Madam Speaker, a little background is in order. Earlier, in a tone of voice neither friendly nor courteous, and certainly not the sort of tone one would expect from a man whose job it is to work toward achieving consensus on these issues, the Minister of Justice suggested that the party I represent, the Bloc Québécois, has not taken a serious enough interest in organized crime issues. I would like to take another look at some of the facts.
I was elected in October 1993. The Prime Minister of the day, Mr. Chrétien, had to go to a NATO meeting, so Parliament was convened in January. In August 1995, a car bomb took the life of young Daniel Desrochers. That was when the impact of motorcycle gang wars on civil society began to receive broad media coverage. I would like to point out that what people in British Columbia, particularly the greater Vancouver region, are going through now, unfortunately, is something we experienced to an even greater extent between 1995 and 1998.
In 1995, I introduced the first anti-gang bill. I well remember my discussions with senior federal officials. At the time, Allan Rock was the Minister of Justice, and some of his officials convinced him that we could put an end to organized crime using conspiracy provisions. I cultivated my police force contacts. A man by the name of Pierre Sangolo taught me a lot about organized crime. He was the Montreal police officer in charge of the file. I was a young member of Parliament then, just 31 years old. I had been elected a little over two years before, and I had never in my life had any need to pay attention to organized crime. I had vague memories of my parents taking an interest in the Commission of Inquiry on Organized Crime (CIOC). I was young, and I knew that organized crime could poison the communities it targeted.
Pierre Sangolo, a Montreal police officer, explained to me that a certain number of conditions have to be in place for organized crime to flourish. For example, organized crime is not necessarily the same here as it in in developing countries. In order for organized crime to exist, there have to be some indicators of wealth and lines of communication. Organized crime operates in the import and export markets. Not only does organized crime make itself at home in wealthy societies with good lines of communication, it also at home in societies with a certain amount of bureaucracy. In the case we are interested in, it is a question of the bureaucracy of the legal system. This bureaucracy has grown up mainly because of the charter and the multiple appeals that are possible when one goes to court.
And so, I introduced the first anti-gang bill. At that time, the Liberals formed the government. It took up a bill that became a government bill, Bill C-95, which created the criminal organization, or gangsterism, offence. That reinforced the idea that there was more to worry about than crimes committed on an individual basis, conspiracy, premeditation and organized criminal attacks. It meant that the ringleaders had to be targeted. Those who give the orders and plan the operations are not the ones who carry them out. In the legal system as it existed then, we had the means to deal with those who carried out the orders, but we did not have many tools to attack those at the top of the organized crime pyramid.
In large part thanks to the inspiration and leadership of the Bloc Québécois, Bill C-95 created a new offence. When five people belong to an organization and any one of those people commits a serious offence, an offence punishable by more than five years of imprisonment and from which the individual stood to gain financially, that was considered a new offence called participation in a criminal organization.
The bill was passed in 1997. From what I remember, all parties supported that bill. The next year, in 1998, the Montreal police service and other police forces told us that the number five made enforcing the law too difficult. What they were seeing was the creation of all kinds of satellite gangs and it was difficult to find five people who had been convicted of offences punishable by more than five years in prison. In Bill C-24, which, if memory serves, was introduced by Anne McLellan, the number was reduced from five to three. It was the Bloc Québécois that worked hard and got results. At the time, Richard Marceau, the hon. member for Charlesbourg, was the Bloc's justice critic. We managed to get the government to remove $1,000 bills from circulation, since we knew that $1,000 bills helped drug traffickers and people involved in organized crime. I am convinced that if I did a quick survey here and asked my fellow members how many have a $1,000 bill in their pocket, I doubt that anyone here, whether MPs, clerks or the Chair, would have a $1,000 bill in their possession, even though we all earn a good living.
It was also the Bloc Québécois that managed to create a new offence allowing for reverse onus of proof regarding the origin of the proceeds of crime acquired by criminal organizations. Of course, we realized that reversing the onus of proof is always a means of last resort in law. Given that the Crown and the defence do not have the same means, the Crown must prove that an offence was committed. However, we felt that the problem was serious enough that, once a guilty verdict was pronounced, there should be a reverse onus of proof regarding the proceeds of crime.
The Bloc Québécois led the way in having these measures adopted. That is why I take exception to the fact that the Minister of Justice, who too often is narrow-minded in his interventions, implied that we were negligent, that we were not steadfast, that we were not concerned about the issue of organized crime. The police services I have worked with for a number of years—as did my predecessor, the member for Charlesbourg, and Michel Bellehumeur before him, who was once the Bloc justice critic—can confirm that we have always been very concerned about organized crime.
I say to the government that we will support this bill. We are in favour of its objective. I met with the Attorney General of British Columbia. He explained the situation in his province. He proposed three measures. We truly hope that two will be implemented. The first concerns deducting from the sentence double the amount of time served in detention prior to trial. I will come back to this. The second concerns the issue of accelerated release. This is a longstanding demand.
