Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
I'm pleased to be back in front of you.
I'm pleased to see Mr. Rick Dykstra, one of my colleagues from the Niagara Peninsula and now a member of this committee. It's nice to see him here. I know of his dedication to justice issues, and I appreciate that.
Mr. Chairman, I've learned over the years that any time you get up to speak, if you're going to start recognizing people in a crowd, then you should have the names written down in advance so that you don't miss anyone. I missed someone yesterday. I was at the National Victims of Crime Awareness Week symposium in Ottawa, and when I got up to introduce the first federal ombudsman for victims of crime, I recognized my colleagues , , and . I didn't see in the audience, and I apologize to her for that.
I actually noticed you, Ms. Jennings, as I was walking off the podium, when I saw you in the second or third row. That's not something I would do; I would certainly acknowledge all my colleagues in the House of Commons. In future, I'll revert to my usual procedure, which is to write down the names of the people I'm going to acknowledge—or not do it at all.
In any case, I'm glad to see you here, and I'm glad you were at the meeting yesterday.
It is a pleasure for me to meet with the members of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights to discuss the main estimates for the Department of Justice.
And I'm pleased to have my colleagues joining me here today—and you have introduced them, Mr. Chairman.
You would know, Mr. Chairman, as well that not only am I Minister of Justice and Attorney General, but my portfolio also includes the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court of Canada.
The Minister of Justice, of course, is also responsible for the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, created last December by the Federal Accountability Act to enshrine in legislation the notion of prosecutorial independence.
I'll speak more about that in a moment, but first of all, I want to say that the work of the Department of Justice focuses on ensuring that Canada is a just and law-abiding society, with an accessible, efficient, and fair system of justice, providing high-quality legal services and counsel to the government and to client departments and agencies, and promoting respect for the rule of law.
Within this broad context, the department has a specific priority to develop legislation and policy that address crime more effectively and increase the confidence of Canadians in the judicial system. Ultimately this will promote safer communities for all Canadians and have a very real impact on their lives.
Mr. Chairman, I am pleased with the progress that our government has made on the priorities of Canadians, particularly in the realm of tackling crime. My predecessor, Minister Toews, was placed in charge of an ambitious legislative agenda. I have now taken on the challenge of that agenda and will continue to work diligently to guide the legislation through the House and of course will work with this committee.
One overarching priority has guided our government's work over the past 14 months, and that is safer communities for all Canadians. Part of that priority is tackling crime. From the beginning of our mandate, we have been committed to stronger laws that deal with gangs, guns, and drugs; ensuring serious consequences for serious crimes; and ensuring that our communities are safe from crime. That commitment has not wavered.
We also believe that Canada's justice system must adapt to the needs of the 21st century so that it can remain in step with changes in technology and an increasingly sophisticated population. In these endeavours, I've been working closely with my colleague, the , to deliver on that promise to tackle crime.
We have introduced legislation on a number of fronts. For example, proposes to shift the onus to the person accused of serious gun crimes to explain why they should not be denied bail. And intends to strengthen our national DNA data bank and help our police forces identify the guilty and exonerate the innocent.
I am pleased to say that with the support of all parties in the House we brought into force Bill , which creates new offences that target street racing specifically. These new offences recognize street racing for what it is, a reckless and dangerous act that too often kills. With our new legislation, people who treat our public streets as race tracks will be dealt with more seriously.
We also passed legislation, introduced by my colleague, the , to strengthen the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act. These changes will help ensure that Canada continues to be a global leader in combatting organized crime and terrorist financing.
We are also committed to better meet the needs of victims of crime in areas where the federal government is responsible. Our government has listened and responded to victims of crime, giving them the respect they deserve. We have established the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime. Just yesterday, I was pleased to name Steve Sullivan as the first federal ombudsman. This office will be an independent resource for victims who have concerns about areas for which the federal government is responsible, including the federal correction system. Mr. Sullivan will work at arm's length from the government so that victims will be more confident that their views are being heard.
