Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to Bill .
For years, the federal witness protection program was strongly criticized, in part because eligibility criteria were too strict, which prevented many witnesses from benefiting from it. The program was also poorly coordinated with other federal initiatives.
Even though this system was implemented under the Liberals in 1996, the Conservatives also did not try to address the criticisms by improving it. Since then, the system has not been working well. In 2012, only 30 of the 108 applications reviewed were accepted.
It must be recognized that several attempts were made to reform the system and to correct the flaws of the Witness Protection Program Act. A private member's bill dealing more specifically with family violence was debated in 1999 and supported by the NDP. The Liberal government of the day wanted at all cost to prevent that bill from becoming law. Moreover, fundamental issues relating to program eligibility were not examined, nor issues relating to coordination and funding.
It is often difficult for police forces to find witnesses to testify, because these people are not adequately protected. That was the case with the killings at a block party on Danzig Street, in Toronto, where the police department had a very hard time convincing witnesses to come forward.
That is why, in November 2012, the NDP member for asked for more federal support to ensure that the program can meet its ambitious goals.
In the case of the Air India bombing, even the judge admitted that he was unable to provide the necessary protection to witnesses. One of the witnesses had been assassinated in 1998, thus making his sworn affidavit made to the RCMP in 1995 inadmissible in court. During the 2007 investigation, other witnesses did not want to testify, because they feared for their safety. That was understandable, since they could not get adequate protection.
Bill , which we are discussing here, largely addresses these concerns. It expands eligibility criteria for the witness protection program to include members of street gangs, for example. In addition, federal departments and agencies that have a security or defence mandate may propose witnesses for admission to the program. It also extends the emergency protection period and eliminates problems that arose in coordinating with provincial programs.
Provincial programs are essential to our system, but the present act does not adequately acknowledge that fact. That is why Ontario and Alberta insisted that the witness protection program be restructured at the national level to provide greater recognition for what was already being done.
Bill also addresses those concerns. It provides for the designation of a provincial or municipal witness protection program so that certain provisions of the Witness Protection Program Act apply.
Bill also authorizes the RCMP to coordinate the activities of federal departments to facilitate a change of identity for persons admitted to the program.
I will be frank: I have one fear about this bill. I am concerned about the fact that funding for the witness protection program is not addressed in Bill .
This kind of act is popular. No one is opposed to greater protection for the people who make it possible for us to fight crime every day. However, Bill does not provide enough details on funding that would be granted for the new measures to be implemented.
Why did the government not consider that before introducing this bill in the House? This is really something that concerns us on this side of the House.
However, having discussed the matter with them, I must acknowledge that Bill enjoys strong support among the general public and first-line workers.
Many people engaged in the fight against organized crime say this bill is absolutely essential. Expanding the program will help fight street gangs, in particular. As we know, street gangs are particularly violent and quick to use intimidation to prevent their members from going to prison. Those who decide to testify against them are very often in danger.
The same phenomenon occurs in south Asian communities. We will recall that several witnesses in the Air India affair were attacked. Those witnesses were not eligible for the protection program. Why? Simply because matters of national security are not eligible for the program.
A third issue would finally be addressed by this bill, and that is coordination between the federal and provincial governments. The provinces, as hon. members know, have been calling for a review of the witness protection program for a very long time. Their main complaint was that coordination was lacking. They have programs that encroach on the federal program in some instances. Consequently, witnesses are sometimes caught in a bureaucratic mess that completely jeopardizes their safety.
Those are three shortcomings that will be corrected by Bill . Members of street gangs who want to make amends will be able to testify against their former cronies without fear of reprisals. People who are called to testify in cases involving national security will also be better protected, and the provinces will finally know where they stand.
Before I move on to my next point, I would like to raise a question that I have. A little earlier, I spoke about the Air India case. Clearly, Bill C-51 greatly improves the witness protection program for such cases. However, the process for accessing the program will still be too obscure, even after the changes made by the bill. The accountability process is still insufficient as well. The government is aware of the problem since it has already admitted that such is the case. I am therefore wondering why it has not taken the opportunity presented by this bill to resolve the problem once and for all.
In summary, I think that the measures included in Bill C-51 are a step in the right direction and will bring about very positive results. However, the bill is still flawed. When an investigation pertains to a crime that involves drugs or falls under federal jurisdiction, the RCMP takes over the case. Yet, the federal police force passes on the cost of witness protection to local police departments, which often do not have the budget to cover it.
I would like to quote the RCMP website, where it states:
There are instances when the costs of witness protection may impede investigations, particularly for smaller law enforcement agencies.
This shows that this prohibitive cost is a hindrance to establishing a truly effective system. As I was saying a few moments ago, this bill sweeps the issue of funding under the rug. That is a major concern for me.
Before I continue, I would like to ask my colleagues from the other parties a few questions. Since 2007, the NDP has been asking for changes to be made to the witness protection program. It took six years for the Conservatives to finally respond to our request. During that time, we repeated our request again and again. Why did it take so long for the government to take action? As I explained, no additional funds are included in this bill. Why is the government changing the rules without providing adequate funding? These are vital questions that require clear and specific answers. Can the government confirm that it will provide adequate funding for the measures set out in its bill? Can the government guarantee that the witness protection program will receive adequate funding, particularly in the long term?
