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Feb 13 2013

Safer Witnesses Act

OFFICIAL REPORT (HANSARD)

Monday, February 11, 2013

Speaker: The Honourable Andrew Scheer

GOVERNMENT ORDERS

Safer Witnesses Act

Mr. Mike Sullivan (York South—Weston, NDP):

 

Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to speak to a piece of legislation that we actually support. We support the notion and the direction of this legislation, but we are concerned about whether or not this will be resourced. That is going to be the $30 million, $50 million or $100 million question. When it comes time for the Minister of Finance to bring forward a budget, will he bring forward a budget that will put money where the Conservatives’ collective mouths are? It is all well and good to talk about witness protection, to talk about protecting victims and to talk about reducing crime in Canada, but unless money is provided to actually do those things, they are not going to happen. To this point, the Conservative government has not shown a willingness to put real money into real crime prevention and getting at the roots of crimes before they actually happen. I class witness protection as partly crime prevention.

 

Generally, we in the NDP support the direction this legislation is taking. We are pleased that the government listened to our request to expand the witness protection program. It would be expanded to include other items such as organized crime.

National security agencies would have access to this program, including national defence, CSIS and so on, so there could be the possibility of witness protection for more than what is currently covered.

 

We are counting on the government to provide funding. We are going to be paying close attention to the budget, whatever day it happens, whether it is the beginning of March or the end of March, to see if it will put forward the funding required to do what the bill intends to do.

The member for Winnipeg North suggested earlier that I have to come up with figures. We do not have to go much further than last year, when there were 108 requests but only 30 were approved. Not a lot of money was spent last year. It was something like $9 million. That is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of money we spend on crime in this country. That is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of money we spend on jails and jets. A tenfold increase in that spending would be good for Canada, for Canadians, for solving crimes, for finding and punishing criminals. We hope and pray that the Conservatives come up with that money.

 

In Toronto, where I am from, several serious problems of gang violence have gone on for a number of years. While generally violent crime is down across the country, there are still gangs. The Toronto police force has a guns and gangs unit, and it has an organized crime unit that does reconnaissance, that actually hunts down criminals. I have spoken to Toronto police officers and to the superintendent of 12 Division, which is where my riding is. They told me they are looking for the ability to find witnesses. The problem they face is that witnesses will not come forward. Why will they not come forward? It is because they are afraid or in some cases it is because they have taken some oath. In most cases it is because they are terrified that there will be repercussions, that they cannot be protected, that they cannot be sheltered from harm. In the case of organized crime, this legislation would provide the police with the opportunity to offer protection to potential witnesses of violent crime in my city.

 

I go back to the Danzig shootings of last year where 24 people were shot, two of whom were killed, at a simple neighbourhood barbecue as a result of gang violence. The police have had extreme difficulty in finding people who will come forward and testify. The police know that many people know what happened, but there is a climate of fear and of intimidation and of it not being possible to be protected. The bill might go some way in allowing police forces to offer a sense of security to people, which they cannot offer now, particularly in the case of gang violence and gang-related crime. We suspect there is some measure of gang involvement when 24 people are shot at once and two of them are killed.

 

In addition, there is a significant-sized Somali population in my riding and in the riding of Etobicoke Centre immediately to the west. That Somali population came here over the course of the last 15 years from a country that was riddled with unrest, that had no effective government. Those people came here as undocumented refugees. They still cannot get documentation and so, in some cases, it is still not possible to completely finalize their status as immigrants to Canada.

That community is terrified of some of what the current Conservative government has done to it since the beginning of the majority government. I am referring of course to the immigration changes that have come from the immigration minister. The mothers of those children are terrified that those children, who have only ever known Canada, as a result of falling into a bad crowd, would not just go to jail but would be deported to a country they have no connection with whatsoever, to Somalia, where it is dangerous just to be, let alone to grow up. These mothers of these boys, and most of them are boys, have pled with me and with the member for Etobicoke Centre to change that law, to fix that law, to fix that big hole that is causing their children to be in such terrible jeopardy.

 

Yes, it is true they have fallen into some bad habits. “Bad habits” is probably too small a word for it. They have done some seriously bad things. The mothers believe that part of the reason is that they have been abandoned by the system over the course of the last few years.

 

There was, put in place by the current government when it was a minority, a series of measures aimed at tackling youth violence before they got to gangs, with intervention programs, mediation programs and mentorship programs funded in part by the Minister of Public Safety, to allow community agencies to get at these kids before they joined these gangs and went afoul of the law. There have been tremendous successes in some of those agencies and some of those programs, but they are being cut back. They are being ended.

 

The answer we get from the Conservative government is that was a three-year program, the three years is up and, therefore, we do not need to do this anymore.

 

The people running the program know that the program is successful, but they also know that if the government ends the program, the next generation of kids is going to fall off the wagon.Those kids are going to end up in crime, have a propensity to join a gang and are not going to succeed.

