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THE STANDING SENATE COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND INTERNATIONAL TRADE

EVIDENCE


OTTAWA, Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, to which was referred the subject matter of Bill C-45, An Act respecting cannabis and to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the Criminal Code and other Acts, insofar as it relates to Canada’s international obligations, met this day at 4:15 p.m. to give consideration to the bill.

Senator A. Raynell Andreychuk (Chair) in the chair.

[English]

The Chair: Honourable senators, we have permission to sit, but there is a vote. We will get the actual vote time in a minute. We will organize a bus back to vote, for those of you who need that. Otherwise, you can all run, if you wish to vote.

This is the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and we are meeting today to continue our examination on the subject matter of Bill C-45, An Act respecting cannabis and to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the Criminal Code and other Acts, insofar as it relates to Canada’s international obligations.

I’m very pleased that we finally have the minister here, with her very busy schedule, but it is important to have the minister’s statements here in the committee.

The minister is accompanied by Global Affairs Canada officials: Mr. Alan Kessel, Assistant Deputy Minister, Legal Affairs and Legal Adviser; Mr. Mark Gwozdecky, Assistant Deputy Minister, International Security and Political Affairs; and Mr. Martin Benjamin, Acting Assistant Deputy Minister for the Americas.

I would ask the senators to introduce themselves.

[Translation]

Senator Dawson: Dennis Dawson, from Quebec.

[English]

Senator Greene: Stephen Greene, Nova Scotia.

Senator Cordy: Jane Cordy, Nova Scotia.

[Translation]

Senator Saint-Germain: Raymonde Saint-Germain, from Quebec.

Senator Massicotte: Paul Massicotte, from Quebec.

[English]

Senator Oh: Victor Oh, Ontario.

Senator Ataullahjan: Salma Ataullahjan, Ontario.

[Translation]

Senator Housakos: Leo Housakos, from Quebec.

[English]

Senator Ngo: Thanh Hai Ngo, Ontario.

The Chair: And I’m Raynell Andreychuk, from Saskatchewan.

I’m pleased to welcome the Honourable Chrystia Freeland, P.C., M.P., Minister of Foreign Affairs, to address us on the portion of the bill that we are seized with.

Without any further ado, thank you, minister, for being here. We’re going to make this efficient and I’m sure we’ll get all the evidence we need on the record. Welcome, Minister Freeland.

Hon. Chrystia Freeland, P.C., M.P., Minister of Foreign Affairs: Senator Andreychuk, senators, thank you very much for this opportunity. I’m sorry we’re starting a little bit late. I walked over and, as Senator Andreychuk saw, I walked in my running shoes but I misplaced them before coming here, and my heels are too high to have walked without my runners. I’m sorry for that.

I think this is an important issue and I’m glad to have the opportunity to share some thoughts with you on it.

I would like to start by acknowledging that we’re gathered on the traditional territory of the Algonquin.

Before addressing Bill C-45, the cannabis act, I would like to take a moment on the record to recognize the exemplary work of this committee and the senators gathered around the table. I have a particular reason for doing that, and that is that without your principled leadership last year, the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act would not exist in law today. This law has already given Canada a more robust foreign policy tool box, one that is effective and fit for purpose in today’s international environment, and it provides us with a valuable complement to our existing human rights and anti-corruption tools.

As I’m sure you are all aware, on November 3, Canada issued its first round of sanctions under the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act, targeting 52 individuals responsible for gross human rights violations and corruption.

I really want to thank all of you, and particularly you, Madam Chair, for shepherding this bill into law. I had opportunity after the Salisbury attack to, again, be very grateful that that work had been done, and it truly could not have happened without you, Madam Chair, and this committee.

[Translation]

Thank you very much.

To begin, I would like to make two important points about Bill C-45. First, the Government of Canada is determined to work with its international partners to prevent international drug trafficking, while also mitigating the consequences of substance abuse. Second, the bill we have put forward is designed to prevent young people from having ready access to cannabis and to prevent organized crime from continuing to profit from its illegal market.