I also have a few thoughts I would like to share with my Liberal Party colleagues. The Liberals are claiming today that the program needs a major overhaul.
That is all well and good and, frankly, I share their point of view. The Liberals were in power for several years before the arrival of the current government. They even had a majority in the House. Why did they not take advantage of the many opportunities they had to carry out this reform? The many criticisms levelled against the program date back to when the Liberals had their majority. They had the power to change things at the time, but unfortunately they chose to do nothing.
There is something else that raises eyebrows. Today, they are proposing amendments to Bill that they do not consider generous enough, but they do not specify exactly what should be done. Empty rhetoric is fine and dandy, but before taking a stand, there needs to be some substance. I invite them, therefore, to immediately disclose the details of their proposals.
Let me take a moment to go over the ins and outs of this bill. It is my opinion that this legislation is extremely important to the witness protection system. These things must not be taken lightly. This is a question of life or death. The bill will have major ramifications, so we need to take the time to go over it carefully.
Before going any further, I repeat that I am glad that the government has finally decided to address this issue. I am happy to see that the government has heeded the demands that my party and I have been making for years. The simple act of broadening access to the program is already an excellent decision.
As I said, it is nevertheless important that sufficient funds be allocated to the program, otherwise—and this would be regrettable—these wonderful initiatives will not come to fruition. The government’s intentions are good, but it needs to put its money where its mouth is.
The NDP has always been committed to building safer communities. One key way of doing this is by improving the witness protection program. Doing this will respond to an urgent demand being made by police officers across the country.
That is why, despite my reservations, I support the adoption at second reading of Bill . I will do so on behalf of all the people, organizations and associations that share these very same concerns. When we work together, we can achieve tangible results. Bill C-51 could prove a very good example of this.
I am thinking in particular of the provinces that have long been calling for the adoption of a bill of this kind. I am also thinking of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that recently called on the government to support it in its fight against organized crime. The RCMP has also argued for an enhanced psychological evaluation of beneficiaries, which this bill will allow.
Police officers whose job it is to fight street gangs are particularly enthusiastic about this bill. There is also Justice O’Connor’s report, which in the wake of the Air India attack, issued recommendations along the lines of what the bill proposes.
It is quite evident that all the organizations involved in the fight against organized crime support the adoption of this bill. It comforts me to know that this is a good initiative, despite its faults.
Overall, Bill is a step in the right direction in the long march in the fight against crime. The bill is a good initiative from this government and, in all honesty, I am quite pleased to support it. I do hope, however, that my colleagues from all parties will take note of my criticisms. This is not an instance where we should be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as the saying goes. Rather, we should pause for a moment and think about everything that can be done to ensure that the protection program performs optimally.
These brave men and women who appear in the witness box exhibit courage at all times. They make our society a safer, more welcoming place. In so doing, they often take enormous risks. Bill will provide better protection for them, but we can also do more.
I therefore take this opportunity to appeal to my colleagues. We have already taken a step in the right direction with Bill , but perhaps we should go a little further.
As I mentioned, Bill contains some promising measures that have been approved by police officers across the country, particularly for the fight against street gangs, which is extremely important in my riding, Alfred-Pellan.
Part of the riding is mainly agricultural, but Alfred-Pellan is in fact very close to Montreal Island. So we have highly urbanized centres throughout the agricultural area, and that yields quite an eclectic mix.
All the police officers in Laval try to make our streets and our community as safe as possible. We New Democrats are committed to working with all those players to build safer communities.
The witness protection program is reassuring for the people who live in my neighbourhood or who are caught up in street gangs. There are unfortunately a lot of them on Laval Island. Because of this program, people know that they have a chance to pull through. At the same time, it provides police forces with additional tools to fight street gangs.
I am talking about tools because I see this as a big toolbox that we can offer our police forces and our justice system in order to fight crime. It really is necessary to work with these tools and to use them as much as possible. Bill is one of those tools.
Unfortunately, I would also like to criticize my colleagues opposite. They are doing something good with Bill , but they have also done some more regrettable things. For example, the Conservatives recently announced that they would stop funding the police recruitment program. A budget of $400 million was set aside for the police recruitment fund, and they decided not to renew it in 2013.
We in Quebec have benefited from that budget. We received approximately $92.5 million over five years to establish joint forces and to combat street gangs. It was an additional tool for fighting street gangs in Quebec. In the very first year, there were more property seizures and fewer street gang crimes and murders.
There were tangible results as of the very first year. The $92.5 million budget granted to Quebec over five years made it possible to build those squads. The municipalities are working together. There is a major team effort among various cities such as Gatineau, Montreal, Laval, the north shore, the south shore and Quebec City. Everyone works together. Sherbrooke is also involved and is benefiting from the joint forces program. Everyone benefits from it. It is a very good thing.
It is sad to see that this tool is to be taken from our toolbox. We had funding for these joint forces in our toolbox. Bill adds an important tool, plugging gaps in the Witness Protection Program Act, and some extremely important things, but does not provide any funding.
I can see all the good intentions behind this bill, but I hope the federal government will pony up and allocate a significant budget to this bill so that the municipalities and provinces do not have to absorb the cost. The public safety committee is studying economic parameters for police services. Police forces across Canada are already struggling to manage their funding in the most efficient way possible. We must not give them an additional burden.
