The House resumed from December 11, 2014, consideration of Bill C-32, An Act to enact the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights and to amend certain Acts as reported (with amendment) from the committee, and of the motions in Group No. 1.
Mr. James Bezan (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to speak at report stage today in support of Bill C-32, the victims bill of rights act. This bill would change how victims are to be treated by the criminal justice and correction systems in Canada. It acknowledges their suffering and recognizes that they too have rights that must be respected.
The Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights heard testimony from numerous witnesses who described the importance of this legislation. Many shared their own difficult stories of victimization and expressed their appreciation for the changes that the Canadian victims bill of rights would bring to other victims who will follow.
The committee also heard from those who provide victims with much needed services. They too offered their support for the bill, explaining that the rights contained in the Canadian victims bill of rights and the accompanying amendments to the Criminal Code and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act would improve the experiences of victims.
The victims bill of rights presents a completely new approach for victims of crime in Canada. There have been many questions about how the bill would actually work and how it would be implemented. This is understandable given its transformative nature.
I would like to take the opportunity today to address three issues that were the subject of discussions at the standing committee: the definition of victim, the steps that we will take to ensure awareness of the rights created in Bill C-32, and the enforceability of those rights.
Regarding the definition of a victim in Bill C-32, the committee heard from witnesses who felt that the definition was overly broad, as well as those who felt that it was not sufficiently inclusive. Concern has been expressed about how a definition of victim in federal legislation would co-exist with the definitions of victim found in provincial and territorial victim legislation. We also heard questions about why the bill contains more than one definition of victim and what each purports to do.
As members will know, Bill C-32 includes the new Canadian victims bill of rights and proposes amendments to four federal statutes. The Canadian victims bill of rights portion of Bill C-32 includes a broad definition of victim. This definition recognizes the various kinds of harm that an individual may suffer as a result of an offence, even if the offence were not committed against him or her personally. The definition acknowledges that individuals other than the direct victim can be victims of an offence. All the rights included in the Canadian victims bill of rights can be exercised by a direct victim, as well as others who have suffered harm, such as family members.
The bill would also amend the definition of victim in the Criminal Code and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act to ensure that those definitions align with the definition of victim in the Canadian victims bill of rights.
The first part of the proposed definition in the Criminal Code recognizes the same forms of harm that a victim of an offence may suffer as the Canadian victims bill of rights does. Under this part of the definition, only a person who has had an offence committed against him or her is a victim for the purposes of most Criminal Code provisions.
The second part of the Criminal Code definition includes individuals other than the direct victim for the purposes of certain Criminal Code provisions, including the victim impact statement provisions. This is consistent with established case law that recognizes secondary victims for the purpose of these provisions.
The Canadian victims bill of rights would not apply to Canadians who are victims of offences committed outside of Canada, over which Canada is not exerting extraterritorial jurisdiction. This is because the rights under the Canadian victims bill of rights all relate to the various stages of the Canadian criminal justice process, from the investigation and prosecution of an offence through to the conditional release process. For example, a victim's right to present a victim impact statement, to have a court consider making a restitution order against an offender, or to request information about an offender can only apply to offences processed through the Canadian criminal and corrections system. It is not possible for Canada to extend those rights to people or to criminal justice processes within another country's jurisdiction.
We have also heard concerns about differences between the definition of victim proposed in the Canadian victims bill of rights and those found in provincial and territorial legislation. Each province and territory has enacted its own victims of crime legislation with its own definition of victim. Some provinces and territories have multiple definitions for various purposes, such as eligibility for specific services or financial benefits programs. I note that this problem of various definitions of victim did not arise with Bill C-32 but is a result of the evolution of victims services in each jurisdiction.
It is simply not possible to have one definition of victim at the federal level that would incorporate absolutely all the different definitions of victim that exist at the provincial and territorial levels. Rather, the bill seeks to create a definition that is inclusive and that recognizes all the different forms of harm that victims may suffer as a result of an offence. These include physical or emotional harm, property damage, and economic loss. Most provincial and territorial definitions include similar elements in their definitions.
I will now turn to the issue of ensuring that victims are able to exercise their rights under the act.
The justice committee heard from witnesses who questioned how victims would be made aware of their new rights under the act. This is a very fair question. All the rights in the world will not benefit victims if they do not know about them.
A Government of Canada website will be developed making information on the Canadian victims bill of rights available to all Canadians. During last year's consultations, numerous stakeholders stressed the importance of a one-stop shop for victims to access information. The Government of Canada website will meet that need.
