The House proceeded to the consideration of Bill , as reported (without amendment) from the committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am exceptionally pleased that we are debating Bill at third reading. According to my colleagues, it is the second best thing that has happened yet today.
It proposes a reverse onus in bail hearings for a number of firearm-related offences.
Canada's new government is following through with its commitment to get tough on crime. That is why, since last spring, we have introduced 11 bills to make our communities safer. We have tackled key issues such as gun crimes, alcohol and drug impaired driving, street racing, and the protection of our youth from adult sexual predators.
This government is listening to what Canadians are telling us. We are making progress on amending the Criminal Code to make it more responsive to their concerns.
It is important that we maintain the trust of Canadians in the criminal justice system. Along with other bills, Bill aims to do just that. Bill demonstrates this government's commitment to ensuring that people charged with serious firearm offences do not roam our streets while out on bail.
In my view, the legislative reforms proposed in Bill are appropriately tailored to the concern that has been expressed by many Canadians, the concern about the release from custody of individuals accused of serious gun crimes who pose a threat to public safety.
Bill proposes to shift the onus during bail hearings from the Crown to the accused, so that people charged with serious firearm offences will not benefit from a presumption in favour of release on bail. The burden will be on them to demonstrate why it is not justified to keep them in custody until they are dealt with according to the law.
Under Bill , a reverse onus will apply in a number of cases.
First, Bill creates a reverse onus for eight serious offences committed with a firearm. These offences are: attempted murder; discharging a firearm with intent; sexual assault with a weapon; aggravated sexual assault; kidnapping; hostage taking; robbery; and extortion. It is clear that these are serious offences and their severity is only heightened when they are committed with a firearm.
Second, Bill proposes a reverse onus for the offences of firearm trafficking, possession for the purposes of trafficking, and firearm smuggling. While firearm trafficking and smuggling are not offences that involve the actual use of a firearm, they are nonetheless very serious offences. Those involved in firearm trafficking and smuggling are responsible for the illegal supply of guns to people who cannot lawfully possess them and who are likely to use them for a criminal purpose.
The Criminal Code already provides a reverse onus for accused persons charged with drug trafficking and smuggling. It should also provide a reverse onus for those who are involved in firearm trafficking and smuggling. Just like those involved in the drug trade, firearm traffickers are also involved in organized and lucrative crime. In some cases, these activities go hand in hand and involve the same network of people.
Regardless of whether the charge is for firearm trafficking and smuggling or for drug crimes, a reverse onus should apply to the accused. The potential for continued involvement in that kind of ring is high, even after the accused has been arrested and then released. From a public safety perspective, firearm traffickers play a significant role in the firearm homicide problem. Their involvement poses an indirect but significant threat to the safety of the public.
Bill also creates a reverse onus for any offence involving a firearm or other regulated weapon if committed while the accused is subject to a weapons prohibition order.
Weapons prohibition orders are imposed in many cases, such as, for example, when a person is convicted of an indictable offence in which violence against a person was used, threatened or attempted. They are imposed on people convicted of certain drug trafficking and smuggling charges, as well as weapon-related offences. They remain in force for several years and in some cases for a lifetime.
Weapons prohibition orders are a very important tool in our criminal law to help prevent firearm violence, whether it is homicides or other gun related crimes, but also accidental injuries and suicides.
I would like to highlight the fact that there are approximately 35,000 prohibition orders currently in force in our country. This specific reverse onus situation has the potential to apply in a number of cases where the risk of future firearm violence is a concern. People should not be entitled to bail when they have demonstrated their inability to abide by a court order to not possess firearms or other regulated weapons.
Finally, Bill provides additional criteria specifically related to firearm offences for the court to consider when it decides whether the detention of the accused is justified.
This particular amendment is not a new reverse onus situation. The court will be able to justify denying bail to a person charged with an offence involving the use of a firearm or with a firearm offence that attracts a minimum penalty of three years or more.
If the court is not able to justify keeping a person in custody under the other permitted reasons, under Bill it will be able to do so if it is necessary in order to maintain confidence in the administration of justice.
Bill takes into consideration the broader picture regarding crime in the country. When it comes to gun crimes, the situation has changed, and we need to adapt to this change.
