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Criminal Code

Bill to Amend--Second Reading

September 21, 2023

Hon. Marc Gold (Government Representative in the Senate) [ - ]

Moved second reading of Bill C-48, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (bail reform).

He said: Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill C-48, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (bail reform). This bill would strengthen Canada’s bail laws and address public safety and public confidence concerns in relation to repeat violent offending, intimate partner violence and offences involving firearms and other weapons.

The bail system ensures that people accused of criminal offenses appear in court to face the charges against them. In theory, the most foolproof way to achieve this would be to simply detain a person from the moment of arrest until trial. However, there remains a fundamental principle of our criminal justice system: The presumption of innocence until proven guilty. This principle is enshrined in section 11 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the same section that protects the right, and I quote:

(e) not to be denied reasonable bail without just cause;

Thus, any measures that limit access to bail or increase the likelihood of pretrial detention must be taken with caution and restraint, in a targeted manner and for compelling reasons.

The government — with considerable input from the provinces, territories, Indigenous organizations and other partners — developed Bill C-48 with those considerations in mind.

Therefore, the bill is narrowly focused on repeat violent offenders, for the compelling reason of protecting Canadian communities.

Currently, bail can be denied for three reasons: first, to ensure the accused’s attendance in court; second, to protect the public; and, finally, to maintain public confidence in the administration of justice.

When deciding whether to grant bail or what bail conditions to impose, courts are required to:

. . . give primary consideration to the release of the accused at the earliest reasonable opportunity and on the least onerous conditions that are appropriate in the circumstances.

For the most part, justice ministers across Canada agree that these guidelines serve us well and that the bail system functions properly in most cases. However, concerns have been raised that the current system should be recalibrated to better protect public safety. This concern was notably raised last January in a letter to the Prime Minister from all provincial and territorial premiers and has been the subject of many discussions between various levels of government.

This is an area of shared jurisdiction. Laws regarding bail are set out by the federal government in the Criminal Code but are generally implemented by the provinces and territories.

At recent meetings between federal, provincial and territorial justice ministers, everyone took responsibility and agreed to do their part. For the provinces and territories, this means improving the implementation of existing laws, making better use of existing legal tools and collecting better data related to bail. Federally, it means contemplating legislative changes — namely, those contained in Bill C-48.

This legislation would do the following five things: enact a new reverse onus for repeat violent offending involving weapons; add certain firearm offences to the list of provisions that trigger a reverse onus; expand the current intimate partner violence reverse onus; clarify the meaning of “prohibition order” in an existing reverse onus provision; and, finally, add new considerations and requirements for courts.

I’ll start by discussing the concept of reverse onus before delving into each of these in more detail. In most cases, the default presumption is that the accused will be released pending trial, and the onus is on the prosecution to show why bail should be denied. When the onus is reversed, it means the initial presumption is detention pending trial, and it’s up to the accused to show why they should be released.

Currently, a reverse onus exists for murder and attempted murder, as well as certain offences involving drug and weapons trafficking, firearms, terrorism and intimate partner violence. The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of narrowly tailored reverse onus provisions, notably in the case of R. v. Pearson in 1992. Crucially, even with a reverse onus in place, the court retains the full discretion to grant or deny bail, or to impose conditions as it may see fit.

As I outlined a moment ago, the first new reverse onus provision created by Bill C-48 would deal with repeat violent offending involving weapons. It would apply only where the following conditions are met: First, the alleged offence must involve the use, attempted use or threat of violence involving a weapon; second, the offence must be punishable by a maximum penalty of 10 years or more; and third, the accused must have been convicted of another weapons offence with a maximum penalty of 10 years or more in the preceding five years.

These criteria specifically target instances of repeat violent offending that is most concerning from a public safety perspective. And, as specifically requested by the Government of Manitoba and the Government of Saskatchewan, they cover all serious weapons offences, including those involving firearms, knives or bear spray, which I understand has been a particular concern in those provinces recently.

