Madam Speaker, it is a privilege to stand in the House to speak to a bill that is not only a long time coming and not only important to many Canadians, but is one that touches upon a very real and profoundly important issue that touches every community in our nation.
The bill deals with the issue of mandatory minimums and the initiative of the government to remove mandatory minimums for a number of prescribed sentences. It would remove mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offences under the Criminal Code and then some others with respect to tobacco and firearms provisions.
I was in the House when many mandatory minimum sentences were put into the Criminal Code by the previous Harper Conservative government, and our party opposed that approach then and we oppose it now. We do so for a number of reasons. The New Democrats have long opposed the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences in our Criminal Code for all but the most serious of crimes. These are some of the reasons for that position.
First, it is a very blunt tool. It removes the discretion of a judge to shape sentences to suit the specifics of every case. I happen to have been trained as a lawyer, and I spent 16 years litigating cases in the labour setting. I would posit before the House that every single case that comes before a judge is unique. It touches upon unique individuals with unique circumstances and it occurs in very specific circumstances and conditions. The essence of justice is to fashion a resolution that suits the particular circumstances that come before a court.
Politicians should not be sentencing people from this chamber. In our system of government, we have separation of powers, the judiciary separated from the legislative branch, separated from the executive branch, separated from the police force. These are core elements of our modern democracy and they are very important ones.
I am always suspicious of attempts by politicians in the House to try to reach into the courtrooms of our nation to tell judges what to do in a particular situation. What is particularly wrong with mandatory minimums is that they purport to tell judges to sentence a person irrespective of the person before them and the circumstances of that case.
Second, mandatory minimum sentences are routinely ruled as unconstitutional in our country. I think we could safely say that in most cases, mandatory minimum sentences do not comport with our Constitution and our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Third, the evidence is crystal clear now that mandatory minimums are a major factor that contributes directly to the overrepresentation of the incarceration of the most marginalized Canadians, including indigenous, racialized and poor people.
As an example, indigenous people make up about 4.9% of our population, but if we were to walk into our prisons, we would find that 30% of the people in prisons are indigenous. With respect to indigenous women, it is even more shockingly appalling that 42% of the women in prisons are indigenous. A major factor contributing to that is the use of mandatory minimum sentences.
Finally, mandatory minimum sentences do not work. I need only point to the United States as the best example for that. The United States locks up the highest percentage of its population of any country in the world, and it has done nothing to reduce the crime rates or the rate of violent offences in the United States. If it were true that the use of mandatory minimum sentences reduced crime, then there would be empirical evidence of that in our neighbour to the south, and it has been proven to be quite the opposite.
In fact, the State of Texas, one of the most tough-on-crime jurisdictions we will find on this planet, has publicly stated that mandatory minimum sentences have not worked. All that has happened is that it has locked up an incredibly high percentage of the population in that state, with no impact on crime rates.
Therefore, I support this measure and I support the bill. Discretionary sentences and diversion from prison are distinctly preferable to mandatory minimum sentences that lock up more Canadians, for longer time, with no positive effect.
However, make no mistake that the bill would do nothing, zero, to address the core problem with our drug policy; that is to treat drug addiction and substance use as health issues, not criminal ones. That is the root cause of the problem with our drug policy. Substance use and addiction are health issues, not criminal ones. They are not moral failings. They are not issues of character. They are pure issues of health. Addiction is a complex biopsychosocial illness. It results in compulsive behaviour that is rooted in trauma. Substance use disorder is listed in the “DSM-5”, which is a diagnostic manual that our medical professionals use.
This is one of those issues where I will say that the general population is far ahead of the politicians of our country and, dare I say, many politicians in the House. That is because no family, not one, is untouched by addiction or substance use disorder. Everyone has a mother or father, a sister or brother, an uncle or aunt, a cousin, a grandparent or maybe even himself or herself, who has suffered from substance use, whether that is alcoholism or addiction. These families know something that is important to acknowledge in the House: Those people who are suffering are not criminals; they are sufferers, they are patients, they are people struggling with an illness.
Dr. Gabor Maté, whom I consider to be an authority of global stature in our country, a great Canadian, has found that the basic cause of addiction is trauma. He is on record as saying that after treating people in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver for many years, he never treated a single person who did not have significant childhood trauma.
Therefore, what does criminalizing those people do to them? Criminal sanctions are society's way of imposing maximum trauma on citizens. They get accosted by the police. They go through the trauma of arrest. They go into the very serious, intimidating context of a court. They go through a trial. They go to jail. This system is designed to impose the most serious pressure society can possibly impose. In other words, what we do when we criminalize drug policy is we re-traumatize people whose main issue is that they suffer from trauma. That is completely counterintuitive. In fact, it is cruel and it does not work.
If criminalizing drug use worked, we would have eliminated it years ago. We have spent billions of dollars, incarcerated millions of people around the world, harmed tens of millions of people, and achieved nothing. Today, Canada is setting, year after year, record deaths in opioid overdose. Every year since the government was elected in 2015, the death rate has gone up. Since 2016 until 2020, over 17,000 Canadians have died. In B.C., six and a half people die every day.
I will conclude by saying that stigma, shame and punishment are the core emotional issues of those suffering from substance use disorder and criminalizing their behaviour exacerbates and deepens that shame and stigma. We do not need to get rid of mandatory minimum sentences; we need to decriminalize drug use, bring in a regulated low-barrier safe supply, focus on education prevention and a treatment on demand through our public health care system. Then we will make progress on drug policy and use in our country.