Madam Speaker, it is truly an honour to begin debate today on Bill C-41. This legislation aims to address important aspects of the deepening crisis in Afghanistan and responds to Canadian humanitarian aid agencies and their pleas to be able to deliver relief to a country on the brink. This work stems from the cross-party collaborative efforts from the Special Committee on Afghanistan and the important recommendations put forward by members of that committee.
I am proud to have been a member of this committee, but this work is also thanks to the non-governmental organizations and humanitarian aid agencies that advocated and testified at committee for a pathway forward to deliver aid to Afghanistan. The testimony we heard was haunting. The Afghan people have persisted through four decades of war, and since the forceful capture of the country by the Taliban, the world has witnessed the erosion of fundamental rights and the steady deterioration of social and economic systems. This has created the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.
Drawing on testimony from the committee, I want to remind the House that Afghanistan was a country that was reliant on foreign aid before the takeover by the Taliban. The committee’s report states the following:
The World Bank had assessed that Afghanistan’s economy was “shaped by fragility and aid dependence.” Grants were financing some 75% of total public expenditure and were responsible for around 45% of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product in 2020. With the abrupt return to power of the Taliban, Afghanistan—whose currency reserves held abroad were frozen—experienced a significant fiscal contraction at the same time as it essentially became cut-off from the international banking and payments systems. That occurred because the Taliban have long been subject to sanctions in relation to terrorism.
The overall result for the country has been “near economic and institutional collapse, including an inability to provide most basic services and pay civil servant salaries.” The net effect for the Afghan people is that prices have increased, livelihoods have disappeared, and household resources have been exhausted...
To encapsulate the enormity of this situation, John Aylieff, Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific at the WFP, said: “Today, millions of people in Afghanistan—young children, families and communities—stand at the precipice of inhumane hunger and destitution.” Of the 23 million people who required food assistance, nearly 9 million were “one step away from famine,” while some 1 million children were “at risk of perishing this year from acute malnutrition.”
The population of Afghanistan is 40 million people, and 23 million people require food assistance.
What I have described is but a small sample of the testimony we heard. It was clear that Canadian aid agencies were ready and willing to help, but they were unable to do so. According to Michael Messenger, CEO of World Vision Canada, that organization had “two containers full of packets of ready-to-use therapeutic food…to treat children facing the severest forms of malnutrition…[that] can literally bring children back from the brink of death by starvation.” The committee report goes on to say, “The organization could not ship them to Afghanistan, despite the pleas from their team on the ground. Each container can help more than 900 children.”
I am proud of the report from the Special Committee on Afghanistan and am pleased this legislation is in line with recommendations 10 and 11, which called upon the government to ensure that registered Canadian organizations have the clarity and assurances needed to deliver humanitarian assistance to meet the basic needs of the people of Afghanistan without fear of prosecution for violating Canada’s anti-terrorism laws.
Canada has a long and rich history of fighting for human rights and delivering life-saving assistance abroad. Over the last 20 years, many Afghans experienced improved access to health services and education and were able to participate in efforts to build their democracy. This occurred in no small part thanks to the efforts of Canadian organizations providing aid in support of a generation of leaders, many of whom were women, who were building a better country for all Afghans.
The purpose of this bill is to address the fact that Canada’s current legal framework has limited the ability of Canadian aid organizations to provide assistance to the people of Afghanistan due to potential Criminal Code liability. Although the Taliban has taken over as the de facto national authority of Afghanistan, it remains a listed terrorist group under Canada’s Criminal Code.
The Taliban maintains close links with several terrorist groups, and the combination of a weak state and a collapsing economy gives terrorist groups a fertile ground within which to operate, but we must put in place needed reform to address the needs of the Afghan people and to facilitate the assistance they so desperately need. We will find a balanced course of action that will also seek to preserve the integrity of Canada’s counter-terrorism financing measures.
The proposed bill maintains strong counter-terrorist financing measures while presenting an authorization regime to provide protection from criminal liability for the delivery of humanitarian aid and other activities by Canadian organizations. Terrorist financing remains a criminal offence. Authorizations would only shield applicants from criminal liability for providing an unavoidable benefit to a terrorist group associated with activities that serve a specified purpose, subject to strict terms and conditions. An authorization would not shield efforts to deliberately leverage the authorization to provide a benefit to a terrorist group beyond what is incidental and covered by the authorization terms and conditions. Such activities would remain criminal.