The second change proposed by Bill C-48 would expand the existing list of reverse onus provisions applying to firearm offences to include unlawful possession of a loaded prohibited or restricted firearm, or an unloaded prohibited or restricted firearm where ammunition is readily accessible; breaking and entering to steal a firearm; robbery to steal a firearm; and altering a firearm to make it automatic.

These offences are evidence of conduct that can significantly undermine public safety. We should note that the first of these — the unlawful possession offence — responds directly to the call of all 13 premiers, as expressed in their January letter to the Prime Minister, as well as to the call of law enforcement partners.

Bill C-48 would also strengthen the current provision relating to reverse onus for those accused of intimate partner violence. As many senators will remember, reverse onus was established by Bill C-75, which received Royal Assent in June 2019. It applies to those accused of intimate partner violence who have already been convicted of a similar offence, in recognition of the fact that women who report an abusive partner often expose themselves to greater risk in doing so.

Bill C-48 would expand this provision so that it applies not only to those already convicted of intimate partner violence, but also to those who have already been released for such an offence. A discharge is a finding of guilt, not a conviction; it often means that the accused can avoid a criminal record if they comply with certain conditions. This tool can be useful to judges who determine sentencing in some cases, but for risk assessment purposes, the government believes that a prior discharge for intimate partner violence should be treated like a prior conviction. In both cases, there is a finding of guilt and the accused could present a high risk to reoffend if released.

I also want to point out that this aspect of Bill C-48 is comparable to a provision of Bill S-205, sponsored by Senator Boisvenu, which was passed by the Senate in April and is currently being examined by the other place.

The fourth key proposal of Bill C-48 would clarify the meaning of “prohibition order” at the bail stage of criminal proceedings. Currently, there is a reverse onus for people charged with weapons offences who were subject to a weapons prohibition order at the time of the offence. In other words, if a court had already said you can’t have a firearm, and then you commit a weapons offence, the law takes that more seriously for the purposes of bail.

Bill C-48 would make clear that the same approach should be taken for people who commit a weapons offence while on bail — when one of their bail conditions was that they couldn’t possess a weapon. If this sounds like a technicality, frankly, it’s because it is. It’s essentially a codification of the common law understanding of a prohibition order. It’s unlikely that this will alter the law as it’s currently applied, but when it comes to criminal law — and, indeed, the Criminal Code — it’s better to be clear, so the bill makes this explicit.

The final piece of Bill C-48 relates to the approach that courts must make when deciding whether to grant bail. In 2019, Bill C-75 amended the Criminal Code to provide that before making a bail order, courts must consider any relevant factors, including the criminal record of the accused, or whether the charges involve intimate partner violence.

Bill C-48 would take that a step further by expressly requiring courts to consider whether the accused has a history of violent offending. Plus, the judge would have to state — on the record — that the safety and security of the community were considered in the decision.

At present, while this generally does form part of most judges’ decision making, the law only requires courts to consider the safety and security of an individual victim. This change would address concerns raised by some municipalities and, indeed, some Indigenous communities as well.

Let me provide you with one example: There was a case last year where a man — with a history of violent sexual offences — was supposed to be released on bail to his community of Old Crow in the Yukon, prompting pushback from the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. Ultimately, that order was revised, and he was sent to Whitehorse, but the new provision in Bill C-48 would require that these types of community-specific considerations form part of the decision-making process.

And that, honourable senators, is the content of this legislation. As I said at the outset, it’s designed to be narrowly focused, addressing safety concerns, such as those raised by the provinces and territories, while respecting Charter rights. This bill is part of a national effort — in collaboration with other levels of government — to strengthen Canada’s bail system. It’s a bill that reflects significant input from the provinces and territories.

As I mentioned earlier, provincial and territorial governments have been engaged on this file. Recently, Ontario and Manitoba announced commitments to enhance bail compliance measures, amongst other things. British Columbia has made significant investments to strengthen enforcement and improve interventions in relation to repeat violent offending.