We also recently provided $52 million in funding over the next four years to boost programs, services, and funding for victims of crime, including: enhancing financial assistance to victims to travel to sentencing hearings to deliver victim impact statements, as well as to National Parole Board hearings; increasing funding for services in the north, where rates of victimization are much higher than in the rest of Canada; and providing limited emergency financial assistance for Canadians who become victims of serious violent crimes while abroad.
However, Mr. Chairman, the government also recognizes that it is equally important to prevent criminal behaviour before it has a chance to take root. We are addressing the root causes of crime by supporting community programs with effective social programs and sound economic policies.
In support of these goals, Budget 2007 commits $64 million over the next two years to create a national anti-drug strategy. This investment builds on ongoing annual funding for current programs and initiatives. This government is determined to sever these links by implementing a coherent, comprehensive national strategy against drugs. Although some details of the strategy remain to be worked out, I can say that it will focus on preventing drug use, treating drug addiction, and combatting drug production and distribution. Together, these three action plans will form an integrated, focused, and balanced approach to reducing the supply and demand for illicit drugs as well as the crime associated with them, leading to healthier individuals and safer communities. The strategy will address all illegal drugs, including marijuana, and will include a national awareness campaigned aimed at young people.
To succeed over the long term, I believe we must educate young people about the real risks associated with drug use, such as the dangers to mental and physical health, potential legal consequences, and impacts on career and travel options. It will also spur communities into action and engage local leaders in preventing the harm caused by illegal drugs.
Our government is also providing $20 million over two years to support community-based programs that provide youth at risk with positive opportunities and help them make good choices. And we will continue to work with the provinces, municipalities, police, and community leaders in areas threatened by gun and gang violence to support programs that reach out to young people.
We've also continued the drug treatment court program, which is an important initiative of the Department of Justice. In conjunction with Health Canada, my department has been instrumental in expanding the concept of drug treatment courts beyond the initial pilot program in Toronto to several communities across Canada. Our government supports the use of drug treatment courts because they help reduce criminal behaviour and drug use while holding offenders accountable for their actions.
We've also made changes to improve and strengthen the justice system. Last November, my predecessor implemented changes to the judicial advisory committees. These changes have broadened the base of stakeholders who will contribute to their discussion and assessment of competence and excellence required for federally appointed judges.
More specifically, we've included members of the law enforcement community, a community no less implicated in the administration of justice than lawyers and judges. These new members contribute another perspective on the competent and qualified individuals recommended to me for appointment to the bench. And we have moved expeditiously to fill vacancies in federal and provincial courts. To date, we have appointed 84 federal judges. I think this is an impressive record, given that the coming into force of Bill C-17 on December 14, 2006, provided federally appointed judges with new options for electing supernumerary status, which created even more vacancies. However, I must emphasize that we will not sacrifice the quality of our appointments in the interest of speed. These appointments will continue to be based on merit and legal excellence.
Additionally, in the interests of accountability we have created the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and have now begun the process of selecting a permanent director. Candidates will be assessed by a committee, with representation from each political party, the senior public service, and the legal profession. As Attorney General, I will make a choice from among three candidates, and that choice will be referred for approval to a committee of Parliament.
By establishing this office as an entity separate from the Department of Justice, our government has it made absolutely clear that criminal prosecutions are independent from political influence.
At this point, I must clear up two misconceptions.
First of all, this action does not suggest that the government believes federal prosecutors were unduly influenced in the past. As my predecessor has said:
||We are not here to correct a problem that has already occurred; we are here to prevent problems from arising in the future.
Second, it's simply incorrect to state, as has been reported, that creating this office has cost the taxpayers an additional $98 million. The truth is this figure represents the budget of the former Federal Prosecution Service, which was a division of the Department of Justice. After the transfer, the budget for the department decreased.
The key driver in creating this office is to be as cost neutral as possible. It is in fact an investment that will benefit Canadians and increase their confidence in the justice system.
Mr. Chairman, although our government has been making great strides in improving our justice system, there is still a great deal left to accomplish.