The committee also heard from several aboriginal groups that are concerned that aboriginal victims would not be able to exercise their rights in the same way as other victims. They noted the disproportionate impact of factors such as poverty, marginalization, and lack of safe housing for aboriginal victims and explained that they would therefore need extra support in order to fully exercise their rights in a Canadian victims bill of rights.
The government recognizes that every victim is different and has different needs. That is why budget 2014 committed to providing funding to the provinces and territories to assist with the implementation of the bill. The government recognizes that the provinces and territories will play a crucial role in the effective implementation of the bill and has been working with them through various fora—such as the meetings of the federal, provincial, and territorial ministers responsible for justice and public safety—to address the implementation issues
We need to continue to work with our provincial and territorial partners to ensure that the Canadian victims bill of rights brings about the changes in the criminal justice and corrections systems that we have promised victims.
I will turn now to the issue of enforceability.
Some have criticized Bill C-32 as nothing more than a statement of principle because they believe the enshrined rights to be unenforceable. This is simply not true.
The victims bill of rights includes a remedial scheme to address an infringement or denial of a victim's rights under the act. This is what distinguishes Bill C-32 from many provincial or territorial victims acts that have been found to be just statements of principle. Under Bill C-32, every federal department, agency, or body involved in the criminal justice system would be required to have a complaints mechanism in place that would review complaints and make recommendations to remedy any infringement or denial of a victim's rights under the act, and they would be required to inform victims of those recommendations. If victims were not satisfied with the recommendations made by the department, agency, or body, they could then raise the issue with an oversight agency where one exists, such as the RCMP public complaints commission. If no oversight body exists for a particular department, agency, or body, a victim could seek the assistance of the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, whose mandate includes reviewing concerns regarding noncompliance with legislation or established policies.
Complaints regarding a provincial or territorial agency, including police, the crown, or victim services, would be addressed in accordance with the applicable provincial or territorial legislation. In order to improve the remedies available to victims, the government will provide a limited amount of funding through the victims fund for provinces and territories to enhance or establish complaint bodies for victims of crime.
I hope members of all parties will join me in supporting the victims bill of rights to ensure that victims of crime in Canada receive the recognition and protection that they deserve.
Mr. Robert Chisholm (Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have an opportunity to rise and speak to this bill. As I indicated, I think this is an important bill and an important step forward.
It is interesting that one of the thoughts provided for me in notes provided by members of our caucus is that Bill C-32 would codify long-used practices related to such things as keeping victims informed of the status of prosecution, ensuring that protection and security are available for the victims, and allowing victims to participate in sentencing and parole hearings. It would turn them into rights. What was particularly important for me was the reference that it would involve codifying long-used practices, and I will tell members why.
In 1989, my wife was hired by the Government of Nova Scotia to help set up a victim services division within the Department of Justice. It was to be built up from scratch, along with the systems to facilitate programs that would exist from one end of the province to the other, as a recognition that victims had an important role to play within the system and that they needed to be provided with the support and, in some cases, the resources and education to make sure that their rights were recognized and upheld.
Those were the early days of the rights of victims being increasingly recognized within the judicial system and process in Canada. In those days, certainly in Nova Scotia, I recall that it was often a question of finding room for victims separate from the accused within the court. It was a question of finding specific spots that victims could call their own, places they could go to be separate from the accused and receive support from justice officials at that time. That was often how basic it was in those beginning stages of trying to ensure that those services were available. We have come some distance, and that is only a good thing.
The bill would further extend a number of rights to victims and their family members. They or a spouse, dependant, or guardian mandated to act on their behalf would be able to demand to be informed about the resources available to them in the criminal justice system. They could also request information on the status of an investigation and prosecution, make a victim impact statement, apply for a publication ban in cases involving young victims, obtain information about the convicted parties, and gain restitution from the convicted.
As I said, this is an important initial step by the federal government to establish this framework, this charter, to clearly indicate the rights of victims and the responsibility of the justice system to recognize those rights.
Why is this bill important? It recognizes the impact that crimes can have on individuals, their families, and their communities, and it would give them better access to information, tools, and services.
The parliamentary secretary spoke to that particular point when he was up earlier. He talked about how important and urgent he thinks it is, and he named some victims. We all, in our constituencies, have dealt with families and victims of crime. We have all seen the damage that can be done through the criminal justice system.
That is one reason why I was so disappointed the government brought forward time allocation on this bill. It has only been in the House for three hours up to this point, and it is being limited. I think we may end up dealing with this for a total of eight hours. There are a lot of members on all sides of the House who want to speak to how important the bill is to victims in their constituencies, to families and others who have been involved in these issues and are pleased to see Parliament moving forward on this. I am pleased to see this moving forward in the House, but disappointed that it has taken eight years for it to get to this stage.
