Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and good afternoon, once again, to the committee.
I am glad for the opportunity to discuss Bill this afternoon, legislation that will make it much easier for people convicted of simple possession of cannabis to clear their records and move on with their lives.
I am pleased, Mr. Chair, to be joined by Angela Connidis, from the Department of Public Safety; Ian Broom, who is with the Parole Board of Canada; and Jennifer Gates-Flaherty, who deals with criminal records at the RCMP.
In the old system, when cannabis was illegal, Canadians were among the biggest, and youngest, consumers of cannabis in the world, to the delight of criminal organizations. Last autumn, we fulfilled our commitment to put an end to that ineffective and counterproductive ban.
However, a number of Canadians still have a criminal record for simple possession of cannabis. With Bill , they will be able to rid themselves of it expeditiously.
For people convicted solely of possessing cannabis for personal use, this legislation will simplify the process of getting a pardon in several ways. Ordinarily, applicants would have to pay a fee to the Parole Board of $631. We are eliminating that fee entirely for these purposes. Applicants also face a waiting period of up to 10 years to become eligible under the usual system, and we are getting rid of that waiting period too.
As the law currently stands, the Parole Board can deny applications based on a variety of subjective factors, such as whether a pardon would provide the applicant with a “measurable benefit”. Under Bill , such factors would not be considered in the context of this legislation. In addition to the measures in the bill, the Parole Board is taking further steps, such as simplifying the application form, creating a 1-800 number and an email address to help people with their applications, and developing a community outreach strategy to encourage as many people as possible to take advantage of this new process.
We're doing all this in recognition of the fact that the criminalization of cannabis had a disproportionate impact on certain Canadians—notably, members of black and indigenous communities. We are doing it because we will all benefit when people with criminal records for nothing more than simple possession of cannabis can get an education and a job, find a place to live, volunteer at their kids' schools and generally contribute more fully to Canadian life. They are impeded in doing those things because of that criminal record.
There were several points raised about the bill during second reading debate and in public discussion that I would like to address. Let me say also that I certainly commend the committee for taking the initiative of holding these hearings with respect to Bill to do a prestudy and to deal with this matter in as expeditious a manner as possible.
First, there is the question of why we're proposing an application-based system instead of pardoning people's records generically and proactively as has been done, for example, in certain municipalities in California. Unfortunately, doing that same thing in Canada on a national scale is simply a practical impossibility.
For one thing, Canadian conviction records don't generally say “cannabis possession”. That's not the language that's used in the records. They say something like “possession of a schedule II substance,” and then you have to check police and court documents to find out what the particular substance was. The blanket, generic approach is not all that obvious, given the way that charges are entered and records are kept in the Canadian system. Doing this for every drug possession charge that potentially involves cannabis would be a considerable undertaking, even if all the documents were in one central computer database.
In reality, that is not the case in Canada. Many of these paper records are kept in boxes in the basements of courthouses and police stations in cities and towns across the country. It's not as simple as just pushing a button on a computer. We could start the process today, but people would still be waiting for their records to be cleared years from now because of the way those records are retained. By contrast, when someone submits an application for a pardon under the provisions that we're proposing in Bill , Parole Board officials can zero in on the relevant documents right away, and the person can get their pardon much faster.
Another question raised at second reading was about the appropriateness of waiving the fee. There was concern that taxpayers would be footing the bill for people who broke the law.
The fact is that if we don't waive the fee, wealthy Canadians with cannabis possession convictions will be able to get their pardons quite easily, but lower-income people will remain saddled with the criminal record and the stigma. Many people with records for cannabis possession don't have that spare $631 lying about. They need the pardon to get a job and earn a paycheque. It's a bit of a vicious circle. Also, waiving the fee is a good investment. A person who gets a pardon is better able to get an education and a job, and contribute to their community in all sorts of ways, including by paying taxes.
Finally, there's the question of why we are proposing an expedited pardons process rather than expungement. I would remind the committee that expungement is a concept that did not exist in Canadian law until we created it last year to destroy the conviction records of people who were criminalized simply for being gay. In those cases, the law itself was a patently unconstitutional violation of fundamental rights and the convictions that flowed from it were never legitimate in the first place.
The prohibition of cannabis on the other hand was not unconstitutional. It was just bad public policy. There is no doubt though that the manner in which it was applied disproportionately impacted certain groups within our society, particularly black and indigenous Canadians among others. That's why we're proposing to waive the fee and the waiting period, and to take numerous other steps to make getting a pardon for cannabis possession much faster and much easier.