Importantly, the provinces and territories have committed to improving data collection, because, to be frank, we need much better data on this subject. Colleagues, as you know, that is an issue we have encountered frequently, especially in the area of criminal justice, where the system is administered by so many different jurisdictions across the country. Recent federal budgets have included investments in better data collection, including disaggregated data, and the government is hopeful that the provinces’ commitments related to bail will herald a significant improvement in this space.

Colleagues, I would also note that Bill C-48 includes a provision for parliamentary review after five years. I expect Parliament will have the benefit of more comprehensive data at that time.

It is also important to note that discussions about bail reform have been held with representatives from national Indigenous organizations and other Indigenous representatives, which include the Assembly of First Nations, AFN; Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the ITK; the Métis National Council, the MNC; as well as the Indigenous Bar Association; the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs; the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan and numerous others. Their input has been an important part of developing a legislative approach that will help protect Indigenous communities from violent crime, while recognizing the need to continue combatting the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.

Colleagues, one of our roles in this chamber is to represent the regions of Canada. Bill C-48 is a piece of legislation that is supported by every province and territory. In fact, it was expressly called for by all premiers. In Bill C-48, the government has answered that call.

Repeat violent offending and offending with firearms or other weapons need to be taken seriously. Bill C-48 takes concrete action at the federal level to strengthen the bail regime and respond to public safety concerns in a manner that respects the Charter, judicial discretion and the fundamental principles of justice that define our system of justice.

The other place adopted this bill as soon as it possibly could, debating and passing it this past Monday — the very first day of its fall sitting. I ask that honourable colleagues recognize the call for quick action from the provinces and territories, and the sense of urgency shown by members of Parliament, and move Bill C-48 forward expeditiously.

With that, I thank you very much.

Hon. Denise Batters [ - ]

Senator Gold, if Bill C-48 on bail reform had been in place in Canada for the last five years, how many criminal offenders would have stayed in jail as opposed to being released on bail? Given what you have described, this Trudeau government bill has a very limited scope, so my guess is that the actual number of offenders this would actually apply to is tiny.

Senator Gold [ - ]

Thank you for the question. Obviously, a critical question is what the impact of this bill is or what it might have been. I’m not going to hide behind speculation; the bill was not in place.

However, I will bring to the Senate’s attention, as I mentioned only in passing, that we don’t have proper data. There are a number of reasons for this. Not all bail decisions are actually recorded, and even those that are recorded are not necessarily gathered, aggregated or analyzed at the provincial level. Some of these decisions are made at the justice of the peace level, and there is simply no record of them, nor is there a system yet in place for gathering all the data — incomplete though it surely is at this point — and analyzing it.

It is hoped that through this bill and through, indeed, the commitment of the provinces and territories to do their part in their areas of jurisdiction, that we will start to have better, more comprehensive data and that we, as parliamentarians — whether it’s in five years, during the parliamentary review, or whether we choose to pursue that study in the interim through committees — will be able to answer those questions with greater certainty.

It’s important to understand as well, though, that these reverse‑onus provisions are situated in the context of the fundamental principles of our criminal justice system as protected, guaranteed and reflected in the Charter of Rights. This means that judges still have discretion to grant or deny bail, or to impose the conditions they see fit in the interests of public safety, whether they are dealing with a reverse-onus provision or not.

These are believed, by the Government of Canada and all the provinces and territories, to be helpful steps forward to strengthen the bail system and protect Canadian communities to a greater degree. Their impact awaits analysis and will require a serious commitment to data collection and analysis in that regard.

Senator Batters [ - ]

The Department of Justice actually would have this information, or absolutely should have this information, as they draft such a bill, because all we’re looking at are the types of offences and the number of years that an offence would potentially be subject to. If you don’t know the answer, that’s fine, but can you please get us the answer as soon as possible, particularly as you are looking for very quick passage? You are the Senate sponsor of this bill and the government leader in the Senate.