We have chosen a regulatory approach to better protect the health and safety of Canadians because the current method, with its history of nearly a century of strict criminal sanctions, supported by significant police resources, simply does not work.

Canada has one of the highest rates of cannabis consumption among youth in the world. Criminals and organized crime continue to benefit from its sale.

We are proposing regulations to better protect the health and safety of Canadians, which is the government’s top priority. With this cannabis bill, the government will limit young people’s access to cannabis. It establishes many of the restrictions that currently apply to the advertising of tobacco products. Finally, it also prohibits the sale, packaging and labelling of cannabis products that are designed to appeal to young people.

[English]

Madam Chair, we have chosen this regulatory approach because the current approach, nearly a century of strict criminal prohibition supported by substantial law enforcement resources, has not worked. Canada has some of the highest rates of youth cannabis use in the world, and criminals and gangs continue to profit from the sale of cannabis.

What we are proposing is the implementation of regulations that will better protect the health and safety of Canadians, which is a top priority for our government and for me personally as a mother of three, including two teenagers.

Through the proposed cannabis act, the government would restrict youth access to cannabis and establish many of the same advertising restrictions that exist today for tobacco products, including a prohibition on the promotion, selling, packaging and labelling of cannabis products that are considered appealing to youth.

Bill C-45 would also create new offences for adults who either sell cannabis to young people or use young people to commit cannabis-related offences.

Madam Chair, our government recognizes that this proposed approach of legalizing, restricting and strictly restricting cannabis will result in Canada contravening certain obligations related to cannabis under the three UN drug conventions: the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961; the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

With this said, it is nevertheless our government’s view that our approach is consistent with the overarching goal of these conventions, namely, to protect the health and welfare of society. As mentioned earlier, this is among the Government of Canada’s highest priorities for our citizens.

In light of these contraventions, some have asked why Canada does not, then, simply withdraw from these conventions altogether. To people asking this question, I have the following response: the conventions regulate the movement of over 100 drugs and substances, including many that play a role in Canada’s — and indeed, North America’s — current opioid crisis. The conventions also assure the controlled availability of a wide range of drugs vital to our health. The point here, Madam Chair and senators, is that the conventions are much broader in scope than cannabis alone. Withdrawing would be an excessive response and detrimental to Canada’s and the international community’s best interests.

Legalizing cannabis does not change our commitment to meeting the overarching goal of the international drug control framework, nor does it change our intention to continue participating in and actively supporting this important framework.

As we compile and share data on the impact of this policy change on public health and safety, you will not hear or see our government advocating legalization as a solution for others.

The world drug problem manifests itself differently around the world. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Increasingly, the international community recognizes the need for countries to design national drug policies to fit their specific circumstances and needs. For us, the legalization and regulation of cannabis is a domestic Canadian policy response to domestic Canadian health and safety challenges.

Moreover, we are extremely sensitive to the need to work with the United States to ensure that the border remains efficient and secure and that there is no adverse impact from the legalization of cannabis in Canada. As in so many other areas, we enjoy an extremely active and highly integrated working relationship with our U.S. partners in the area of border management. We have no indication that our legalization of cannabis will cause the U.S. to change its approach to Canadian travellers and business people transiting the Canada-U.S. border.

It is important to recognize, however — and I do want to take this opportunity to stress this point — that every traveller has a duty to know what is and is not allowed. I note that Canada’s legalization of cannabis will not change the fact that both Canadian and U.S. law prohibit taking cannabis across the border in either direction. If I may say, I think that is a job for all of us as members of Parliament and as senators to be sure that Canadians get that very important message. Every country has a sovereign right to establish the terms and conditions by which its border can be crossed. As has always been the case, anyone travelling from Canada to the United States should be fully aware of all rules and regulations, whether these relate to cannabis or anything else that could cause the U.S. customs and border protection agency to stop a traveller from entering that country.

