Welcome to the 129th meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs as we continue to study the question of privilege related to the matter of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police publications respecting Bill
We are pleased to be joined by the Honourable Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. He is accompanied by officials from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, namely, Jennifer Strachan, Deputy Commissioner, Specialized Policing Services; and Rob O'Reilly, Director, Firearms Regulatory Services, Canadian Firearms Program.
Thank you all for coming today.
Just before we start, we have some short committee business from Mr. Christopherson.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the committee. Thank you for the opportunity to appear on this subject matter today, the question of privilege raised by Mr. Motz.
As you pointed out, Mr. Chair, I'm accompanied by Deputy Commissioner Strachan and Mr. Rob O'Reilly, Director of Firearms Regulatory Services within the Canadian Firearms Program.
I'm sorry our time is a bit constrained this morning because of the vote in the House, but the House is the House.
For me as Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, my key priority is ensuring the safety of all Canadians, and their confidence in the integrity of the government agencies that fall under my authority as minister. This includes the accurate use of departmental platforms to communicate information about all legislation, but in particular for the purposes of today, about Bill . The subject matter is something that's important to me, Mr. Chair, because, as you will recall, in my previous roles, I have been a House leader in both the opposition and the government side, so procedure matters.
As outlined in the document entitled “Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector”, government agencies have a fundamental role in serving Canadians, their communities and the public interest under the direction of the elected government and in accordance with the law.
Government agencies are to operate with the knowledge that legislation comes from Parliament and no other authority in Canada. That being the case, it is essential that these organizations continue to accede to the legislative process. All government agencies, including the Canadian firearms program and the RCMP, are expected to demonstrate respect for Parliament's privileges and to act with integrity. Integrity alongside transparency and accountability are the cornerstones of good governance and democracy.
I would like to take this opportunity to reaffirm categorically that the Canadian firearms program and the RCMP fully respect the authority of Parliament and the legislative process.
The mission of the Canadian firearms program is to enhance public safety by reducing the risk of harm from the misuse of firearms. To support these objectives, the Canadian firearms program uses online bulletins and website updates to communicate any changes in requirements to stakeholders as well as the general public.
Web updates are posted to inform about topics such as changes to the firearms licensing regime, modifications to the transfer process, revisions to classifications, changes to requirements for business and much more. These online updates are important to increase awareness among legal firearms owners and to increase compliance with the Firearms Act and the associated regulations.
On May 8, 2018, updates were made to the CFP website to inform individual owners and businesses in possession of certain Swiss arms or Ceská Zbrojovka model 858 firearms that classification changes had been proposed under Bill .
As only certain Swiss arms and CZ858 firearms would be impacted by the proposed classification changes, the Canadian firearms program included information on the website to assist clients in determining whether their firearm would be impacted by the bill as introduced in the House, presuming that the legislation was finally enacted by Parliament.
The focus of the information was to provide an explanation of actions that would need to be taken by individuals by June 30, 2018, in order to be eligible for the proposed grandfathering provisions that were outlined in the draft bill. Information was also posted for Canadian businesses, as the regime proposed by Bill would have an impact on businesses that had firearms in their business inventory after June 30, 2018.
The objective was to allow these individuals and these businesses to be prepared and to avoid anyone inadvertently finding themselves in contravention of the law once it was passed. The updates related to Bill were done in good faith, and they were intended to encourage awareness and to educate stakeholders.
Following the publication of the information, concerns were flagged to the Canadian firearms program by the media and by other concerned citizens pertaining to the language that had been used in the web content to describe the status of Bill . To immediately address those concerns, the Canadian firearms program consulted with relevant stakeholders and made revisions to the web content on May 30, 2018.
Following the question that was raised by the member for in the House, a further review of the website was undertaken and a complete set of edits was posted on July 3, 2018.
The language of the initial web content on Bill was not intended to assume the passage of the legislation, contravene the legislative process, or undermine the authorities of Parliament. The revised web content removed potentially misleading language and clarified the status of Bill C-71.
