Then I'd better get going.
I certainly applaud the speed with which I'm actually in front of your committee. My motion was just passed on Tuesday. Thank you for the wonderful opportunity to be here so quickly.
I'll give you some background on my riding of Saint John—Rothesay and me as a politician. Obviously, this is my first term as a politician. My riding is one with two stories. It's a riding of immense business success, with the Irvings, Moosehead Breweries, etc., but it's also a riding with an incredible amount of generational poverty and a lot of challenges. We do lead the country by the LIM, low-income measure, in childhood poverty, and some pockets of my riding have upwards of 50%, 60% and 70% child poverty. It's a major challenge.
One of the things that I wanted to do as a member of Parliament and had a passion for was to speak for those who didn't have a strong voice. There's no greater honour than representing those who struggle day in and day out in my riding, and this is obviously for all of us across the country. I take it personally and I'm proud of what we do.
My office serves breakfast to 25 to 30 men at the men's shelter every Saturday morning year-round in Saint John. We also offer sandwiches out of my member's office daily. In the morning we make 30 to 40 sandwiches for those who are hungry, because there are many people in my riding who are hungry. I can remember some people coming in to get a sandwich and they were saying, “Where am I?” At first I was told that an MP's office shouldn't do that, and I said I didn't agree. I was told about the people who came in, “That's not really the kind of people you want in a constituency office, sir.” I said, “No, I totally disagree. They're my constituents too.”
To lead into M-161, my office developed a lot of personal relationships with people who were coming in, literally off of the street, people who were hungry. As we continued to develop relationships with these men and women, we got to know their stories and their backgrounds and how so many of them had made a mistake.
We've all made mistakes. Every one of us around this table. I'll speak for myself. I continue to make mistakes daily and weekly. But there are so many people who have made a mistake, who have a criminal record, and a wall is put up in front of them that they can't climb. They can't get over that barrier. It's an impediment for them.
I believe in second chances. I believe in second chances when they're deserved. I'd like to believe we live in a society that can forgive, when such forgiveness is shown to be merited. Sometimes, often early in life, mistakes lead to criminal records. When a mistake is properly addressed, it is best for everyone to move on, both the offenders and the society they live in. As a society, we need to be able to provide deserving citizens with a second chance. Unfortunately, for many Canadians, especially those in low-income situations, the criminal justice system often fails to provide a second chance.
I'll give an example provided by my good friends the Elizabeth Fry Society of Saint John. A single mother—let's call her Susan—a young woman with an excellent work record, was offered five well-paying jobs over a six-month period. These offers were all rescinded when it was revealed she had a summary offence on her record. She stole a pair of jeans in 1998—her one and only offence. Now Susan cannot find quality employment, and she cannot afford the cost of a criminal record suspension.
I'll get to this in a second, but I'm learning as I go, too, as a member of Parliament. It's easy to think, “How can you not afford the cost? It's $631.” To somebody living in poverty, $631 is an insurmountable amount of money.
As I said earlier, intergenerational poverty is a chronic condition. It affects far too many citizens in my riding of Saint John—Rothesay.
Since I was elected, I've made it my top priority to represent everyone in my riding. Everyone is always welcome in my office.
To address this problem, I have advocated and continue to advocate for programs and policy changes that would help lift people out of poverty. Our government has brought forward programs like the Canada child benefit, the Canada workers benefit and implemented a national housing strategy, which I'm particularly proud of, being a member on HUMA. Our government has made tremendous strides in three years towards eradicating poverty not only in Saint John—Rothesay but across our country. But there's a lot more we could do.
Past offenders, who are vastly more likely to live in or come from poverty than those without criminal records, still face an often insurmountable socio-economic barrier to re-entry into the workforce and thus to escaping poverty. A criminal record check is a prerequisite for most jobs. Indeed, in one study undertaken by the John Howard Society of Canada, 60% of respondents reported that a criminal record check was an essential prerequisite to employment at their place of work. Many past offenders like Susan cannot afford the $631, the cost of filing an application, although it may seem like not a lot of money to us.
Acting on calls to action by the John Howard Society of Saint John and the Elizabeth Fry Society of Saint John brought forward M-161, in order to spur the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security to undertake a review of the criminal record suspension program. This would determine how the program impacts low-income offenders at present and how it could be changed to better facilitate their reintegration into society.
