Mr. Speaker, it is quite an honour for me to rise with you in the chair. It is a first for me, and I hope I will live up to your wisdom. I am a bit nervous about my speech and I am worried you will find it is not up to snuff, but we can talk about that later.
Last year, many of my colleagues from the other parties and I had the honour to serve on the Special Committee on Afghanistan. I was one of the co-chairs of that committee. One of the very first questions that I had the opportunity to ask the witnesses over a year ago now at the February 7, 2022, meeting was this:
They said that the Criminal Code might need to be amended so that NGOs on the ground could operate in Afghanistan without fear of being accused of funding terrorism. In my opinion, this is a very important subject that we need to address. What are your thoughts on this...?
That was February 7, 2022. I asked that question as soon as I had the opportunity to do so, both to the organizations themselves and to the various departments involved. It will come as no surprise, then, that I was quite happy to hear the government finally announce that it was going to amend Canada's Criminal Code to make it possible for humanitarian aid to flow again and to allow NGOs to do their work without fear of prosecution. That was exactly what the NGOs were afraid of.
Bill C‑41 is a useful bill that will help us make progress in the area of humanitarian aid. I am happy to have made my small contribution along with my colleagues from the other parties.
As everyone knows, I am a lover of democracy. I am one of those who believe that, despite differences of opinion, working together is beneficial to the parliamentary process the majority of the time. I would therefore like to thank my colleagues with whom I have worked over the last few weeks to try to improve this bill, but also to support its speedy passage. I would like to mention them by name because, unfortunately, it has been a long-term process, but one of collaboration. I want to thank the member for , the member for and the member for . A number of other MPs took part in the work, but it was this group of MPs who worked in greater depth on the bill and managed to find some common ground. I would also like to take this opportunity to tell them that I am proud of the work we accomplished. It shows that, despite our often differing positions, and sometimes even completely opposing positions, we can work together and get things done.
Ultimately, Bill is a good bill, but we have to be careful not to get ahead of ourselves. Although I consider it a good bill, I had to temper my expectations a few times. There is nothing unusual in that; it goes hand in hand with teamwork and collaboration among the parties. Still, although I dare hope we achieved a result that will satisfy everyone, I think Bill C-41 could have been much better. Let me explain.
The bill is now in the Senate for a pre-study before it reaches report stage. As it is currently written, the Criminal Code does not include any exemptions to facilitate the delivery of essential activities in areas affected by terrorism. The government of Canada tabled Bill , on March 9. As I mentioned earlier, this bill amends one of the Criminal Code's anti-terrorist financing offences to facilitate the delivery of much-needed international assistance, immigration activities, and other assistance in geographic areas controlled by terrorist groups.
In other words, the proposed amendments would create a new authorization scheme that would allow those that provide humanitarian aid to apply for an authorization that would shield them from the risk of criminal liability if the terms and conditions of the authorization are respected. We have to understand that the Taliban, as the current de facto authority in Afghanistan, is likely to receive revenue from any payments needed to support humanitarian aid. For example, sometimes the Taliban may collect taxes at roadside checkpoints they have set up and people have to pay to be able to pass through. Under the Criminal Code, any Canadian or person in Canada making or authorizing such payments would risk contravening a provision of the Criminal Code.
Despite the uncertainty, most organizations have continued to respond to crises around the world, but problems have grown exponentially since the Taliban, a listed terrorist entity, took control of Afghanistan in August 2021. In that regard, the scale of the humanitarian and economic crisis that the Afghan people are now facing cannot be overstated.
On paper, Bill C-41 rectifies this inability to make exceptions for organizations that are trying to deliver humanitarian aid on the ground.
Some humanitarian groups welcome the bill, but others were less favourable because they feel it creates more legal obstacles and red tape.
For the sake of clarity, here is what Bill set out at first reading. Under this regime, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, the Minister of Public Safety or an authorized delegate would have the authority to grant an authorization to NGOs.
That seems like a lot of people. When we talk about bureaucracy, that is what we are talking about. I think it is clear that Bill C‑41, at its foundation, may not have been ideal.
“The authorizations would shield applicants from criminal liability for certain activities such as the provision of international assistance...that would otherwise risk contravening the Criminal Code.” That is a good aspect of the bill and it is about time.
