Madam Speaker, I am pleased to be joining colleagues from all parties in this debate tonight on Bill C-21.
I want to acknowledge the time I have enjoyed as the NDP's public safety critic. It is a big responsibility. There are many different departments to keep track of. I also want to say in deference to previous speakers that I have enjoyed working with the minister on a number of issues and with my Conservative and Bloc colleagues. I will echo previous comments tonight that we do enjoy a good working relationship. If we look at previous Parliaments, that might seem a bit odd for the public safety committee because we do deal with some fairly explosive issues where there is not always a lot of agreement to be found.
I come at this debate tonight as a representative of a rural riding. My riding of Cowichan—Malahat—Langford is about 4,700 square kilometres in size. A lot of the constituents whom I represent are responsible firearms owners. They enjoy going to the range. They enjoy using firearms for hunting and other recreational activities.
However, it has to be stated, and this is a key difference between Canada and our southern neighbours, that owning a firearm in Canada is a privilege. By far the vast majority of firearms owners in Canada respect that privilege. They use their firearms in a very safe and respectful manner. Gun safety and the careful operation and storage of guns have always been paramount to the constituents that I have spoken to.
Indeed, I do have a lot of friends who are firearms owners. I grew up with firearms. My father has several that he inherited from his childhood. I have enjoyed spending time at various ranges throughout my riding. A few years ago, I was a guest at the Victoria fish and game club. Under the careful supervision of someone with a restricted possession and authorization licence, I was shown how to safely use a handgun at the range. There a lot of people who do enjoy the target shooting aspect of it.
I have seen a lot of debate on firearms before and during my time in Parliament and it is a pretty explosive issue. It can be very often used as a wedge in our political system. I want to find a way to talk about the legislation before us in a respectful way, one that lowers the temperature and where we can depolarize the debate while maybe seeking to make some parts of the bill better at committee.
I am trying to walk the line between the Liberals and the Conservatives. The Liberals sometimes have a tendency to put forward a bill, hold it up as a shiny trophy, and say it is going to fix the problem. The Conservatives on the other side tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to firearms legislation and their default position is to oppose. This is an issue where we have to walk the line between those two, where we recognize that legislation is important. We cannot simply say no for the sake of saying no, but we also have to realize that legislation by itself is not going to solve a problem as complex as gun violence. It has to be part and parcel of a whole range of things.
Bill C-21 in this Parliament does share the same number as the previous firearms legislation in the 43rd Parliament, which was also Bill C-21. That bill, however, never advanced past second reading. Unfortunately, it was allowed to die on the Order Paper when we had, in my view, the unnecessary election of 2021. There was a lot of hullabaloo about the introduction of that bill, but not a lot of effort was put forward by the government to advance it in any meaningful way.
Here we are again. We are in the 44th Parliament. We are in June. We have been at this for quite some time and we are only now just getting to the first round of second reading debate on the bill.
There is an important human element to this debate. Many lives have been lost in Canada to rising gun crime and we have to acknowledge that many communities are feeling unsafe.
Canadians want their government to act to prevent tragedies, not just respond to them. That is the proactive piece of the puzzle here, not just reacting to the bad news we often see. We need to demonstrate that follow-through and commitment to addressing firearms violence. That is where I think Bill C-21 comes into play. Not only is the smuggling of illegal firearms a big problem in Canada, but there is also a very real issue with the domestic diversion of legal firearms and the way they can find their way into the hands of criminals.
I am proud to be a member of a party that has supported the goal of getting military-style assault weapons off the streets. I support the plans for a mandatory buyback. That is a significant improvement over the voluntary buyback that was proposed in the previous Parliament, because we want to find a way of making sure that these weapons are forever off of our streets and do not pose a danger. Back in 2008, Jack Layton, our leader at the time, was the first political leader in Canada to propose giving municipalities the power to ban handguns within their jurisdictions.
I think whatever side of the spectrum we fall on with respect to this debate, we can all agree it is time for the government to get serious about tackling gun crime. We have different ideas on how that is to be achieved, but I think we agree on the same basic premise.