The reality is that organized crime and now street gangs are armed. Frequently they are armed with handguns or other restricted or prohibited firearms. Our criminal justice system must be properly equipped in order to step up to the challenges posed by this new brand of criminality.
Several of our large urban centres are now struggling with the criminal use or illegal possession of firearms by members of street gangs and by drug traffickers. Innocent people are affected by inter-gang violence, random shootings, armed robberies and, as we saw so recently, killings in schools. Just a couple of weeks ago, another young person, Jordan Manners, was fatally shot in a Toronto school.
We are adapting to changing times and changing crimes. Bill will enhance our bail regime to reflect our collective denunciation of gun crimes.
I am very happy that the bill is being met with quite a bit of support from all parties in the House and from various stakeholders. I would like to express how pleased I am with the recent support of the bill by the Bloc. Indeed, the study of this bill in committee has given us the opportunity to find out about important points of view, allowing all parties to appreciate its value. It is proof that committees can work.
The government believes that Bill is a very sensible piece of legislation. It is focused, strong and right. It is my hope that it will be well received in the Senate and that senators will move on it quickly and expeditiously.
Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak to Bill .
The attorney general in my province supports the bill, as does the Liberal Party of Canada. This is part of a collection of government legislation that we tried to fast-track in March, including the age of consent legislation and a number of other bills. We tried to move them forward but the government inexplicably blocked our efforts to pass four major pieces of legislation dealing with criminals and criminal activity through the House in one day. Half of the government's legislative agenda on criminal activities could have been passed but the government chose not to. Those members can explain that to their constituents.
People have a lot of misconceptions on who is committing gun crimes and where the guns are coming from. Murders are not being committed by law-abiding citizens who get the background checks done, get the firearms acquisition certificate and then go out and hunt or engage in target practice. Murders are being committed by criminals who get these guns that are generally brought into Canada by gun traffickers.
Guns are often intimately attached to drug trafficking. In fact, trafficking in drugs, guns, other weapons or other contraband is part of what fuels organized crime financially. Guns are just another product to organized crime. The profound tragedy of this is that guns are used to kill people. Many of the guns used in homicides have been brought into this country illegally. They are not used by law-abiding people who get the firearms acquisition certificate. They are used by thugs. With the tough regulations that we have today, these thugs can only get guns illegally. They are brought up primarily from the United States.
It is important for us to focus on that. It is important for us not to veer off into initiatives that have nothing to do with dealing with the people who are committing these crimes. At the end of the day, those initiatives will not reduce crime in our country, which is why we are supporting this initiative.
This legislation is part of a whole collection of legislation that we introduced when we were in government that would have given Canada one of the toughest anti-pedophile laws in the world. Our legislation dealt with strong initiatives against sexual predators, tougher sentences for violent offenders and tougher penalties for those who engage in organized criminal activities. These individuals are actually criminals dressed in business suits.
It is also important for us to implement other initiatives that would make our country safer. One of the most important responsibilities that we have as elected officials is to implement solutions that ensure that our citizens are living in a safe environment.
Let us look at the prison population and at some of the antecedents as to why they are there. What kind of people are in jail? Some of them are bad and nasty people, which is why the federal government should listen to its provincial counterparts. I was having a conversation here with one of my colleagues. The provinces have a big challenge. The police are having a challenge on the ground with respect to this revolving door of people being arrested, going into the system and then coming out quickly. It is disheartening, immoral and defeating for our police officers and our correctional officers who work so ardently to keep our streets safe.
What could the government do? A lot of the people in prison have drug problems and psychiatric problems. It is estimated that 40% of them have fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol effect. This is a shocking number given the fact that fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol effect is the leading cause of preventable brain damage in newborns in Canada. It is completely preventable. It would be very smart for the health minister and the justice minister to work with their provincial counterparts to find comprehensive, doable and effective solutions that prevent fetal alcohol syndrome.
It is heartbreaking to see these children with an average IQ of 70. They have incredible difficulties in school and end up falling through the gaps. The teachers cannot handle them and, as a result, some of them act out with predictable consequences. When we go to a jail and we see who is there, we see a panoply of people with different issues.