As for the practical effects of pardons as opposed to expungement, criminal record checks come up empty in both cases. The effect of a pardon is protected by the Canadian Human Rights Act, and pardons are almost always permanent. Since 1970, more than half a million pardons have been issued and 95% of them are still in force today.
It's important not to minimize the effect of a pardon. Some of the debate in the House has made it sound as though a pardon is an insignificant thing. It's worth remembering that when this committee studied the pardon system in the fall, it heard from witnesses who emphasized just how consequential a pardon can be.
Louise Lafond, from the Elizabeth Fry Society, testified that a pardon is “like being able to turn that page over” and allow people to “to pursue paths that were closed to them.”
Catherine Latimer, from the John Howard Society, testified that pardons “allow the person to be restored to the community, as a contributing member without the continuing penalization of the past wrong.”
Rodney Small testified that for years he wanted to apply to law school, but couldn't for want of a pardon.
In other words, making pardons more accessible, with no fee and no waiting period, will have life-changing impacts for people dealing with the burden and the stigma of a criminal record for cannabis possession. We will all reap the benefits of having those people contribute more fully to their communities and to Canada as a whole.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for your attention. I'd be happy, along with my colleagues from the various departments and agencies here, to try to answer your questions.
We've thought this through extensively and had a very good internal discussion about the various alternatives for trying to deal with the issue we're advancing here. As a result of weighing all of the pros and cons of one technique versus another, I think there are six factors that argue in favour of the route that we've laid out in Bill .
Number one, the pardon process is the most efficient process from the point of view of the Parole Board. It is the least expensive and can be done faster than the other alternatives. Therefore, efficiency is one of the arguments.
Number two, it's a very simple piece of legislation. Bill is not hundreds of pages. It's four or five pages. It's very simple, but we're able to accomplish two important objectives that recognize the unfairness of the situation that we're trying to correct: There's no fee and there is no wait time. That can be done in a very simple way by means of this legislation.
Number three, this approach deals with the reality of how records have been historically kept in this country in a very dispersed manner. They are not all contained in one comprehensive database where you can simply push a button and instantly alter the whole thing by one keystroke. By setting up the system that we're setting up—where people make an application—the system can deal with the reality of how records are kept.
Number four, it's an effective remedy. As I mentioned in my remarks, of all the pardons that have been issued in this country since 1970, 95% of them are still in effect today. It's the rare case when a record suspension is set aside and the record is reopened—in cases only where another criminal offence has been committed, for example. The statistics would verify that the remedy is effective.
Number five, a pardon is fully protected by the Canadian Human Rights Act, which specifies, in section 2, that the existence of a criminal record cannot be used as a form of discrimination if a pardon has been granted. Interestingly enough, because the concept of expungement didn't exist at the time the Canadian Human Rights Act was written, there's no reference in the human rights act to expungement, but there is explicitly to the pardon process.
Number six, finally, is at the border. Because of the extensive information-sharing arrangements between Canada and the United States, U.S. border officers would have access from time to time to Canadian criminal records. They would make their own extraction from those criminal records.
Assume that a person with a conviction for simple possession of cannabis had their record expunged. They go to the border. The U.S. border officer asks them the cannabis question and they say “no,” as they would be entitled to do under Canadian law under expungement. But the American border officer, looking at his computer, sees that this person, in fact, did have a conviction for simple possession. Then the U.S. border officer would probably come to the conclusion that they're lying to him, which raises a very serious predicament at the border. The Canadian would say, “No, no, I've had an expungement.” The U.S. border officer would say, “Prove it.” You can't, because the paper doesn't exist. But if you have a record suspension or a pardon, you are able to prove your status in confronting the predicament at the border.
Good afternoon, Mr. Minister.
First of all, I want to say that we are ready to support Bill at second reading, as we previously announced. However, the work of the committee will provide the response to the next stage.
One of our causes for doubt is the way in which Bill , the legalization of marijuana, has been handled. It was rushed into place to fulfill a campaign promise by the . No one listened to educational experts or the police. No one educated our young people.
Today, six months later, we are already seeing that the basic idea, to get organized crime out of the cannabis market, is not working. Everyone is laughing at the government. Organized crime continues to sell cannabis, and now people are walking round with illegal marijuana with no fear of being caught.
That makes us skeptical of the way in which you want to implement Bill .
One of the topics I would like to discuss with you is the process.
We know that the police often negotiate with people. When they are arrested, some people may have committed other, more serious offences. But the police can choose to charge them with marijuana possession because the consequences for them are less serious. Those kinds of negotiations go on.
