Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague across the floor for applauding my speech in advance. He does not know exactly what will be in it, but he is already applauding. Now that is a good sign.
It is obviously a very great honour and a very great pleasure for me to lead off the debate, on behalf of my colleagues in the Bloc Québécois, on referring Bill C-53 to committee before second reading. This bill will make it possible to reverse the onus of proof in proceeds of crime applications.
People will understand that I feel very proud to address the House at this time because the debate that we are launching is based on a struggle that the Bloc Québécois has waged for many years.
In order to fight crime better in general, and especially organized crime, the Bloc has long sought changes in the Criminal Code to provide a reverse onus of proof in proceeds of crime applications. This would force offenders, once convicted of a serious offence, to demonstrate on a balance of probabilities that their property was not acquired through criminal activity.
Organized crime is one of the most serious social issues that we face—all the more so in view of the fact that Quebec has been the scene for ten years of a bloody war among the various criminal motorcycle gangs. This is a war, we should remember, that has cost more than 160 lives, including entirely innocent victims who had the misfortune to find themselves in the way of these bikers.
In the name of public safety, but also and especially to support the police forces in their attempts to counter organized crime, we have campaigned fiercely for substantial changes to the current legal system in order to put more tools at the disposal of crown attorneys and police forces.
By amending the Criminal Code in accordance with the letter and spirit of Bill C-53, we will be taking a huge step forward, and I know already that our efforts will be welcomed by both the police forces and all crown attorneys.
The Bloc Québécois has been pressing the federal government for years to introduce effective legislation for fighting criminal gangs. During the 2000 election campaign, the Bloc carried on this battle, demanding that Ottawa amend the Criminal Code to give police and crown attorneys more effective weapons for fighting and eliminating organized crime.
I would like to take this opportunity to salute the hon. member for Hochelaga, who has been working on this issue for years, that is, since the death of young Daniel Desrochers, 10 years ago. My colleague is a leader in the fight against organized crime.
On October 27, 2004, with the support of the Conservative member for Provencher and the NDP member for Windsor—Tecumseh, I tabled Bill C-242. This bill served as a working paper for the legislation introduced by the Minister of Justice. I want to salute the courage of the minister, and particularly the determination that he has shown in finally convincing cabinet of the merits of the Bloc Québécois' proposal and of the need to follow up on it. It is unfortunate that, for too long, the Liberal government dragged its feet in the fight against organized crime.
It took the Bloc's determination and the government's minority status in the House to force a debate and the tabling of this legislation. Indeed, it was in March 2005 that opposition parties got together to have a motion, of which I was the sponsor, adopted by the House, challenging the government to propose, by May 31, 2005, legislative provisions that would reflect my Bill C-242. Bill C-53 was introduced in the House on May 30, at the very last minute.
Once it is passed, this legislation will greatly streamline the rules of evidence regarding the seizure of goods belonging to a person found guilty of certain offences. More specifically, the bill will amend the Criminal Code so that the goods—identified by the Crown—of a person found guilty of an offence involving a criminal organization, or found guilty of trafficking, importing, exporting or producing drugs, can be confiscated by the court, unless the offender can show, on a balance of probabilities, that his assets are in no way related to his criminal activities, and that they are not proceeds of crime.
In order for the reverse onus to apply, the Crown would first be required to prove, on a balance of probabilities, either that the offender engaged in a criminal organization offence or two serious offences for the purpose of receiving material benefit, or that the legitimate income of the offender cannot reasonably account for all of the offender’s property. I would point out in passing that a serious offence means a criminal act punishable by a maximum prison sentence of five years or more.
At present, in order to obtain an order of forfeiture, the Crown must prove, on a balance of probabilities, that the property is the proceeds of crime and that the property is connected to the crime for which the person was convicted. The Crown therefore must do two things: first, convict the accused and second, prove the illegal and illegitimate origin of the property in order to seize it.
The Charter rightly imposes respect of the right of accused persons to be presumed innocent. It is therefore fundamental that the Crown begin by establishing proof beyond any reasonable doubt of the guilt of the accused, before the reversal of the burden of proof intervenes in the equation. The Crown must prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the accused is guilty of a criminal offence and designate the property it wishes to seize because it is the proceeds of a crime. The accused must again prove, this time—I repeat—by the balance of probabilities, the legitimate origin of the property the Crown wants to confiscate from him.
The Bloc has been saying for years that this reversal of the burden of proof is necessary to battle organized crime and money laundering effectively. Organized crime represents an ongoing threat to society and so it is essential to have effective measures in place to facilitate the battle against this scourge.
Given the many negative effects of organized crime, in both in its social and economic aspects, there is ample justification for strengthening the legislation to fight crime.
Economically, organized crime generates huge revenues, which are often reinvested in the legitimate world, but without making a positive contribution to it. The resulting tax evasion deprives governments of considerable revenues, and gangsters refine their techniques every day to avoid having their assets reviewed by the courts.
Very simply, it is becoming particularly frustrating for ordinary taxpayers to see notorious criminals display ostentatiously and condescendingly the proceeds of their illegal activities. How many times have we heard comments from citizens disgusted with the administration of justice when they see individuals with a plainly criminal past being convicted of a crime and then resuming their jet-set lifestyles as if nothing had happened, because they know full well that these people have not earned an honest dollar in their lives?
As lawmakers, we have to act to restore the public's confidence in its justice system. It has become imperative that criminal organizations be sent a clear signal that the days are over when they could shamelessly make a fast buck without facing punishment. From now on, criminals will have to face the consequences of their actions and, in that sense, they will no longer be able to benefit from their criminal and illegal activities.
Let us not be fooled. There is nothing wrong with calling for the seizure of goods constituting the proceeds of crime. It is common sense. Period.
By amending the Criminal Code to reverse the burden of proof as regards the acquisition of luxury items by an individual found guilty of gangsterism, we are giving police and the Crown another means to eradicate this problem. An individual found guilty and sentenced accordingly will still, at the end of the sentence, have to demonstrate that their assets were acquired using legitimate means.
It will become particularly difficult for a criminal to show that his luxury home, his chalet in the north, his condo in Florida, his shiny motorcycle, his sports cars, and his entire lifestyle correspond to declared income more often than not so low it hovers around the poverty line.
Such a legal initiative could also complicate the widespread practice by criminals of using front men. We know that individuals register their assets in the name of their spouse, parents or friends in order to avoid having major financial assets in their own name that could be confiscated by the government. The bill must take into account this particular reality whereby these front men are very often forced to obey the criminals.
I believe this is one of the concerns raised by our NDP colleagues. I can assure them that I will do everything in my power to reassure them in this regard. The analysis that lead to the introduction of Bill C-53 was largely inspired by a number of international legal precedents. The OECD's financial action task force on money laundering, the FATF, had proposed, in one of its 40 recommendations to fight money laundering, adopting measures allowing for the confiscation of assets.
I apologize for speaking so quickly, but I had a lot to say on this subject. I want to close by saying that I am extremely pleased that we are finally addressing this issue. I invite and urge my colleagues on all sides to rapidly conclude this stage and send Bill C-53 to committee, where, I am convinced, it will be adopted without further delay. Then, it will come back to the House and ultimately be passed in order to provide police forces and crown prosecutors with the tools they need and have been demanding for many years.