I hope the government works on a rational drug policy but not the policy in the United States that has resulted in an increased use of both hard and soft drugs, a greater number of people in the prison population, more cost to the taxpayer and less safe streets because that does not work.
We do not need to have a binary situation between our solution and the United States. We could look to Europe. Europe has implemented some very sensible solutions in terms of a drug policy that does a lot in terms of harm reduction. I know the government does not particularly like harm reduction. It only extended the Insite safe injection site in Vancouver for one year instead of three years and it would be a catastrophic mistake if the government were to stop that program.
Why does the government not work with the scientists and the researchers who have done intelligent work on the ground to reduce harm? At the Insite safe injection site, for example, not only was there a reduction in property crime but more people actually became attached to the health care system. As a result, they could access the health care system and use the detox site therapy. A lot of these people have what we call dual diagnosis, which means that some have drug problems and some have psychiatric problems but some of them go hand in hand. We cannot tease these things out in isolation. We need to deal with people for the collection of problems they have. The harm reduction strategies work very well.
The Insite program works well because it gets people off the street. What would be smarter, and I know this would be a real leap for the government, would be to adopt something like the NAOMI project in Vancouver where individuals are given the drug in an environment which disconnects them from going out on the street and buying it from those people who are attached to organized crime.
The worst thing we could do for members of organized crime that would actually cause them to get weak in the knees and be beside themselves with grief is to sever the ties between the drug user and organized crime. We can do that. I know people will say that it is not the business of the government to go out and give addicts drugs but these people will go out and buy drugs from people attached to organized crime and that serves no one.
If we can bring people into the health care system through a harm reduction site, particularly a harm reduction site where they get their drugs, then we can attach them to detox and get them into psychiatric therapy and the treatment they require. This would be something that the government could rationally adopt to deal with this problem.
When the government puts the population in jail, it should make sentence reductions conditional on those individuals participating ardently in the skills training, the psychiatric therapy and the drug therapy that would be mandated to them when they come in front of the court.
People would automatically get one-third off their sentence, which is frequently reduced more, and no conditions would be placed on the individual. It would be a lot smarter if that person had to work for that release by being able to get time off for good behaviour if they actually behaved well.
These people would need to follow the parameters set during sentencing, including the psyche therapy, harm reduction and drug therapy, as well as the skills training. When these people left jail they would then have the skills needed to get a job, their drug problem would, hopefully, be dealt with to a degree and they would be in the medical system where their psyche problems are being dealt with.
Some psychiatric problems are chronic. They may be one of the major psychosis, which is difficult to deal with, but at least they would have a head start when they got out of jail. If these problems are not dealt with while they are in jail, many of them go back to what they did before. As a result, we see the recidivism rate that plagues some populations within the citizen population.
It is also important to look at the population that engages in gun crimes. In Toronto, for example, 40% to 50% of the individuals who actually committed violent offences with a gun were actually on probation or on bail. These individuals were repeat offenders. They had been convicted and were out on bail and 40% to 50% of them committed gun offences. I think it is a really good idea in terms of putting the reverse onus upon them because we are dealing with a very fixed group of individuals who have committed violent offences.
The other thing that is worthwhile to bear in mind is that most people who commit murder do not use a gun. They use knives, baseball bats and other tools to murder another individual. It would be wise to extend the notion of reverse onus to those individuals who have committed violent offences, such as sexual assault, assault causing bodily harm, attempted murder and murder, as a starting group. We would then be dealing with a fixed population of people who have been proven to be a danger and a threat to society. We can look at the small population and ascertain, based on their behaviour and activities in jail, whether or not they are safe to be released.
One of the toughest things I had to do when I was working in a jail was to assess an individual who was about to be released. Some of these individuals had lists as long as their arms in terms of extreme violent behaviour. I remember being attacked by an individual in his cell, which was proof in terms of getting that person into a psychiatric facility. However, what if the correctional officers had not really been aware or called a physician to do the assessment on that individual to get him into hospital? The system should be sufficient to analyze a person to determine whether or not he or she is actually in a position to be released safely into society.