I want to give a nod to the public safety committee. The great report that we tabled earlier this year has been referenced in a few speeches tonight. That report was the result of 50 witnesses over seven meetings. We had numerous representatives from different police services across Canada, criminal defence lawyers, community organizations and also important government bodies like Statistics Canada. I want to acknowledge the Bloc Québécois for bringing forward that motion for a study. It resulted in 34 recommendations. We are awaiting a government response. I know that takes time, but I am looking forward to reading the government's response to those solid recommendations.
We had a number of recommendations. We realized that Statistics Canada needs additional resources. It has reported that there are gaps in its reporting. There are limitations in its knowledge about the firearms that are used in crimes. We need more information and details about particular firearms, their exact type, who owns them, how they are stored, whether the owners are licensed, and so on.
There was also a recommendation about increasing funding to the Canadian criminal intelligence service to enable comprehensive intelligence sharing across all police services so we can improve their effectiveness in tracing firearms. There was a recognition that smuggling is a significant contributor to gun and gang violence in Canada and that more resources must be allocated to combatting it. Also, the Government of Canada, as part of its prohibition on firearms, should implement a mandatory buyback program. That was a recommendation in the report that was supported by committee members.
In addition, I also think that because the report also illustrated the context in which we operate, this problem is not going to be solved by legislation, funding or a shift in policies alone. It is a multi-faceted issue that is going to require reflection, a comprehensive set of solutions, including data collection and research, prevention and intervention, coordination and collaboration between all levels of government, law enforcement and civil society actors.
We know the statistics have not been favourable. That has been mentioned by a few of my colleagues. We know that the rates of firearms-related violent crimes started an upward climb in 2014, with the largest documented increase between 2014 and 2015. Between 2019 and 2020 there were notable increases, including in southern rural British Columbia, the northern part of Ontario, rural Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Nova Scotia. This is the important part: Handguns were the most serious weapon present in most firearm-related violent crimes between 2009 and 2014, and also between 2015 and 2020.
I now want to focus on the smuggling, which we know is a major problem. It is a consequence of our sharing a border with the United States. The problem, and this goes to the data collection, is that we do not have an accurate figure. It might even be impossible to ever get an accurate figure, because for every successful interdiction, there are so many that will get through. It is simply impossible to extrapolate what the full problem is in that regard.
In this conversation about firearms and the root causes of gun and gang violence, we have to know that there are so many different factors at play here. This is far from a black and white issue. During our committee study, we learned from great testimony from witnesses that things like poverty, inequality, racism, mental illness, social isolation, substance abuse, extremist ideologies, education and health, are all factors which in some way contribute to the phenomenon of gun violence and how bad it can be in some communities.
There is also a very strong correlation between the drug trade in Canada and firearms violence. I think this is important. This House has recently been seized with the issue of Canada's drug laws. We have seen reference to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in another government bill, Bill C-5, which sets out a declaration of principles.
The member for Esquimalt—Saanich—Sooke was able to successfully amend that to make sure that criminal records for simple possession will be sequestered after two years. That is an important amendment. The member for Courtenay—Alberni, my friend and neighbour to the north, has his very important private member's bill, Bill C-216.
Almost every single police agency that was before our committee spoke of the interwoven nature of the drug trade and the gun trade. The simple fact is that there are obscene amounts of money that can be made in the drug trade. The introduction of fentanyl and carfentanil has completely changed the profitability game. Every single witness who was talking on this subject said that gang members involved in the drug trade feel the need to have guns on their person to protect their turf and their trade because of the competitive nature of it.
One of the most successful ways we can tackle gun problems in Canada is to enact bold, progressive policies to deal with the demand side, to deal with people's addictions and to make sure we are not harming the people who are out there being nabbed by police for simple possession. Instead, we should be trying to make sure that we are relieving them of the criminal stigma of substance use. We should be drying up that demand so that gangs are not competing for that turf. That is a big scourge for many of our big cities in Canada, and until we see bold policy to deal with this, I fear that years from now we are still going to be having the same conversation about gun violence in Canada.
