Mr. Speaker, I have the honour to rise today at report stage of Bill C-75, an act to amend the Criminal Code, the Youth Criminal Justice Act and other acts and to make consequential amendments to other acts. This is an omnibus bill that addresses matters related to the Criminal Code of Canada.
At first, everyone in our society who deals with major justice issues were quite pleased with what the Minister of Justice had to say. There is a clear need for reform. Unfortunately, many in the legal community and elsewhere who are calling for real reform are disappointed.
There is a great sense of disappointment. The longer we work with Bill C-75, the more the disappointment deepens. Michael Spratt, the former chair of the Canadian Criminal Lawyers' Association, has been quoted in this debate before. As he put it, “It all sounded so good. But it has all gone so wrong.”
I did attempt to make improvements to the legislation. Members of this place will know that while my status as leader of the Green Party of Canada does not allow me to sit on any committees, through the work of the PMO, first under former primer minister Stephen Harper and now under our current Prime Minister, I have what some might think of as an opportunity but I have to say it is an enormous burden that increases my workload. It is rather unfair because if it were not for what the committees have done, I could have been presenting substantive amendments here at report stage. That is my right as a member of Parliament and not of one of the three big parties. I have very few rights as a member of Parliament with one seat for the Green Party, but one of those rights was to be able to make substantive amendments at report stage. My rights have been subsumed into what, as I said, was done first by the Conservative government and now by the Liberals, to say that I have an opportunity to present amendments during clause-by-clause study at committee, although I am not a member of the committee. I do not have a right to vote, but I get a chance to speak to my amendments.
It was under that committee motion I was able to present 46 amendments. I participated vigorously in the clause-by-clause consideration of Bill C-75. It was a very discouraging process as very few amendments from opposition parties were accepted. Most of my amendments went directly to testimony from many witnesses who wanted to see the bill improved and I am disappointed that none of my 46 amendments made it through.
I should say that some of the worst parts of Bill C-75 were changed on the basis of government-proposed amendments. One of the ones that had worried me a great deal was the idea that in a criminal trial, evidence from the police could come in the form of a written statement without proffering the police officer in question for cross-examination. That was amended so that the prosecutors cannot use what is called routine police evidence without having someone put forward to be cross-examined. There was also the repeal of the vagrancy law and repeal of the law about keeping a common bawdy house.
However, many other sections of this bill cry out for further amendment, so at this point I want to highlight those sections that really need to be amended. We are at report stage, and third reading will come in short order. We are already under time allocation. I hope that when this bill gets to the other place, as it inevitably will, the other place will pass amendments that are needed.
It is quite clear that this bill, in some key areas, would do the opposite of what the government has promised, particularly in relation to disadvantaged people, particularly in relation to the status of indigenous peoples in our prisons, and particularly in relation to access to justice and fairness which have actually been worsened in this bill. That is not something I expected to be standing up and saying at report stage, but there it is. It is massively disappointing, and I hope that the Senate will improve it.
One of the things that was done, and I am not sure it was the best solution, but it was clearly a response to the Stanley case where it was a massive sense of a miscarriage of justice. When there is a jury, it is supposed to be a jury of the accused person's peers. If the person is an indigenous youth and his or her jury is entirely Caucasian, it is not exactly a jury of his or her peers. One of the reasons this happens is the use of peremptory challenges. Therefore, I do appreciate the effort in Bill C-75 to eliminate peremptory challenges. However, I want to go over the way in which this bill actually takes this backward.
The effort here of course, as many other hon. members have pointed out, is that this bill is in direct response to the Jordan decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in 2016. In the Jordan case, the delays were so profound that the case could not proceed. Therefore, I think it is very clear that all Canadians feel the same sense of concern with the new trial timelines of 18 months for provincial courts and 30 months for superior court. No one wants people to be freed, who at this point still have the presumption of innocence, because they have not gone through their court case. If the evidence is good enough, the prosecutors bring those people forward. The idea that they are just let out of jail because the trial times and the processing of that person took too long offends our sense of justice. The Government of Canada and the Parliament of Canada were given a very quick jab toward justice by the Supreme Court of Canada. However, have we got it right?
In an effort to speed up trials, I will mention one thing first, which is the issue of eliminating preliminary inquiries. There was a great deal of evidence before our committee that the Government of Canada and the justice department did not have good data to tell us that preliminary inquiries were a source of great delay.
I want to quote from one of the legal experts. Bill Trudell is the current chair of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers. He described preliminary inquiries like this, “They're like X-rays before an operation”. That is a very useful thing to have. They do not happen all the time, but when we remove them without good evidence as to why we are removing them, we could end up having innocent people convicted. In fact, Bill Trudell said that as difficult as it was for him to say, he thinks more innocent people will be convicted because we have taken out preliminary inquiries without quite having the evidence that that was a good thing to do to speed up trials.
We have heard a lot from my friends in the Conservative caucus about the question of hybridization. We have the problem that, having changed the range of sentencing, the effect of Bill C-75 is to also increase the sentencing for a summary conviction from six months to two years.
The Liberals have also added in Bill C-75 provisions about the use of agents that I do not think were thoroughly thought through. To give a better sense of agents, and this goes to the question of access to justice, suppose people are not quite poor enough to get a legal aid lawyer but are trying to navigate the legal system and they cannot afford a lawyer. In many of those cases, for a very long time, criminal defendants have had the benefit, particularly if they are low income, of law school clinics, which are young lawyers in training. They are student lawyers working as a clinic to provide legal services to people charged with lesser offences. It is too late to amend as here we are at report stage. I hope the other place will amend this to ensure access to legal aid clinics out of law schools in order to help marginalized groups navigating the legal system. I think this is an unintended consequence. I am certain that people in the Department of Justice did not ponder this and say that one of the problems is too many poor people are getting help from law students. That was not a problem that wanted solving, that was a very good and ongoing process that has been recklessly compromised in this bill. I have to hope that when it gets to the other place, we can fix this and make sure that in the definition of “agents” we exclude law students and law schools running clinics.
There are other aspects of this bill where the Liberals have just failed altogether to deal with the issue of the disproportionate number of indigenous people behind bars. They have taken in some aspects, in taking things into account. However, one of my amendments, that I really regret was not accepted, was we have no definition of “vulnerable populations”, and a lot of the evidence that came before the justice committee suggested we need such a definition. I tried one and it failed. Maybe the other place can try again. I hope that Bill C-75 will see more improvement in the other place before it becomes law.