We are treading into very challenging ground in terms of people's rights but I am sure smart minds out there could put together a framework where people's personal rights would be protected but also the rights of society would be honoured as well.
While this is a difficult area to tread ethically, it is important that the government tackle it. I am sure that many people the House, as well as people in the public service and in Canada, have experience and knowledge in this area and perhaps they could guide the government in implementing a rational policy to do so.
I want to emphasize that we can do many things in terms of preventing a lot of problems from occurring. We can do things for those who are convicted and in jail. It is not a simple situation of focusing on higher penalties for individuals who have committed crimes. While those are important under certain circumstances, we need to look deeper into the situation to implement the solutions that work.
I have probably said this 100 times in the House over the last 14 years but I will harp on it again. The Head Start program for kids works when we look at it purely through the issue of youth crime. If I were to tell the House that there is a plan that reduces youth crime by 60%, a plan that saves the taxpayer $7 for every $1 invested, would members not think that was a plan that the government should adopt? A wise government would look at it and not simply dismiss it out of hand as some sort of woolly-headed notion.
The reality is that these programs have more than 25 years' experience and have been analyzed by very competent researchers. Those headstart programs work to strengthen the parent-child bond. They help parents, particularly vulnerable parents, access the parenting skills that they require. That has a profound impact on the development of the child.
In the first eight years of life is when a child's brain is actually developing the neuro connections. Those brain connections occur at that sensitive time. If it is done right, those brain connections work well and the child has the pillars and resiliency within his or her psyche to deal with many challenges. However, subject that child to violence, sexual abuse, poor nutrition, an absence of adequate parenting, and those connections simply do not work as well. Frequently that is the case, but not always.
If we are able to give that child that head start, if that child is able to develop his or her brain during that critical first eight years in a competent way, then that child truly has the ability to live a life that anybody would hope for an individual. Depriving the child of those basic elements, subjecting that child to those horrible events damages the child sometimes forever.
We often hear horror studies of individuals who commit horrible crimes. Sometimes it is difficult for us to sympathize with those individuals given the horrible things they have done and they pay the price. It should also cause us to reflect that things happened in the history of that individual who has committed horrible crimes.
If we are smart we would work with the provinces to implement that headstart program because it works. I am going to try to do that this summer in my riding. There are four teachers who have volunteered to do it. I hope by September we will be able to roll it out as a pilot project in Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca. If it works, maybe it could be shared with teachers in other areas of our country.
One of the most remarkable programs is the Hawaii healthy start program. It reduced child abuse rates a staggering 99%. It looked at parents who were vulnerable, parents who did not have good parenting skills, who themselves lived in vulnerable and sometimes horrible environments. Those parents were matched with women who had had their kids and who had strong parenting skills. In building that mentorship program with those vulnerable parents, child abuse rates were reduced 99%. That is pretty amazing.
It is not complex. It is not rocket science. It is pretty easy to do. It does require leadership.This leadership could be exercised at the federal level, even though the implementation and operation of it would be at the provincial level. I think all of us know that our provincial counterparts are looking for leadership. They are looking for help. They are looking for a hand and it is not that we do not have a plan or a program to do this.
I encourage the government to work with our provincial counterparts on that. I strongly encourage the government to look at the harm reduction strategies that work, to adopt those strategies, to support those strategies across our country.
For heaven's sake, I would ask that the government not cut harm reduction. I would ask it not to cut the Insite safe injection site. I would ask it not to stop the NAOMI project in Vancouver. Rather, it should look at those projects and see how other communities in Canada that want to adopt these programs can have access to these programs.
The failure to do so would result in the deaths of thousands of people in our country, the spread of communicable diseases, some of which are fatal. The costs to the taxpayer would be extraordinary.
Mr. Speaker, Bill , back from the special legislative committee, really addresses two points. The major one that most people have heard of is to reverse the onus, so that the accused would have to establish why he or she would be released on bail and the other, which is a secondary point but flows from this, is that we have added some criteria that the judge would take into account when determining whether a person would be released on bail.