The third measure on which we need a bit more reflection and information is the whole notion of the Crown's ability to restrict the disclosure of evidence, which would of course be contrary to certain Supreme Court judgments, Stinchcombe in particular. We must therefore ensure, when it comes to the disclosure of evidence during the preliminary inquiry and the trial, that this is not in contravention of the rules of fairness that must exist when a trial is involved, particularly a criminal trial where it may be a matter of imprisonment and life imprisonment.
We are going to support this bill. Can I tell the Minister of Justice and the government that we will not be presenting any amendments? Certainly not. The purpose of referring a bill to a committee is to hear witnesses. We want to work with diligence. We are aware that there is a worrisome situation in British Columbia, but we are not going to rush things. We are going to work seriously but we are not going to make a commitment to present no amendments.
For example, the matter of mandatory minimum sentences is an obvious problem for us. Each time a provision of the Criminal Code contains a mandatory minimum sentence, we are sending the message that we do not trust the judiciary. Each case before the courts is individual, and justice needs to be individualized as well. We are not comfortable with anyone wanting to tie the hands of the judiciary. It is possible that the Bloc Québécois will bring in some amendments concerning mandatory minimum sentences. We have always maintained the same position. We are consistent on this.
I am also well aware that organized crime is an extremely changeable reality, a highly dynamic phenomenon. When I first began to take an interest in organized crime in 1995, at the age of 31, there was very little reference to street gangs. It was motorcycle gangs, the Hells Angels, the Rockers. There were gang wars in various communities. In recent years, another phenomenon has emerged: street gangs.
What characterizes street gangs? As far as intelligence gathering is concerned, this different phenomenon presents some difficulties. First of all, they are groups that are far harder to do surveillance on, far less organized, far less structured. I do not know whether anyone here has had the opportunity to look at an organization chart of the Hells Angels, with their sergeants at arms and their presidents. It is a highly structured organization with implacable rules and regulations. We are well aware that any Hells Angel who does not stick to the rules is liable to be killed. Not that I am sorry about that in any way, but what I am saying is that, when street gangs are involved, they are less organized groups, and so harder to wiretap, harder to do surveillance on, and less predictable in their criminal behaviour.
I was told that when it comes to street gangs, we are seeing a bit of a second generation. People in street gangs tend to be a little older. These people are not, on average, 14, 15 or 16. They tend to be a little older than that. Street gangs are not necessarily based on ethnic origin alone anymore. We know that there have been some alliances with organized crime groups and that there are now Caucasians—white people—who are in important positions in the hierarchy of street gangs. Those are some of the realities that we must try to understand more at committee.
The main new feature in this bill is the following. We are told that when a murder—a homicide—is committed for the benefit of or at the direction of a criminal organization, as set out in section 467.11, 12 and 13 of the Criminal Code, it will automatically be deemed a first degree murder.
Murder in the first degree means that it was premeditated. My colleague from Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, as a former justice minister, was quite right to remind me that the difference between a first degree murder and a second degree murder is the deliberate nature, the use of violence and the use of a weapon in the case of first degree murder.
I do not oppose the creation of this offence in the Criminal Code. I simply want to understand. It is my impression that, already at this time, if someone commits a homicide for the benefit of a criminal organization, that individual can be sentenced to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 25 years.
How will the creation of the new offence change anything? I am not saying it is irrelevant, but I want to understand.
I thought that the reason was that, when members of organized crime are brought before the courts, they might plead guilty to manslaughter. That must be the reason, I told myself.
Just now, when I put this question to the minister with my habitual courtesy, the minister got a bit annoyed. Not only did he get annoyed, but he raised his voice. Not only did he raise his voice, but he did not want to answer. Not only did he not want to answer, but he accused me of being an ideologue. Paradoxical, that. The Conservatives calling me an ideologue. What kind of a crazy world are we living in?
I was trying to get the Minister of Justice to explain this new offence to me, one which may be pertinent, well-founded, rational, but he did not answer the question. That will not stop us from supporting the bill in principle, but I believe it may not be a provision that is as original as the minister would have us believe.
This bill disappoints us in some ways as well. For example, we would have liked to hear about pre-trial detention. It is true that there was a time in the justice system—the older ones here will remember it—when people awaiting sentencing were kept in difficult conditions in penitentiaries. That we acknowledge, but has there not been a significant change in this area? Do we still need to say that, for every day of detention before trial, there will be two days deducted from sentences?
The Bloc Québécois wonders whether this practice ought not to be reviewed. We were concerned about this getting rushed through. How is it that a person who has had a fair trial can be released after a sixth of his sentence? Is there not something about this that should worry us as far as the peace we desire for our communities is concerned ?
I repeat, we are anxious to look at this bill in the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. We are not going to take a partisan approach. We have a full picture of what is going on in communities, in Vancouver and other parts of British Columbia. Moreover, there is no community anywhere that is sheltered from violent confrontations between criminal groups. I am not guaranteeing that we are not going to make amendments, but we do support the bill in principle.
I hope that all members of this House are not going to start impugning motives, and that they will all agree that we are all concerned by the safety of our fellow citizens and that we are going to bring to our work in committee a high-minded approach and broadness of outlook, as all serious parliamentarians must.