Hon. Peter MacKay (Minister of National Defence):
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Colleagues, I'm pleased to be with you again. I note that this is my 32nd appearance before the committee as a government member. I recognize that we're here for the important examination of Bill C-15.
I should also note that I'm joined by Major-General Blaise Cathcart, who is our Judge Advocate General, as well as by Vice-Admiral Bruce Donaldson, who is the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff.
The proposed amendments to the National Defence Act found in this bill will ensure that Canada's military justice system remains one that the Canadian armed forces, and I suggest Canadians at large, can trust. These amendments will also clarify the roles and responsibilities of the Canadian provost marshal and will enhance the military police complaints process and the military grievance system, among other amendments.
The need for a military justice system to maintain the discipline, efficiency and morale of the Canadian Forces, one that is separate from the civilian system, has been endorsed by Parliament, as well as the Supreme Court of Canada in the 1992 Généreux decision. The existence of a separate military justice system is also expressly referred to in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Mr. Chair, colleagues, this system, the existence of a separate military justice system, in addition to being endorsed by both Parliament and the Supreme Court of Canada, is also expressly referred to in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As members here will know, the strength of Canada's military justice system was confirmed as well in two independent reviews, material that I know you have reviewed.
The first independent review, conducted by Chief Justice Lamer in 2003, for example, found that Canadians would continue, and could continue, to have confidence in Canada's military justice framework, a framework that meets the disciplinary needs of the military, whether in times of peace or conflict and whether in Canada or abroad. That said, Chief Justice Lamer also recognized that there were opportunities for improvement, and he made recommendations to strengthen our system.
His assessment was supported by the findings of the second independent review of the military justice system, conducted by Chief Justice LeSage and tabled in the House last June, following the introduction of this bill, Bill C-15.
The bill before you today is required to implement those recommendations from the Lamer report that are still outstanding, and it maintains the essence of the government's previous legislative efforts to address this report, mainly through Bills C-7, C-45, and C-41. It is a bill that clearly identifies the objectives, purposes, and principles of sentencing in the military justice system. It sets out a wider and more flexible range of sentencing options. It enhances the treatment of victims by introducing victim impact statements at courts martial.
I view this, Mr. Chair, as someone who spent a bit of time in the courts prior to my career in politics, as extremely important. This is a modernization of many of the basic principles we've had in our criminal justice system, going back almost 20 years, that we are trying now to bring forward for victims who would be affected within the military justice system.
All of this is in line with amendments set out in Bill C-41. The bill also clarifies the process and the timelines for future independent reviews of the military justice system.
Now, since this bill was introduced, the government has worked hard to respond to concerns and certain misconceptions regarding the state of Canada's military justice system. It might surprise some to know that a relatively small number of Canadians even realize that we have a separate military justice system. So I'd like to take this opportunity to briefly, Mr. Chair, speak to some of these issues and clarify any lingering misunderstandings that might exist.
I want to begin by first addressing the summary trial system. This system has been validated by both the first and second independent reviews of Bill C-25. The 2012 most recent independent review confirmed that the summary trial system is both vital to the maintenance of military discipline and essential to the life and death work the men and women of the Canadian Forces are asked to do each day. Moreover, this review concluded that the current system is constitutionally sound.
The 2012 LeSage review made several helpful recommendations for improving summary trials, and the government will certainly pursue them following the passage of this bill. That is to say that the LeSage report, and there may be questions on this, was actually tabled after this bill was presented to Parliament.
Speaking specifically to clause 75, there's also been confusion over the matter of criminal records flowing from convictions of service offences in this particular clause of the bill. To be clear, under clause 75, service members would no longer be required to apply for a criminal record suspension, formerly known as a pardon, for convictions that would be deemed to not constitute an offence for the purposes of the Criminal Records Act.
Some members have expressed concern over the scope of these exemptions that will be created by this clause. I've listened carefully to these concerns. As I've indicated, and as I've previously indicated during second reading, the government will submit an amendment that will expand the list of exemptions to mirror those amendments made by the committee during its consideration of Bill C-41.
We hope this will help facilitate a quick progress through the committee of this important legislation, as it is now in its fourth iteration and has appeared before the House of Commons for debate now, by my estimation, in five different parliaments.
Some members have expressed concerns over the scope of the exemptions that will be created by this clause. I have listened carefully to those concerns. And as I indicated during second reading, the government will submit an amendment that will expand the list of exemptions to mirror the amendment made by the committee during its consideration of Bill C-41. We hope that this will help facilitate the quick progress of this legislation through committee.