Let us now turn to some of the main features of Bill C-21. By far, the one that has garnered the most attention is the handgun freeze. It is essentially going to prevent the chief firearms officer from approving the transfer of handguns to individuals. It will effectively ban the buying, selling, transferring and importing of handguns to anyone other than certain businesses and exempted individuals.
To be clear, my technical reading of the bill is that if Bill C-21 were to receive royal assent tomorrow, anyone who is a current RPAL holder and owns a handgun will still be able to lawfully use that handgun just as they did today and yesterday. That will have no change.
It will impact people who are seeking to buy new handguns, but again, exemptions are carved out, for example, if someone can demonstrate that they need a handgun for their line of work. I know foresters who will not travel out into the bush in grizzly country unless they are carrying a handgun. That will be considered an exempted individual.
If someone is a professional target shooter and belongs to an Olympic-qualified organization, we might look at amending that and broadening the scope. The person would still be allowed to use a handgun, and so on.
I acknowledge that smuggling is a huge problem, but we have also had witnesses talk about the problem of the domestic diversion of legal weapons and people using their licences for straw purchases. I think, if we were to completely ignore that side of the equation, we would be doing a disservice to Canadians and to the whole question of public safety on this issue.
The other big aspect of Bill C-21 is the red flag and yellow flag regime, which would basically allow anyone to bypass the police and go directly to a provincial court judge to request the immediate removal of weapons from an individual who they believe is going to pose a danger to themselves or to others. I will note that, in the way Bill C-21 is written, there is an improvement to this aspect of the previous bill, because it would allow a judge to protect the privacy of an individual applying for that emergency prohibition. The judge could also have the option of holding hearings in private and sealing court documents. That is an important improvement to the previous version of the bill.
However, we know organizations such as PolySeSouvient still have problems with how this section is written. I believe that at committee we are going to have to take a deeper dive into whether this can be improved upon.
We also know that members of the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians were not fans of the previous red flag law. They said:
...placing the onus on a family member of a depressed person, a demented parent, or the perpetrator of domestic violence to go through the court system is a largely unworkable and unwelcome hindrance to getting guns temporarily out of the home of those in crisis.
Others said that the current version of Bill C-21 was “a big, evidence-based step towards reducing gun injury and death in Canada,” so kudos to the government for getting that from physicians who deal with gunshot wounds on a regular basis. They still want to see the particular details of the new red flag law and how it is actually going to work. Of course, the yellow flag law would allow the chief firearms officer to temporarily suspend and review an individual firearms licence while that eligibility is determined.
I want to end on airsoft. In my riding of Cowichan—Malahat—Langford, there is a massive airsoft community and people love this sport. I had previously only participated in paintball, so I know the fun and the thrill of it, and people who engage in airsoft as a sport love what they do. It is a great outdoor recreational activity, and these people are concerned by the provisions in this bill that are targeting replica models.
We have to find a way to have members of the airsoft community come before our committee. I think we have to have a conversation with the government on how we can find a workable solution so that people are not unfairly targeted for participating in a sport they enjoy. I think there is a middle ground in there somewhere. I acknowledge the concern that law enforcement has with replica airsoft rifles. At a distance, it is not easy to tell whether it is a replica or the real thing, and we certainly did hear at committee that some people had been successful at converting airsoft guns into fully functioning firearms, so that is a very real concern out there.
I know I am in my final minute, so I will just conclude with this: The firearms debate is never a black and white issue, and I know there are a variety of opinions on this topic, but I am going to try to thread the needle. At this point in the debate, I am going to signal my support for getting this bill to committee, because I do not want to just throw it out at this stage. I believe it deserves a closer look, and I believe all members, including my Conservative colleagues, deserve to have the opportunity to focus on the particular sections of the bill, bring forward their witnesses and have an adult conversation about the direction we want to take our country in and what we ultimately want to see out of this.
With that, I will conclude. I appreciate this opportunity, and I look forward to questions from my colleagues.