Mr. Speaker, it is not every day one's speech gets interrupted by the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, so I consider that just one of the many privileges of working in this place.
As I was saying, the seriousness of high treason speaks for itself. At present, anyone convicted of this offence must spend 25 years in custody before being able to apply for parole.
As for the offence of murder, hon. members may recall from past debates that murder is either in the first or the second degree, depending on the offender's level of moral blameworthiness in committing the crime. Murder in the first degree is the most morally blameworthy and has the most severe penalty. That penalty is currently life imprisonment with the requirement that the offender serve a minimum of 25 years in custody before being eligible to apply for parole.
The classic example of first degree murder is a premeditated or cold-blooded murder. Technically referred to in the Criminal Code as a “planned and deliberate” killing, this type of calculated homicide is treated more severely than impulsive and unplanned killings that may occur in the heat of the moment or under the influence of powerful emotions and that may be followed by feelings of remorse once the killer's passions have subsided.
These unplanned, impulsive murders are classified as being in the second degree and, while also punishable by life imprisonment, are subject to a 10-year mandatory minimum period during which the offender is barred from applying for parole.
Given the lower level of moral blameworthiness typically associated with second degree murder, it is not surprising that second degree murderers are more susceptible to rehabilitation and are paroled at a significantly higher rate than first degree murderers.
That being said, not all second degree murderers are the same. Some may exhibit a greater degree of moral blameworthiness, even up to the level of planned and deliberate first degree murderers. For this reason, courts have the discretion to increase the length of time during which a second degree murderer is barred from applying for parole from 10 years all the way up to 25 years.
In making such decisions, courts have to take into consideration the criteria set out in section 745.4 of the Criminal Code, namely, the character of the offender, the nature of the offence, the circumstances surrounding its commission, and the recommendation made by a jury. Courts are very familiar with these criteria and do not hesitate to extend the parole ineligibility period of second degree murderers where warranted.
A good example is offered by the case of Robert Pickton, who murdered several women on his British Columbia pig farm. In the absence of proof of planning and deliberation, he was convicted of second degree murder but subjected by the court to a 25-year parole ineligibility period under section 745.4.
However, some forms of second degree murder are so egregious that Parliament has seen fit to remove all discretion from the courts and to require that such murderers serve a mandatory minimum 25-year period of parole ineligibility.
There are two ways in which Parliament has chosen to do this. The first way is by deeming a number of abhorrent types of second degree murders to be in the first degree and therefore subject to a mandatory minimum period of parole ineligibility of 25 years.
The categories of second degree murders deemed to be in the first degree are listed in section 231 of the Criminal Code and include the murder of police, correctional officials, or someone working in a prison; murder in the course of a sexual assault or a kidnapping-related offence, including kidnapping, forcible confinement, hijacking, or hostage-taking; and murder in the course of carrying out a terrorist activity, which includes actions inspired by political, religious, or ideological causes.
The second way that Parliament has chosen to ensure an appropriate parole ineligibility period for egregious second degree murders is to stipulate that the mandatory minimum period is 25 years instead of 10 years. Section 745 of the Criminal Code makes explicit reference to two situations where Parliament has concluded that nothing short of 25 years would be appropriate. They are second degree murder where the murderer has been convicted on a prior occasion of murder, and second degree murder where the murderer has been convicted on a prior occasion of an intentional killing under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act.
Subjecting these two categories of second degree murder to the penalty for first degree murder reflects the higher level of moral blameworthiness associated with repeat killing, genocide, and other war crimes.
Before I go on to describe the proposals in Bill C-53, I ask hon. members to bear in mind this brief overview of the current murder sentencing regime, as it will assist in understanding both the extent of the changes I am proposing as well as the philosophical basis for them.
I would be remiss if I did not also recall for hon. members the major amendments to the Criminal Code that our government has already brought about in order to bring greater transparency and greater proportionality to the murder sentencing regime.
In terms of transparency, hon. members will recall that in 2011 our government saw to it that the Criminal Code faint hope clause was effectively repealed by former Bill S-6, which came into force on December 2, 2011. I was on the justice committee at that time and, incredibly, I remember the Liberal justice critic of the day stating very clearly that the Liberal Party, if it were ever to form a government again, would bring back the faint hope clause. I certainly hope that is not the current policy of the Liberal Party, but I suspect it may still be the case.
Everyone who commits murder after that date will now have to serve the full parole ineligibility period stipulated by the Criminal Code instead of being able to seek early parole after serving only 15 years in custody. Importantly, former Bill S-6 also imposed stringent new conditions on already-convicted murderers who retain a continuing right to apply for faint hope.
In 2011, Parliament also passed former Bill C-48, the Protecting Canadians by Ending Sentence Discounts for Multiple Murders Act. This government bill amended the Criminal Code to allow courts to impose a sentence proportionate to the harm caused by multiple murderers by imposing periods of parole ineligibility, one for each of their victims, which must be served consecutively.
This helps to ensure that the time actually served in custody by multiple murderers corresponds to the heinous nature of their crimes. In such cases, courts are using criteria identical to those I mentioned earlier in the context of section 745.4 of the Criminal Code.
The provisions in former Bill C-48 were most recently applied in the case of Justin Bourque, the offender who was recently sentenced to life imprisonment with an overall parole ineligibility period of 75 years for the ambush murder of three RCMP officers in Moncton, New Brunswick. We just honoured their memory on the first anniversary of that date a few days ago.
The proposals in Bill C-53 are another step in the continuing efforts of our government to ensure the safety and security of Canadians. They also build on the earlier measures contained in former Bill S-6 and Bill C-48, by bringing greater transparency and proportionality to the sentencing regime for high treason and for murder.