This is our opportunity not to do that. I would ask my colleagues opposite to ensure that the funding will be there in the next budget. I honestly hope it will be, because I have the extreme pleasure today of rising with them to support Bill .
Mr. Speaker, I want to start by saying that I will be sharing my time with the member for . I am looking forward to his remarks. He has been asking very pointed questions so far, so I am very interested in what he has to say.
Mr. Speaker, you will know this very well, because I know that you were involved in some of the activities that were happening in 2007 relative to the witness protection program.
Since 2007, people from the NDP and perhaps even the Liberals have been calling for the government to expand the eligibility for the witness protection programs, to ensure the safety of all Canadians who are in potential danger because they have taken up their duties as responsible citizens. They have stood up and put themselves in jeopardy at times, and we have what I would call a valuable program to help protect them.
However, we have specifically called for better coordination of federal and provincial programs and better overall funding for the program. That is an area members will hear more about further on in my remarks.
That call that went out in 2007 for coordination and an improvement in coordination was echoed in 2009 and again in 2012.
Notwithstanding the fact that the NDP supports the government's attempt with Bill to improve the witness protection program, we remain concerned that the Conservative government has not committed any new dollars to the system to support an increase in use.
The world has changed very much in the last 10 years—for example, the situation around street gangs and the young people who get caught up in them. Getting them back out of that very concerning behaviour oftentimes only comes about when they are put before the justice system and we have the opportunity to use their evidence in court. However, they are reluctant unless they have the protection of our government.
We are also concerned that the RCMP and local police departments are quite unreasonably being asked to work within their existing budgets. Clearly, that is unrealistic. It should be obvious that it would clearly impede any substantial increase in participation in the program. I believed that part of the purpose was to open the doors wider to the program. However, if it is not funded how can that be accomplished?
We are satisfied with Bill overall and that it would extend the period of emergency protection and clear up some of the technical problems that have been brought before both the Liberal government before this and the current government. However, we believe that for it to be effective, Bill C-51 should include provisions for an independent agency to operate the program. That was recommended in the report that came out of the Air India inquiry. We are quite surprised that it was not included in Bill . As a result, the RCMP would continue to be responsible for the program, and I will leave this point with the House: that would put the RCMP in a conflict of interest by being the agency both investigating the case and then deciding who would get protection.
Even though I have raised some of Bill 's shortcomings and the fact that the Conservatives were late to respond, in fairness to them, they have not been the only ones who have been late. I would go as far as to say that the previous government was even negligent in this.
The New Democrats are pleased that the government has finally listened to our proposals. It has been said that within the committee there was a collaborative effort to try to get to the right place on this. However, I cannot stress enough that, if the Conservative government truly wants to improve the witness protection program, it must also commit the necessary funding. It is required to ensure that those improvements have a chance of working, especially in that new area relative to street gangs. As a society, we cannot put ourselves in the position of telling young people that we want to take them out of the gangs and use their evidence in court but that we would leave them high and dry afterwards, because we know that some of those gangs can be particularly vicious in how they respond to anyone who stands up and tries to do the right thing.
All members of the House on both sides are concerned with making our communities as safe as possible. I believe the witness protection program in particular is one of the more important tools in fighting street gangs. I have talked a bit on that already.
I would remind government members that the federal witness protection program has long been criticized because of its very narrow eligibility criteria. Again, the Speaker and others have raised these concerns previously. There have been continuing complaints of poor coordination with provincial programs and of the low number of witnesses who actually get access to the program.
In 2012, only 30 out of 108 applications considered were actually accepted. I would suggest that very much undermines the program's value. We had 78 witnesses who put themselves at risk but did not get the follow-up protection that was believed to be their right and for which it was worthy of applying. To my mind, that is very concerning.
Changes to the witness protection program have been called for by the NDP since its very inception in 1996. There were glaring omissions in it. Majority Liberal governments and subsequently this government to date have done little. However, I must add the proviso that with Bill , the Conservatives have made some fairly reasonable moves, but there have been few bills over that long period of time that actually got introduced into this House. One was way back in 1999, which was Bill C-223, regarding witness protection during domestic violence cases. I would add, because it is quite often said in this place that the NDP does not support the government's crime bills, that back in 1999 we supported that bill to protect people in domestic violence cases.
The overarching issues of eligibility, coordination and funding still have not been significantly addressed. The NDP is on record for repeatedly asking the government to address these three key issues, and the previous speaker spoke to that to some degree. The criteria for eligibility must be expanded even further. The co-operation that has been criticized between the provinces and the federal government has to be addressed. Of course, the underpinning of the whole process, like every other government program, is based on funding, and if that funding does not increase it is not going to be effective.
In 2012, the member for called for more support for the federal witness protection program. That member pointed to the difficulty Toronto police were having in trying to convince witnesses of the summer's mass shooting at a block party in Danzig Street, which we all heard about, to come forward.
I would reiterate that some aspects of the bill we do support, and because of those aspects, we support the bill overall. It is not as comprehensive and does not go as far as we would like, but it is a reasonable effort, and I acknowledge that.
We are pleased that the bill modestly—and I stress the word “modestly”—expands the eligibility, which was at the direct request of the RCMP. I am quite satisfied that when the government gets advice from organizations like the RCMP, it gives credence to it.