To conclude let me say that legislation to legalize, strictly regulate and restrict access to cannabis was developed in close consultation with law enforcement, health and safety experts; and thanks to the hard work of the task force on cannabis legalization and regulation, including its chair, former Deputy Prime Minister and Public Safety Minister, Anne McLellan. Indeed, a friend of mine and my late mother’s, and a fellow Albertan.

It is the government’s view that Bill C-45, if enacted, will do precisely what it sets outs to do, which is to keep cannabis out of the hands of children, put drug dealers and organized crime out of the cannabis business and ultimately protect the health and safety of Canadians. We understand that such a delicate issue requires a fair degree of debate, which is why I am pleased to be here today.

I am happy to answer your questions, Senate votes permitting. Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you. We have less than a half an hour, and I have a very long list, so I will plead for short questions and answers, and maybe we can get everyone in. I may have to cluster some of them at some point.

Ms. Freeland: Senator Andreychuk, what time will you have to vote?

The Chair: About 5 p.m.

Senator Ataullahjan: Thank you for being here.

You have been a strong advocate of international law, and very supportive of rules-based international order, its institutions and multilateral forums. However, with regard to Canada’s international treaty obligations, both the International Narcotics Control Board and the Assistant Deputy Minister for International Security and Political Affairs have publicly acknowledged that Canada will be in contravention of its Drug Control Treaty obligations with the passage of Bill C-45.

Minister, given your strong support of rules-based international order, including your speech on Canadian foreign policy delivered in the House of Commons last June, how do you reconcile your ardently held views on the importance of rules-based international order with a decision to openly violate Canada’s international treaty obligations?

I have a second question. Several legal witnesses have testified before the committee that contravention of international treaties are not a minor issue. In his testimony, Professor Steven Hoffmann said that, as a country, we can’t pick and choose which international treaties to follow without encouraging other countries to do the same. My question is: How do you justify the damage this bill will have to Canada’s global credibility on issues of international law? Thank you.

Ms. Freeland: Thank you very much, Senator Ataullahjan. I think that is a very important question and one which I have certainly, with my officials, devoted a great deal of thought. Let me offer a few different thoughts about it, some of which I addressed in my opening remarks.

In terms of the conventions, as I said, we do recognize that we would be in contravention. I think we need to be open about that. We believe, however, and are confident that we remain very much acting in the direction that these conventions would see us act, which is to say that Canada continues to be very much committed to preserving the health and safety of Canadians, and Canada continues to be very committed to working in close partnership with its international partners.

As to the question of whether Canada ought to choose to withdraw from the conventions, again, I addressed that in my remarks because I do think it’s an important question for us to face and think about carefully. It is our judgment — and I hope it is one you will share — that in addition to Canada continuing to very much act in the direction that these conventions wish us to act, and that I think we all continue to believe our country needs to act, that these conventions cover a very wide range of issues. Cannabis is only one of many, many issues the conventions cover. It would be a mistake for us to withdraw from that entire range of work that we do. I spoke specifically to the opioid crisis, and I want to underline that. It’s something all of us need to be urgently concerned about. I think it would be wrong for Canada to withdraw from conventions that play a useful role in helping us respond to that crisis.

I want to point to something that I think is relevant. I’ll make, actually, a couple more points. I was very intentional in framing our policy as being about a domestic Canadian response to domestic Canadian conditions. That is very much our approach. This is about Canada and Canadians, and I think that is appreciated. We very much believe that in this area, this is not about one size fits all

Finally, I think that it is worth pointing out that in March 2017, after our legislation had been proposed, Canada was reelected to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in a contested election, and Canada received the second-highest number of votes. This election took place one week after cannabis legislation was tabled in Canada.