Mr. Chair, colleagues, over the last 10 years a number of changes have already been made to the Canadian Forces Grievance Board. These changes have reinforced the responsibilities of the chain of command to address grievances quickly and directly, and they have simplified the review process to make the grievance system more responsive to the needs of military members. The amendments proposed in Bill C-15 will further enhance the effectiveness of the grievance system.
This bill allows the Chief of the Defence Staff to delegate his power as the final grievance authority when appropriate. This measure allows grievances to be resolved more swiftly and efficiently, while allowing the Chief of the Defence Staff to focus on those grievances with strategic consequences.
The bill will also formally change the name of the Canadian Forces Grievance Board—at its own request—to the Military Grievances External Review Committee. The new name will better reflect the board's independent status and increase the confidence of our military members in its impartiality.
Mr. Chair, let me conclude by saying a few quick words about the military police complaints and the provost marshal. For any complaint dealing with the conduct of military police, the bill requires the Canadian Forces provost marshal to resolve the issue within 12 months—this, I suggest, is a move to expedite cases in that system and to prevent long delays of justice—and protects those making complaints in good faith from being penalized for doing so. The provisions of the bill regarding the Military Police Complaints Commission are consistent with the recommendations of both the Lamer and the LeSage reports.
With regard to the position of the provost marshal itself, this bill specifies its roles and duties and clarifies the relationship with the provost marshal and the chain of command and increases transparency by requiring the officer to submit an annual report to the Chief of the Defence Staff.
Finally, Mr. Chair, I think we can all agree that a sound and fair justice system for our military is key to maintaining the discipline and effectiveness and the morale and justice for members of the Canadian armed forces and their families, and to protect the public and project public confidence. That is precisely what the government is working toward through the delivery of Bill C-15.
I'm also proud to be here, along with officers from the Canadian Forces, to respond to any questions the committee has on this important legislation, and I look forward to seeing the committee's support and work on this bill.
Thank you. Merci.
Mr. Jack Harris (St. John's East, NDP):
Thank you, Chair, and good afternoon, Mr. Minister. Thank you for being with us today.
I'll get right to the point because I only have a short period of time. We support many things in the bill, but we have some concerns. You mentioned the Charter of Rights and Freedoms a number of times during your presentation, and the necessity for public confidence in the administration of military justice and indeed legislation. We've had a number of occasions, of course, where changes had to be made to the military justice system because of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Indeed, we agreed on swift passage of one of those, a companion bill to this, Bill C-16, in a matter of three weeks back in the fall of 2011 for that very reason.
But public confidence was somewhat shaken recently when it was revealed by a senior justice department lawyer that the vetting of bills by the justice department, which is required by law for charter compliance, is in fact being done with a degree of confidence of I think 5%. In other words, the statement made by the senior Justice lawyer was that if there was a 5% chance that it could comply with the charter or if there was any argument that could be made, it didn't matter, the justice department would not flag this to Parliament for consideration.
Can you tell me, Mr. Minister, in regard to this particular iteration of the bill and the confidence level that you have, as you've expressed here today, is it the 5% confidence level that the justice department seems to be using as a standard, or is there some other level?
Hon. Peter MacKay:
Yes, I will. Thank you.
First of all, I'd suggest that they are fair and they are constitutional. We have a two-tier military justice tribunal structure. That includes summary trials, which are most often to do with disciplinary matters, matters that would be described in civilian terms as of a relatively minor effect, but that can have catastrophic effects in the field and can have far-reaching implications, and then we have the more formal court martial system.
The summary trial is by far the most commonly used as a form of service tribunal in the military justice system. It plays a vital role for the maintenance of discipline and operational effectiveness, which I spoke to a moment ago.
The summary trial system also provides a prompt and fair justice system and is used only in respect of minor service offences, so again, things that members here who have served could speak to, such as a member's appearance, for example, or a dereliction of duty, or insubordination. Those are the types of classic summary trial types of offences. The objective is clearly to deal with those minor service offences as quickly and effectively as possible to not infringe upon the member's ability to carry out their duty.
The military unit itself requires a member to return to duty as quickly as possible, so it's something that should happen quickly. In this way, the unit benefits from having its discipline restored quickly. It also has implications for what I would describe—again, in civilian terms—as general and specific deterrence; that is, the observation of others in the unit to see what happens when a particular offence is committed. Resolving it quickly and dealing with it as far as consequences go—if any—is meant to do so in a way such that members can carry out their mission.
To answer the latter part of your question, some of Canada's most eminent jurists—the late Justice Brian Dickson, Antonio Lamer, and, more recently, Justice LeSage—each have examined our military justice system, and in significant detail, I would suggest. Each has come back with recommendations—some for refinement—but all have stated that the system is in fact constitutional and is efficient and necessary to maintain as separate from our current criminal justice system.