Mr. Speaker, today we conclude debate on Bill C-41 before sending it off to the Senate. This legislation aims to address important aspects of the deepening crisis in Afghanistan and responds to calls from Canadian humanitarian aid agencies to deliver relief to a country on the brink.
Once again, the committee process did the good work I have seen time and time again in this place, making the bill we have before us today better than it was, better because we listened and we responded.
We included an important amendment from the member for Edmonton Strathcona to include a humanitarian carve-out in the bill. I will expand more on that later, but I thank her for bringing this forward so we could unanimously support it. As someone who has worked in the humanitarian sector, she brings a passion to her work that reflects her clear desire for a better world.
Although we were both elected in 2015, the member for Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan and I have never worked together before. There are many issues on which we have divergent views, but on the issue of aid to Afghanistan and to those most in urgent need, we are on the same page. I want to sincerely thank him for the patient and collaborative approach he brought to this bill. I can confidently say we would not be here today without his efforts.
My friend from the Bloc Québécois, the member for Lac-Saint-Jean, asked at committee:
Can the committee members make some concessions and manage to balance out this bill to get a deal as quickly as possible?...As a parliamentarian, I'm trying to see what's acceptable to humanitarian organizations to get this bill passed as quickly as possible.
That is exactly what we accomplished with the bill before us now. I thank the hon. member for Lac-Saint-Jean for his passion, for ensuring we are acting to save lives in Afghanistan and around the world, for his trust and his friendship, and for the productive way we worked together.
Before talking about the changes made to the bill, I want to reiterate what brought us here. I am proud of the cross-party collaborative efforts made by the Special Committee on Afghanistan and the important recommendations put forward by that committee, reflecting the work Canadian non-governmental organizations and humanitarian aid agencies have put forward as a pathway to deliver aid to Afghanistan.
The situation in Afghanistan is 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.
I want to remind the House that Afghanistan was a country that was reliant on foreign aid before the takeover by the Taliban. According to the special committee's report:
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 [and violent] 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 [rightly] subject to sanctions in relation to terrorism.
An important motion was passed at the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights following the passage of Bill C-41 reiterating:
That the committee report to the House that it firmly denounces the Taliban and rejects any recognition or legitimization of their control over Afghan territory. In particular, the committee denounces the Taliban system of gender discrimination, systemic violence targeting minority communities, reprisals against former members of the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces, attacks on freedom of the press, and other violations of fundamental human rights. The committee believes that the Taliban must remain a listed terrorist organization.
The overall result for Afghanistan of the takeover by the Taliban has been the near economic and institutional collapse, including an inability to provide the most basic services and pay civil servants' salaries. The net effect for the Afghan people is that prices have increased, livelihoods have disappeared and household resources have been exhausted. Egregious human rights violations are taking place, in particular impacting women and girls.
To encapsulate the enormity of this situation, John Aylieff, regional director for Asia and the Pacific in the World Food Programme, told the special committee, “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 require food assistance, nearly nine million were one step away from famine, while some one million children were at risk of perishing this year from acute malnutrition. The population of Afghanistan is 40 million, and 23 million require food assistance. Canadian aid agencies are ready and willing to help.
As Michael Messenger, CEO of World Vision Canada, described, they had two containers, “full of packets of ready-to-use therapeutic food...to treat children facing the severest forms of malnutrition. This [is food that] can literally bring children back from the brink of death by starvation.” The organization could not ship it to Afghanistan, despite the pleas from their team on the ground. Each container would have helped more than 900 children.
Martin Fischer, director of policy at World Vision Canada, reiterated recently at the justice committee their organization's inability to deliver aid in Afghanistan, saying, “every organization has a different risk appetite and arrives at conclusions regarding risk in a different way. For World Vision Canada, there was a decision that we wouldn't find workarounds, either any through our global partnerships or any other way”.
Bill C-41 should provide registered Canadian organizations the clarity and assurances needed to deliver humanitarian assistance and 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 and support of a generation of leaders, many of whom were women, who were building a better country for Afghans.