If passed in law, the measures proposed in Bill C-53 would mean that for the worst of the worst offenders a life sentence of imprisonment would mean exactly that, life in prison as opposed to a life in the community under a grant of parole. In so doing, this sentence would constitute punishment that truly reflects the severity of the crimes.
Canadians are too often perplexed to discover that life sentences of imprisonment do not necessarily mean that the offender remains confined for life, nor is the public ready to accept the prospect that offenders convicted of the most shocking and monstrous crimes on the books may be released into the very communities in which they committed their crimes and where the families and loved ones of the victims may still reside.
In response to this concerns, we are proposing in Bill C-53 to amend the Criminal Code, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, and a number of other statutes to authorize the mandatory and discretionary sentences of life imprisonment without parole as follows.
First, a sentence of life imprisonment without parole would be mandatory for both high treason and planned and deliberate first degree murder committed in either the course of a sexual assault, kidnapping-related, or terrorist offence, or where the victim is a police officer or correctional official; or where the murderer's behaviour is of such a brutal nature as to compel the conclusion that he or she is unlikely to be inhibited by normal standards of behavioural restraint in the future.
As hon. members can see, the proposals prescribe a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a fairly narrow class of what are truly heinous crimes. Who among us, for example, would argue that premeditated murder committed in a particularly brutal way or in the course of a kidnapping, sexual assault, or terrorist act are not among the most reprehensible of killings?
In this context, the Supreme Court of Canada has affirmed in a long line of decisions that, where murder is committed by individuals who are already abusing their power by illegally dominating another, the offenders' level of moral blameworthiness is extremely high and merits the most severe punishment under Canadian law.
Before I go on to discuss the proposals in Bill C-53 for discretionary sentences of life without parole, allow me to expand a bit on the requirement for conduct of a “brutal nature" as one of the criteria for imposing a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
This wording was carefully chosen. It is a test currently used in the Criminal Code dangerous offender regime to determine whether an offender who has committed a very serious offence should be sentenced to indefinite detention.
As hon. members may be aware, a sentence of indefinite detention under the dangerous offender provisions is similar to a sentence of life imprisonment; the essential difference being the shorter seven-year parole ineligibility period imposed on dangerous offenders.
Bill C-53 would propose to import the legal test of conduct of a brutal nature into the sentencing regime for heinous murders because it would provide an intelligible standard that is familiar to the courts and is currently used to predict an offender's prospects of becoming a law-abiding member of society in the future.
Let there be no doubt that all murders are terrible offences, deserving of life imprisonment. Nonetheless, I think we can all agree that some murders are carried out in ways that aggravate the already terrible nature of this crime and require a correspondingly more severe penalty.
Hon. members, these are stringent criteria to define the most dangerous criminals and to ensure the mandatory imposition of life without parole is proportionate to the harm caused by such offenders and to the need to protect Canadians from the danger they pose.
As I mentioned earlier, Bill C-53 also proposes to authorize the courts to use their discretion to impose a sentence of life without parole in other situations in which the level of moral blameworthiness of the offender may rise to a level that merits this penalty. Courts would be authorized to make this determination for the following three categories of murder: one, planned and deliberate first degree murder; two, second degree murder that has been deemed under section 231 of the Criminal Code to be in the first degree; and three, second degree murder under section 745 of the Criminal Code where the murderer was previously convicted of murder or of an intentional killing under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act.
In exercising their discretion in these situations, courts would use criteria identical to those I mentioned earlier in the context of section 745.4 and the multiple murder provisions of the Criminal Code; namely, the character of the offender, the nature and circumstances of the murder, and any recommendation by the jurors.
Earlier, I asked hon. members to bear in mind the brief overview of the murder sentencing regime that I provided at the outset of my remarks. All three of the categories of murder that I just mentioned as being eligible for the discretionary imposition of life without parole under Bill C-53 are precisely the murder categories that Parliament has already recognized as exhibiting an elevated level of moral blameworthiness meriting the most severe penalty available under Canadian law.
Bill C-53 simply proposes to allow courts to exercise their discretion using criteria with which they are already familiar to ensure that the most dangerous among them are never released to endanger Canadians again.
Hon. members, from one perspective, Bill C-53 is a made-in-Canada proposal that would build upon the precedent of past sentencing initiatives that are now established features of the sentencing regime for high treason and murder.
However, from another perspective, it would also align Canada with other western democracies that have seen fit to include life sentences without parole as part of their sentencing regimes. Sentences of life without parole for murder are available in almost all states and territories in Australia, in New Zealand, in nine European countries, including England, and in nearly every jurisdiction in the United States.
In all these jurisdictions, release from lifelong incarceration is available through acts of executive clemency informed by their respective constitutional values. Bill C-53 proposes no less in the Canadian context.
Although my colleague the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness will no doubt have more to add on this subject, allow me to note that Bill C-53 contemplates the possibility of conditional release of offenders sentenced to life without parole on an exceptional basis after they have served at least 35 years in custody.
Although parole would not be available to such offenders, after 35 years in custody, they might apply to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, who would consider whether release could be justified on humanitarian or compassionate grounds or because the purpose and objectives of sentencing have been met.
The minister, who would be able to seek the expert advice of the Parole Board of Canada, would then forward the application to the Governor in Council with his or her recommendation. If released by the Governor in Council, the offender would be subject to stringent conditions, breach of which would lead to re-incarceration.
Allow me to close my remarks by noting that the measures proposed by Bill C-53 have been carefully crafted to identify the most dangerous and incorrigible offenders who have committed the most egregious crimes.
I urge all hon. members, therefore, to consider the merits of these fair and balanced reforms and to commit today to the people of Canada that they will see that this legislation is passed when Parliament resumes following the next election.