sentences would make clear to all Canadians that the possession of a smuggled firearm is a serious offence that will not be tolerated, effectively denouncing the activity in the clearest of terms. The threat of an increased penalty would deter some criminals from possessing these smuggled arms. This deterrence, in effect, should also affect the supply chain. Less demand for smuggled guns should mean less smuggled guns in the first place. As for separating offenders from society, those convicted of this dangerous crime would be kept off the streets for longer, ensuring that they are unable to commit additional, potentially dangerous, crimes.
Last October, the NDP member for St. John's East argued, as did the member for North Island—Powell River today, that the mandatory minimums in this bill are unconstitutional. Both members pointed to the 2015 Supreme Court decision in R. v. Nur.
In that case, the court struck down the minimum sentence for possession of a prohibited or restricted firearm with access to ammunition, but the law in that case is distinguishable from the bill at hand.
In Nur, Chief Justice McLachlin, writing for the majority, reasoned that the three-year minimum sentence for possession of a prohibited or restricted firearm with access to ammunition violated section 12 of the charter as cruel and unusual punishment, because when applied not to the actual facts of that case but to reasonably foreseeable facts, the sentence would not fit the crime.
One reasonably foreseeable scenario the court used as a hypothetical was “the licensed and responsible gun owner who stores his unloaded firearm safely with ammunition nearby, but makes a mistake as to where it can be stored.” The court explained that in this reasonably foreseeable hypothetical, the minimum sentence would be grossly disproportionate to the crime. According to the court, the “bottom line” was that the possession of a prohibited or restricted firearm with access to ammunition offence “foreseeably catches licensing offences that involve little or no moral fault and little or no danger to the public. For these offences three years' imprisonment is grossly disproportionate to a fit and fair sentence.”
Clearly, the court's reasoning in Nur would not apply here. The possession of an illegal smuggled firearm that the accused knows was obtained through crime is not a mere licensing offence involving no moral fault or danger to the public. There is no reasonably foreseeable scenario in which someone, by licensing error or otherwise, accidentally violates the law against possession of a smuggled firearm that they knew was illegally obtained. To the contrary, these are guns that are bought and sold on the black market with their serial numbers shaved off, used in the commission of dangerous crimes. The mandatory minimums in the bill, I believe, are both constitutional and warranted.
The bill would also subject those charged with possession of a smuggled firearm to reverse-onus bail. For most crimes, the onus at the bail hearing is on the prosecution to show why the accused should be detained. However, subsection 515(6) would provide that for several enumerated crimes, this onus would be reversed, and instead the accused would have to show why they should be released.
Under the current scheme, several firearm-related offences already call for reverse-onus bail. This includes weapons trafficking and possession for purposes of weapons trafficking.
As mentioned earlier, my community has recently experienced a spike in gun violence, with victims tragically as young as 14 years old. As a member of Parliament and mother, there is no higher moral obligation for me than the need to keep our children and communities safe. Simply put, this bill would make my community and many like it across Canada safer places to live. That is why I support Bill C-238 and urge other members to do the same.