Currently, the Criminal Code contains strong counter-terrorism financing provisions. Specifically, under paragraph 83.03(b), it is prohibited to directly or indirectly provide or make property available knowing it could be used by or will benefit a terrorist group. These provisions are having a significant impact on Canada's ability to deliver aid and other forms of international assistance, namely in Afghanistan. During the committee process, we heard from eight organizations who asked for changes to the bill.
Joseph Belliveau, executive director of Doctors Without Borders, testified:
Principled humanitarian work is recognized and protected by international humanitarian law, or IHL. Humanitarian organizations, such as MSF, providing essential services impartially with no commercial, political or other objective must be afforded the protection of IHL. Under IHL, humanitarian assistance cannot be considered support for any party to a conflict, even one deemed “terrorist”. In other words, providing humanitarian aid cannot be considered a crime.
IHL is integral to Canadian law. As party to the Geneva Conventions, Canada has an obligation to uphold IHL and must, according to recent United Nations Security Council resolutions, ensure that domestic counterterror legislation is compatible with IHL.
Canada's Supreme Court has similarly affirmed that the Criminal Code must be interpreted such that “innocent, socially useful or casual acts” with no criminal intent are not criminalized.
MSF acknowledges that Bill C-41 aims to facilitate rather than curtail humanitarian action. Unfortunately, Bill C-41 and the counterterror parts of the Criminal Code it relates to are, in their current formulation, inconsistent with IHL and Canadian law and will undermine Canadian humanitarianism.
We listened to MSF and adopted the NDP's amendment in Bill C-41 to amend the Criminal Code to create a humanitarian assistance carve-out from the terrorist financing offences in section 83.03, clarifying that:
Subsections (1) and (2) do not apply to a person who carries out any of the acts referred to in those subsections for the sole purpose of carrying out humanitarian assistance activities conducted under the auspices of impartial humanitarian organizations in accordance with international law while using reasonable efforts to minimize any benefit to terrorist groups.
Moreover, for permissible development activities in addition to the humanitarian carve-out, eligible persons and organizations could be granted certain authorizations that would shield them from criminal liability for their operations in a geographic area that is controlled by a terrorist group. This could include education, immigration services, livelihood supports or health services that could not be captured under the definition of humanitarian assistance.
The authorizations would also cover implementing partners or service providers involved in the delivery of the permissible activities. This includes the delivery of aid, in addition to support services related to immigration, including resettlement efforts and safe passage activities.
To be clear, strict measures would still be applied to prevent financial flow from reaching individuals linked to terrorist organizations where possible. Humanitarian organizations are aware of the risk of sending humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. They are also experts in the field, and they best understand how to deploy aid in the most efficient way possible to reach the most people in need without it going to the Taliban.
I want to quote a member of Islamic Relief Canada, an organization that I am proud to have in my riding of Oakville North—Burlington. They said:
In the summer of 2021, when the Taliban took over the government, we wanted to understand our risk appetite as Islamic Relief, so we figured out and calculated what the taxes were. They were around 3%. This is what we did at Islamic Relief. The U.K. and the U.S., our counterparts, do have broader humanitarian exemptions, and we wanted to continue helping the people of Afghanistan with Canadian donor funds that our donors from across the country wanted to give for Afghanistan, so we carved out the 3% that was for government taxes, and our counterparts in the U.K. subsidized that portion. As a result, no Canadian funds were being used that went to the government.
This testimony at committee helped parliamentarians understand why a humanitarian carve-out is not only so important but also possible to implement. Knowing that these humanitarian organizations are already taking it upon themselves to implement operational policies and risk assessments, to ensure that aid is getting to vulnerable Afghans and not the Taliban, helps reduce the overall risk of monies flowing to individuals linked to terrorism.
I would again note in the House that the authorization regime would not be restricted to Afghanistan. It would apply to any geographic area controlled by a terrorist group in order to be able to respond to similar situations.
