Mr. Speaker, it is ironic to take the floor after that ruling, but I am pleased that we can pursue that other matter through other channels.
I am here now to address Bill C-83. I appreciate that the Liberal Party gave me a time slot, in recognition of the fact that there has been an allocation of time on debate and I otherwise might not have been able to speak to this at all. I wish to go on record, and I am not feeling any sense of cognitive dissonance in doing this, to thank the government party for allowing me to speak for 10 minutes, and I also wish that the government party had not decided to use time allocation on Bill C-83.
In any case, this bill comes to us in a context I want to address first, which is a political context and a political climate that has been created by recent debates in this place, in which, I regret to say, I felt demeaned. I felt displaced, demeaned and diminished by a tactic of the official opposition to turn the House of Commons into sort of a secondary chamber for the review of punishments meted out through the proper system, the courts of law. We have taken days and had people's names and the horrors of gruesome, cruel murders repeated on the floor of this place.
There is clearly some thought in some quarters here that it is a good campaign tactic to talk about punishment a lot and to regret when our correctional system responds in ways that might appear to some as lenient. However, we are a country built on the rule of law. We recognize that our prison system is not merely for punishment. We have to have this discussion, I think, fairly constantly. What is the point of our correctional system? What is the point of our prison system?
As many MPs have said on the floor of this place today in response to Bill C-83, many of the people in our prison system are going to re-enter society. We would like them to re-enter society with the life skills they will need to be contributing members of society, having paid, in that terminology, their debt to society.
It is in that context, where on one end of the political extreme we are told that we have become too lenient towards prisoners, that we turn our attention to an appalling situation, where rights have been infringed and lives have been lost through the failure of the prison system to handle certain kinds of prisoners, those who find themselves in likely incarceration in solitary confinement.
Of course, this bill comes to us in the context of one of the most egregious of those examples, again, as has been mentioned in this place today, the case of Ashley Smith. I think we forget sometimes how horrific her death was, how hard her life was, how hard her mother tried to help her and how the prison system made her survival impossible.
The coroner's inquest into Ashley Smith's death found that although she died from self-inflicted choking, while the guards watched, the context and the circumstances of her death amounted to a homicide. That coroner provided 104 recommendations.
We also know of the cases of Adam Capay, a young indigenous man who spent 1,600 days in solitary confinement; or Richard Wolfe, who did not actually die in solitary but collapsed in a prison exercise yard, at 40 years old, having spent 640 days in solitary confinement; or another indigenous man whose case comes to mind, Eddie Snowshoe, who spent 162 days in solitary confinement before hanging himself.
We can note from those cases that it is quite often those with mental health issues, those who are marginalized, those who are racialized and particularly those who are indigenous who end up in solitary confinement. Therefore, it is certainly welcome that the Minister of Public Safety has brought to this place a bill that promises to end this ongoing stain on the reputation of Canada as a civilized country. Solitary confinement for those lengths of times has been found internationally to constitute torture, and we are a people who are convinced that we do not practise torture.
Therefore, I am sad to share my disappointment with this bill and my concern that we do not have it right yet.
Coralee Cusack-Smith, mother of Ashley Smith, speaking for her family on Bill C-83, said “it's a sham and a travesty that it's done in Ashley's name. It's just a different name for segregation. It's not ending segregation. Not ending segregation for anyone with mental health issues. It's just a new name.”
It seems that the fact it is merely a rebranding is reflected in a statement by the hon. Senator Kim Pate who, having spent time before entering the other place to dedicating her life to the fair treatment of women prisoners, in particular through the Elizabeth Fry Society, described Bill C-83 as disappointing and even as weakening the limitations on how often a segregated prisoner can experience solitary confinement. We have this idea that structured intervention units will be entirely different from solitary confinement. I hope they will be. I have to say that it is one place where I would like to emphasize the positive in this place.
I was a member of Parliament, at the same desk, in the same chair, for an opposition party through the 41st Parliament. I could add up on the fingers of one hand the number of times I saw a single amendment made to a government bill. In a four-year term of a majority government under Stephen Harper, bills were rammed through from start to finish without a single amendment. Therefore, I will credit the current government and the administration of the current Prime Minister with being more open to amendments. However, it is a mixed bag. Some bills I would have been so happy to support if they only had been amended enough to make them acceptable. Bill C-69, the environmental assessment omnibus bill, is in that category. It is a tragedy that the Liberals did not get that one right. It will be a tragedy if we collectively in the House do not get it right on this one.
We have an obligation as a civilized society to re-examine what we mean by “incarceration” and “corrections” in the criminal justice system and what the purpose of incarceration is. In the 41st Parliament, the former government got rid of prison chaplains in that system. It got rid of prison farms where some prisoners could have the first experience in their lives of a day outdoors doing an honest day's labour. I suppose it is ironic that an honest day's labour took place in a prison farm context. However, those programs were killed by the previous government.
The prison system in our country cannot just be seen as a place where some parts of the political spectrum can score political points by talking about life being too easy there for people who have committed heinous crimes, as the language always describes them. I am not sympathizing with criminals. I support the rights of victims. However, it is not an effective prison system if it kills people who have committed minor crimes, who become stuck in a Möbius loop where they cannot get help. We have to break that cycle now. We have to find ways to focus our prison system on fairness, respect, reconciliation and rehabilitation. This is not the stuff of bleeding hearts; this is what makes a society whole. This is what allows people who have been in prison to come back out and function in a civilized society and not pass on the patterns of behaviour they have experienced to their family and children.
I have hope for Bill C-83. I will do everything I can at committee, and everything I can by working with members of the groups who have given their lives to this, whether it be the Elizabeth Fry Society, the John Howard Society, the BC Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and those very brave people who have been incarcerated and are willing to come forward to say, “This is what would have helped me. This is how it did not help me.”
Yes, a prison system is to ensure that people pay their debt to society and are punished for things that are morally indefensible and a huge assault on our society. However, there are also a lot of people in prison who have committed relatively minor crimes who, if they were wealthier and had better lawyers, might not be there. There, but for the grace of God, go members and I. Therefore, let us fix Bill C-83.