“In deciding whether to grant an authorization, the Minister of Public Safety would consider referrals by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, and take into account their assessment of the application”. All of that remains to be seen.
The Bloc Québécois criticized the government for using an approach based on mistrust, even though it already knows a good number of the Canadian NGOs that it collaborates with and who have a proven track record. No departmental representative was able to tell me how long the authorization process would take. Even if someone had given me a figure, would we have believed them? Since becoming an MP, I have had many opportunities to observe how slowly the Canadian bureaucracy moves.
At first reading of Bill C‑41, it provided for applications for authorization to be processed within a reasonable period of time by the Government of Canada. I repeat that we were talking about a reasonable period of time by the Government of Canada. That is scary.
Despite the positive advances in Bill C‑41 at first reading, what worried me was the number of interventions required between departments and the impact of such a bill on humanitarian organizations. It is no secret that when it comes to processing times, I get the sense that there are some departments that do not spend much time checking the clock. For NGOs working in countries such as Afghanistan, where the situation is deteriorating before our eyes, time is running out.
As I said earlier, when Bill C‑41 was being studied in committee, I had to make some concessions. That is fine and it is to be expected. The Bloc Québécois worked closely with the other parties and with stakeholders to speed up the passage of this bill but, more importantly, to improve it.
Overall, I was happy with the result. Imagine my surprise, however, when I learned in committee that the government was boasting about having held extensive consultations with major NGOs in drafting the bill. We quickly realized that some major organizations like Doctors Without Borders had not been consulted, when those are the organizations who are most familiar with what is happening on the ground. The entire sector should have been consulted, but unfortunately, it was not.
Another unfortunate point is that I get the impression that this is starting to become a habit on the government side. Bills are introduced, but, often, the community that will be most impacted by them has not been consulted, or the government consulted a small, select group of people who often have close ties to the Liberal Party, people who are already convinced. I think the government should do a little soul-searching and perhaps re-evaluate the way it conducts consultations on bills that are to be tabled in the House.
Although all the parties had announced their willingness to pass the bill quickly so that humanitarian aid could get to Afghans in need as quickly as possible, it still took quite a while.
The original bill contained some problematic provisions, including a very significant concentration of power in the hands of the Minister of Public Safety, a lack of predictability for NGOs and overreach in certain elements of Canadian government investigations.
For this reason, I think that the amended version of Bill C‑41 achieves the necessary balance between security, justice and humanitarian aid.
What is more, opposition members were united on most of the amendments proposed. My colleagues who spoke before me mentioned that, and the ones who will speak after me will say the same thing. However, I must also point out that the government was available and honestly open to discussion.
I want to thank the member for , with whom I spoke many times, sometimes late into the night, to try to come to an agreement so that the bill would be passed by the House. Yes, the opposition parties were united on some of the amendments, but the government was also very open. I want to say that it is a pleasure to work with my Liberal Party colleague. I know her reputation and I know that I am not the only one who finds it easy to work with her. All of my colleagues who have worked with the member for Oakville North—Burlington on various files have said the same thing. We often give the government a hard time because that is our job, but when someone works hard and is open to discussion, it is only right to acknowledge it.
Ultimately, the amendments that were adopted improve the bill on several fronts. First, they remove the sword of Damocles hanging over the NGOs wishing to contribute to humanitarian aid in areas controlled by a terrorist group, as the principle of wilfully provided illegitimate aid will be incorporated into the Criminal Code. NGOs will nonetheless have to make reasonable efforts to minimize any potential benefit to terrorist groups. The minister will also be required to inform any eligible group or person of the classes of activities that would require authorization in certain geographic areas. The amendments also provide for an annual report by the minister outlining the applications that were approved or refused in the previous calendar year, as well as a comprehensive review of the impact of the bill, with a detailed plan to remedy any deficiencies that may be identified.
The amended bill is a version that, on paper, seems to suit the objectives of all the parties. The true impact of these legislative measures on the ground remains to be seen, however. That is why I want to say that the NGOs and the communities involved are the ones who will be able to tell us whether this is going to work. Unfortunately, we will only know during humanitarian crises in areas controlled by terrorists. That means that things will go badly somewhere in the world. The people who are there to help the less fortunate and the vulnerable are the ones who will be able to tell us whether these legislative measures are working or not.