We recognize that terrorism is a global threat that requires a concerted international response. Canada’s terrorist financing regime is contained in the Criminal Code and, because of this, aid agencies were restricted in delivering aid as it could be interpreted as providing indirect financial support to the Taliban, which is a criminal offence. This authorization tool would facilitate the delivery of certain activities, like humanitarian assistance, human rights programming and immigration services, in geographic areas controlled by terrorist groups. This means that Canadians holding an authorization and providing these services would no longer be at risk of committing a terrorist financing offence, and foreign citizens, like the people of Afghanistan, would be able to receive the assistance they need in their country or by resettling to Canada.
I have already heard anecdotally that some aid organizations are ramping up their operations in anticipation of the passage of this legislation so they can scale up their work in supporting the people of Afghanistan.
Further, the proposed authorization regime is not restricted to Afghanistan, in order to enable the Government of Canada to respond to similar situations elsewhere in the world, now and in the future.
Under this regime, the Minister of Public Safety would consider applications that have been referred by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and/or the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, who would first need to be satisfied that certain conditions were met. This includes, among other things, that the proposed activity aligns with a permitted purpose and responds to a real and important need.
Once the application has been referred, the Minister of Public Safety would conduct a security review that must assess the impact of granting the authorization on terrorist financing. Factors to be considered include, among others, whether the applicants or those involved in activity implementation have links to terrorist groups or were investigated, charged or convicted of terrorism offences. Those assessments would be led by Public Safety and undertaken by the national security agencies, such as CSIS, the RCMP and CSE, where required.
The issuance of an authorization would ultimately take into account an assessment of benefit, need and capability of the applicant against the assessment of risk of terrorist financing. Any eligible person or organization in Canada, or Canadian organization outside of Canada, could apply for an authorization. This could include Government of Canada officials, as well as persons associated with or acting on behalf of a registered or incorporated Canadian organization. The updated Criminal Code provisions would also set out permissible classes of activities that would achieve certain purposes.
In the current situation in Afghanistan, the delivery of aid and other forms of international assistance inevitably benefits the Taliban through taxation and other fees. This regime would allow Canadian organizations, including Government of Canada departments, to work within the defined scope of an authorization to achieve their goals without risk of running afoul of the law.
Simply put, the changes contemplated in Bill C-41 would allow our aid agencies to go back to what they do best: saving lives.
I know this is an issue that has touched the hearts of all who served on the Special Committee on Afghanistan. We were able to set aside partisan differences and work together to present our report. The bill responds to that report. I was heartened to see this place provide unanimous consent to a motion last week that will ensure that the bill is fast-tracked through the parliamentary process.
I began my speech by outlining the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, but it is not only food insecurity that threatens the lives of millions of Afghans. Health care is in crisis. Women and girls are facing human rights violations that are unthinkable. Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of those living with a disability in the world, after decades of war and land mines. Families have sold their daughters just to survive.
To be honest, the conditions in Afghanistan are beyond comprehension for all of us sitting here in Canada. Sadly, they are a reality for millions of Afghans living under the Taliban regime. Groups like Islamic Relief, World Vision, Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, Red Cross, CARE Canada and so many others are ready to provide aid to some of the world’s most vulnerable, but they need us to act.
In 2019, The Asia Foundation released a model disability survey of Afghanistan, which found that nearly 80% of adults in Afghanistan have a disability. As a result, many of the households in Afghanistan have become women-led. With the current regime in place, women have been forced out of the economy and out of schools, leaving many households in abject poverty. Those living with disabilities also face heightened violence and insecurity within conflict. Because of this, so many who have a disability in Afghanistan face more difficulties attempting to flee conflict, resulting in a higher reliance on humanitarian aid.
Bill C-41 would be able to reach this population, which has not had the same opportunity to seek refuge in other countries, and would allow for humanitarian aid to flow to Afghanistan to address the specific needs those with disabilities face.