Mr. Chair, I believe the RCMP made good faith efforts to inform Canadians about the impacts of the legislation should Parliament pass it in its current form. Those impacts needed to be outlined for Canadians before the legislation was actually passed, as decisions would have to be made by those Canadians before the bill received royal assent. However, the website's original postings did not sufficiently convey the fact that Parliament was still considering Bill and that changes could be made to it.
We can see from the first update that the answers to the Q & A were changed to reflect what would happen if Bill were to be passed in its current form. In the second update, you can see that the questions in the Q & A were also revised and corrected.
Just as an example of this, Mr. Chair, in the original posting, the website asks how Bill affected individuals, and it answered that Bill C-71 would affect your CZ model 858 firearms in one of three ways. The second iteration of that same point contained a question from an individual trying to determine if his Swiss Arms or CZ model 858 would be affected by Bill C-71. In answer, the website stated that the information there was intended to provide guidance to firearms owners should Bill C-71 become law.
The final version, Mr. Chair, read as follows:
||How would Bill C-71 affect individual owners of Ceská Zbrojovka (CZ) and Swiss Arms (SA) firearms?
|| Bill C-71 proposes changes that would impact some firearm owners in Canada. The information outlined below is intended to provide guidance to CZ/SA firearm owners should Bill C-71, as introduced in the House of Commons on March 20, 2018, become law.
You can see through those quotations the evolution of the language.
In endeavouring to keep Canadians as up to date as possible about the implications of legislation before Parliament, the RCMP did not sufficiently advise them that Parliament had yet to pass those changes. I believe, Mr. Chair, that it was an honest error and one that the RCMP corrected through the two updates to the site that I have referenced.
We apologize for the mistake and for any misunderstanding that resulted. We continue to be committed to providing Canadians with important information related to the requirements for firearms ownership in Canada. We commit to ensuring that this information will use clear language and accurately reflect the legislative process.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge the members present here today who brought this issue to the attention of the House and who spoke to the issue as parliamentarians. You have defended the legislative process and emphasized the continuing importance of transparency and accountability in government agencies. I thank you very much for that.
Thank you, Minister and your officials, for coming.
The other day when we had Mr. Motz here for his testimony—it's his motion as you know—I started my line of questioning by offering an opinion. Shocking, I know.
My opinion was essentially about the fact that I'm very interested in measuring one's intent as opposed to one's actions. I'll preface that by saying that we deal a lot with Elections Canada here. If Elections Canada did not go through the motions of what was pending, then we would be in quite a bind if, preceding that election, working our way up to it.... There's a lot of groundwork to be done.
This particular situation is not divorced from that. I have a lot of gun owners in my riding, and the laws change. They go from registry to no registry, amnesty to no amnesty, and so on. Sometimes it's hard to keep up.
I appreciate the fact that you exercised due diligence to get this information out as quickly as possible so that people will be ready for it. I agree with you that the language used was insinuating something that did not exist. That's why I'm trying to think about the intent of this.
Mr. O'Reilly, could you talk about my comments? Was there an intention to do this? When was it brought to your attention that there is a method by which we pass legislation in this country and therefore we should defer to that when we're communicating what we do?
At the same time, I want you talk about the work you've done before Bill to get to that point.
I have to tell you it's your lucky day. You should buy a lottery ticket today, Ralph, because I've sat exactly where you have, but provincially, at Queen's Park. In the day, you were titled the Solicitor General of Canada. As the Solicitor General of Ontario, I sat exactly there. I had exactly the same relationship with the OPP as you have with the RCMP. I was listening intently to see if there was anything that just didn't wash in terms of my own experience, having walked down that road.
I have to tell you, colleagues, I'm open to it. I'm wide open to seeing whether there's something wrong—like, really wrong—but beyond the mistake, as it looks like it was.... I'll end where the minister ended—that is, where we go forward. I don't see anything showing that anybody was trying to do anything other than their job. If there's anything different from anyone, I want to hear it. I'm more than willing to pull that thread, because this is important. I have to say, though, that having now gone through this for the second go-round, I'm not seeing anything that would have us go any further.
