Madam Speaker, I thank my colleague to the south, who has been representing very ably the riding that was, until very recently and for a long time, represented by my dear friend and colleague Gord Brown. Those were big shoes to fill. I know I am expressing a view that is shared by many in his constituency when I say that my colleague is doing a very admirable job, and my hat is off to him for that.
This is my second opportunity to address Bill C-93 and my third to address the issue of pardons for the formerly criminal act of simple possession of cannabis. I was also able to address the private member's bill, Bill C-415, which was moved in the name of our colleague from Victoria.
I want to focus my remarks primarily on the contrast between the expungement model in Bill C-415 and the record suspension or pardon model in Bill C-93. Looking at this bill and the comments raised in committee persuades me of the truth of a remark that was made in committee by a criminal defence lawyer, Solomon Friedman, who said:
I should first note that Bill C-93 is better than nothing. But better than nothing is a mighty low bar for our Parliament. You can do better. You must do better. Instead, I would urge a scheme of expungement along the lines already provided for in the Expungement of Historically Unjust Convictions Act.
That act was, of course, passed by this Parliament at the instigation of the current government, which revealed that expungement is, at least in principle, possible for the former offence of simple possession of cannabis.
Better than nothing turns out to be the equivalent, in practice, of very little at all. Parole Board officials testifying before the committee studying this bill estimated that out of the 250,000 to 500,000 Canadians with convictions for cannabis possession, only 10,000 would apply for a record suspension or expedited pardon.
I will make two comments. First, I am not sure how much precision or accuracy we can expect in the prediction of 10,000 from people who said that the number of records out there is somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000. That is a substantial margin of error. Additionally, if it is 10,000, why so few? The answer, in part, is the incredibly bureaucratic nature of the process under Bill C-93. When looking at Bill C-93, one gets the impression that the government looked at all available options for dealing with this issue and selected the most bureaucratic one it could find.
Let me quote from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, a supporter of this bill, and my point will be made. In promotion of the bill, she said:
[W]hy not just do it like some California municipalities and erase all the records with the press of a button? We do have an electronic police database of criminal records here in Canada, however, that database does not contain enough information to allow for a proactive amnesty....
[The] Parole Board should explore options for moving towards a more digitized system capable of receiving applications electronically, something particularly important for Canadians in rural areas.
That system would be in the future, not under this bill. That is a reference to the problems of getting access to broadband Internet in rural areas.
The parliamentary secretary then said:
In the meantime, the Parole Board is taking a number of steps to simplify the application process in other ways. It is simplifying its website and application form. It is creating a dedicated, toll-free phone number and an email address to help people with their applications.
In other words, none of this stuff is available, and it will take some time before that happens. She continued:
It is developing a community outreach strategy with a particular focus on the communities most [likely to be] affected by the criminalization of cannabis to make sure that people know about this new expedited process and how to access it...
We will need an advertising campaign.
This is going to be slow and complicated. By contrast, what would have happened under an expungement system? Expungement is nothing the government ever considered. Indeed, it seems not to have even thought of this possibility. Under expungement, we would simply say that the government would act as if any record that stated that a person had been convicted for possession of cannabis did not actually exist. If we found it, we simply would say there was nothing there.
This is done by the courts all the time. Any correspondence between lawyers done on a without prejudice basis, whether or not the words “without prejudice” are put at the front of the various pieces of correspondence, is automatically disregarded by a court. They have no ability to present it as evidence in a proceeding.
Similarly, we could do the same thing with records. This would overcome the problem of having different records kept in different ways, some on paper and some electronically, in different jurisdictions. They would simply have no existence in law. Because it is such a common conviction, when one was accessed, we would understand that it simply did not exist for the purpose of being used by any law enforcement official. That is how we could introduce expungement. This would eliminate all the bureaucracy, all the application fees that are necessary, which would still exist under this proposal, all the time, all the work and all the money that would have to be expended. There is a cost estimate, which I find hard to believe, attached to this bill. There would be zero cost with an expungement system.
In all fairness, the bill is better now than it was before it went to committee and came back with amendments. This is thanks, in part, to an amendment proposed by the member for Toronto—Danforth.
I will again read from the parliamentary secretary's words to give members an idea of what was done. She stated:
thanks to an amendment at committee from the member for Toronto—Danforth, people will be able to apply [for a pardon] even if they have outstanding fines associated with their cannabis possession conviction.
Due to an amendment we voted on at report stage...people whose only sentence was a fine will not be required to submit court documents as part of their application.
Finding these court documents was part of the supposedly costless, expedited process until this amendment was made.
On the other hand, a further suggested amendment, put forward by the Conservatives, was accepted at committee and then subsequently rejected by the government.
I will quote from our Conservative critic on this issue, who stated, “We proposed a measure to allow applicants whose records were destroyed to swear an affidavit explaining their situation and certifying that they are eligible”, which of course creates some paperwork but is less complicated than what we are left with. He went on to say, “This would have made the process even more fair. The Liberals agreed to this amendment in committee but changed their minds at report stage and decided to reject it.”
That would have helped relieve some of the bureaucracy. There are certain costs that continue to exist, and this prompted one person to quip, I think very appropriately, that the bill should not have been entitled an act to provide no-cost, expedited record suspensions for simple possession of cannabis, but rather, an act to provide for lower-cost, somewhat expedited record suspensions for simple possession of cannabis.
In the remaining minute and a half of my time, I want to deal with another important issue. Getting a pardon essentially equals getting forgiveness. People have done something wrong, we forgive them, and we move on. Expungement is a way of saying that what they did was not wrong in the first place. There are some offences for which this might not be true, even if we eliminated them retrospectively. I think, in the case of cannabis possession, it is clear that our ancestors, those who came before us, did not make it legal because they felt it was morally wrong to ingest or use marijuana. They thought it was the best way to protect people from their own unwise instincts. It was a wrong move. It did not work. It ruined a lot of lives, but those people were not put in prison because they had done something that was evil or wrong or would harm the rest of society. Therefore, removing this is entirely appropriate. We need not save expungement, as the government has proposed, only for the righting of historical wrongs based on laws that are now prohibited under the charter. I suggest that, in this case, it is also appropriate, and I urge all of us to consider, as we look forward to the future, the expungement model, perhaps in a second piece of legislation in the 43rd Parliament.