Many past offenders have paid their debt to society. They are seeking to reintegrate into our communities. They are trying to give themselves and their families better futures. They ought to be able to apply for and obtain meaningful employment regardless of their means. Past offenders who are unable to find work are much more likely—and this is key—to reoffend, interacting with the criminal system all over again.
In this sense, ensuring that past offenders are enabled to apply for and obtain gainful employment is crucial. This is not only part of an effective strategy to eradicate poverty in our community, it is key to combatting crime. It is key to keeping our streets safe. To grow our communities, create more well-paying jobs and ensure that communities across Canada are safe places to live for everyone, we as government must do everything in our power to break down barriers faced by those currently living in poverty.
Senator Kim Pate, a former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, explains the difference between “pardon” and “record suspension”. Let me be clear: The term “pardon” was changed to “record suspension”. This change was clearly made in an effort to make the process more punitive.
A pardon indicates that someone has moved on from where they are. With record suspension, “We're hanging it over your head”, to quote Kim Pate, “like a big dagger about to drop...on you if we perceive you've done something wrong.”
Again, pardons were replaced by record suspensions. The previous government also quadrupled the fee to $631. Wait times for pardon eligibility were increased from three to five years for summary offence and from five to 10 years for indictable offence.
The current system of record suspension takes a terrible toll on low-income Canadians, exacerbating the difficulties of some of our most vulnerable citizens. A poverty round table as part of the federal tackling poverty together project identified criminal records as a significant barrier to employment.
Bill Bastarache, executive director of the John Howard Society in New Brunswick, also supports M-161, as do the Elizabeth Fry Society and countless others.
To be tough on crime, you also need to be tough on poverty, and I believe that Canadians know that people, especially these people who are vulnerable, deserve a second chance.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Certainly, as you said, there's the Elizabeth Fry Society. Judith Murphy in Saint John has been absolutely fantastic. There is Dr. Mary Ann Campbell at the University of New Brunswick, who is director of the centre for criminal justice studies. There's Catherine Latimer, the executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada; and Kassandra Churcher, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. Certainly Senator Kim Pate would be a wonderful witness.
I think, really, there would be a wide array of organizations and witnesses right across the country that would recognize that, since 2012 when the price went up to $631 and “record pardon” was changed to “record suspension”....
I believe in talking to the non-profits and organizations around Saint John—Rothesay, the shelters, those who live the life of advocating for those who don't have a strong voice. There is wide, wide support to examine exactly how this happened, why it happened, and the results of that change.
For example, in 2011, the Parole Board of Canada received 29,829 pardon applications. After the changes were made in 2015, it received 12,743 requests for record suspension, down 57%. That's a 57% drop, 17,086 fewer requests. Did crime change over those five years? No. The policy shift actively and demonstrably discouraged Canadians.
What's near and dear to my heart is particularly low-income Canadians trying to move on with their lives. My heart cries for.... I could give you story after story after story of people who came into my constituency office who told me stories that horrified me. She couldn't move on because when she was 18 they stole a bag of diapers from a drugstore, and that bag of diapers is over her head now stopping her from moving on. When you see those barriers, and you sit back objectively, she can't get a job, so she's a part of the system. Can you imagine what a transformational change it would be to have those people contributing to the system, having jobs, paying taxes, renting apartments, buying houses and what have you? That's kind of where we are right now.
Thank you, Wayne, for being here today and bringing this motion forward.
We share a lot of things in common with respect to the things that we hold dear personally, as well as those community issues that we advocate for. From working with you on housing, homelessness and some of those things, I certainly understand and appreciate your passion, and I also have that passion for my community.
From my background, I'm a firm believer in individuals being accountable for their actions. The whole purpose of our system is to rehabilitate and reintegrate them back into society. I agree that there are some things that need to be adjusted, but part of the way the system has always been set up is that they carry a record, and that record is to ensure that there's a reminder to those who may be unwary that this individual had a record.
I'm confused. Other than in your riding, Wayne, with a select group of individuals...that this is as pressing of an issue...because there are other things that are big.
Can you help me understand that a little differently?
Thank you, Mr. Long, for being here and for proposing the motion.
Respectfully, I know you're here to answer our questions, and I don't particularly care for speechifying in question time, but there were a few points raised in the previous round of questions that I think I can help you address.
Public Safety did research on Canadians' perception of the pardon system—or record suspension; I prefer “pardon” as well. Three-quarters of those who were polled by EKOS, which was hired by Public Safety, found that the process should be easier and cheaper for those seeking a pardon. Eighty-six per cent of participants—I'll come back to this in my questions, Mr. Long—agreed with eliminating or expunging records of non-violent offences when it was a first infraction.
