moved that Bill C-83, An Act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act and another Act, be read the third time and passed.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I am very glad that we have reached together the third reading stage of Bill C-83, legislation that would significantly strengthen our federal corrections system in a variety of important ways. It would make institutions safer both for employees and for inmates. It would enhance support for the victims of crime. By improving the ability of the Correctional Service of Canada to successfully rehabilitate and safely reintegrate people who have broken the law, this legislation will better protect Canadians in communities across the country.
The bill's main feature is the replacement of the current practice of administrative segregation with structured intervention units, or what is commonly known as SIUs. This is a new system that would allow inmates to be separated from the rest of the institution when that needs to happen for safety reasons, while giving them more time out of their cells, more meaningful contact with other people and greater access to mental health care and other rehabilitative interventions.
I would like to thank the members who participated in the meetings of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, as well as the many individuals who appeared as witnesses or submitted briefs. The bill was reviewed in meticulous detail, and the participants were, by and large, motivated by a sincere desire to strengthen our correctional system.
In response to witness testimony, committee members made a number of important amendments. Strangely, the opposition has been arguing that this is somehow a bad thing. We make no apologies for being receptive to feedback and willing to let legislators legislate. It is a testament to the strength of our parliamentary process that at least one amendment was accepted at committee stage from every party that made a submission during the committee's study of Bill C-83. There were even situations where an amendment was proposed by a member of one party and then subamended by a member of another party and then supported by both of them together. This stands in stark contrast to the way that things worked during the Harper days in Parliament. The Conservative government generally operated as though its bills were immaculately conceived and good-faith amendments were dismissed as heretical.
An hon. member: It is true.
Hon. Ralph Goodale: The opposition has correctly noted that is not our government's approach, and I am very proud of the fact that we have worked together on amendments.
Most of the amendments made at the committee responded directly to various questions that were raised by witnesses about whether the SIUs would work as intended. For example, there were concerns that the opportunity for time out of the cell might be offered in the middle of the night, which would obviously be unreasonable. Therefore, the bill now prohibits that.
There were concerns that inmates' interactions with other people would only occur through the doors or through the meal slots. The bill now makes clear that this is to be a truly exceptional practice.
Some witnesses thought that the provision relieving the Correctional Service, in exceptional circumstances, of the obligation to provide time out of the cell could be too broadly construed. Therefore, the bill now includes a specific list of the kinds of extraordinary circumstances that provision is meant to respond to, like natural disasters.
While the bill already allowed medical professionals to recommend that an inmate be removed from the SIU, some witnesses wanted greater assurance that such a recommendation would in fact be taken seriously. Therefore, the bill now requires that if the warden disagrees with the recommendation, the matter would be immediately elevated to a senior panel external to that particular institution.
These and other amendments preserve the fundamental objectives of Bill C-83, while providing more clarity and confidence that the new system would function as planned and accomplish the transformation that is intended.
There is one other thing that happened at committee that I would like to highlight.
Along with their amended version of the bill, committee members sent this House a specific recommendation, that as we go about replacing segregation, particular attention should be given to the circumstances at women's institutions. Under the existing system, women tend to be housed in segregation less frequently and for shorter periods of time than men, and there is almost always a serious mental health issue involved. Also, while segregation cells and regular cells are quite similar at men's institutions, the same is not the case for women.
I am, therefore, pleased to report that in line with the committee's recommendation, the Correctional Service is taking a gender-informed approach to the implementation of SIUs. The service has confirmed that it will be engaging stakeholders, such as the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, as it develops plans to implement the new law in a way that is appropriate for women's corrections.
Having completed a brief overview of the work that was done at the committee, I would now like to turn to the report stage debate that has occurred in this House in recent days. One notable outcome of the report stage process was the addition of an external oversight mechanism, thanks to an amendment proposed by the member for Oakville North—Burlington. As I mention that particular member, let me also congratulate her on becoming the new Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health.
SIU placements now, thanks to that amendment, would be subject to binding review by independent external decision-makers. This process would kick in if, for whatever reason, an inmate in an SIU does not get his or her minimum hours out of a cell or minimum hours of meaningful human contact for five straight days or for 15 days out of 30. At that point, the independent decision-maker would determine if the Correctional Service has taken all reasonable steps to provide those hours out of the cell and may make corrective recommendations. If after a week, the decision-maker is not satisfied, he or she can order the inmate removed from the SIU.
The independent decision-maker would also get involved if the Correctional Service is keeping an inmate in an SIU despite the recommendation of a health care professional. A review would be conducted of each SIU placement after 90 days and every 60 days thereafter. That is in addition to internal reviews that would be done by warden and the commissioner. Importantly, the determinations of the independent external decision-makers would be appealable to the Federal Court by both the inmate and the Correctional Service of Canada in accordance with section 18 of the Federal Courts Act.