To me, that was an important moment because what it showed is that we have been working hard to speak with and talk to our international partners. The rules-based international order, as you pointed out, senator, is something very important to Canada and to me personally as foreign minister, so we have been working hard to ensure our partners understand what we are doing. I certainly was very heartened by that recognition, not only of Canada’s place in the international rules-based order overall, but specifically on the Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

[Translation]

Senator Saint-Germain: Madam Minister, the experts who have appeared before the committee recognize that the bill violates certain United Nations conventions. They pointed out that the international perception of the relevance of these conventions is evolving because the fight against substance abuse in several countries has failed and there is no openness. You mentioned the importance of helping people understand our legislation. Do you have a plan to explain to other countries that this bill is also part of a public health and public safety strategy, and to help them see Canada more as a pioneer in the current context rather than a country that violates those conventions?

Ms. Freeland: Thank you, Senator Saint-Germain. That is also an excellent question. As I said, we have already begun work with our international partners. It is very important for us to explain to them what we are doing, to explain that this is Canada’s response to national issues. My departmental officials, who do outstanding work, have held consultations in Vienna with our G7 partners, including Austria, New Zealand, Mexico, the Netherlands, Sweden, Ireland, Finland, Israel and Portugal. They have discussed our process and the issues, questions about our approach to the international conventions. I can assure you that our international partners agree with us, with Canada’s approach to staying within the framework of the conventions. This is not only Canada’s approach, but also the approach of our international partners.

Senator Saint-Germain: Thank you.

Senator Dawson: Madam Minister, I could make a list of the people who appeared before the committee who had more favourable things to say about you as regards Senator Ataullahjan’s question. You discussed international issues with Senator Saint-Germain, but we are a mouse next to an elephant. I know you are spending a lot of time with the elephant these days. The Americans, in particular, since they are our most important partners, people with whom we share the longest border, the border that Canadians cross. We heard testimony to the effect that the new act is not in any way contrary to this change, that it is not radical at all. Have the Americans raised these issues during your many meetings? Has there been a dialogue with the American authorities regarding the application of this agreement in particular? I understand that we have international partners, but I tend to think that everyone is equal, although that partner is a bit more equal than the others. Have you had specific discussions with the Americans?

Ms. Freeland: On this issue and our relationship with the Americans, it is my colleagues Mr. Garneau, the Minister of Transport, and Mr. Goodale, the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, who are primarily responsible for raising this issue with their U.S. counterparts. It is transportation and borders issue. I can assure you that Minister Garneau, Minister Goodale and Ms. Petitpas Taylor, the Minister of Health, have all raised the issue at various levels with the Americans.

I agree with you. It is very important to explain what we are doing. As I said in my introductory remarks, I believe that the border, which is under the responsibility of Minister Goodale, a very competent person, is an especially important issue. The Government of Canada has a duty to inform Canadians. I want to point that out because Canadians must know that the changes are being made in Canada, but that situation at the border has not changed. I want the media who are here to know that it is very important to properly inform all Canadians.

Senator Dawson: Thank you, Madam Minister.

[English]

Senator Housakos: Thank you, minister, for being here with us.

I have a comment in regard to one of your statements. You’re pointing out the fact that Canadians are amongst the highest users of marijuana. I have been questioning the government in the Senate, including witnesses from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that have come before this committee, because I find it peculiar that this talking point is consistent with every minister, but I can’t find a single study commissioned by a government agency from the past decade to analyze the volume of marijuana use among Canadians. We are referring to studies that are done by non-government agencies, in some cases international agencies, and in many instances you’re referring to users who are one-time, one-shot users that inevitably exasperate and over-evaluate the number of marijuana users. But that’s a whole other story.

My next question is on the fact that you’re downplaying the effect that this will have with our biggest trading partner and ally, the United States. We have had a number of colleagues that have had meetings in the United States with Homeland Security, with the justice ministry and with the border customs department, and they’re quite concerned. The impression they came back with a few weeks ago is that there hasn’t been sufficient dialogue in trying to resolve what are clearly two diametrically opposed policies and the fact that Canadians will be quite possibly going before a U.S. Customs officer and having to answer the question, “Have you used a narcotic in the last little while?” For the Americans, marijuana is a psychotropic narcotic. It is an illegal drug. It contravenes their national criminal code. Do Canadians and the Canadian government know that Canadians who use narcotics, including marijuana, as per the definition of U.S. Customs, will be banned from entering the United States if they respond in the affirmative, and what we will do with what quite possibly could become a challenge?