 

In addition, we have had, in my riding anyway, huge cutbacks to the immigrant settlement services that were being provided over the past 10 years, to the point where whole agencies have had to shut their doors. One agency was urged by the ministry, by CIC, to sign a five-year lease. Six months later, after it signed the five-year lease, it had all of its funding cut. Now it is sitting, holding a five-year lease for something it cannot afford to do.

 

That is the kind of event that is going on in the community now. That is the kind of reality that this community faces. What ends up happening is the kids end up in gangs. The kids do not see hope. They do not see jobs. There are not a heck of a lot of jobs in my riding. There is not a heck of a lot of choice.

 

One youth said to me, “I can either go work part time at something like McDonald’s or some other small retailer for $10.25 an hour and maybe work 20 hours a week and maybe make 200 bucks. Or, in five minutes, I can go on a street corner and make $400 by selling drugs. What choice would you make?”

 

It was not because he was trying to give me a lesson in morality; he was trying to give me a lesson in economics. These kids cannot afford to live or eat, and they know they do not have access to the good jobs that remain in Canada. Those jobs are disappearing. The industrial heartland of Ontario has been under attack over the past few years. Hundreds of thousands of good-paying industrial jobs have disappeared and been replaced by service sector jobs, at $10 and $12 an hour. No one can feed a family on $10 and $12 an hour.

 

I am not condoning the selling of drugs. My point is that it becomes very easy and economical for these kids when they are faced with these dire choices to choose a life of crime. We are trying to prevent that. One of the ways we hope to prevent that is by making it more difficult for them to succeed in a life of crime by making it easier for witnesses to come forward. When it is easier for witnesses to come forward—

 

An hon. member: Wow, you brought it back to the bill.

 

Mr. Mike Sullivan:

 

We are back to the bill. Exactly. We are making it easier for witnesses to come forward, but we have to provide the resources to make it easier for them to come forward. We have to provide the money.

 

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has published a good practices document for protection of witnesses in criminal proceedings involving organized crimes. It consists of 124 pages and is well worth reading. That document talks about how best to set up one of these programs. One of the things it talks about is funding. I am going to read part of the document. This goes back to the period 2005-06 when the Liberals were in power. It states that “the Witness Protection Program of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police dealt with 53 new cases involving 66 persons”. The cost of the program was $1.9 million.

 

There are slightly more people in Italy than in Canada, but to give everyone an idea, there were 4,000 witnesses and family members in the year 2004 and the budget was close to $84 million U.S. That is an enormous difference. That is 40 times more money for a witness protection program in a country that clearly understands that in order to defeat the omertàs and try to deal with organized crime in an organized way, the funding has to be provided to protect the witnesses who come forward. Until the government actually does that in its next budget, we are going to react with some skepticism to the intent behind this bill. It is not that we do not doubt the veracity of the words. The words are there and they are good words. It says the bill should cover more people, events and crimes and the system should work better. However, it cannot work better if we starve it.

 

A constituent of mine has run into the starving of the RCMP in his personal dealings. He has discovered that because the amount of money involved in the crime committed against him is less than some magic number that the RCMP deems appropriate, it will not investigate. He is going to be left dangling in the breeze because the RCMP does not have the resources to investigate the crime. In his case, it is $70,000 that was essentially stolen, and the RCMP does not have the resources to investigate a crime involving that amount. It said it has bigger fish to fry. That is the problem with the government’s funding of the RCMP: it is not sufficient to do the job the government has given it to do.

 

New Democrats agree with the government giving it this job, but it has to be given the resources. We cannot starve it and tell it to exist on the budget it has. It does not work that way. People like the constituent in my riding who is now out $70,000, plus all kinds of legal bills over the years, is being told by the RCMP too bad, so sad; it is not going to do anything about it because it does not have the budget to deal with smaller crimes. This smaller crime involving $70,000 to this individual in my riding is two years’ salary for many people in my riding. It is four years’ salary for some people.

 

This is a situation where the RCMP is under-resourced in many ways, and threatened with even smaller budgets by the Minister of Public Safety, suggesting they are overpaid. However, at the same time with this bill, there is a bigger demand being placed on those resources. We agree there is nothing wrong with this bigger demand. We like it. However, please put the money in the budget to pay for an appropriate level of witness protection that will ensure Canadians can come forward to testify safely in good conscience, and protect other Canadians from crime by making sure the bad guys, not those people on EI, but the real bad guys, are the people being put in jail. That is the whole point of this legislation, and I agree with it.

 

The other part of the report from the United Nations is a good disclosure of what kinds of things it considers to be organized crime. Organized crime is not just drug running. Organized crime, which is part of what is covered by the bill, includes the smuggling of persons into the country. I would hope that the bill would help police forces stop the organized criminals from smuggling people into this country. It is not done by putting the victims in jail, which is what the Conservative immigration bill has done; we do it by ensuring we find ways to catch the criminals. If the bill includes in its mandate such crimes as human smuggling, I am all for it.