Going back one more time to street gangs, it is good that street gangs were included in the bill. It is a new group of people giving assistance to us. We do not think of street gangs as giving assistance, but within them are some young people who have made mistakes. They have recognized those mistakes, have stood up and have tried to make amends in their own way, and we do need to support that.
Federal departments and agencies with a mandate relating to national security, national defence or public safety would now be able to refer witnesses to the program. I am curious about the words “refer witnesses to the program”. I would like to see stronger words such as “recommend them to the program”. Hopefully we are opening the door for sustained use of the program, which will be of value in that particular area of national security.
I mentioned earlier the emergency protection and the clear-up of some technical problems of coordinating with the provinces.
For emergency protection, we are talking about situations where we are saying people must give evidence in support of a case that is going to help the courts deal with very negative situations, situations of violence. Emergency coverage for those people is really essential.
I see my time has run out, so I will wrap up. I have much more to say, but this time I will leave it to the next speaker.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to be speaking in the House today about Bill . I was also pleased to read the Witness Protection Program Act and Bill C-51, which would make substantial changes to the Witness Protection Program Act, or at least to many of its sections.
Before I begin, I would like to remind those who are watching of the proposed changes in this bill. It is important that I do this before I explain my position.
As I mentioned earlier, broadening the definition of “witness” is a fairly important point. The definition has been changed in the relevant part of the bill. Federal security and defence organizations and services have been added to section (a) of the definition of witness. This is a technical point and I ask those watching at home to forgive me if it is difficult to follow, given that they do not have the current act in their hands.
There is another interesting change that has not been mentioned very often. In the current act, a witness's acquaintance can be protected. For example, a witness's child can also be protected. Under the current bill, someone who knows someone who knows the witness can be protected. That is another small but meaningful change. There are many types of people who could be protected. Again, that is an example of how the definition of witness has been broadened. We assume that these changes will mean that more witnesses will be able to access the program.
Another important change that I mentioned earlier when I asked a question has to do with the possible 90-day extension.
Currently, subsection 6(2) reads as follows:
Notwithstanding subsection (1), the Commissioner may, in a case of emergency, and for not more than ninety days, provide protection to a person who has not entered into a protection agreement.
In this bill, a very important phrase has been added at the end of this subsection. If an agreement has not been signed after the first 90 days, there is a possibility of extending the protection for another 90 days. So it is possible for a witness who has not yet signed an agreement with a protection agency to receive extended emergency protection. That could lead to extra costs for witness protection agencies.
Another interesting point is that, following section 8, the bill adds section 8.1, which concerns the termination of protection. This affords more clarity on how the commissioner may terminate the protection of a witness and also how the witness may request termination of protection. This whole aspect is thus clearer.
A change is also made to section 10, which requires the commissioner to provide the reasons why he refuses to admit a witness to the protection program. The commissioner will now be required to inform several persons whom he was not previously required to inform. Decision making with regard to the program is thus more transparent.
The title "Protection of Identity" will now read "Protection of Information". This will harmonize the protection of personal information under our current federal system. It will also harmonize this entire aspect with provincial legislation. Several consequential changes to section 11 will bring the legislation in line with all the known programs in certain Canadian provinces already doing this work.
In short, these are the major changes made to the Witness Protection Program Act. Now I would like to discuss our position on those changes. As my colleagues have already mentioned, we will support Bill at second reading. The NDP has been asking the government to make these kinds of changes for a long time. We have asked it to expand witness eligibility for protection programs to guarantee the safety of all Canadians who may be in danger.
The NDP has been insistently calling for better coordination of federal and provincial programs and improved overall program funding since 2007.
That leads me to an important point: funding. I referred to this earlier when I put a question to my colleague from .
We may assume that costs will increase once we understand the amendments that have been made, such as expanding the definition of "witness" and possibly extending emergency protection by 90 days.
According to the statistics, it cost $9 million to protect 30 witnesses in 2012. We are talking about an average cost of approximately $300,000 per witness. By expanding the definition of "witness" in this way, adding a few witnesses will be enough to generate additional costs. It is important to mention that fact. It is also important to realize that these changes could result in costs. I hope the government has conducted an impact study on the costs that would be generated by this bill, to ensure that the necessary changes are made to the budget by allocating a little more money for this purpose, because we must also consider the broader duties that will fall to the witness protection agencies.
Although the NDP supports Bill because its aim is to improve the witness protection program, it deplores the fact that the Conservative government has so far refused to add additional funding to the system.
On the issue of funding, it is important for the government to realize that costs are likely to increase, as I said earlier. If that is true, then perhaps we need to allow some time for witness protection agencies to adjust to their added workload. If we disregard the capabilities of the RCMP or provincial and municipal agencies, then this bill will not amount to anything.
In the words of my colleague, the hon. member for , the proof of the bill is in the funding. Bill will move forward if the government commits the necessary funds. Otherwise, this initiative will fail.
Speaking of crime, each time the subject comes up for discussion, I like to point out to the government that the NDP has a broader view of crime in general. We made that clear during recent parliamentary sittings. The government always accuses us of being on the wrong side, whereas we know very well that our approach is very different. That is why we sometimes oppose government bills. Their approach is based more on punishment than on prevention. Our party’s broad position on crime is that crimes should be prevented before they are committed. As part of our broader vision of the fight against crime, it is equally important that resources be put in place to prevent crime.