The government clearly has been dragging its feet. Some would say, especially those on the other side, that it has taken so long because the government has been consulting. Surely, when we finally have legislation in this place, all members of the House who have been duly elected by their constituents, whether in they are in a recognized party or not, should have an opportunity to participate and provide the feedback they have received from their communities and the people in their constituencies.
We want victims to have access to the services and supports they need. We recognize that for many victims getting assurance that they can participate in sentencing and parole hearings and being informed of the status of a prosecution are very important steps. However, we want the government to provide real support and processes that will work.
That brings me to another disappointment I have with the bill. I have not heard the government enunciate that the bill it is bringing in feels in many ways a bit like a policy document. It is setting a framework with respect to how things should happen in the criminal justice system, the rights and the roles of victims and their families, when a lot of that would happen at the provincial government level, as it does now. The government is not providing the resources along with those added roles and responsibilities. We have seen this in some of the other legislation that has come forward, where the government has said that this will be, that this will happen, and who shall do the following, yet the provincial governments have ended up picking up much of the responsibility.
We just heard that the government cut its disaster relief to the provinces. There used to be a $1 million eligibility threshold for disaster relief. It is now $3 million. That may not seem like a big deal, but over the past 15 years, my home province of Nova Scotia has made 15 applications under the disaster relief plan that previously existed with the $1 million threshold. The new $3 million threshold would have meant that 14 of those applications would not have been eligible and that upwards of $20 million would need to borne by the province and the communities, many of which are small communities.
I am just illustrating my point about how the government tends to download roles and responsibilities to the provincial government without taking into account the attendant costs.
There will be, and there should be, an expectation that victims will receive the support that is clearly spelled out in the bill. They will demand them and the provinces will have to step up. That is not a bad thing, but in many cases there will be some financial responsibilities.
I am glad this bill has come forward. I support it. It is a good move. I wish the government would have allowed more fulsome debate on it so we could all tell stories from our individual constituencies, but it is a step in the right direction. We will have to ensure that in future Parliaments we are able to correct the existing weaknesses.
Mr. Mark Adler (York Centre, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the report stage of debate on Bill C-32, the victims bill of rights Act, which will build upon the government's continuing efforts to protect Canadians and communities.
I would like to focus my remarks on two areas specifically. First, how the bill complements and builds upon current policies, legislation and practices for victims of crime; and second, how the bill assists victims of crime to deal with the financial impact of victimization.
The past 30 years have seen many important advances for victims of crime. Victim-serving organizations and various levels of government have contributed tremendously to making a substantive change for victims of crime in this country.
An important milestone in our country's work for victims of crime was the endorsement in 1988 and 2003, by federal-provincial-territorial ministers responsible for justice, of the Canadian statement of basic principles of justice for victims of crime, which recognizes victims' interests and promotes, at a national level, fair treatment of victims in our criminal justice system.
The Canadian victims bill of rights will complement the solid foundation set out in the Canadian statement and will go one step further by entrenching rights of victims into a single, federal law.
The Canadian statement has guided and informed the development of policies, legislation and practices for victims of crime across Canada. Each province and territory has developed victims services and legislation unique to their provincial and territorial reality. Provincial and territorial legislation for victims of crime in some cases includes provisions worded as rights, such as the right to information, to consideration of personal safety and to respectful treatment.
Bill C-32 will not impede existing provincial and territorial legislation but rather complement it. This is important. The bill reflects provincial and territorial input received from a variety of processes, including the public consultations and ongoing discussions with the provinces and territories. It is also informed by best practices from provincial and territorial victim legislation and programs. It has been carefully crafted to deliver on the government's objective of transformational change for victims of crime, while respecting constitutional divisions of power.
This respect for federal and provincial jurisdiction is reiterated in the preamble to Bill C-32, which explicitly recognizes that criminal justice is a shared responsibility between the federal, provincial and territorial governments.
In addition, Bill C-32 also balances the rights of victims of crime with other fundamental interests in the criminal justice system, such as the need not to interfere with prosecutorial independence or police discretion.
Section 20 of the bill specifies that rights must be applied in a manner that is reasonable in the circumstances and not likely to endanger life or safety, interfere with police or prosecutorial discretion or compromise an investigation or prosecution.
During the consultations held in 2013, the government heard clearly from stakeholders about the importance of these principles. Many stakeholders, including provinces and territories and criminal justice professionals, argued that these principles underpin the effectiveness and efficiency of the criminal justice system.