Minister, again, I think at the last meeting I said we needed to see the appropriate bowing and scraping and hear that it won't happen again. You've done that, and that's appropriate. It's most appropriate that the executive recognize that Parliament is paramount. When the executive has violated the rights of Parliament, it's Parliament that has to hold the executive to account. In a proper democracy, that executive recognizes that they've been slapped on the wrist, by Parliament, and promise not to do it again. That's what happened, so as far as I'm concerned, I'm seeing a conclusion coming to this. If somebody can find areas where we should go on, though, I'm open.
I am interested in pursuing this idea. I was thinking about it, Minister, as you were going through this.
And, Commissioner, I was thinking about your role in all of this. There is that business of where the government sets out what they're going to do. The government then has a right to give an argument about what they're doing. Then there's the politics of things, where you're spinning things and there's all the stuff we do as politicians. It's perfectly legit. That's part of the process. But they're very distinct, and in this case those lines have crossed over.
So how do we do that? We've been here before. I've been here with this federally, as some of our colleagues have. I've been through this provincially. We've run into the same sort of thing, and the Speaker has come down, but I've never heard anybody offer a fix. Maybe we should take the minister's idea and at some point see if we can help suss it out: How does a government do that? How do they do those three things? There's the government that says what they're going to do; there's the bureaucracy that explains things and tells people; and then there's the politics of things.
If I had any concerns, it was with this idea or assumption that the legislation would go through unamended. That's not necessarily the case. That's getting a little risky. That's why the idea of how much spinning and explanation, and where that happens, is really important, because it's only the beginning of the process. It's not the law just because the and minister say so. It has to go through, and it may not be the same thing at the end of the day. Given that Parliament is a free entity, it may not carry. You never know, even though there's full expectation there.
On that business of going forward, if you're explaining, how do you acknowledge—I'm now going down the sort of rabbit hole that you suggested we jump into, Minister—or how do you then start advocating for something as a bureaucracy when it could still be amended, which could take it into a whole other discussion? I think there's merit in pursuing this a little further, even if we just provide some dialogue, some language, or anything at all to further the ability to keep these things separate.
I don't have even one good table-pounding point to make, Chair, because the minister covered it all.
Having said all of that, I'm listening to colleagues, but I for one think we've come to the end of the road on this one. Other than following up on the suggestion of the minister, is there anything we can do to help Parliament and government prevent this from happening again?
Thank you, sir.
Well, you can, I'm sure, make an argument about the specialness of almost every department and agency of the Government of Canada.
But certainly when you're talking about the national police force, a police force that is national, federal, international, provincial, municipal and indigenous, you're talking about one of the most complicated organizations in the whole apparatus of the Government of Canada.
Clearly, the independence of the police is an exceedingly important principle that has served our democracy very well. Ministers do not tell the police how to do their business. They do it, and they are accountable for how they do it. If the government, if the people, are not satisfied with the result, then you deal with the leadership of the force in terms of changing the commissioner at the top.
But that's the important principle about the RCMP. They are a police force. Canadians need to know that they function independently and that they enjoy the public's complete and absolute trust.
This will likely be my final question.
At the last meeting we heard from Mr. Motz, and I was a bit troubled, and I questioned him a great deal on it. There was the possibility that this was an honest mistake. Then Mr. Motz talked about the suspicion out there that something nefarious had happened.
I can only take from this that there could be two options in what the Conservatives believe happened: this was an honest mistake by the RCMP; or there was a vast conspiracy involving your office, top-down, directing the RCMP to change the website. It would involve, I imagine, dozens of individuals to make this couple of changes to the website.
Ironically enough, parliamentary privilege was used to make these allegations in a protected manner, while arguing a case of parliamentary privilege.
Would you like to comment on those allegations at all?
Thank you, Minister and officials, for being here today.
Just so you are aware, Mr. Minister, the comments of Mr. Bittle don't reflect my testimony on Tuesday. I did not suggest for a moment that there was any nefarious plan, or a wilful intent, or a “conspiracy”, as the word has been used by Mr. Bittle. Those are his words. Those words did not emanate from me.