Ms. Freeland: Thank you, Senator Housakos. I do think you’re pointing to some important issues.

On the point about protecting young people, let me just say that one in five young people between 15 and 19 and one in three young adults between 20 and 24 in Canada report that they have used cannabis in the past year. A third of young people between 15 and 19 and more than half of all young adults between 20 and 24 have reported using cannabis at some point in their lives.

To the point, which I think is also part of your question as to whether we as a government are convinced that this legislation will actually make our young people safer, let me simply say that I personally am very much convinced of that. My children may not thank me for saying this, but I have an 8-year-old, a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old, and I do not think that any of them should be using cannabis. It’s very important for me, as a member of this government, to be doing things that make their lives, their community and their schools safer. That’s something that I take seriously and I have thought about a lot. We may end up differing on that point of view, but I do want to say that it’s an important question to ask. I personally feel convinced.

When it comes to the U.S. and, in particular, you’ve mentioned the border issues, let me say a few things. It is clear that with this legislation, Canada would be in a different position from the U.S. at the federal level. It may be worth noting, as I’m sure the committee is aware, that nine states representing more than 20 per cent of the U.S. population have legalized recreational cannabis, and this includes four of the 11 border states. Now, I want to be clear: This is at the state level, not at the federal level, but this is also an American reality, including among border states.

Having said all of that, I think all of us as Canadians need to be clear. There are areas where Canada chooses one path and the United States chooses another. When this legislation comes into law, this will be one such area where we choose a different path. It is important for Canadians to appreciate that while we have an absolute essential and sovereign right to choose our own path and laws — I know that however we would like those laws to be, all of us are very united in the belief in our sovereign right as a country to choose those laws — it’s important to also recognize that every country has the right to control its border policy. And it is illegal and will continue to be illegal to take cannabis across the Canada-U.S. border in any direction. I do think that one of our important jobs together is to make sure that Canadians are fully aware of that.

The Chair: I am going to start clustering questions. We have about 10 minutes left and five senators who wish to ask a question.

[Translation]

Senator Massicotte: Thank you for being here this afternoon, Madam Minister. I would like to follow up on the questions that have already been asked, specifically as regards our international obligations. I would like to know how the government plans to minimize the impact of this legislation on Canadians. You listed all the countries that you met in Vienna. Yet none of those countries, if memory serves, is part of the G7. Clearly, the smallest countries were mentioned. Did you contact the most important countries that we have relations with? What is their reaction? Where do you think we will be in five or ten years? What will our international relations be in the years ahead? Will there be any serious consequences? Are you confident that the public relations plan will work? Will we amend the list of medications? Will Canada suffer major consequences as regards our international relations?

[English]

Senator Oh: Minister, thank you for being here.

What are the consequences in situations where states are found to be non-compliant with the UN drug control conventions? What measures can be taken against non-compliant states pursuant to the treaties under international law?

Ms. Freeland: Thank you, senators, for those questions.

[Translation]

That is fairly easy to answer because I misspoke. We also consulted the G7 countries. I did not mean that the other countries are less important. All our international partners are important.

[English]

To your question, Senator Oh, we will be in contravention. Our view is that we continue to be in line with the objectives of these conventions and that our participation is appreciated by our partners in the conventions. We remain a strong, active and respected partner — witness our election in March 2017.

Senator Ngo: During the testimony on March 29, 2018, Bruno Gélinas-Faucher said he obtained through an access to information the memo to Foreign Affairs and the minister at that time. He said that: “Legalization would have a significant impact on Canada’s binding obligation under the international drug control convention.”Those words were “significant impact.” In the meantime, your official before the committee said that these are technical violations. Can you clarify if and when you were made aware of what this memo noted, and was the advice ignored?