There are still nine bills in Parliament for which I am responsible as and which I am committed to bringing into force.
We introduced to restrict the use of conditional sentences to ensure that people who commit serious crimes will serve their time behind bars, not in the community.
We introduced to impose escalating mandatory minimum penalties for serious gun-related crimes. This legislation outlines clear consequences for gun crimes: prison sentences that are in keeping with the gravity of the offence.
As I mentioned, seeks to increase the minimum penalty for gun crimes. This matter will soon be discussed in Parliament, and I hope that bill will be restored to the way it was prior to being amended.
Our legislative priorities also include , which will ensure tougher sentences and more effective management of dangerous offenders, including imposing stricter conditions on repeat offenders to keep such criminals from offending again. Bill C-27 responds to concerns that repeat and violent sexual predators are not being properly sentenced or managed once released into the community by strengthening the dangerous offender provisions and sections 810.1 and 810.2, the peace bond provisions, of the Criminal Code. No one will be automatically designated a dangerous offender upon third conviction, and that's another misconception, Mr. Chairman, that I would like to clear up. Crown prosecutors may or may not elect to seek dangerous offender status. In those cases where the Crown elects to proceed, the offender will be given the opportunity to explain why they should not be designated as dangerous, and judges will determine whether the offender should be designated as a dangerous offender.
We are also working to strengthen the laws against alcohol-impaired and drug-impaired driving. will ensure that drug-impaired drivers face similar testing to that which drunk drivers now face. It will give police better tools to detect and investigate drug- and alcohol-impaired driving, and it will increase penalties.
, which this committee recently considered and supported, will better protect youth against adult sexual predators, including against such predators on the Internet, by raising the age of sexual consent from 14 years to 16 years. I believe there is a broad consensus among Canadians that raising the age of protection is the right thing to do. We know it is strongly supported by many who work with youth or advocate on their behalf. I know there's a great deal of support across different levels of government, and indeed across the political spectrum.
This law would also bring Canada in line with many other developed countries throughout the world. It's time to get serious in dealing with the crimes of adult sexual predators and it's time to take a realistic and respectful approach to protecting our young people.
Beyond the legislative agenda is our role as the lead department on the national anti-drug strategy, as announced in Budget 2007. The Department of Justice has traditionally had a role in supporting the development of drug policy, and until recently played an integral part in the prosecution of drug offences. It also has responsibility for the youth justice policy development, including the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
As mentioned previously, along with preventing illicit drug use and treating dependency, this strategy will also crack down on gangs and combat illicit drug production such as grow-ops and methamphetamine labs.
I will work hard to ensure that the government's tackling crime agenda progresses through Parliament in my role as justice minister and Attorney General, so that we can all enjoy safer streets and more secure communities.
Mr. Chairman, our government has done more than just promise to improve Canada's system of justice to create safer communities; we have backed it up with financial resources. I am pleased to note that Budget 2007 reflects the government's commitment to building safer communities and creating a better Canada. We are cooperating on a number of initiatives.
On the new national drug strategy, which I have mentioned, we are committed to $64 million over the next two years to refocus current efforts on combatting illicit drug use and manufacturing, as well as prevention and treatment.
We renewed the aboriginal justice strategy with funding of $14.5 million over two years. This will significantly increase the number of aboriginal communities and people that have access to community justice programs. Under the strategy, aboriginal communities will take greater responsibility for the administration of justice, leading to a further reduction in crime and positive impacts at the community level.
We have allocated an additional $6 million per year to strengthen current activities on combatting the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children and to ensure that those who commit these heinous crimes are brought to justice.
In addition, for the first time in more than 10 years, the provinces and territories will have stable and predictable funding for criminal legal aid. This approach will permit jurisdictions to develop long-term strategies to support the delivery of criminal legal aid.
Budget 2007 takes important steps to prevent crime, as well as the precursors of crime, and to ensure that our corrections, intelligence, and security systems are strong.