I like to refer to comments made earlier by members in the House. Before we address the House, it is important to understand our colleagues’ position. Therefore, I would like to repeat what my colleague, the hon. member for , said yesterday:
Most criminals do not sit at home thumbing through the Criminal Code to see which offence to commit based on the length of the sentence.
This is a rather strong statement to the effect that a criminal will not look up the length of the sentence before committing a crime. We are not going to prevent crime by imposing lengthy sentences. What we need are crime prevention programs at the front end.
That is all I will say about the subject of crime in general. Each time the subject arises, I like to remind the government of our position so that one day it might share our vision.
In conclusion, since my time is up, I will say again that the NDP will be supporting this bill. We are hopeful that some worthwhile amendments will be made when the bill is studied in committee and that it will be improved as much as possible.
Mr. Speaker, it is a great pleasure to rise to speak to this bill today. I have found the debate and all the preparatory work that we have done in my office in advance of me speaking today very interesting.
Many of the impressions we have about witness protection come from south of the border. We have watched American television and American crime shows for so long that we are very familiar with the concept of witness protection. Most Canadians probably think the system in Canada is as robust, well-developed and tightly coordinated as it appears to be in the United States through those representations we have seen on television.
I was very curious to discover that the program was not that old. I thought I would do a little rundown of the history of the program in Canada, just to give some background to the debate.
At the federal level, the witness protection program only began in 1984 as a series of internal RCMP guidelines and policies. It was designed at a time when the fight against drug trafficking had become a major priority. Its intent was to encourage the co-operation of witnesses who could provide information on organized crime. We can see that the witness protection program is tightly associated with the rise or further expansion of organized crime, specifically in relation to the drug trade.
There were protective measures for those who co-operated with law enforcement in the provinces. Some provinces and municipalities, including British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec already had their own witness protection programs that provided a variety of protection measures, such as relocation for the duration of a trial, for example. However, admission to the federal witness protection program, which is run by the RCMP today, was, and still is, an extreme measure only used in the most severe cases.
The first legislative basis for the witness protection program came with the passing of in 1996. The bill sought to strengthen the program by including a clear definition of admission criteria for witnesses and a more public and accountable structure for the management of the program. It provided clearer lines of authority than existed in the program prior to the legislation, which, as I mentioned, was essentially a policy, making the witness protection program the clear responsibility of the RCMP commissioner.
According to 2008 data, there were approximately 1,000 protectees in witness protection program; 700 managed by the RCMP and 300 by other law enforcement agencies. About 30% of these protectees had not themselves acted as witnesses, interestingly, but were in the program because of their relationship to a witness.
Under the Witness Protection Program Act, the commissioner is required to conduct an annual report, outlining statistics about the program, without disclosing details that could compromise its integrity or the identity of protected witnesses.
The 2011-12 annual report showed that of 108 individuals considered for admission to the witness protection program during that period, 30 were accepted, which surprises me. I thought the rate of acceptance would be higher. Twenty-six of the thirty came from RCMP investigations, while four were admitted on behalf of other Canadian law enforcement agencies. The total cost of the program, including RCMP and public servant compensation, totalled $9.1 million.
Under the current Witness Protection Program Act, the RCMP is responsible for making all decisions related to admission and all potential protectees must be recommended by either a law enforcement agency, namely the RCMP, or a provincial or municipal force.
Individuals are admitted to the program based on a number of considerations outlined in the legislation such as: the nature of the risk to the security of the witness; the likelihood of the witness being able to adjust to the program; the cost of maintaining the witness in the program; and whether alternative methods of protecting the witness are available. Once it has been determined that the witness protection program is the best option, a protection agreement is be signed between the RCMP and the protectee, outlining the obligations of both parties. Admission to the program involves a total identity change and relocation. Therefore, when individuals are admitted to the program, it is assumed that they will remain lifelong protectees.
However, protection can be terminated by the RCMP if the conditions of the protection agreement are not met, such as, for example, if the protectee commits a crime, associates with gang members or uses drugs. Protectees can also choose to terminate their protection voluntarily. In either case, their families continue to be protected. It cannot be stressed enough that admission to the witness protection program is the last resort.
There have been some controversies in recent years surrounding the program. In 2008 the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security conducted a review of the federal witness protection program. A few years later, an entire chapter of the Air India inquiry conducted by Commissioner John Major focused on the need for adapting the witness protection program to terrorism cases. Essentially, this bill would update a system that began before the advent of terrorism or before terrorism became an issue in our country and on our continent. This is why it is important that we update the program to take account of these new realities.
Under Bill , recommendations for admission to the program could also be made by federal departments, agencies or services. Bill C-51 would make it possible for federal agencies or services other than the RCMP that might be involved in national security, national defence or public safety to make recommendations for admitting individuals to the program. However, under Bill C-51, the power to determine whether a witness should be admitted to the program and the type of protection to be provided would remain with the RCMP commissioner. This very important change would address the urgent need for the protection of witnesses involved in the investigation and prosecution of terrorist offences.