Senator Cordy: Thank you very much, minister. I’m not sure where you get your energy from, but you seem to have a lot. Thank you for the job you’re doing.

You mentioned earlier that we are in contravention of some of the conventions, and we heard from one set of witnesses about contravening the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child by allowing children to be in possession of marijuana. I have also heard and read and believe that this bill will better protect children by putting regulations in place, and you said earlier that you believe it will make our children safer. We’re hearing two things. I wonder if you would come down and let us know what we should be thinking as we evaluate the bill.

Ms. Freeland: Thank you for those questions.

Senator Ngo, I do want to be clear, and I think it’s important for us to be explicit about the fact that our proposed approach will result in Canada contravening certain obligations related to cannabis under the three UN drug conventions. It was important for me to make that point clearly and up front in my remarks. As I also said, we do believe that our approach is consistent with the overarching goal of the conventions, which is to protect the health and welfare of society. Both of those views are ultimately my judgment and the judgment of our government. I believe they are consistent with advice. I think you have had a chance — Mark is going to correct me if I am wrong — but I think Mark Gwozdecky has spoken with you about this. I do think this issue of the conventions is an important one, and we do need to be clear about it.

On the point about children, I think that a clear objective of the legislation is to be clear about what is legal and what is not legal when it comes to cannabis. To move it out of criminal groups, out of that whole space, and to be clear that this is illegal for children and it is illegal to be promoting or selling cannabis in any way to children, for me, that is a very important part of our approach. I think that protecting our children needs really to be our priority, frankly, in everything that we do, but very much also in our approach to cannabis.

Senator Bovey: I’ve become very interested in the inter se proposal which has been put forth to the committee whereby like-minded nations can negotiate among themselves to contract out of certain provisions of the treaty. I wonder if you have any thought about this inter se proposal regarding Canada’s international drug conventions and if there is, in fact, an appetite amongst other signatories to follow this route.

Ms. Freeland: We are aware of the inter se concept, and my officials have discussed this option. We are definitely open to working with treaty partners to identify solutions that accommodate different approaches to cannabis within the international framework. It is something that we’re aware of and is worth thinking about.

I do want to be clear, though, that at this stage right now, our priority is to focus on the right choices as we see them for the health and welfare of Canadians. I underscored in my remarks, because I think it’s important given where we are, to say this is about Canada. It’s about an approach for Canada. We are not seeing this in any way as a one-size-fits-all for the rest of the world, and we’re being very clear with our partners that this is about us and our own choices and national decisions.

The second priority that we have, which I see is an area of concern for the committee members, is to do this, to make these choices at home, while remaining, as Senator Ataullahjan pointed out, members of the international rules-based order, including conventions on drugs.

[Translation]

Senator Massicotte: What are your expectations for the next five or ten years? Will there be any serious consequences? Are there any countries that are rejecting us? In ten years, do you think we will have solved the problem and we will be in agreement? What are your expectations?

Ms. Freeland: It is impossible to answer those questions in 30 seconds. It is always difficult to predict the future, especially for ministers.

Senator Massicotte: But we do it every day.

[English]

The Chair: Minister, we have to cut the meeting short. We appreciate you having facilitated us in doing so. We have a very short time frame, so if we have to put a question to you, we would wish an answer back. Simply from myself, what I would want, so that Canadians are clear in an open and transparent government, is what is the plan to be within the community of countries that have signed the conventions? While you’ve alluded to some discussions, et cetera, I think it might be helpful to know exactly how you’re going to approach this. You’ve said there is the breach of the conventions. Where do we go from here? That would be helpful in writing, but unfortunately, we have run out of time. Thank you for facilitating us.

And senators, thank you. You all got on the agenda, all of you. It’s a miracle we’re going to be on time.

Ms. Freeland: Excellent chairmanship getting everyone in there. Thank you, Senator Andreychuk.

(The committee adjourned.)