Another thing that I think is important for this discussion is with regard to what people “deserve”, to use the word we heard earlier. Since 1970, 96% of those who did obtain pardons have not committed another crime since. That was in 2010. I think right now it's more like 95%, which is still pretty overwhelming. In fact I believe the Parole Board, to go back to that question, would be supportive of this, because the Parole Board tells us that Canadians who have received a pardon are less likely than the average Canadian with no criminal record to commit an offence. I think the things you said are pretty clear about the impact this has on people being able to move on with their lives and contribute to Canadian society.
I'll get to my question. As I told you, I don't particularly care for speechifying, but I did want to get those things on the record.
The stat that I always go back to is, again, 70% of female offenders are mothers with children under the age of 18.
We do a lot of work in our riding with different organizations that deal with women specifically, Elizabeth Fry, Coverdale and others. Young women...women are more severely impacted by this. There's no question about it, because there are so many barriers I find—we all know this—for women trying to move ahead. There's that ball and chain, if you will, of $631 when they are trying to move forward.
Brenda Murphy of the Saint John Women's Empowerment Network holds classes, work sessions and what have you with women who are trying to better themselves, who are trying to move forward, single mothers on the system, and you can go around the table as to how many women have that record and can't afford to remove it.
Again, without naming names, some of them say to me, “Wayne, I can't afford $631. I can't afford it. I'm going day to day now with social assistance,” or the Canada child benefit, or what have you.
To me, it's compelling. There is a gender impact for sure.
You were correct on your first statement. It was $50, out of recognition that everyone in society benefits when people are able to reintegrate into society. That was the idea behind the whole program when it first started at $50 and then consequently went up.
How do we deal with the other aspect of the problem that you haven't spoken about at all? I don't think anybody here in this room, especially me, thinks we should not help the vulnerable. That absolutely must be done. Then we have problems, like they need a criminal record check. A criminal record check now becomes the responsibility of multiple agencies across Canada, and most of the agencies—City of Vancouver, City of Edmonton, City of Kamloops—will charge. They don't give those out for free because it takes time to get them. You need court documents.
I can tell you that every time I've gone to the courthouse to get a copy of a document for someone, it costs money. The private individual has to pay because the province isn't going to give it away for free. They may need immigration records, which are going to cost you, and you may have to get fingerprinted to prove who you are. Again, almost every municipality I know in Canada that has a police contract, charges for the fingerprinting of people. I've argued that for many years because, if you're in minor hockey, all your coaches have to be fingerprinted and anybody related to the team has to be fingerprinted, and there's a cost.
We have a number of factors that come into play that you haven't brought up. I said earlier—and I wasn't trying to be sarcastic—that maybe the minor summary conviction offences should just disappear at five years, and everybody across there said no. But if you say no, then accept that you're going to have a cost for fingerprints. People are still going to have to get immigration records, and somebody's going to have to pay for it.
Someone is going to have to get court documents. Someone's going to have to go to multiple agencies to get the criminal record checks to help the people we want to help. They don't have the money to fill out the form anyway and spend the $600, so they're going to need assistance.
We need to be creative in our thought process. I wonder if you would comment on that, because there's a whole avenue beyond the $625.
There are organizations, certainly in my riding, such as the John Howard Society, Elizabeth Fry, that are also there, that also have programs and apply for funding. It's not to say there couldn't be some hybrid, if you will, where the government eliminated, for the sake of argument, the $631, but other organizations, like John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, would also be there to help. It's not to say that couldn't happen also.
I would go back again and say to you that we can't be fixated always on the cost of doing something. What's this going to cost? There's a cost of not doing it. Sometimes I worry that good things don't get done just because of the cost. I would argue there's a cost of not doing things. My background is obviously not politics but sports and hockey. I can give you a hundred examples of things that you could always have argued. It would have cost too much to redo my dressing room, but there was a cost of not doing my dressing room, too.
I respect the fact that we need to be smart with our money. I respect the fact that costs should be looked at. I strongly argue here, and hopefully the committee can bring this out, that there's a cost of not doing it. I feel we have an obligation to those most vulnerable. This is a tax, to me, on our most vulnerable citizens.
I'm encouraged by the tone and from what I'm hearing. Obviously there are differences of opinion. There's always going to be differences of opinion. However, I really believe there's an opportunity for us to work together in a non-partisan way to do the right thing and to correct something that to me was wrongly done.