Finally, the government recently received the House of Commons subcommittee and special Senate committee reports on the review of the Anti-terrorism Act. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the members of both committees for their excellent work in tackling the numerous issues they were confronted with in the course of their review.
Both committees addressed issues of great concern to the government, and we will consider these recommendations very carefully.
In closing, Mr. Chairman, I wish to thank you and your committee members for your important work. It is an honour for me to take part in this process as Canada's Minister of Justice.
However, I am acutely aware that improving Canada's system of justice is a collaborative effort. Our system is a shared responsibility with the provinces and territories, and our many programs and initiatives require collaboration with our provincial and territorial partners as well as municipalities and other government departments. Together we will continue to work to ensure that Canada's system of justice contributes to the safety and security and well-being of Canadians.
Thank you for this opportunity. I look forward to any questions or comments you may have.
Thank you very much. Thank you, Minister, for being here.
I want to say right off the bat that your comments in the beginning certainly rang a lot of bells with me. The age of consent bill, which is close to becoming a reality, is something the chairman and I—we've been here for 14 years—have both put in as a private member's bill. Since 1995, I believe, we started this. It's good to see this coming to a conclusion. I thank you for your emphasis on the importance of that.
Also, I'm with you in highly hoping that will get some restoration of some sort. I know that during the election campaign in January I felt that this was the right way to go. I based that on a lot of the debates I had with my Liberal and NDP friends during the campaign, that it seemed that was exactly where everybody wanted to go. I didn't have any Bloc opposition in my riding, but the Green Party was there and they were quite excited about the direction that Bill C-10 was taking, that type of legislation. So I'm with you on that.
I want to congratulate you on your appointment, Mr. Sullivan, as the ombudsman. I've known Mr. Sullivan a long time. I realize that he's not bilingual, but I know that he has the heart and the soul for the job. I think that's really key. It'll overcome any barriers that may create a bit of a problem in terms of language. But knowing the man as well as I do, I'm very confident that it was an excellent choice, and I'm looking forward to continuing to work with him.
I'm going to go back to one scenario, and maybe you can give me some idea of how an ombudsman would be effective in the case. This is going back to when I was first elected. The very first group of victims I worked with was a family whose five-year-old daughter was kidnapped out of the backyard and later found in a dumpster murdered. And she had been raped. The perpetrator was found, arrested, and charged. During that period of time he received legal aid. He also had access to psychologists and later on had a 30-day stay in an institution under the care of a psychiatrist. There were all kinds of services for the offender in this crime. In the meantime, when I visited the family—the siblings and the parents—I never saw a more devastated group of people. They had no access to psychologists, no professional medical help whatsoever, no access to any psychiatrist, and I believe that one of the parents could have probably used it. It had a devastating effect on them, and yet there seemed to be no assistance.
I immediately began my conversations with the then Justice Minister Allan Rock, indicating that we needed something in place for victims that they could turn to. I feel that today, with the announcement of Steve Sullivan, that has now been really strengthened to the degree that I think it should be.
I would like for you to expand a little on the powers and the authority of the ombudsman, what we can expect, to a little greater extent, if you don't mind. Also, you could comment on one section that I think has always had a major impact on victims, and that is the faint hope clause. When one of these perpetrators gets out in 15 years, after being sentenced to 25 years to life, it has a devastating impact on victims. Is there any hope of eliminating section 745? That is another private member's bill I've got in place, if I ever get my name drawn.
I think what you have done has indicated a very strong care and concern for victims, and I appreciate that, and I know you've made the right choice with Steve Sullivan and that he will overcome the barriers that Mr. Ménard and Mr. Comartin have indicated.
I'll just let you comment on what I've said.
Thank you very much, Mr. Thompson. You've certainly covered a fairly wide range of interests and concerns in the justice system.
You started off by talking about the age of consent, and I'm pleased that you did. I know of your support and the general support in Parliament for that particular legislation. In my opinion, it addresses a problem that has long been overdue for a solution. The idea that in this country a 40-year-old adult can have sex with a 14-year-old youth and claim there was consent is plain wrong. For those individuals who like to prey on young children, we need to update the law. It's part of the challenge that we as legislators have as we continuously look at these laws and make sure they are updated.