It is mind-boggling to know that it took almost two years since the evacuation operation in Afghanistan for us to finally adopt this kind of legislation in Canada. If I remember correctly, on December 22, 2021, the UN proposed resolution 2615 to respond to the problem of NGOs that want to work in areas controlled by terrorists. The UN adopted that resolution on December 22, 2021 and here we are in June 2023. Canada is finally waking up. It is extremely problematic. Let us not forget that when the pandemic hit the entire country, all the opposition parties came together to adopt legislative measures to quickly come to the help of the Quebec and Canadian people. These were very complex bills that contained complex provisions, but we got the job done in a matter of weeks.
Everyone agrees that there is a problem in Afghanistan, that children are probably dying, and that vulnerable women, men and children are suffering and experiencing one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet. Why has it taken two years to amend Canada's Criminal Code to help them, whereas Parliament was able to quickly adopt pandemic measures over the course of barely two weeks?
Every time I asked the ministers why it was taking so long, I was told that the situation was complex, that there were many things to examine and that they did not want to rush. It was urgent, and it is still urgent.
For this Liberal government, is the situation of a Canadian who loses their job because of the pandemic more important than that of an Afghan child who needs humanitarian aid to eat and who will die if they do not get it? That is the question we needed to ask. Unfortunately, I believe I know the answer: No, it was not urgent for this government, otherwise the bill would have passed a long time ago.
When the government announced that it planned to amend the Criminal Code to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance in areas controlled by terrorist groups, the Bloc Québécois reached out to the government. We announced that we wanted to work twice as hard to pass the bill quickly so that our NGOs could once again do their work on the ground and humanitarian aid could reach vulnerable populations.
I think it is fair to say that the government did not define the word “quickly” the same way we did. However, let us remain optimistic and continue in a spirit of collaboration. Right now, Bill is a step in the right direction for humanitarian workers and people who are suffering. However, we will need to take more than one step forward to improve the situation. Since the situation is urgent and we need to be on the ground as quickly as possible, I think we have no choice but to vote in favour of this bill. However, I can understand how some of my colleagues, knowing that the bill will be passed, will vote against it in order to send a message to the government that this bill is not ideal.
Of course I have the utmost respect for my esteemed NDP colleague from . I know she has a background in this field, and she had several criticisms of this bill. While we may vote differently, I think we agree on the principle that we need to help the NGOs do their job. This bill does not necessarily have unanimous consent, but at least we were able to improve it through a number of amendments when the opposition worked together. I think it is important to emphasize that. Just because the NDP and the Bloc Québécois will be voting differently does not mean we are not on the same page. That may sound a bit odd, but it is nevertheless true.
In closing, I hope the government will learn from how it handled this file. It is just wrong for the government to drag its feet when it is well aware of a situation that calls for diligent action. When it is a matter of life and death, that is just wrong. This government, which claims to champion human rights while not giving a penny for international development and doing even less than the Harper government did, I would remind the House, needs to stop thinking that it is the best in the world when it comes to human rights. One need only look at how it handled this bill. It is just wrong that the government took so long to do this while people are suffering.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. For as long as I live, I will definitely never forget that I delivered a speech with you in the chair.
Mr. Speaker, we hear from the Liberals that they think they are back. I was not a member of Parliament or a politician in 2015 when the stood up and said that Canada was back. He tapped his chest and did that little thing he does when he is trying to make people think he really means it.
We all thought he did. The Prime Minister said all of the right words, all the right things that we wanted to hear. He said that Canada was back. We were going to be back on the world stage, and we were going to back with peacekeepers. He promised over 600 peacekeepers. He told us we were going to be back on international development and diplomacy, that we were going to be in those conversations.
No one is more disappointed that that never happened than I am. We went through the Harper decade. I was with civil society groups that were working on foreign affairs, international development and sustainable development in the Harper years. I saw what happened under the Harper decade.