The concern that was raised to me by the public was about the confusion it caused. It was confusing. There was legislation proposed to government, which was being studied—at that time at the committee level—and then an agency you are responsible for, the RCMP, put out proactive communication, which is appropriate. However, it's that no one from your department would have any sort of mechanism whereby direction would be given to the RCMP to ensure that the language was appropriate. That's the concern.
You answered definitively that no one from your office that you're aware of—from Public Safety—provided any direction to the RCMP to proceed this way or on what language to use. That was your testimony, and I believe, to the best of your knowledge, that's not what happened.
With the bills that come through your department, is there a mechanism now that has cautions in place, that has the opportunity...so that the role of Parliament isn't presumed in proposed legislation? Because that's exactly what happened here. As acknowledged, there were individuals who were under the belief that now this was the law. That was because of the language that was being used.
I am curious. This committee is charged with the responsibility to ensure—as you've requested of them—that this doesn't happen again, and to provide a mechanism whereby that doesn't happen again.
Do you employ anything in your department to ensure that the public servants within your service understand the role of Parliament and that of the departments that answer to you?
Mr. O'Reilly, I want to pick up where we left off earlier.
The issue I want to explore is preparatory work for pending legislation. The situation we have now and the honest mistake that was made put you in a situation where it could be an all-for-naught kind of scenario.
Granted, in the case of majority governments, they usually get it in the end. Nevertheless, you do have to do that preparatory work.
Over the years now, with changes to firearms policy, registries, no registries, amnesties and so on...when you communicate with people, is that the prime importance of why you really have to do a lot of this work, because you do get these calls asking, "What happened here?" All of a sudden what they're carrying now is far more restricted than it used to be, or it is not, or their licensing is different.
I'm just trying to understand how you handle tabled legislation that comes out affecting regulations.
Thank you very much for the question.
As you can appreciate, there have been three firearms bills since 2012, Bill , Bill and Bill . The program has been and remains intimately involved in the preparation of some cases and in early consultation on those bills. We are very aware of and attempt to respect the parliamentary process. Many of the documents we are asked to review and provide input on are subject to cabinet confidence. We are very versed in the handling of those documents, and the breadth of consultations we can or cannot have as a consequence of that particular privilege.
When it comes to legislation like this, we also are in a position of anticipating what are going to be areas of inquiry. As I mentioned in my first statement, we are not in the habit of speaking on pending legislation. There are many elements to Bill . In this case, it would probably have been our preference to not provide any commentary at all.
Unfortunately, and we've seen this historically, the minute new legislation is proposed or even being talked about in the media or the public context, we immediately get calls.
We don't have the luxury of saying we're not going to prepare Q and As for a particular issue, because the fact of the matter is we have hundreds of employees who have to answer those phones. If we don't have answers prepared to be able to inform those Canadians, they can rightly be more confused or more upset.
As I mentioned earlier, when the bill was first tabled on March 20, we began to receive inquiries and realized that there was a need to provide some information. Therefore, discussions started fairly early in late March around the need to provide communications. We reached out to our internal national communications groups at that point, alerting them to the fact that we would, in the future, need to be able to provide some new content online.
In early April we consulted with our colleagues at Public Safety on the policy side there, too, to alert them to the fact that we were starting to receive inquiries about this one element of Bill . We also were conscious of the fact that the SECU committee dates were coming forward, and there might rightly be questions as to what we were doing to communicate about this singular issue regarding Bill C-71.
On May 8 we published the first version of the web content that spoke to what we believed was important information to convey around the significance of the June 30 date. I'm happy to elaborate on that if the committee so desires.
Shortly after May 8, we received—I believe it was actually on May 10—an inquiry from a journalist asking to better understand the rationale for instructing people to comply with the June 30 date. It became evident, upon review of the website, that there could be some confusion caused by the content that we had provided.
