Mr. Bill Siksay (Burnaby—Douglas, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak in this debate at second reading on Bill C-23, An Act to amend the Criminal Records Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts.
This is a very important bill that I believe needs a thorough debate in the House of Commons. I think it is a very significant piece of legislation.
The bill would rename pardon as record suspension. I think that is a very significant action in the bill. I know there has been some opinion in debate already that it may be an inconsequential change, but I believe it is an extremely serious change in the legislation and in our overall perspective on what the pardon system is about.
The bill would also increase the ineligibility period that must pass before a pardon application can be submitted from the current five years to ten years for indictable offences and from the current three years to five years for summary offences. The bill would also prohibit those convicted of four or more indictable offences from ever receiving a pardon. It would prohibit anyone convicted of one or more offences from a designated list of sex offences from ever receiving a pardon. With respect to pardon applications for indictable offences, it would say that the Parole Board would be required to deny a pardon if granting it would bring the administration of justice into disrepute.
Therefore, there are very significant changes to our current parole system included in the bill. I think it is something that we need to very carefully consider and proceed with caution with regard to changing the system, which I believe has served us well.
I want to talk a little about what our pardon system is actually about. To do that I have gone to the website of the National Parole Board and pulled up its fact sheet on our current pardon system.
It has a frequently asked questions page which poses various questions and provides information about the system. In response to the question, what is a pardon, the Parole Board notes that a pardon allows people who were convicted of a criminal offence, that have completed their sentence and demonstrated that they are law-abiding citizens, to have their criminal record kept separate and apart from other criminal records.
Under the current Criminal Records Act, the National Parole Board may issue, grant, deny or revoke pardons for convictions under federal acts or regulations of Canada.
Another question posed is, what is the effect of a pardon? It notes in its answer that all information pertaining to convictions will be taken out of the Canadian police information centre, CPIC, and may not be disclosed without permission of the Minister of Public Safety of Canada.
The CRA applies only to records kept within federal departments and agencies. However, many of the provincial and municipal law enforcement agencies co-operate by restricting access to their records once notified that a pardon has been granted or issued.
The Parole Board also notes, in this answer, that the Canadian Human Rights Act forbids discrimination based on a pardon conviction. So that includes services a person needs for the opportunity to work for a federal agency. It also states that no employment application from within the federal public service may ask any question that would require an applicant to disclose a pardoned conviction. That also applies to a crown corporation, the Canadian Forces or any business within federal authority.
The next question posed is, what are the limitations of a pardon? I think this is an important feature of the current pardons regime. It notes that a pardon does not erase the fact that a person was convicted of an offence. It notes that a pardon does not guarantee entry or visa privileges to another country. It notes that courts and police services, other than the RCMP, are under provincial and municipal legislation. This means that they do not have to keep records of convictions separate and apart from other criminal records.
The Parole Board notes that the Criminal Records Act lists certain sexual offences. If a person was pardoned for such offences his or her record will be kept separate and apart but his or her name will be flagged in the CPIC computer system. This means that a person will be asked to let employers see his or her record if this person wants to work with children or with groups that are vulnerable because of their age or disability. The flag is applied regardless of the date of conviction or the date of pardon was granted or issued. We should all be apprised and reminded of this very important feature of the current legislation, that for sexual offences there is still that proviso in the existing pardon regime
The National Parole Board also notes that a sentence may have included various prohibition orders imposed under the Criminal Code, such as driving or firearms prohibition orders. A pardon does not cancel those prohibition orders.
When can a person apply for a pardon? An individual can apply when their sentence is completed; when they have paid all fines, surcharges, costs, restitution and compensation orders in full; when a person has served all of his or her time, including parole or statutory release; and, when a person has satisfied his or her probation officer.
What are the specific waiting periods for convictions under the Criminal Code and other federal statutes? It is three years for summary convictions and five years for indictable offences. For convictions under the Transfer of Offenders Act, it is five years for all convictions. For convictions under the National Defence Act, it is five years if the person was fined more than $2,000; five years if the person was imprisoned more than six months; five years if the person was dismissed from the service; and three years for all other penalties.
Other questions are posed in this information section from the National Parole Board on pardons.
