Madam Speaker, I am rising today to speak to the government's proposal to provide pardons for people who have criminal records for simple possession of marijuana accrued prior to the legalization of marijuana. We felt that the legislation that legalized marijuana was something that the government could probably have done a better job at overall, but we did support it ultimately because we thought it was time to move on from the approach to marijuana this country has had for a long time. We believed that making it a product that could be regulated and avoiding situations in which people's lives have been being ruined over simple pot possession was a good thing overall.
The question that comes up now is what do we do with the over 400,000 Canadians who have records for simple possession, some of whom got those just prior to marijuana's becoming legal, versus the people who now may have the same small amount of pot in their possession and who do not have criminal records? There is a question of fairness for those people who have extant records for something that is now completely legal and not a problem.
We know that criminal records present all sorts of barriers. They present barriers to people being able to access housing in some cases. They present barriers for people to be able to volunteer in their community and support local organizations that depend on volunteers. They present barriers to travel, which can be important for employment purposes, particularly if they present a barrier to travel to the United States. It is very clear that authorities may ask at the border whether people have smoked marijuana. If the answer is “yes”, they may be turned away. Not only can that be a problem for people who have a job that requires them to cross the border, but it can also be a problem for people to get a job in the first place. We know that criminal records, even for something like simple pot possession have been and are barriers to people getting employment. When we talk about wanting people to be able to get a job and support themselves, it does not make sense that they would not be able to do that because they were caught with a gram or two of pot at some point in the eighties or nineties, or even a couple of years ago when it was still illegal.
Part of the idea behind the bill is to try to do away with that. The question is whether or not it uses all of the right tools at the government's disposal and whether or not it is going to succeed. This is where we think the government has seriously failed to adopt an approach that will get the job done, not just get it done in the right way for the people affected, but also in a way that is most efficient and cost effective overall. The government has proposed to try to reduce some of the burden of having that simple pot possession charge on people's records by expediting a pardon, sometimes referred to as a “record suspension”.
There are a few problems with that. One is that we are talking about a lot of people and an offence that really is not very serious. This approach requires that people initiate this process themselves, which means that they have to know that it is available to them. Then they have to initiate it themselves. They may need legal advice along the way, which can be expensive and, frankly, out of reach for certain people, including some of the most marginalized.
When we talk about people being affected by simple pot possession charges, I think we have to acknowledge that in many cases we are talking about some of the most marginalized people in the country, particularly racialized people. We know that the statistics for convictions in the black and indigenous communities, for example, show that the rate of conviction is far higher for them than other communities and racial groups within Canada. We are talking about marginalized people, and yet this process will require Canadians who have those pot possession charges to have the resources to be able to seek legal advice, particularly if they do not get a favourable decision in the first place.
It does not make sense from that point of view. What would have made more sense is an automated and automatic process so that people do not have to apply. They would not then have to know this were available to them if they wanted it, but that the government would know that if somebody has one of these charges, they would no longer apply to them.
There is another problem with record suspensions besides the cumbersome process. However, on the point of the cumbersome process, I would add that the Standing Committee on Public Safety recently released a unanimous report, so all parties agreed, saying that the pardon process in Canada is needlessly convoluted, takes a long time and overall is not going well. Now we are talking about over 400,000 people in the country who have simple pot possession charges who may want to be accessing that system, adding a further burden. As the member for Edmonton West rightly pointed out, and he may ask me a question about this afterward, if we go through the departmental plan and the budget, there are no additional resources being allocated for this projected increase in the demand for pardons.
It is needlessly cumbersome. It is going to take time. It requires these people to know about the option and to take the initiative themselves. They may have to pay for legal advice. At the end of the day, if they are asked pointedly, whether it is at the border or by an employer or someone else, whether they have such a conviction, they still have to answer yes, because although a pardon removes the charge from the most commonly used database, that conviction, that record, remains in a number of other databases. That information may be shared with other countries. It may be shared in other ways between government agencies or police services. Therefore, there is still the possibility that the existing record will be shared in some way, shape or form that prevents people from travelling or gaining employment.
What my colleague from Victoria has rightly proposed as the alternative in his private member's bill is an expungement regime. If the government were to expunge the record, it would actually be gone. It means that if people were asked whether they had ever been convicted for simple pot possession, they could truthfully say no, because that is the power of expungement.
In this place, certain things are sometimes stipulated. Even though it is just after 4 p.m., if the House deemed it 8 p.m., we could adjourn. The House can do that. In the same way, an expungement essentially deems the offence never to have occurred, which is not true of a pardon. If we truly want to make it the case that people who are guilty of simple pot possession do not ever have to worry again about what that charge, whether it is from the eighties, nineties or a couple of years ago, will mean for the rest of their lives, the way to do that is through expungement.
It is frustrating that the government did not choose that approach. It is still unclear to me why it did not choose to go down that road. Frankly, I have not heard a reason I find compelling. To be honest, I am not sure who gets the win in this either. I do not know who benefits from having an expedited pardon regime that will really only do half the job and present real administrative challenges for the Parole Board, versus expungement, which would not produce those same challenges or require extra resources and would do a job better for Canadians who are affected by a conviction for simple pot possession. If this option is cheaper, more efficient and would get the job done in a way that expedited pardons would not, I do not understand why the government is not interested in going down that road. That is why it is very difficult for me to support this. It would not do the job. It would cost more money. That sounds like bad policy when we say it out loud. Unless I hear a compelling reason why expedited pardons are better than expungement, I do not know why we would not do it that way.
It is not for lack of forewarning. Right from go, when the government first introduced its legislation to legalize marijuana, the NDP brought up the need to deal with all the people with existing convictions who will be in a position of fundamental unfairness. Someone who did the exact same thing after the law was passed does not have any problem. Canada has now said that it is legal and not a problem, yet there are people who did it just a couple of years ago who are in trouble. The government knew this was coming down the pike. We asked it to deal with it properly in the legalization package. It did not. I wonder why we need to do something that is going to cost more and be less effective for those who need it.