Now that cannabis is legal, how are we going to make it so that people who have committed more serious crimes, but have the opportunity to get out of them by being convicted only of marijuana possession, do not slip through the net by applying for a pardon? They have other problems. We do not want this to be a free pass for everyone.
What will the process be?
First of all, Mr. Paul-Hus, thank you for indicating your support at second reading. I hope the discussion in committee and elsewhere can give you the reassurance you need.
I have discussed the new cannabis legislation with a number of different police officers and police chiefs across the country. The vast majority of them have indicated to me—sometimes fulfilling what they had expected and sometimes, perhaps, surprising them—that over the course of the last number of months in which the overall legal framework with respect to cannabis has been changed, their experience in terms of law enforcement has been quite positive. They haven't seen a spike in behaviour that would cause them to be concerned.
Now, granted, it's still early days. It's been barely six months, but they're learning as they go along. They're indicating, by and large, a pretty positive experience with the new legislation.
With respect to the precise point you raised, this legislation, Bill , deals with the reality of what a person was charged with. If they were charged with simple possession of cannabis or simple possession of a substance in schedule II—if that is the offence that's in the application and before the Parole Board—then this legislation applies.
Individuals with more complicated criminal records would generally not be able to take advantage of the provisions of this law. They would have to go through the normal process. For the offence of simple possession of cannabis, Bill would apply.
Thank you, Minister, for being here with your officials.
I have two quick things I want to get on the record before I get to my question.
The first is that I appreciate your use of the word “pardon”, and I wish that your appreciation of the word had led to actually putting it back to “pardon” in the law, as opposed to “record suspension”, which is something we discussed when the committee did that study. But we are in the eleventh hour of this Parliament, so unfortunately I'm not going to hold my breath for that.
The other thing is about the John Howard Society. You quoted Catherine Latimer's testimony from the study we did on the pardon issue. I want to say that on this particular issue.... You're obviously familiar with my colleague 's bill, which favours expungement. The John Howard Society did say, in a Twitter exchange on the said bill when it was being debated, “Agreed. Time to expunge criminal records for cannabis possession-not criminal: end punishment.”
I didn't want to mis-characterize what the John Howard Society thought on this particular issue, given that we're kind of mixing the study this committee did on record suspension with this issue.
I want to go back.... The whole debate between your position in Bill and what our party is calling for in expungement is couched in the notion of historical injustice. There's no actual precedent for that. There's no legal obligation. This seem to just be something that the government has used rhetorically. When I asked the about it in the House after legalization occurred, I raised, among other things, that in Regina indigenous people were almost nine times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession. In Halifax, black people were five times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession. In Toronto, black people with no other criminal convictions were three times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession.
Just before I get to my question and hear your answer, Minister, I want to quote Kent Roach, who of course you know very well, who says, “The history of miscarriages of justices in this country should not be equated with laws that would now violate the Charter. The Charter is the minimum not the maximum in terms of our sense of justice.”
Are you saying, unlike what Mr. Roach is saying, that your government doesn't believe that that horrendous overrepresentation of indigenous and black Canadians, among others, of course, from minorities, is not an injustice?
I was going to continue on with that.
There is a fee to get fingerprints. There is a fee to get your record from a police service, and there is a fee, generally, to get your records from court, if it has them. In some communities, if it's in the distant past, they might not have the book anymore where they have them. It's a free system, maybe, for the Parole Board's costing, which is a taxpayer pickup, but it will cost an applicant some time, some effort and some resources on their own to do that, just so we're clear.
I want to get more to the schedule. Bill has schedules attached to it, and that's the technical side of it. It lists the offences for which an offender can apply and immediately receive a record suspension after the sentence is completed, without paying a fee, other than the ones we've just identified.
The schedule refers to three categories of substances for possession offences. One is under schedule II of the old CDSA, the old Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, as it was prior to October of this past year. The second was for the old NCA, the Narcotic Control Act, which was previous to the CDSA. The third was for equivalent offences outlined in the National Defence Act.
However, the lists of substances do not appear to be entirely identical. For example, would an application for record suspension related to an offence concerning possession of Pyrahexyl, or Parahexyl as it's also known, under the old Narcotic Control Act, be assessed without a waiting period or fee being required, since that substance is included in item 3 of the schedule of the Narcotic Control Act, and the applicant would, thus, benefit from the changes proposed in Bill ? If so, why would that be the case, being that Parahexyl is still considered an illegal substance in Canada? Your schedules allow that to happen. I'm curious to know why.