The need for organizations such as CSIS to be able to offer protection to witnesses was made abundantly clear during the investigation into the 1985 Air India bombing, as outlined in Commissioner Major's 2010 report. The report highlighted the issues surrounding the reluctance of witnesses in the Air India inquiry to co-operate with CSIS investigators who, under the Witness Protection Program Act, could not offer them adequate protection. This bill obviously comes from a recommendation from that inquiry, which is significant in the history of our country and has spurred many changes to public security legislation.
The other interesting aspect of this bill is that it would provide for better coordination with police forces other than the RCMP. This seems to be a recurring theme in the area of public safety, namely the idea that it is becoming more and more important in this complex world in which we live and in this complex reality, that police forces across the spectrum work closely with each other. That has not always been the case, but there is a recognition today that more and more this is part of the need to create a seamless web of national and public security in Canada.
Clause 11 of Bill states that the Governor-in-Council may, by regulation, add to the schedule of the bill a provincial or municipal program that facilitates the protection of witnesses. Once it is listed in the schedule, this program will become a designated program. By becoming a designated program, it means the federal government can better coordinate the activities of federal departments and agencies whose co-operation is required to provide the protectee, for example, with the proper papers, a new identity and so on. This is a very important part of updating our witness protection regime in Canada and making it much more efficient and effective.
Bill , interestingly, would also extend the period of time during which the commissioner might grant emergency protection to a witness who had not been admitted to the witness protection program. Therefore, there are cases where it is obviously important to provide some kind of interim protection to a witness and by virtue of the bill, the commissioner will be able to offer longer interim protection. Under the current provisions of the Witness Protection Program Act, emergency protection may be granted for no more than 90 days, but Bill C-51 would allow for an extension of that time period by another 90 days, bringing the total time of interim coverage to 180 days.
This is a good bill but there are some issues in it that have not been properly addressed and I would like to outline a couple of those.
Both the Air India inquiry and the 2008 House of Commons committee report on the subject of witness protection recommended that decisions relating to the admission of witnesses to the program and the resolution of disputes arising between protectees and the RCMP be handled by an independent body. In other words, the objective was to provide a third-party view to resolve any disputes between these two parties. In the Air India inquiry, this was envisioned to be in the form of a new position, a national security witness protection coordinator, whose mandate would include assessing the risks to potential protectees, who would work with relevant partners to provide the best form of protection based on the situation and to resolve disputes between the protectee and the program, as I mentioned earlier.
The 2008 committee report recommended that this body be an independent office within the Department of Justice, consisting of a multidisciplinary team that could include police officers, crown attorneys and criminologists. In other words, as in many areas of public policy or many areas of life today, we are moving toward a more holistic approach to issues, which allows us to deal with the many sides of a particular situation using many different kinds of specialists. This office within the Department of Justice, as I mentioned, would have a multidisciplinary team.
Another of the recommendations in the 2008 House of Commons committee report was that potential candidates for admission to the witness protection plan be offered the aid of legal counsel during the negotiation of the admission and the signing of the protection contract. This recommendation arose from testimony about the powerlessness of many prospective protectees when it comes to negotiating their protection agreement. Protection agreements have a huge impact on the lives of protectees or their families and, at present, are negotiated between the RCMP, which has years of experience in such negotiations, and protectees who are unfamiliar with the process and may not understand the implications and scope of the document they are signing. The House of Commons committee therefore felt that the presence of a lawyer would help ensure that negotiations are more fair and equitable.
These are two reasonable recommendations that fit within the widely accepted view that people need support when they are dealing with such complicated issues. One can just imagine the stress that someone contemplating going into the witness protection program would feel. He or she may not be thinking clearly about the issue, may not be familiar with that side of police work because of their always being on the other side of the police-criminal divide. It would seem to me that having the person negotiate without support would leave him or her somewhat helpless, and that is not the Canadian way. We believe in counter-balancing situations so that things are not entirely one-sided. In that perspective, this recommendation makes a fair amount of sense.
Like the NDP we will be supporting the bill. It is really a housekeeping matter in some ways and it would help build another defence against the threat of terrorism. The witness protection program in its current form has provided an effective tool to fight organized crime but it has not been updated to take into consideration cases involving terrorist threats. There is other legislation before the House today, Bill , that is also meant to update our defences against terrorism. This bill connects very well and very logically with that other initiative and with the general vigilance that we are exhibiting in our society to make sure that our communities are safe and secure.
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for .
Today, I am very pleased to be debating a bill to amend the Witness Protection Program Act. It will be somewhat of a change to debate a public safety bill that, unlike what the government has brought in since the beginning of this Parliament, will not increase sentences. It is good to introduce other types of legislation.
Today, we are debating a bill that will give our public safety officers other tools to fight crime. We have to protect people, but we also have to protect repentant former criminals who want to leave crime behind and who, because of their knowledge of the criminal world, give our peace officers information needed to conduct investigations and, ultimately, prosecute criminals.
Make no mistake: if we do not enhance the witness protection program, we will unfortunately reduce our chances of enlisting important witnesses, which unfortunately has happened in the past.
Some people wonder why they should testify if their life is in danger and they are not offered any protection. That is a good question. That is why, in November 2012, my colleague from rose in this House to demand more funding for the federal witness protection program.