At that point, we immediately began to work on another version of the website that would do two things: first, provide the necessary clarity around this being pending legislation, and, second, better structure the web content. You will notice that whereas the first version was kind of a long narrative, the second version attempted to very quickly say that if are you an individual, here is where you go to find the information for an individual. It also determined whether you were a business, because that was the other thing we became conscious of, that there were different individuals potentially impacted by that. The approval of that content, I believe, ultimately occurred on May 25. Our content was finalized, if you want to call it that, on May 25 and ultimately published on May 30.
The July 3 content that was published was principally necessary because everything we had posted prior to that spoke about an impending date of June 30 and things you needed to be aware of should you wish to continue to own this particular firearm. The fact that June 30 had passed necessitated our changing the content to basically reflect the fact that we were past June 30 and therefore, here were the new realities that you might need to be aware of going forward.
First, I want to thank you for your fulsome answers, especially the RCMP. They're critically important.
I very much appreciated hearing the minister emphasize that again, with some experience in this area, an understanding of how the police can easily find themselves on the wrong side of the perspective of the community, and that means we've failed totally.
It all comes from accountability and transparency as the keys, and you've been providing both. I've been very impressed. There's been no dodging, nothing, no sense that you're doing anything other than being here, and completely forthright, honest, and concise. That's what we expect, and that's what Canadians expect, so thank you for that.
Building on the comments that the minister made, what are your thoughts about how we, Parliament, might go forward to avoid this? What sorts of things could we do to equip you, so we can all avoid this?
I'll comment on that, because Mr. Motz had some really good ideas in relation to that. I'm the new kid on the block if you want to call it that, so this is an extremely beneficial learning opportunity for me, and the value that this committee has in protecting Parliament is not lost on me.
This is obviously a table of very experienced parliamentarians. I do believe that when I look at the colleagues I work with at the firearms program, they are really passionate about the clients they serve across Canada, and any kinds of caveats. I come from the operational world, and we call them caveats. When you're talking about intelligence, we call them third party disclaimers, and they're on every piece of operational intelligence that we provide on the national security side and the organized crime side.
Therefore, for me, being new in the position, I thought that conversation was brilliant. Again, putting forward information on a bill that hasn't gone through Parliament is very rare, but to be honest, having some sort of a process or guidance that would come to us to ensure that we stay in our lane and are respectful of Parliament would be very welcome.
I'm saying it like a third party caveat, and that's what we do on the operational side, to be careful about how we use evidence and intelligence. That's my responsibility now coming in to work with this program, to allow my public service colleagues to really keep serving Canadians. It's my responsibility to keep them safe in what they do, and to keep you as parliamentarians confident that we take that very seriously. I would be very open to some guidance on that, which would come from this committee.
I did some research coming into this committee, mindful that I wasn't in the seat at the time and wanting to learn and support my colleagues in a better way forward, potentially, so that all of us don't end up here again.
I think in this case, as was mentioned by Rob, due to the haste because of the date, we were talking with Public Safety about why we were seeking to create web content. In our colleagues' haste to try to get it out well before that June 30 date, since it was a month and a half away—I believe it was April 8—the oversight wasn't applied above and beyond the firearms program. As mentioned, there's not a process per se, because this is such a rarity in relation to our wanting to comment on any bill that's before Parliament.
But I would suggest to you, sir, that going forward, as long as I'm in.... And I have a lot of unique programs—DNA, criminal records, some really critical programs for Canadians—which do often involve bills that are forthcoming, so I can learn a lot from this. That process, going forward, I would suggest to you, will come to my chair, at the very least.
I think you make a really good point that there's still the value of consultation. I can say in this case—I don't think it's been mentioned yet—that we did consult with our Department of Justice colleagues as well, just in relation to the appropriateness of our putting messaging out to better support Canadians, mindful that the bill was still moving through the process.
Your points about having a better system regarding who has had the opportunity to review the material and who's been part of the conversations are well taken. Again, not being in the chair, I'm not sure exactly with whom at Public Safety the conversation was had, but I do not believe the lines, as they were going forward on May 9, were reviewed distinctly by them. It was strictly within the firearms program.