We were so looking forward to a shining example of what this country could be. Unfortunately, eight years in, the Liberals have failed to deliver that for us. We have a 15% cut to international development assistance in the budget at a time when we know the world needs Canada to step up more than ever. We have 60 peacekeepers in the field when the government promised 600. We have failures on our diplomatic fronts. Every decision the Liberal government makes puts trade ahead of human rights, ahead of people and ahead of women, every single decision.
However, that is not why I am here today. I just could not let it pass, to have the government tell us parliamentarians that Canada is back. Canada is not back.
We are here to talk about Bill . I will repeat what I just mentioned. I have worked in international development, foreign affairs and sustainable development around the world. I did it for my entire career prior to being a politician, in countries all throughout the world. I have represented organizations. I have done an awful lot of this work.
It is very important work. I sometimes think that, in the House of Commons, we forget that. We forget that our foreign policy is a stool. That stool requires trade, one hundred per cent, and it requires diplomatic relationships with other countries. It also requires development, and we know what happens when we step back from that piece of the stool.
What we are talking about today is basically a humanitarian carve-out so that we would be able to get urgent help to people in Afghanistan, except that is not what this bill is. That is not how legislation works. This would impact the international development and humanitarian sectors for decades because it is law. It is not contextual for the Afghan crisis. I will say, I have stood in the House time and time again demanding that the government do more for the people of Afghanistan. My heart breaks for the women and girls in Afghanistan who cannot go to school, who cannot leave their homes, whose lives are in danger.
The worst day I have had as a parliamentarian was finding out that one of their members of Parliament was murdered because we did not get her out fast enough. What is happening in Afghanistan is horrendous, and we need to do what we can, but this bill is going to have implications longer than just what is happening in Afghanistan. This would have implications around the world, and I do not think the people in the House are treating it with the severity that they need to.
It has been over two years since I asked the government to work with civil society, the non-profit sector and experts in the field to come up with a plan. It has been over two years. It was in May 2021. In February 2021, I wrote to then minister Garneau and said that this is what is going to happen. The U.S. has indicated that they are leaving, and this is what is going to happen. What is the plan?
There was never a plan put in place. There was never a plan to help those people who had worked so hard for Canadians. There was never a plan put in place to make sure that Canadian organizations doing the incredible work on the ground were able to work in Afghanistan.
For two years, we have been asking for this legislation. We asked for the government to work with the sector. I understand that none of us in this place are experts in everything. We cannot be. We have to depend on experts. We have to depend on experts to give us the best advice, but the government did not get the best advice.
The sector clearly asked for a humanitarian carve-out. What it got, in the first iteration of Bill , was a messy, overly bureaucratic, overly complicated criminalization of humanitarian aid and international development. It got a bill that was created by three ministries. Do members know who led that? The . I am sorry, but the does not work in international development.
I do not know where the was or why he was not part of these conversations. I do not know why we did not hear enough from Global Affairs Canada, but we did not. That is the reality. Therefore, we had a messy and broken piece of legislation come forward because the government refused to listen to the experts. The experts knew what was needed and what would make the lives of those in the sector easier so they could go into Afghanistan and provide life-saving aid and support to its people.
I want to take a moment here because I agree with my colleague from the Bloc, the member of Parliament for . I worked very well with him. I also want to give a shout-out to the member for because she was basically given a terrible piece of legislation and told to shine it. When I say a terrible piece of legislation, I think members know exactly what I think of it.
She was told to make it better, so instead of bringing us a law that we could improve slightly, she brought us a dumpster fire that we then had to try to do what we could with, so I want to give her a shout-out. She worked very hard, very collaboratively and very well with me. I worked very well with the member for . We all, every one of us, wanted to make sure this bill got help to people in Afghanistan as fast as it could.
When the came to committee, he talked to us about balance. He said that we have to have a balance between protecting against terrorist and protecting international development groups. What I said to him then, and I will say to every member in the House right now, is that the balance is wrong. He got the balance wrong. The balance we have right now criminalizes international development organizations. It is only because we were able to get an NDP amendment through for a carve-out that humanitarian organizations are not in there.
The folks who work within public safety do great work, but they do not understand international human rights law. They do not understand international development rights. They just do not have that line. Therefore, we worked with other parties to try to get this fixed because one of the key things, and I think perhaps something that members do not understand, is ensuring that organizations can maintain their neutrality. It is vital. It is a cornerstone of humanitarian and international development work because we are asking these organizations to go into sectors, regions and areas that are under fire and are very dangerous.