For a few years now, the NDP has been calling on the government to expand the eligibility criteria for witnesses in protection programs to guarantee safety for all Canadians who bear witness and who are potentially in danger. We are also calling for better coordination between the federal and provincial programs, but most importantly for increased overall funding for the witness protection program.
In May 2010, the RCMP gave the a report calling for the witness protection program to be enhanced. The government unfortunately waited quite a while before taking action. It is unfortunate that the government did not consider the budgetary implications of expanding the witness protection program.
I think it was the RCMP that best explained that sometimes the costs of witness protection may impede investigations, most specifically in the case of small law enforcement agencies. The government should acknowledge these budgetary implications.
In the case of drug-related crimes, for example, the RCMP takes over the case and charges the local police force for the whole thing. The government needs to understand that offloading these problems onto the provinces only impedes their ability to deliver programs such as the witness protection program.
This is not the way to go about protecting our communities or strengthening ties among federal agencies and provincial and municipal police forces.
True to form, the government decided to take action as soon as the issue started blowing up, instead of acting pre-emptively, before any problems came up.
The federal witness protection program has been the subject of criticism for several years as a result of its strict eligibility criteria, poor coordination with federal programs and the small number of witnesses who are accepted to the program.
I would remind members that in 2012, only 30 out of 108 applications that were examined were accepted. So we have to wonder: did the 78 applications that were rejected have a negative impact on the related legal cases? That would be an interesting question to look at. If these witnesses had been protected, would we have had more convictions?
Since the Witness Protection Program Act was passed in 1996, the Liberal and Conservative governments have done very little to address criticisms of the system. The basic issues of admissibility, coordination and funding have never been addressed.
As a number of my colleagues said earlier, we will support this bill. However, we are extremely disappointed that the government has decided not to provide new funding for the program.
Bill proposes a better process for supporting provincial witness protection programs. The bill would also make the program available to other organizations with national security roles, such as CSIS and the defence department.
We should remember that, during the Air India investigation, attempts were made against the lives of some witnesses. The law did not permit groups of witnesses for national security cases to be admitted to the program. One witness, Tara Singh Hayer, was assassinated in 1998, and the sworn statement he had given the RCMP a few years earlier was ruled inadmissible. Two other witnesses subsequently refused to appear at the Air India inquiry in 2007 because, unfortunately, they feared for their safety.
At the time, Justice Major had already admitted that he was unable to provide the protection needed by these witnesses. This must never happen again. We must be able to guarantee the safety of our witnesses. Otherwise, our sources of information will dry up, and not enough witnesses will have the courage to testify in court. In such cases, it often takes courage to testify at a criminal trial relating to national security. Therefore, we have to provide them with adequate protection.
This bill will expand eligibility criteria for the protection program to include members of street gangs, which are increasingly prevalent in our large cities. Including them in the witness protection program will give our police another tool to eliminate this scourge.
Federal departments and agencies responsible for national security, national defence or public safety will also be able to refer witnesses to the program, which could help avoid problems such as the ones encountered during the Air India inquiry.
Another important point was raised by the RCMP during the Air India inquiry, and Justice O'Connor made a related recommendation in his report. The bill does not include any provisions that would allow an independent body to oversee the program as per the recommendations made in the Air India report.
A transparent program eligibility process that requires more accountability is another important aspect to highlight and implement. Even the governments recognize that this is a serious problem, although they have not tackled it yet.
An independent body would help prevent any conflict of interest within the RCMP, while supporting a transparent process. There could be a conflict of interest within the RCMP given that it would continue to assume responsibility for the program, which could place it in a conflict of interest situation in the future, since it would be both the investigating body and the one to decide who benefits from protection.
In late 2009 and early 2010, the federal government consulted the provinces and territories regarding the witness protection program. Some of the provinces expressed their concerns at that time. Many provinces have their own witness protection programs. However, for budgetary reasons, they can provide only short-term protection.
As I mentioned, this is a huge expense for the provinces. As we so often hear these days, we have to do more with less. Furthermore, for legal reasons, the provinces need the RCMP in order to obtain new identification documents for the people being protected. Thus, there is a lack of coordination and we really hope to be able to resolve this situation when this bill is examined at committee.
So, one important aspect that this bill will improve is coordination with provincial witness protection programs.
In closing, we are pleased that the government has finally taken a serious look at this problem and that it is responding not only to the RCMP's calls, but also the NDP's calls regarding this matter. We have been calling for these changes since 2007. This bill is not perfect, but it is very good and we will support it so it can be sent to committee for a thorough examination.
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have an opportunity to share my views and add Scarborough's voice on the bill. However, more important, I am pleased to see that the government is finally taking action on strengthening a program that is so vital to the safety of our communities.
The NDP, front-line community workers and Canadians have been calling upon the government to improve our witness protection program to ensure the safety of all Canadians. Since 2007, the NDP has repeatedly pushed for the expansion of the eligibility criteria, better coordination of federal and provincial programs and better overall and adequate funding of the program. While it is concerning that a government that consistently purports to stand up for the safety of our communities has refused to commit any new funding for this program, the changes included in Bill have been long awaited and are greatly needed.
Bill proposes a better process to support provincial witness protection programs and expands the program to other agencies with national security responsibilities. In the bill, the eligibility criteria would expand to requests from the RCMP to include street gang members. In addition, federal departments and agencies with a mandate related to national security, national defence or public safety would also be able to refer witnesses to the program. The bill would extend the period for emergency protection and clear up some of the technical problems that were occurring in the coordination with provincial programs.