You talked as well about , the bill that would provide mandatory minimum sentences for individuals who commit serious gun crimes. Of course, we in the government are very supportive of it, and the bill was quite extensively amended at the committee. I would certainly like to see it restored, because, in my opinion, what we are suggesting is very reasonable. An individual who commits a serious crime with a gun should be subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of five years.
I think it is reasonable. I can tell you that in my discussions with Canadians, and I'm sure you heard the same thing in the last election, Canadians think this is reasonable. It quite frankly sends out the right message to everyone involved that society takes a very dim view of this type of crime.
I thank you for your support of that particular piece of legislation.
You talked as well in your comments about the federal ombudsman for victims. I congratulate you and your like-minded colleagues who have made the rights and the concerns of victims a priority in your political career.
There has been progress on victim impact statements, even in my lifetime or in my career as a lawyer. I believed then and I believe today that these were steps in the right direction. There was work going on at the provincial level, of course. There's a huge responsibility with respect to the administration of justice, and they are working with victims. But I believe a lot more needs to be done.
For instance, on the victims fund that I talked about in my comments with Mr. Comartin, I was told that financial assistance would be available for Canadians who became victims of crime in a foreign country, if they couldn't afford to get home or they were having trouble getting home. All I was told was that they were entitled to a 30-day loan. Well, it's not acceptable in terms of where we're going. One of the areas that I am pleased has now been expanded on, as part of our effort to assist and support victims, is to make that available.
Those are the kinds of things we have done.
With respect to the federal ombudsman for victims of crime, as I again indicated in my comments to Mr. Comartin, I want that individual to focus exclusively on the issues that concern victims. He or she is not to expand the role or the office to get into other even important areas. I want that person to be completely focused on that.
Some of the things that individual can do is raise with the government issues that he or she believes are not being addressed in the present system. It would be within the mandate. For instance, if there wasn't compliance with the existing law, he or she would look into those kinds of complaints.
I gave an example, not at this committee but elsewhere, of an individual who was the victim of a crime being in a grocery store and seeing the individual who had victimized them. The victim hadn't even been notified that the individual was coming up for parole. That's the kind of complaint I would want the federal ombudsman for victims of crime to look into. Why wasn't the law being complied with? How is it possible that this individual was released and the victim wasn't notified of that, or wasn't given the opportunity?
In that regard, we've also expanded the availability of the victims fund for individuals to get the support they may need. You may have an invalid, for instance, with a disability that makes it very difficult for them to attend a parole hearing. It would be perfectly reasonable, and is now possible, for a support person to go with the individual, who could make a request of the fund.
As you quite correctly point out, the federal ombudsman for victims of crime is an important component of what we are doing, but there are other measures, and the victims fund is one.
Again, in answer to your question, the legislation that I will be bringing forward at the present time will be related to the Youth Criminal Justice Act. We will be announcing as well the national anti-drug strategy. But that's on my legislative agenda for now.
Quite frankly, Mr. Thompson, this is my priority right now—the bills that are before Parliament right now. I indicated in my opening comments the ambitious legislative agenda of my predecessor, Mr. Toews, which was completely consistent with what we told the Canadian public. I understandably would like to see progress on those.
That being said, I can see that we're making progress in a number of areas. I was at the Senate last Thursday. Again, I asked them, please, let's move forward on Bill C-9, the conditional sentencing bill; I would like to see it in law.
So I'm doing my best in terms of encouraging, and working with this committee, working with parliamentarians, working with senators to try to move that legislative agenda. That certainly is my priority. It was the priority of my predecessor, and it is one of the priorities of this government. Our crime agenda is very important in terms of what we promised Canadians and where we want to take this country. The Prime Minister and others continuously emphasize how vital we believe that is to the best interest of this country.
Again, thank you for your comments, and thank you to you and all of your colleagues who have been pushing some of these ideas, quite frankly, for many years.