Mr. Speaker, contrary to the apparent perspective of some in this place, I think it is actually worthwhile to debate these bills. Each one of us learns a lot more by hearing the perspectives of the other side. I am grateful for the opportunity, despite the late hour, to participate in this debate.
At the outset, I would like to say stricter sentencing provisions without effective investigative powers, resources and timely judicial processes are empty. I would bring attention to the failure of the government to take timely action in the appointment of judges, including in my jurisdiction, as raised by the Attorney General of Alberta, and the failure to fill that vacuum by providing sufficient aboriginal police, as first nations are calling for. That certainly would help with the situation of gang action and in helping to bring witnesses forward.
I am rising in support of Bill C-51, an act to amend the Witness Protection Program Act. There are many measures that are worthwhile. It is good that after many years the government is finally moving forward to improve and enhance the program, which, by the way, the Conservatives did not invent. It has been around for quite some time, but to their credit, finally, after seven years, they are coming forward to actually improve it.
We support the fact that it would expand the eligibility criteria in certain circumstances to expand access in the case of witnesses dealing with crimes related to street gangs and certainly for witnesses recommended by CSIS and National Defence. As I understand it and as outlined by the government members, there would be improved efficiency and coordination with provincial and municipal police forces to achieve more effective access to the program by those authorities. I am hoping that is the case, regardless of the fact that there is no additional funding.
These are important changes that the New Democrats have been calling for as improvements for quite some time, particularly to fight street gangs and organized crime. I bring to the attention of the Speaker that the New Democrat member for Trinity—Spadina called for this exact reform some time back, specifically in relation to the mass shootings in Toronto. I know that we and everyone certainly support her efforts to have some increased measures to deal with these kinds of activities and to respond to the increasing concern over terrorism. In that case, people may be even all the more nervous about stepping forward and serving as a witness or providing testimony or evidence to the authorities.
The bill would expand access to more individuals seeking to deal with gangs, although I would have to add that I wanted to put this question to a number of the members here who are participating in the special task force on missing and murdered aboriginal women. I am not convinced that the measures we are debating today are sufficient to address the complex issue in aboriginal communities of witnesses coming forward. That would be something that is probably worth pursuing.
The federal witness protection program has long been criticized for its narrow eligibility criteria, for its poor coordination with provincial programs and for the low numbers of witnesses admitted to the program. Apparently only 30 of the 108 applications that were considered were accepted in 2012. I am not sure that the committee heard all of the detail for why that was, but on the basis of some of the testimony from police authorities, certainly part of it is a lack of access to funding. I am surprised, given the government's enthusiasm for ensuring that these cases come to trial with solid evidence and testimony from witnesses, that it would not also want to address this funding shortage issue.
One of the things that particularly bewilders us is that the Prime Minister commended the report from the Air India commission. One of the strong recommendations from the Air India inquiry, and apparently the only one related to the federal witness protection program, was to appoint a national security witness protection coordinator.
The government has chosen to disregard that recommendation. There do not appear to be really clear arguments for why it would turn down that position.
My understanding of the recommendation is that the coordinator would not provide the actual physical protection. The national security witness protection coordinator's mandate would include such things as ensuring consistency in the handling of sources and resolving disputes between agencies that may arise in negotiation or implementation of a protection agreement. The coordinator would also provide confidential support for protectees, including psychological and legal advice so that they could decide whether they wanted to sign the protection agreement. The coordinator would also provide for independent and confidential arbitration of disputes and act as an advocate for witnesses.
That all seems very clear and obvious, because in many cases the very reason for the existence of this witness protection program is that witnesses are reluctant to come forward. There could be many reasons. They could be terrified. They might be nervous of police authorities. It seems perfectly logical that a non-police body would work with those individuals and would be less intimidating.
The government's decision remains a puzzle to us. It had the opportunity to also include that recommendation. Hopefully in future it will also bring that one forward.
One of the key problems that has been raised by my colleagues in this place is the refusal by the government to admit that the program is inadequately funded. As has been stated many times in the House, only 30 of 108 applications considered were accepted in 2012.
A great number of witnesses came before committee, many of whom spoke to exactly this issue. One was Commissioner Micki Ruth, a member of the policing and justice committee of the Canadian Association of Police Boards. Micki Ruth said:
Like many issues facing government today, funding is one of the biggest and toughest ones to find solutions for. The problems identified back in 2007 with the adequacy of funding for the current witness protection are not addressed in Bill C-51. Unfortunately, we see problems with the ability of municipality police services to adequately access witness protection because they lack the resources. ... CAPB has a duty to its members to ensure that legislation passed by the government does not result in a downloading of additional costs to the municipal police services....
This is the very concern. We have heard member after member defending the position that there is no need for further funding, but in most cases they are citing the RCMP. The problem is that the downloading occurs to the municipal or provincial police authorities.
That concern was also raised by the British Columbia Ministry of Justice through Clayton J.D. Pecknold, who is the assistant deputy minister and director of police services, policing and security programs branch, as well as Dr. Alok Mukherjee, the president of the Canadian Association of Police Boards. Those are citizen boards and commissions representing a broad spectrum of society.
Dr. Alok Mukherjee said:
Without the availability of sufficient funding, our ability to take advantage of the program will be limited. In places like Toronto, that's a big problem because, as you know, we're dealing with serious violent crimes and often rely on witnesses from the community, not informants....
Very serious concerns are being raised.
When we go to the very purpose of this legislation and program, which is to encourage witnesses who may otherwise feel intimidated to come forward, we have to scratch our heads and ask why the program would not be fully funded, particularly when we are dealing with incidents of terrorism.
We will remain puzzled. We support the initiatives that the government has brought forward in the bill, but we will continue to pursue, on behalf of those agencies and the public and those who might be compelled and approached to testify, the availability of funding to support them to testify.
As I mentioned at the outset, in the case of aboriginal or isolated communities there may have to be additional measures, because it may be a bit harder to address the fact that individuals will be picked up and relocated or that they may not even speak English or French and would be quite intimidated by being removed from their community.
I look forward to further discussions on this matter within Parliament.