Provinces such as Ontario have been pushing for a national revamp of the witness protection program, including more recognition of their existing programs. The bill would provide for the designation of a provincial or municipal witness protection program so that certain provisions of the act can actually apply. It would also authorize the Commissioner of the RCMP to coordinate, at the request of an official of the designated provincial or municipal program, the activities of federal departments, agencies and services in order to facilitate a change of identity for a person admitted into the designated program. Overall, this is a positive step.
I represent a riding where community safety is top of mind and, sadly, a recurring concern for many in the community. Scarborough—Rouge River is a diverse, dynamic, successful area to live. However, areas in Scarborough have been tragically affected by street gang violence. The tragedy that happened on Danzig Street in Scarborough this past summer is something that is not far from my mind or the minds of many Scarborough residents. The death of two young people and 23 wounded while enjoying a neighbourhood barbecue is something that should never have happened or be repeated. We have seen ongoing efforts by courageous and committed Danzig residents, Scarborough residents and organizations, as well as city officials, to help the community recover and avoid any future tragedies such as this.
The NDP is also committed to building safer communities and one way is through an improved witness protection program that keeps our streets safe by giving police additional tools to fight street gangs by allowing for more members of the community to feel safe in coming forward as witnesses. I am proud that for years the NDP has been pushing the government to action to strengthen this program by expanding the eligibility criteria and providing adequate funding to support such a vital piece of our justice system, as well as better coordination of the federal and provincial programs.
New Democrats have also been pushing for crime prevention strategies and support for programs that seek to engage and empower our youth. It is amazing to see a Toronto resident donate his own money for resident development projects such as after-school projects and programs. In turn, however, we should have federal funding and leadership to support our youth, and prevention programs that discourage youth from getting involved in crime.
While late to respond to these growing issues, New Democrats are pleased to see the government listening to our requests to expand the witness protection program. In the year ending in March 2012, the federal witness protection program admitted only 30 people out of a total of 108 considered, with a cost of just over $9 million. The expansion of the program is not only important to New Democrats, but the RCMP, the provinces and people on the ground working to combat street gangs all agree. An extremely important addition to this is allowing those seeking to leave gangs access to the program. These improvements would help to improve co-operation with local police and the RCMP in the fight against gang violence and to make our communities safer.
We know there are challenges with our current witness protection program, some of which are addressed in the bill. Since the Witness Protection Program Act passed in 1996, both the Liberal and Conservative governments have done little to respond to the criticisms of the system. For example, the inability to protect witnesses was an obstacle to the prosecution in the Air India bombing case. As we know, witness Tara Singh Hayer was assassinated in 1998, making his affidavit inadmissible as evidence in the court. Two other witnesses refused to appear before the Air India inquiry in 2007, citing fear for their safety and feigning memory loss.
Moreover it is sad and certainly frustrating from the point of view of the Toronto police that they experience challenges and resistance from witnesses to come forward when investigating crimes, such as the shooting on Danzig Street and the shootings that have taken the lives of many members of my community. The government needs to provide local departments with the support they need and the support that is necessary to make sure that witnesses come forward. While we would all like to believe that the government is committed to improving this important program, without the necessary funding to carry out the changes, we fear that the improvements that are needed for our communities may not actually happen.
We are concerned that the Conservatives seem to be assuming that the RCMP and the local police departments would work within their existing budgets, which would hinder the improvement of the program. There is already a high cost to the local police departments. While there are provincial programs, if the crime is federal in nature or involves drugs, the RCMP takes the case and charges the local police department the full cost, which many local or small police departments just cannot afford. The RCMP's own website states, “There are instances when the costs of witness protection may impede investigations, particularly for smaller law enforcement agencies”.
If the Conservatives truly want to improve the witness protection program, they must commit the funding to ensure this happens. The NDP will continue to push the federal government to work with the RCMP and the provinces to dedicate funding to the witness protection program and ensure that local departments can continue the important work that they do.
It is also disappointing that the bill does not include more of the recommendations that were included in the Major report from the Air India inquiry, including provisions for an independent agency to operate the program or to have oversight of the program. It was recommended that an independent agency operate the program. This would allow for a more transparent and accountable process for admissions into the program. This is something that the government also identified as a serious problem, but as we see in Bill it has done nothing to address it. Transparency seems to be a persistent issue for the current government, but it is still curious why it will not commit to making the process more transparent.
Once again, the changes in Bill are an important step forward for the community and for the safety of all Canadians. Front-line workers in my community and across the country have long awaited these improvements. Moreover, we see the government listening to the NDP who have always been committed to building safer communities through an improved witness protection program.
Conversations with the local police department in Toronto and with other front-line workers who I talk to on a regular basis have very clearly indicated to me, as well as to my staff, that if the witness protection program were improved, we would see many more people in our communities willing to be witnesses. If our witnesses are taken care of, then they will not be victimized. We want to make sure that those members of our community who are bravely coming forward to be witnesses are not being victimized and that their families are not being victimized.
I hope to see more bills such as this in the future that demonstrate that the government is starting to listen to New Democrats and Canadians, and that we can actually work co-operatively and support the system we have in our Parliament.