We are asking them to go into some of the worst places on the planet, and often those places are rife with conflict. There are often groups working there who are bad actors, and terrorists who are doing terrible things, so the only way organizations can do that work is if they are seen as neutral, independent and impartial. This legislation makes organizations go to the government to get permission to work in certain areas, which takes away their ability to be impartial and independent.
I raised this when the was first appointed. As members know, he is the former minister of defence. No offence to the minister, but that was a terrible idea because we spend our entire careers trying to ensure that folks understand we are not the military and we are not the government. We are independent. We are here to help. We are here to provide life-saving supports. That is what the sector does, what it tries to do.
When we put in a minister who is a former minister of defence, how does that look? It endangers the organizations working on the ground. It is an indication that the government does not understand, that it does not care and that it does not get it.
We did vote for the bill to go to committee, because, as I said, we all wanted to make sure that this aid got out to the people in Afghanistan who needed it. When the bill came to committee, we brought forward 12 amendments, and all of those amendments came from the sector. However, only six of those amendments were adopted.
As I mentioned, the key amendment for us was making sure that the humanitarian exemption was finally agreed to by the other parties. It was ruled out of scope, but we were able to bring it forward within the House. However, that was only one fix. That was only one of the things we wanted to ensure were fixed that the sector had asked us to fix.
One of the other things was a list. In this legislation, the government refuses to tell organizations which regions, which areas, they would need to ask for an exemption for, which puts all the onus on the organization. When we stand in this very sterile environment, it seems to make sense that an organization that is going to work in Sudan should ask if Sudan is one of the countries it would need an exemption for. However, that is not how international development works. Some of the Canadian organizations that I have worked with have 40-year relationships in some of the countries they work in. Change for Children in my riding has a 40-year relationship working in Nicaragua, and I can tell members that what is happening in Nicaragua has changed over 40 years.
We are not just asking organizations to check whether or not they can get into a country and do work. We are asking them to check, almost daily, to see if anything has changed, and the world changes. It is not the House of Commons where these organizations are working. They are working in mayhem. They are working in places that are in crisis. They are working in places that are in conflict. It is absurd to ask them to do that, to put that onus on them, because the government does not want to prepare a list of countries, and it is a list that it has to have. If the government does not have a list, it is almost negligence. However, to not be able to share that list with the organizations is shocking to me. It is absurd.
Another thing, which we tried to fix, is that in the legislation there is the term “links to a terrorist group”, which is not defined anywhere. There is nothing in this legislation that would define “links to a terrorist group”. What does that mean? Does it mean a person who rode on the same bus as someone, or who is talking to someone whose sister-in-law is implicated? Nobody knows what it means. It has no legal definition. In fact, I will read from the brief from the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, which said:
This is much too discretionary; for example, would distant family ties, former work or school associates, or membership in the same religious community or congregation be considered links? In our work, we have seen how each of these types of “links” have been identified by security agencies as being grounds for suspicion based solely on guilt by association. The example of Afghanistan, a Muslim majority country, is apt in this assistance, as we have particularly observed how Muslims in Canada are subject to this exact kind of guilt by association, leading to increased surveillance, loss of security clearances and employment [and] even includes the sharing of information which has led to rendition, arbitrary detention and torture
This is not good legislation when we have organizations like this one telling us that this does not make sense and that it is not clear.
The other piece I have with this legislation is that, right now, I have been told by the government that it is going to put policies in place to make sure that this all works just fine. However, the problem with policies is that other governments can come forward, and other governments can use the legislation differently. I have a very deep concern that, if we were to get a Conservative government, Conservatives could weaponize international development, and I will tell members why I think that is a concern. It is because they have done it before.
I was in the sector when the Harper government weaponized and refused funding to Oxfam. I was in the sector when the government weaponized it when Bev Oda wrote the infamous “not” on the application for funding so that Kairos, who had been critical of the government, could not get funding. The Conservative government has done this before. They could do it again, and there is no protection in this legislation to make sure that does not happen.