We all recognize this, so I am pleased to see that Bill C-32 provides rights granted to victims that must be interpreted and applied in a reasonable way and with regard to these principles.
I would now like to pay particular attention to the rights and amendments relating to restitution. Many victims expressed concerns over the financial burden of crime and these provisions have been designed to address these concerns.
A disproportionate percentage of all costs related to crime are borne by victims. Numerous submissions addressed the financial impact of crime on victims, including concerns about loss of income as a result of the crime and an inability to work out-of-pocket expenses related to criminal proceedings and additional costs that were borne by victims. In some cases, these expenses placed people in situations of serious financial hardship.
The Canadian victims bill of rights aims to address this imbalance and relieve some of the financial burden of crime from victims.
The bill clearly indicates that every victim has the right to have the court consider making a restitution order against the offender and, when not paid, the right to enforce the order as a civil judgment. These amendments acknowledge the harm done to victims and promote a sense of responsibility in offenders. The bill would make a number of amendments to the restitution regime in the Criminal Code to ensure that the existing legislative framework properly supports these rights.
Under the current restitution regime, victims have expressed frustration over collecting the amounts that have been ordered to them. Furthermore, the amount of moneys ordered consistently exceeds the amount of moneys collected. Victims' confidence in the criminal justice system is undermined when restitution orders are not paid.
The Canadian victims bill of rights would amend the Criminal Code to direct that judges must consider ordering restitution as a part of an appropriate sentence in all cases. Before a decision is made on restitution, the court would be required to inquire with the prosecutor if reasonable steps have been taken to provide the victim with an opportunity to indicate whether they are seeking restitution for losses or damages. If the court decides not to order restitution, it would be required to state the reasons for its decision into the record.
The proposed amendments would enable victims to use an optional form in the Criminal Code to assist them in calculating and describing the readily ascertainable losses and damages. A motion accepted by the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights would also amend the Criminal Code to allow a public authority responsible for enforcing a restitution order to be designated by a provincial or territorial order in council or a minister's order. This would allow for bodies to be designated more quickly and efficiently, and would help to avoid lengthy delays that may result from the proposed requirement for regulations.
At its core, this bill aims to give victims of crime a more effective voice in the criminal justice system. In the context of restitution, this would be achieved by permitting victims to speak to their ascertainable losses and damages in a victim impact statement. In determining the sentence to be imposed on an offender, the court must take this statement into account. Furthermore, the offender's financial means or inability to pay the restitution order cannot in and of itself prevent a court order from issuing the restitution order. This provision of the bill codifies decisions from various appellate courts across Canada.
The proposed reforms regarding the payment of the restitution order were built on the necessity for victims to receive reparation for their losses and damages. The bill would provide that the offender's failure to pay the restitution by the date or dates specified in the order would allow the victim to enter any amount that remains to be paid as a judgment in any civil court in Canada. This provision would provide clarity to victims and to the court about exactly when the restitution order can be deemed unpaid and properly entered as a civil judgment against the offender.
This carefully tailored restitution regime, when entrenched in criminal law, would have many benefits. It would provide victims with effective reparations and allow them to avoid lengthy civil proceedings. Equally important, these measures would ensure that offenders are accountable for the harm they have done.
This bill represents a balancing of the many interests at stake in the criminal justice process. It would also help to improve victims' experiences and assist them to deal with the financial costs of their victimization.
I would urge all members to join me in supporting the victims bill of rights act to provide victims of crime with a more effective voice in the criminal justice and corrections system.
Mr. Mark Adler:
Mr. Speaker, the measure of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable. Canadians can count on this Conservative government to look after all citizens of Canada, including the most vulnerable.
The member brings up some interesting perspectives. We have funded many programs to enhance the security functions of our police, to give them more tools and more law enforcement abilities, and that party has voted against it time and time again.
The other day my wife was making a soup. This anecdote will elucidate exactly what the NDP and Liberals say here in the House, that they support this bill. My wife was making a vegetable soup and it was very thick. My eight year old boy came into the room and said, “Mom, is that a stew?” She said, “No, it is soup”. He said that he was going to call it stew because it looks like stew. My wife said that he could call it whatever he wanted, but it was still soup.
The victims bill of rights is exactly that. It is what it says it is. There is no hidden agenda here. There is nothing untoward here. The opposition members say they support it. We have had 500 different consultations. It has been before committee. It has been debated in this House.
Let us think of the victims who need this bill, who need this enacted into law. This is a transformative piece of legislation. Opposition members should get with the program, get on board. Let us pass this legislation and get it through the House as quickly as possible. The victims of crime here in Canada are waiting for it.