The human rights abuses against women and girls, and the Hazaras, are particularly egregious. Women and girls have been denied their most basic rights, including their right to education and employment, at every turn. Finding different means to control women, the Taliban has imposed strict dress codes, forcing them to wear a burka, a full body covering that obscures their face and body. Women’s freedom of movement has also been severely restricted, with women being allowed to leave their homes only in the company of a male relative. Of course, those who do not comply are met with harassment, abuse and state-sanctioned violence.
The restrictions imposed on women’s education are devastating.
In March 2018, on the floor of the Library of Parliament, in the old Centre Block, at the heart of our democracy, I, along with the Minister of Science, the Minister for Women and Gender Equality, and the Prime Minister, met with the Afghan Dreamers. They were an all-women high school robotics team who, in partnership with FIRST Robotics Canada, had flown from Afghanistan to Canada to compete against high-school teams across the province. They brought their robot from Kabul to Canada.
It is hard to remember these young women and think about their lives today under the Taliban. They showed me what the future of Afghanistan was going to look like, and I remain in hope that this future comes to fruition. When I was speaking with these young women, they told me that when they left Canada to go back home they wanted to open a school dedicated to teaching other women and girls about science, technology, engineering and math. These young women were and continue to be Afghanistan's greatest resource.
Since returning to power, the Taliban has targeted schools like the one envisioned by The Afghan Dreamers, often destroying school buildings and threatening those who teach and attend them. At times, women have been prohibited from attending schools and universities. Women who are pursuing higher education have been forced to abandon their studies. Women are being used as a tool to advance the Taliban's power in the region.
Speaking at the UN Commission on the Status of Women on March 24, Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan advocacy manager Sarah Keeler said:
But while girls the world over are out of education, the situation for girls and women in Afghanistan is unparalleled in its intensity and impact. Under repressive Taliban rule, Afghanistan is now the only country on the planet with the terrible distinction of denying women and girls their right to learn as a policy. Indeed, the Taliban's restrictions amount to system-wide gender persecution, in education and elsewhere.
For girls like Maryam, there are not just the barriers of poverty or lack of infrastructure, already overwhelming enough—there is also ideological malice that has intentionally robbed girls of their rights and hope for the future. “What crime have I committed?”, asks Maryam. She writes to us of feeling hopeless, suicidal and alone. All Afghan women and girls, but perhaps most of all the generation for whom two decades of democratic progress and investment in education provided the catalyst for real achievement and aspiration, are experiencing a profound mental health crisis.
The Hazara minority is no different. Through witnesses who appeared before committee, we heard about the devastation and persecution faced by the Hazara community. Hazaras are a predominantly Shia Muslim ethnic group that has faced systemic discrimination from the Taliban. From being subjected to attacks to forced displacement and other human rights abuses, the Hazara minority remains a vulnerable group in Afghanistan that is in dire need of the support this bill would allow.
Previously, Canada introduced special measures to support Afghans through Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. We have welcomed over 29,000 Afghan refugees since August 2021. These special measures allow the expedited processing of applications from Afghan nationals seeking to immigrate to Canada. A dedicated channel was introduced for applications coming in from a number of measures Canada presented. The special immigration measures program aims to resettle 18,000 people. IRCC also introduced a temporary public policy that creates a pathway to permanent residence for extended family members of former Afghan interpreters who immigrated to Canada under the 2009 and 2012 public policies. More recently, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada introduced a temporary policy for extended family members of former language and cultural advisers. The work that our government has done has been important and life-changing.
While thousands of Afghan nationals have been able to seek refuge in Canada, there are millions more who need our support, and this bill would allow exactly that. We as parliamentarians have an obligation to all Afghans to pass this legislation quickly and judiciously. Aid to Afghanistan remains absolutely vital. With this legislative change, Canada is responding to the growing crisis in Afghanistan. This would also help our government work with like-minded countries and international partners to advance our priorities. Canada has a hard-earned international reputation as both a fierce protector and a steadfast source of humanitarian assistance.
I want to give a special thanks to those who worked on this issue. It is rare in this place that we work together with civil society to make such monumental change, but with this legislation, we will truly save the lives of some of the most vulnerable in the world.