Jessica Davis testified that approximately 8% of countries worldwide are controlled by terrorist groups; these include Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and parts of West Africa, where terrorist groups are controlling territories. Bill C-41 would apply to those areas in the world as well.
At committee, we heard about the need to reduce the burden on humanitarian organizations in having to determine by themselves which geographic areas are controlled by a terrorist group. We heard that they require clarity. The amendment adopted at committee, put forward by my Conservative colleague, places a positive onus on the public safety minister to provide written information at the request of an applicant as to whether an authorization is required. This amendment considers the dynamic nature of terrorism and allows for the most up-to-date assessment of terrorist groups and their control of geographic areas.
Another important change made at committee ensures that if an application is refused, applicants would be able to reapply after 30 days. This was amended to shorten the original 180-day reapplication waiting period. This was requested by humanitarian aid organizations and reflects their desire for their organizations to reapply quickly, should they be unsuccessful for any reason. Applicants can also seek recourse through a judicial review.
An amendment to the original bill also explicitly restricts the use of applicant information for the purpose of the authorization request or its renewal. This responds to a request from humanitarian aid organizations, which articulated concerns about how the data collected in their authorization applications would be processed by departments and agencies. Moreover, information sharing by prescribed departments allows them to collect and disclose information in assisting the public safety minister in this regime; it has been limited to the purposes of the administration and enforcement of the regime. The public safety minister must ensure that the assisting entities comply.
The bill also calls for a comprehensive review of the operation of the authorization regime. This provision was amended to require that it occur within the first year rather than the fifth year of this section coming into force, followed by every five years thereafter.
I recognize that some people are skeptical about how the new regime will work, and they are eager to see regulations developed following passage of the bill. This shortened one-year timeline will ensure that we can quickly address any shortcomings, should they arise.
The Minister of Public Safety must table a report to Parliament, which must also include a plan and timeline to remedy any deficiencies. As parliamentarians, we have an obligation to all Afghans to pass this legislation, because aid to Afghanistan remains absolutely vital. With this legislation, Canada is responding to the continuing crisis in Afghanistan by facilitating the provision of humanitarian assistance, health services, education and human rights programs, as well as safe passage and immigration processing for vulnerable individuals destined for Canada. This will also help our government work with like-minded countries and international partners to advance our international priorities.
Canada has a hard-earned international reputation as both a fierce protector and a steadfast source of humanitarian assistance. It has committed to accepting at least 40,000 refugees from Afghanistan. So far, 32,745 have arrived in Canada. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of greeting a plane of 280 Afghan refugees arriving in Toronto via the UAE. It is impossible to express the joy that these people had upon arriving in Canada. One gentleman told me that Canada is the best country in the world, and I would agree with that. I looked at the young girls arriving, thinking that they could now have an education. Most importantly, these individuals will be able to go to bed knowing they are safe.
These refugees who will make Canada home are the lucky ones. However, millions remain in Afghanistan and need our help today. Our government will continue to collaborate closely with international Canadian partners as we work together to accomplish our shared humanitarian and development assistance commitments.
Martin Fischer, head of policy at World Vision Canada, stated:
We believe that with some fine tuning, it is a critical step forward in a longer-term journey to ensure that Canadian humanitarian organizations as well as those delivering other services in these difficult contexts can operate in a neutral, impartial and independent manner in the most difficult and exceptional circumstances.... We cannot lose sight of the severity of the humanitarian crisis there and the obligations that Canada and Canadians have to help.
I firmly believe that the committee process has ensured that the bill we have before us has been improved by the input of civil society and the collaborative work of parliamentarians, as well as that the fine tuning has been achieved. This legislation will truly make a change that will save the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the world.
As Martin said, as Canadians, we have to help. It is in our nature. As parliamentarians, we have an obligation to help. Bill C-41 will ensure that humanitarian organizations can deliver aid to Afghanistan and save lives.