Alistair Speaks on Criminal Record Suspensions

 

Alistair MacGregor (Cowichan—Malahat—Langford)

Mr. Speaker, it gives me great honour to rise today to speak to Motion No. 161. I thank the member for Saint John—Rothesay for bringing this motion forward.

The motion before the House today asks the House to direct the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security basically to examine the record suspension program. It wants to do several things. It wants to examine the impacts of a record suspension and its ability to help those with a criminal record to reintegrate into society, look at and examine the impact of criminal record suspension fees and additional costs associated with the application process, especially for low-income applicants, and identify what the appropriate fees and service standards might be for those record suspensions, and also identify improvements to better support applicants for a criminal record suspension.

To cover the topic of criminal record suspension, we have to roll back a little bit and look at what the previous Conservative government did, especially in raising the cost of pardons. At one time a pardon cost $50. That rose to $150 and then climbed to an astonishing $651.

When we look at the corrections system, I have to underline the phrase “corrections system”. Our ultimate goal for the entire judicial criminal system is to have people who have served their time, who have paid their debts to society and demonstrated good behaviour, fully reintegrate into society. It is in society's interest to help those people do that. That means they get a job and are able to travel and to rent an apartment, because we want to reward good behaviour. There are some statistics.

I know there has been some fearmongering in this place about siding with a person who is guilty of a crime over the victims. This has really nothing to do with that because we are talking abut someone who has been released from the prison system. They have paid their debt. They have made their amends to the victim of their crime. Furthermore, when they become eligible for what was once called a pardon, or what we now call a record suspension, they have to wait five years, and in some cases 10 years, to demonstrate to the Parole Board of Canada that they have committed no crimes since and have lived a good life and followed the rules.

By waiting that time, by demonstrating they are willing to make amends for what they once did, they are then eligible to apply for a record suspension and, if granted, the record is set aside. It is not completely wiped out. It basically just sets that aside. It does not get rid of it. However, it can be of great assistance to someone who is trying to reintegrate their lives.

I do not think we should hold people accountable their entire lives for the mistakes they made in their past. I think it is within us to forgive, it is within us to recognize someone who has taken responsibility for the crime they have committed, who has paid their debt and who has demonstrated a sincere willingness to move on and to try to become a better person.

Also, according to the Parole Board of Canada, 96% of pardoned Canadians never reoffend and are less likely to commit a crime than the average Canadian. This statistic was known prior to the previous Conservative government greatly restricting Canadians' access to pardons.

Let me talk about the $651 fee. I know the member for Saint John—Rothesay talked about it in his speech back in May. A lot of people in communities across this country suffer from debilitating poverty. They are looking at meeting their day-to-day necessities, trying to keep a roof over their head and to know where their next meal will come from, and some of them do have criminal records. They either have suffered from trauma in their past, which has led them to commit crimes, or they suffer from substance abuse, which unfortunately still is addressed with a criminalized approach in this country. It is an unfortunate fact that there are countries around the world like Portugal where a decriminalized approach for the possession of small amounts of drugs has met with great success, yet we cannot take that evidence and apply it here in Canada.

Nevertheless, the point I am trying to make is that people who would greatly benefit from accessing a record suspension are often people who are on the lowest rungs of our society. They are already suffering so much, and to put a $651 barrier in front of them is just cruel and unusual punishment in my regard. It seems to me like we are kicking someone who is already down.

Six hundred and fifty-one dollars may not sound like a lot of money, but to a person living on social assistance who needs rental supplements and needs to visit the food bank, $651 is an absolute fortune. If they are ever able to acquire such a sum, they are certainly not going to spend it on trying to get a record suspension. It is going to go to the necessities of life. When the record suspension program went from $50 to $150 and then up to $651, I really felt that was just striking people when they were already at their worst.

The government has conducted some studies into the record suspension program. It has sought advice from Canadians. It is now well past its third year in its mandate, and still the public safety minister has yet to bring any real reforms to the record suspension program. What I want to know, and I hope the member for Saint John—Rothesay will answer this when he closes the debate on this motion, is whether the Liberals are really all the way behind this. The member who brought forward this motion sits in caucus with the public safety minister. Surely he has had the opportunity to bring this topic up with the public safety minister to discuss it, and yet we still see no action from the Liberal cabinet.

Instead, it is left to a member of the Liberal backbench to bring forward a motion to instruct the public safety committee to conduct a study. That leads me to my next point. First of all, I am wondering whether the Liberal government is really serious about moving ahead with reforms. Second, why is this House spending a couple of hours debating a motion of instruction when there are five Liberals who sit on the public safety committee who could very well have brought this motion forward then and there? It just seems to me that this is a motion that is not very necessary for this House to be deliberating on when the Liberal members of the public safety committee could very well have taken the initiative and done it, if they were serious about actually implementing the reforms.

The clock is running on this Parliament. We are left with about a year until the 2019 election. It makes me wonder, the Liberals being the masters of the long promise, whether we are actually going to see meaningful reform in the record suspension program within the timeline of this Parliament.

I see my time is running out, but I want to say that I am going to support this motion. The reasoning behind it is genuine and it reflects a desire on the part of the member to see some actual change. I know he talked very passionately in his speech about the troubles his constituents are going through. However, I question whether the Liberal cabinet is fully behind this, given its lack of action on the program so far. I question whether this might have been better served at the public safety committee.

I really do think that it is a pretty cumbersome application process that is costly. It does not allow those in the lowest rungs of society who have criminal records an easy process for getting forward in life. It is within our society's interest to reward those who have demonstrated good behaviour and a dedicated willingness to reform their ways.

Also, the public safety minister did launch a consultation, and overwhelmingly, the responses by Canadians favoured the record suspension fee going down. As well, for certain offences, low-key offences that were non-violent, maybe drug-related, they favoured automatic expungement after a certain amount of time if that person has demonstrated a willingness to rejoin society. I will end by saying that I will support this motion, and I thank the House for the opportunity to lend my voice to it.