What happens if, all of a sudden, organizations are not allowed to work in Gaza? What happens if, all of a sudden, the government decides to delay providing the exemption? Right now, there are three ministries involved: public safety, justice and international development. I have spent most of my career trying to get funding through Global Affairs Canada and I can tell everyone that it is almost never able to deliver on the timelines it puts forward, through no fault of its own. Some of the best, most devoted public servants in our country are at Global Affairs Canada, but they are under-resourced, understaffed and under-empowered to make the decisions.
Let us add in two more ministries and see how that goes, and let us think about that in context as well. A humanitarian crisis is an emergency. That means that things have to happen in hours, not days. Action has to be taken to save lives in hours. We heard from one of the witnesses that they think they would be able to get a decision back to organizations well within six months. Within six months, people are dying. People need the support, they are dying and hours make all the difference, but we are being told months, and that is from a government that has not been able to deliver on its promises to date. I am deeply concerned about that.
There is another thing I want to bring up very quickly. One of the amendments we were able to get through and that I am very happy about is that there will be a one-year review, so we will be reviewing this legislation in one year. It is part of the reason I think it is very important for the House to look at this seriously and keeps a very close eye on it.
I cannot support this legislation. This legislation goes against all of the principles of international development and international humanitarian law. It does not listen to the sector and to the supports that the sector has asked for.
There is one other thing. We are also the only country in this situation. The U.S. has a humanitarian exemption. The U.K., the EU and other countries were able to do what the Liberal government could not do. They were able to do what the government, with the support of every party in this House, was unable to manage to get done.
I know the bill will pass. It will not pass with my support. I do not believe that this legislation is worthy of being passed. The fact that other parties are voting for it indicates that they have a smaller understanding of international development and humanitarian law. I am glad that the help will get to the people of Afghanistan as soon as possible. I am appalled that it has taken us two years to get to this point, but the international development sector offering people in crisis around the world crumbs and telling them they have to take it because that is all there is on offer is un-Canadian.
Mr. Speaker, it is a privilege to rise and speak on Bill . First, I want to begin by thanking all of my colleagues from all parties who have been working hard at this, particularly my colleague from , who has really made this, in many ways, an important part of all of the work that she has done in Parliament.
I think we should be very proud that we are at this point. One of the first things that was said to me, when I got elected, by an NGO that is doing work in Afghanistan right now is that we need to find a way to unlock this problem for the people of Afghanistan, for women and girls and for the organizations that are trying their best to work under extremely difficult circumstances.
Canadian NGOs have been at the front line of many of the most complicated challenges, the most complicated problems and the most difficult situations and circumstances in Afghanistan. They have been the ones that have been prepared to go to places where many other organizations have not wanted to go. They have been the ones that have been trying to support work in the most complex of circumstances.
Our ability to flow funds, our ability for organizations to do work in those areas and our ability for NGOs to be able to do the work that is required of them is really a matter of life and death. We have heard this throughout this debate. We have heard this throughout all of the speeches that at the forefront of our thinking, the forefront of our concern has to be the most vulnerable in Afghanistan and in other countries where this will apply but, in particular, we have been talking a lot about Afghanistan.
Two-thirds of the country now needs foreign aid to develop and to survive. People have literally had to make life-or-death decisions about whether they keep their children or sell them in order to be able to feed their families. The question of education is one that people would love to be able to even think about, but they are too busy trying to figure out if they are going to be able to eat.
We are at a place now where Bill finally does what so many have been calling for for so long. We have heard different points of view on whether this is the best route or the perfect route.
As we have learned, there is no perfect bill, but we are in a place now where we have the opportunity, as a Parliament, to tell the world that Canada is not only going to be there, that we are not only going to continue the work that we have historically done, but we are now going to make it possible for these NGOs to do the work that, in many ways, was made impossible not by design but by circumstance.
The fact that the Taliban took the decision to enforce legislation governing taxation of NGOs put so many people at risk of criminal liability. What this meant was that organization upon organization had to make the difficult decision of how they were going to engage, whether they were going to take the risks that involved.
This has led to an unprecedented economic humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. We are talking about 20 million people at risk.
Being able to pass this bill, making sure that we come together to get this over the finish line, to send a clear message that Canadian NGOs will be able to do the important work that they need to do, is something that I think we should all be proud of and that we should all do together.