Terrorism is one of the crimes the United Nations defines as organized crime. The United Nations also considers corruption to be part of organized crime. As we have seen in Quebec in recent weeks, there is enough of that to go around for all of Canada, and it is spreading to other places. Since corruption is part of organized crime, does that mean the bill will allow witnesses to come forward in the corruption investigation in Montreal and be protected by the government and the RCMP from fear of retribution as a result of disclosing the corruption that may be happening in that province, and may be in other provinces as well.

 

There is a lot to say that is good about the bill. However, I will come back to our central point. Unless we put the money in the program, it is not going to have teeth. It is not going to have the ability to do the job. We can say all we want about protecting witnesses, but if we cannot afford to do it then witnesses are not going to come forward. We are going to be right back where we started from and we will not be any further ahead.

 

Members on this side are hopeful. There may be some minor issues that we need to deal with in terms of the language of the bill at committee, but we want to see it expeditiously passed. We want this measure to reach royal assent in a hurry, so we do not have any intentions of stalling it. However, we will be paying close attention to what the finance minister will be saying in his next budget about the funding of programs like this, and other programs that are designed to make Canada a safer place.

 

 

Mr. Dean Del Mastro (Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and to the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, CPC):

 

Mr. Speaker, if there were a recurring theme in that intervention, it was spend, spend, spend. The NDP members stand often and speak about spending, and they have a big chequebook over there. I think they have found the magical mystical money tree because there is money for everything.

 

I am not aware of any budget suggestions that the NDP has sent to the Minister of Finance. We have expanded the amount of money we are spending on the RCMP and come forward with a number of very comprehensive measures aimed at safe streets and communities, but how much more money should we give to the RCMP? What is the dollar figure that the NDP feels the RCMP is being shortchanged? I am not aware that it is being shortchanged.

 

When we present a budget and ask the NDP members to seek efficiencies and work as efficiently as they can given their responsibilities, that is a responsible way to operate government. I would like to hear how much more money the member feels the RCMP should get.

 

Mr. Mike Sullivan:

 

Mr. Speaker, that is a good question. I would ask the member if the Conservatives have costed the bill. Do they know exactly what the bill is worth in terms of dollars and in terms of the number of people who would be able to be witness protected as a result of the bill coming forward? I do not see a costing attached to it. However, when we are in power, we will be costing everything and will be making sure that we do not overspend or spend more than what Canadians expect a reasonable and responsible government to spend.

 

We want enough money in the budget for measures such as these. They are such good measures that they ought to be endorsed with a financial amount from the Minister of Finance. If it means that less subsidy goes to a big oil company, that is a decision the Minister of Finance is going to have to make.

 

When legislation is put forward that expands the purview of the witness protection plan, the government cannot then say that it is not going to spend another nickel on it. It just does not work.

 

Mr. Kevin Lamoureux (Winnipeg North, Lib.):

 

Mr. Speaker, some provinces have their own programs, but I believe that there is a strong obligation for the national government to provide leadership. Part of that leadership means that the government would have to work with the different provincial entities to further develop the program.

 

Expanding the witness program will mean a need for additional resources. To achieve success in the program, the federal government will need to work with the provinces and territories to develop the program so that it really hits its peak. That includes the issue of properly resourced funding. I wonder if the member might want to provide comment on that.

 

Mr. Mike Sullivan:

 

Mr. Speaker, clearly there would need to be proper accountability in terms of funding, both at the provincial and federal levels. I hope this is not going to be another exercise in transferring the cost to another level of government such that the federal government announces a program but makes somebody else pay for it. That seems to be a recurring theme on the other side. I hope that is not the case.

 

I hope that when we have measures brought forward to increase public security on a national scale that a national government will actually provide national resources for it. In a situation where we create a system that a provincial entity would have to follow, the province would have to consider those things. The bill before us deals with crimes that have national implications, and it should be nationally resourced.

 

Mr. Tyrone Benskin (Jeanne-Le Ber, NDP):

 

Mr. Speaker, I would like to expand on the costing. The parliamentary secretary asked how much we would spend on it, but this is a government bill. We have not seen any figures. We have not seen how much the government intends to put into this. Yet Conservative members are asking us to tell them how much we would spend.

 

I think it is important that we understand how much a bill like this would cost. We think it is an important bill. We think it is something that needs to be done.

What does the member think about the government sharing information with us?

 

Mr. Mike Sullivan:

 

Mr. Speaker, it has been very difficult. As members know, the Parliamentary Budget Officer has had to go to court to try to get budgetary information from the government. It is very difficult to get actual financial details on what the government intends to spend or on how it is spending money.

 

We would hope that when a government puts forward a bill that is clearly going to have a cost attached to it and that clearly expands the scope of a federal program, it would come up with the actual figures on the cost of the bill, perhaps in committee, and would put those figures before Parliament so that we could all look at them.

 

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