Madam Speaker, Canada's criminal justice system is broken.
Earlier this year, Leger, a polling company, polled Canadians on how they feel about public safety in this country. A significant majority, two-thirds, feel that they are now less safe than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic, and most Canadians think that provincial and federal governments are doing a poor job of addressing crime and public safety.
Another shocking statistic comes out of British Columbia. In B.C., people charged with violent crime committed while on bail pending trial on previous charges are released on bail again 75% of the time. That statistic comes from a recent review on bail hearings done internally in British Columbia the last couple of weeks of 2022 and the first few weeks of 2023.
The B.C. Prosecution Service, the crown prosecutors, asks for pretrial detention, but the judges deny that, so the accused are again free to go out and commit another crime. We have been hearing too much of that.
Public safety is taking a back seat to the rights of the accused. However, let us not blame judges. They are bound by the law. One B.C. mayor, the mayor of Nanaimo, who is a former provincial NDP cabinet minister, was quoted in The Globe and Mail in April: “The judges are applying the law as it exists.... The law needs to be changed. It diminishes public safety and destroys public confidence in the justice system. This needs to be fixed, yesterday.”
Unfortunately our new Minister of Justice does not have that same sense of urgency when it comes to bail reform. Shortly after being appointed to his new position, he acknowledged the obvious saying, “there's a sense coming out of the pandemic that people’s safety is more in jeopardy.” He then added that he thought “that empirically it's unlikely” Canada is becoming less safe.:
Our Minister of Justice has his head in the sand. Other law enforcement agencies are doing what they can to face the crisis in confidence in our criminal justice system and public safety. For example, the British Columbia government has directed their prosecution service to push for more restrictive bail conditions in cases where public safety is at stake.
However, these efforts are being blunted by the federal Liberal government's legislation, which requires judges to release detainees at the earliest possible opportunity and on the least onerous conditions. That catch-and-release bail system thinking, which needs to be fixed, is based on Bill C-75, legislation from the 42nd Parliament, passed just before the House rose for the summer four years ago, in June 2019.
It is poorly thought-out legislation. It is the Liberal government's response to its understanding of what the Supreme Court of Canada said in a series of cases about defending and protecting the rights of accused people to reasonable bail and the presumption of innocence. It is poorly thought-out legislation.
What is the result of Bill C-75 four years later? Is it general support for this catch-and-release? Absolutely not at all. As a matter of fact, we have a letter signed by 10 provincial premiers and three territorial premiers, from all political parties, unanimously telling the Prime Minister that our bail system is broken and that it needs to be reformed and fixed urgently.
The premiers are hearing from their citizens and reacting to deep concerns from the public about the perception that the criminal justice system favours the accused at the cost of the public. Here is what the premiers said: “We write to urge that the federal government take immediate action to strengthen Canada’s bail system to better protect the public and Canada’s heroic first responders.”
That letter was initiated at a meeting of the attorneys general from across the country in October 2022. It asks for reverse onus. They are saying reverse onus for repeat violent offenders would be one way to fix our criminal justice system. Reverse onus ostensibly makes it more difficult for an accused person to be let out on bail. They said, “This is just one proposal for much-needed reform”.
They are asking for general reform of the bail system. Certainly, the police services and the people I talked to across the country over the summer have been saying the same thing.
Between the time of the meeting and the writing of the letter in January, there was another tragic event in Canada that underlies the need for urgent bail reform. OPP officer Greg Pierzchala was shot down and was killed. He did not make it home after his shift on December 27, 2022. He was responding to a traffic call. He did not stand a chance. They opened fire on him, and he died on the scene.
His boss, OPP commissioner Thomas Carrique, stated that one of the two people who were charged with his murder was out on bail at the time. He had been banned from owning any firearms for life since 2018. Three years later, that same person was charged with several firearms-related offences and assaulting a police officer.
He was released on bail on a number of conditions, including remaining in his residence under his mother's care, not possessing firearms and wearing a GPS ankle bracelet, which he somehow removed. His trial date was set for September 22, but he failed to appear. There was a warrant for his arrest.
At the justice committee, when we were studying this, we had chief of police Darren Montour of the Six Nations Police Service, which was charged with supervising this killer's bail conditions. One witness had this to say: “What we've seen with the increased release of people on bail conditions is effectively a downloading to the police services of jurisdiction to become professional babysitters”. Darren Montour added, “We don't have the manpower or resources to do that.”
Commissioner Carrique of the OPP said at a press conference, “Needless to say, the murder of Const. Greg was preventable. This should have never happened. Something needs to change. Our police officers, your police officers, my police officers, the public deserve to be safeguarded against violent offenders who are charge with firearms-related offences”.
Premier Doug Ford, shortly thereafter, said, “OPP Commissioner Carrique's comments on the tragic killing of Constable Grzegorz Pierzchala is the latest plea for the federal government to address the revolving door of violent criminals caused by our country's failed bail system...Too many innocent people have lost their lives at the hands of dangerous criminals who should have been behind bars — not on our streets. Enough is enough.”
I agree with that, as does the vast majority of Canadians.
That is why we are here today debating Bill C-48, an act to amend the Criminal Code on bail reform. This is the government's response to concerns expressed by many Canadians, including the premiers. The premiers' letter captures the public perception, what we have all been hearing on the ground, but let us now see whether Bill C-48 captures that same mood.
There are a number of preambles in the introduction of this legislation. I am just going to read two of them that I think are informative. The fourth one reads, “Whereas a proper functioning bail system is necessary to maintain confidence in the criminal justice system, including in the administration of justice”. I agree with that.
The eighth paragraph in the preamble says, “And whereas confidence in the administration of justice is eroded in cases when accused persons are released on bail while their detention is justified”.
I would say that this sounds good. This is certainly a step in the right direction. This is a recognition that Parliament needs to find a balance between the rights of the accused and the protection of the public.
What would Bill C-48 actually do? It would introduce a reverse onus for serious offences, with serious offences defined as an accused person being charged within the last five years on something that would have had a 10-year sentence. However, I think the bill is too narrow. I do not think this legislation addresses all the concerns that we are hearing from the public, and more work needs to be done.