Can a pardon be denied? The answer is yes, for example, if the National Parole Board finds that a person is not of good conduct. However, in that situation that individual can reapply after one year.
Can a pardon be revoked? Again, the answer is yes. The National Parole Board may revoke a pardon if the person is later convicted of a summary offence under a federal act or regulation of Canada. He or she can do it if the National Parole Board finds that he or she is no longer of good conduct, or if the National Parole Board learns that a false or deceptive statement was made or relevant information was concealed at the time of the application.
There are very explicit terms for the revocation of a pardon.
In terms of the actual process, there are two ways of dealing with a pardon: a pardon can be granted or a pardon can be issued. For an offence punishable on summary conviction, it is a non-discretionary process. The National Parole Board confirms that the necessary waiting period, three years after satisfaction of sentence, has been completed and verified through the RCMP that the applicant has not been convicted of any other offences since the last conviction. Depending on the result, a pardon may then be issued.
The other circumstance is where there was an indictable offence and the person has applied for a pardon in that situation. In assessing a pardon request for an indictable offence, the National Parole Board confirms that the necessary waiting period, five years after satisfaction of sentence, has been completed be verified through the RCMP and local police services that there have been no further convictions. They investigate the applicant's behaviour since the sentence was completed to confirm that he or she was of good conduct. In light of this evaluation, a board member will decide whether to grant or deny a pardon.
There is a very explicit process to the current pardon regime. It is important to review that because one would think that there was nothing to this system, that there was nothing there to protect Canadians, that there was no rigour to the existing system. When we actually look at the details of how the current system works, we can easily see that is not the case.
There are significant limitations to what a pardon means, to how it can be obtained, to whether or not it continues and can be revoked. This is by no means a blank cheque to someone who has committed a criminal offence in the past. It comes as a result of responsibilities having been met and kept, and it requires a long-term commitment to avoid the behaviour that put the individual in trouble in the first place.
We have to look at this system as a very successful system. We know that 96% of the people who have applied for pardons never commit another offence. That is a 96% success rate. I doubt if there are many other programs anywhere in government that are as successful as that. This is a hugely successful system.
In the past four years, 400,000 pardons have been granted and only a small number have ever been revoked. That says volumes about the importance of this system, how well it functions, and how well it has served Canadians and our communities.
This is not something that is done cavalierly. It is not something that is done without serious consideration. It is not something that is done outside of any proven track record. All of those things have been taken into account when we look at the success of the pardon system.
It is not just me, as a member of Parliament for Burnaby—Douglas, who believes that. In 2006, shortly after they were elected, the current Conservative government members reviewed the pardon system. The former minister of public safety, the current President of the Treasury Board, undertook that review. It came back with only minor changes to the system, because even the Conservative minister of public safety had to admit that the system was working well and serving us well.
The small change was that in the situation where a pardon was being granted for an indictable offence, two members of the National Parole Board had to be involved in signing off on that pardon. That was a very small change, perhaps a sensible change, but again, it was not a major change after a review by the current government. So one wonders why we are faced again with this significant change in the current bill we are debating, Bill C-23.
As I said earlier, one of the key elements of the legislation before us, Bill C-23, is to change the name from “pardons” to “record suspension”. Some people seem to think that is an insignificant change, but I do not happen to be one of them. I think the word “pardon” is imbued with a meaning that is very, very important in our criminal justice system. It has a very important place in the whole process of charging, convicting, rehabilitating and then ultimately pardoning someone who has shown they have paid their debt to society for behaviour that caused them to face a criminal conviction in the first place.
Moving to something that sounds much more administrative, that takes away a whole level of meaning, moving from pardon to record suspension, is a serious downgrading of the system that has served us so well. We have to stress rehabilitation. We have to stress the successful conclusion of rehabilitation. I worry sometimes that the government of the day does not care very much about that. It is very hot to trot on the punishment side of the equation, but less so on the rehabilitation side, on ensuring that people who have gone through our criminal justice system and paid their debt can then live successfully in our society.
One of the ways those people have been able to live successfully is by obtaining a pardon, which allows them to find their place again in society without being burdened by their criminal record in a way that causes problems for them as they try to make a living, as they seek housing, as they take their place back in society.