To expand on that a bit so that we are clear, we have effectively had the reverse onus within the Criminal Code in many respects if one understood how the practice took place. We are emphasizing and the legislature is sending a message to our judiciary that we want it to be very concentrated in its focus on gun crimes and the use of guns in crimes. If people before the court are alleged to have used guns in serious crimes, they would be required to establish under those circumstances whether they should be released from custody pending their trials or disposition of the charges.
It was interesting to listen to the evidence. The very first witness, other than the minister and the officials from the Department of Justice, was a representative from one of the defence bars in Canada, an association of defence lawyers. I have to say quite frankly that he stunned the committee with his opening statement that the organization in fact was not opposed to Bill .
This was confirmed by a number of other witnesses, but he went on to establish to our satisfaction that this bill simply represents what is now happening in our courts across the country. Both he and other witnesses from the defence bar and other people who might have traditionally been expected to be opposed to this legislation, and in some cases were on principle, came forward with the same evidence time after time.
At least in all of the major metropolitan areas right across the country, the courts have already begun to apply a reverse onus. Even though it is not mandated by statute, they in effect were doing it practically on a day to day basis in our courts across the country. They were doing it particularly when crimes involved youth and the use of guns.
I know I have given this part of my speech before, but I am going to repeat it. When we deviate from what is an accepted practice in our criminal justice system, we do so only when we are faced with a serious problem. We know that in spite of the fact that the murder rate in this country continues to decline, as it has on a regular basis over the last 25 years, there have been some spikes but generally it has declined, the rate of violent crime has declined in similar ratios over that 25 year period.
I will digress for a moment. I use the 25 almost 30 year period now because it was over that period of time that we have had good, reliable statistics with regard to the crime rates in this country. Prior to that, the figures are somewhat suspicious in terms of their validity.
For the last 25 to 30 years the murder rate has continued to decline and the violent crime rate continues to decline, but there are exceptions to that and that is really what this bill, to some significant degree, is attempting to address.
One of the areas of crimes involving guns where we have seen a spike, even with some trend to it, has been in street gangs primarily in our major metropolitan centres right across the country. It is higher in some areas, but generally a trend right across the country.
We know that because there are more handguns and illegal guns, rapid fire guns in particular, that have ended up in the hands of gangs through organized crime, the biker gangs in particular. They have imported a lot more weapons in the last decade or so and we are seeing those guns get right into the hands of street gangs.
Therefore, we are seeing a substantial increase in crime within that very specific group. We cannot help but think if that had not happened, that those guns had not ended up in their hands, that the violent crime rate in this country, both for murder and for violent crimes generally, would have dropped even more dramatically than what we have seen over that 25 to 30 year period.
The bill specifically addresses this with an amendment, not only reversing the onus but it specifically requires, under the facts and circumstances, what the court is to take into account when granting bail. We have added to additional sections and one is an amendment to an existing section.
We had traditionally assigned to the court guidelines in section 515 of the Criminal Code as to what was to be taken into account. The overall encompassing section says that the detention is necessary to maintain confidence in the administration of justice, having regard to all the circumstances, and then we go down this list. Bail was to be denied if in fact there was a loss of confidence in the administration of justice.
As I said earlier, we were hearing from the witnesses that our judges right across the country, in the metropolitan areas in particular, were concerned about the effect of confidence on the administration of justice. They had begun to say to people who came before them, charged with crimes involving guns and involving serious violence, that they must establish why they should not be held in custody pending their trial or the disposition of their charges.
These sections were already in, so the judge in determining whether the administration of justice was falling into disrepute had to take into account, first, the apparent strength of the prosecution's case; second, the gravity of the offence; and third, the circumstances surrounding the commission of the offence.
To that we have now added in this bill, assuming it passes the House, in looking at the commission of the offence, whether it included the use of a firearm. Of course that would be a negative factor to be taken into account and the basis on which bail could be denied.
We then went on to add an additional factor. If the accused was liable on conviction to a potentially lengthy prison term, then we added, in the case of an offence that involved or whose subject matter was a firearm, a minimum punishment of imprisonment for a term of three years or more.
Therefore, the judge confronted with a charge of that kind involving a gun would take into account what the potential penalty is and if it is more than three years, that again would be a negative factor in determining whether the individual would be allowed out on bail and more than likely would not.