Independent oversight is something that has been advocated by a number of stakeholders, including The John Howard Society, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the BC Civil Liberties Association and Aboriginal Legal Services, as well as the correctional investigator. I was, therefore, a bit surprised during the third reading proceedings to see the NDP join with the Conservatives to oppose adding independent oversight to the bill.
At committee, the NDP member for Beloeil—Chambly said that he indeed wanted independent oversight in the legislation, and the NDP member for Salaberry—Suroît made several calls for independent oversight in this place on Tuesday of this week during the debate. However, on Tuesday night, for some reason, the NDP voted against independent oversight and in favour of keeping all the reviews of SIU placements internal to the Correctional Service. That was an absolutely baffling turn of events, and I would be very interested to hear NDP members explain it during the course of the debate today.
There were a couple of other points made during the report stage debate that are worth touching upon. First, Conservative members accused us of not putting any resources toward the implementation of Bill C-83. I suppose none of them have had the opportunity to read the fall economic statement, which allocated in fact $448 million over six years to “support amendments to transform federal corrections, including the introduction of a new correctional interventions model to eliminate segregation.”
I suppose that the Conservative members of the public safety committee did not actually read the written response that was provided to them by my department in November outlining the breakdown of that funding.
As was set out in that document, we are putting nearly $300 million over six years, with $71.7 million ongoing, towards staffing and other resources required to run the SIUs. The other approximately $150 million over six years, with $74.3 million ongoing, will be devoted to enhancing mental health care both within SIUs and throughout the correctional system.
All of that is on top of the nearly $80 million for mental health care in corrections that was provided in the last two federal budgets.
In my meetings with the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers and the Union of Safety and Justice Employees, a key point of emphasis has been the importance of having the staffing levels and other resources needed to safely implement this legislation. The new investments that I have just outlined will in fact ensure that is the case.
That brings me to the matter of staff safety, which has also come up repeatedly during this debate, as indeed it should. The success of our corrections system relies on the skills and dedication of correctional officers, parole officers, program officers, medical professionals, elders, aboriginal liaison officers, chaplains, support staff and a great many other employees and volunteers.
Ensuring that they have a safe work environment is a prerequisite for everything that the Correctional Service of Canada is mandated to do. That is why Bill C-83 allows inmates who pose a security risk to be separated from the general inmate population. The enhancements to mental health care and rehabilitative interventions are also important for staff safety, because staff will be safer when inmates make correctional progress and when their mental health issues are under control.
It is worth remembering that in 2014, the head of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers at that time said, “We have to actively work to rid the Conservatives from power.” He said that because he felt that the Harper government's policies and budget cuts were endangering correctional officers.
Those cuts were deep. During their last term in office, under their deficit reduction action plan, the Conservatives cut $846 million from the Correctional Service of Canada. Those cuts had a considerable impact on institutional and public safety. For example, they resulted in a freeze of transfers to the organizations that run halfway houses, which play a key role in the safe reintegration of former inmates. That freeze is finally ending this year.
Conservative cuts resulted in the near elimination of the CoSA program, an initiative that has been shown to dramatically reduce the recidivism rates of sex offenders. We restored funding for that effective program in 2017.
The Conservative cuts caused the closure of prison farms, which serve important rehabilitative and vocational purposes. The work to reopen the farms is now under way.
When I met recently with parole officers, they explained how cuts to so-called administrative functions can affect public safety. For instance, when the people fired are those who handle billing and travel arrangements, that work has to get done by parole officers, who then have less time to spend with the inmates whose rehabilitative progress they are supposed to be supervising.
There is naturally more work to be done to compensate for the decade of Conservative cuts and policies that treated rehabilitation as the opposite of public safety. In fact, one cannot have one without the other.
I am pleased with the work we have been able to do so far. Bill C-83 is a vital step as part of that.
I will close with this. Court rulings finding the existing segregation regime unconstitutional are due to take effect in coming months. The courts have recognized explicitly that simply ending segregation without having a new system in place to replace it would put correctional workers, employees and inmates at greater risk.
The replacement we are proposing in this legislation is clearly a major improvement, with double the time out of the cell, a focus on mental health care and rehabilitation, independent external oversight and the investments to make it all work. Just to make sure, I will be appointing an advisory committee to monitor the implementation of the new SIU system. This committee will comprise experts with a diversity of relevant experience in areas such as corrections, rehabilitation and mental health care. Its role will be to advise the commissioner on an ongoing basis and to alert me directly if anything is not proceeding as it should.
Bill C-83 is legislation I hope we can all support. I thank the hon. members who engaged in a thoughtful study of the bill and proposed constructive amendments. I want to thank the witnesses who provided the informed and useful feedback that led directly to some of those specific amendments.
I want to thank in advance the correctional employees who will be charged with implementing this new system, and who work hard every day in very, very challenging circumstances, to effect successful rehabilitation, safe reintegration and the protection of Canadians and our communities.