A pardon does not come easily, and it comes after a significant waiting period. People have to show they have been a responsible member of society. If we move from a word like “pardon” to a concept of “record suspension”, we are dropping a very significant piece of what has been part of the current regime.
We go to questions of redemption. We go to questions of mercy. We go to questions of responsibility. The word “pardon” conveys all those kinds of things and they are a very important part of it. We lose those meanings at our peril in this process. It is something we have to take very seriously. The concept of a pardon helps us to take this process very, very seriously and to give it the attention and the importance it deserves.
There are others who believe that the bill before us has other flaws. An interesting perspective comes from the Mennonite Central Committee. It raised the whole issue of the role of victims in the pardon process, and the bill does not deal with that situation. If we were moving toward the concept of restorative justice where we were ensuring that all those who were hurt by a criminal act were involved in the justice process to ensure that broken relationships were healed as best they could be, that the community was involved in ensuring that the persons who had committed the crime took responsibility for that crime, that they faced the people who had been directly harmed by that crime, reconciliation would be a part of the process.
Often in our criminal justice system someone is convicted. We might hear a victim impact statement at the time of conviction and they disappear into our correctional services system. They serve their time and then they are released.
There is no final act of reconciliation, no clarity around the harm that was done to society and the way that person can be successful reintroduced into the community. If we took more of a restorative justice approach that had that broader perspective on crime, on reconciliation, we would be far better served in the long run.
It is an important point that the Mennonite Central Committee raised when it looked at the current bill and felt the whole concept of the role of the victim of a crime when a pardon is granted had been ignored.
That is something that merits attention, that merits study by the House, and it should be part of any review of a pardon system.
It is very clear where the bill emerged and why it emerged at this point in time. There are concerns in our communities about pardons that were granted to Graham James and about the potential of a pardon being granted to Karla Homolka. I do not think there is anyone here, or in our communities, who believes that is a good thing, that Karla Homolka, for instance, would be granted a pardon for the very heinous crimes she committed. Somehow that would seem to be an extension of the kind of errors that were made as her case proceeded through our criminal justice system. People feel that very acutely given what happened in that horrible, horrible case.
I do not think we do justice to the legislative process when we build legislation around the worst possible case we could imagine. When we develop legislation based on the situation of Karla Homolka, I am not sure it serves those hundreds of thousands of other people who have shown that the pardon system has real meaning and has been a real benefit to them. There is real benefit when people who have committed crimes have been successfully reintegrated into our communities.
That is a very serious problem with this legislation. If we go to the worst case, then we somehow forget or downplay the importance of all those other cases, the more ordinary, the more regular cases. They are significant but they do not raise the same issues that a Karla Homolka or a Graham James would raise. So we have to be very cautious when we proceed on this.
The NDP put forward a very helpful proposal in this regard. When the hon. member for Welland spoke as debate began on this legislation, he made the proposal that we take out that section of the bill that would deal with a situation like Karla Homolka. He suggested that we debate it separately, that we ask the government to bring in legislation that would deal with that specific situation and that we would try to facilitate it going through the House with great speed so we could address that very particular situation.
We do not suggest an overhaul of the pardon system in light of that specific need and that specific case, but we do suggest we also move to a full study of the pardon system to make sure it is the best possible system we could have.
Earlier today the member for Welland sought unanimous consent in the House, and unfortunately that was denied. I want to remind members of the motion he presented earlier this afternoon in the House. He said, “That, in the opinion of the House, urgent changes to the Criminal Records Act are required to prevent pardons from being granted that would bring the administration of justice into disrepute, and therefore the government should immediately introduce legislation with the specific purpose to empower the National Parole Board to deny pardons in cases where granting a pardon would bring the administration of justice into disrepute, with cooperation and support from all parties to move such legislation swiftly through the House and Senate before Parliament rises for the summer...”.
That was an excellent suggestion coming from New Democrats in the House. I am disappointed that did not go anywhere. I hope there may be reconsideration given to that.
We need this system in place, and I am very concerned that we would dismantle it in light of these particularly heinous cases.