That has begun to happen right across the country. What we are doing with this legislation is confirming, I suppose, to our judges that we agree with them, that it is an appropriate practice on their part in giving them in effect legislative authority above and beyond what they already have to continue that practice where it is appropriate to do so.
There were a number of concerns around the bill. We heard those from the witnesses. One of them was on principle. We do not use reverse onus in the criminal justice system in this country in the long history that we have had, that the presumption of innocence is overriding in all cases.
However, again, we have made those exceptions on occasion and this is one of the times because of, I will say fairly and justifiably, the crisis that we are faced with, with the use of guns in those particular circumstances, and so it is justified on that basis that we should do so.
One of the other concerns that was raised repeatedly, and we heard from the member from the Liberal Party, was regarding some statistics that show the number of subsequent offences that are committed when someone is already out on bail.
I want to be very clear that we brought forward one of the first witnesses, the people from Juristat, the individuals from Statistics Canada who keep records on bail. We have not been doing that until very recently. The reliability of how many crimes are committed when somebody is already out on bail is certainly not foolproof at all.
The figure that was quoted came from one of the police associations. It was over a fairly limited period of time. It involved a fairly limited number of charges involving weapons on which bail was granted. It is difficult to assess the basis on which we are making this decision on solid, hard statistical evidence. We simply do not have that.
What we are doing here is making this decision based on the anecdotal experience we are being told about. We do not have solid statistical evidence. It is being gathered now. Our police forces across the country are providing that to Statistics Canada, but they have in effect only started that roughly three years ago.
The validity of that needs a period of time, as much as 10 years, before we know for sure just what our experiences are. How many people do get out on bail and who then subsequently commit an offence? We do not know that. We will have that over the next six or seven years at a scientific level that is reliable, if I can say that, but we do not have that at this point.
A statistic that did come out, and is accurate, is the number of people that we have in custody pre-trial. These are people who have not been convicted of any offence but are in custody. This is a major problem for our provincial governments because we actually have more people in this country in pre-trial custody on any given day than we do who have been sentenced to a period of time either in our federal penitentiaries or our provincial prison system.
I was trying to find the figures earlier but I could not. We have about 9,000 people on any given day in this country who are in pre-trial custody and not convicted of any offence. We are holding them in pre-trial custody versus about 7,000 who are in our federal and provincial prisons.
That is a cause for concern because of the cost. Those costs in the pre-trial custodial system are all maintained by the provinces. Obviously there is some sharing that goes on between the federal and the provincial governments, but there is no specific money that is allocated from the federal government for that.
The best estimate we could get was that the impact of Bill would have very little impact on adding to the pre-trial incarceration in this country because the judges have already done that. That is the immediate impact.
More long term, where judges may have backed off somewhat, assuming the crime rate goes down by the use of guns, it may very well keep that pre-trial incarceration rate up higher than it would be if the judges had simply been left alone with the discretion they have had up to this point.
That is a concern that we are going to have to continue to monitor on an ongoing basis by dealing with it in either one of two ways: looking at ways of perhaps amending this legislation at some point in the future or looking at ways that we can have more funds flow to the provinces to assist them in the cost of that pre-trial incarceration.
Those are concerns that we will have to continue to monitor. Any government, whether it is this one or some subsequent government, will have to monitor those costs on an ongoing basis.
I want to go back to the bill itself with regard to why we would proceed with it. Last week we had Bill before us on mandatory minimums which went through the House. I spoke at that time about the importance of us focusing on the use of the criminal justice system on specific areas when we have a specific problem, a significant problem, even a crisis level problem in those areas.
That is what we are doing here in Bill . Our judiciary, to a significant degree if maybe not completely, has already addressed this problem.
What we are doing with Bill is simply confirming that it is a problem in this country. This legislature is sending a message to those street gangs, to the youth of this country who are inclined to carry guns and use them in crimes, that they are not going to get bail, that they are going to be held in custody and, if subsequently committed, that they are going to be faced with quite severe penalties.
That message is the message that we need to send in a very targeted and very focused way. I believe the combination of Bill and Bill goes some distance in doing that.