The Department of Justice absolutely would have done such an assessment to determine how many potential offences this type of bill would cover. Could you please get us that information as soon as possible?

Senator Gold [ - ]

Again, the Department of Justice only has the information that it is able to cobble together from information that is provided or available from the provinces. I am not going to pretend that it is properly comprehensive.

However, we will be studying this bill at committee. The minister will be there, as will the officials, and we’ll have the opportunity, through the study of this bill, for these questions to be answered in a more comprehensive way than I can provide to you now.

Again, it’s also important, colleagues, to remember that in order for this bill to satisfy the test that the Supreme Court has set out and the exigencies of the Charter, the focus has to be choosing and targeting, in the context of a reverse-onus provision, things that are narrowly drafted and that are deemed necessary to promote the objectives of the bail system. Those objectives are to protect public safety, make sure that offenders appear and to promote and protect public confidence. In that regard, the government is satisfied that it has targeted the kinds of offences appropriately and consistently with our basic principles of justice.

Senator Gold, as a journalist, I covered some terrible incidents in which terrible crimes were committed by people who had been released on bail, so I understand the emotional and political impetus to speed this bill to passage. However, I am concerned with the speed at which things are moving, because we are dealing with an issue in which people’s fundamental liberties are at stake. As you have so eloquently explained, we have a presumption of innocence in Canada, and we only use reverse-onus provisions in very particular cases, because we have that presumption to be assumed innocent.

Given the state of our remand centres, which are not lovely places to be and are very full, and given the delays in our court system, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has raised concerns that expanding reverse-onus provisions may lead to people pleading guilty simply to speed along their passage to a less uncomfortable place than remand.

I have two questions. First, what assurances do we have that this will not have knock-on effects to make remand centres even fuller, to cause even more court backlogs and to make people take guilty pleas in order to get out of the limbo of remand? Second, given the pace at which things are moving, will the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee be allowed the latitude to conduct a proper and thorough committee study, which was not allowed for in the House?

Senator Gold [ - ]

Thank you. You are raising important issues.

As you would expect, the government is very aware of the concerns that were expressed, not only by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, but also the Elizabeth Fry Society and John Howard Society. It is clear that one important consideration in this was to ensure that the measures in this bill — the changes or, in some cases, tweaking in this bill — were done in the most narrow and focused way not only to satisfy the Charter, fundamental though it is, but also to minimize knock-on or collateral effects.

The concern about overrepresentation of Indigenous, marginalized and racialized people is a real one this government has taken very seriously, as evidenced by many of the measures that it has already introduced, including ones concerning minimum mandatory sentences and the like. It was also at the heart of the discussions that were had with many of the stakeholders as this bill was developed.

The Senate is not rushing this through. The decision was made in the other place, and not at the initiative of the government, to pass it all in one stage. When the motion was put on the table, for their reasons, all members of the House of Commons — all parties, unanimously — supported this. I think it was in recognition, by the way, that this is something of importance to communities, territories, provinces and those responsible for administering the justice system.

We, in the Senate, are going to do our job. As many of you will know by now, this bill will be sent to the Legal Committee, which will draft its work plan and conduct itself as it sees fit. I have every confidence in the committee and in this chamber to give it the proper attention it deserves, to hear from the witnesses both for and against and to do our job. All I ask is that senators keep an open mind and please follow the workings of the committee, if you see fit, so that when it does come out of committee and we have our third-reading debate, it is as informed as possible.

But it is important to the 13 provinces and territories, the stakeholders and the communities that we do our work properly and diligently, because this is a matter of public safety and public importance.

Hon. Percy E. Downe [ - ]

Senator Gold, I share the concern about the rush through the House of Commons and how the legislation will land here after no review at all there. As we all know, the Senate is often criticized, but we’re now put in a position in which what we call “the other place” — the House of Commons — simply did not do its job. They sent the legislation over here without reviewing it. Now it lands in our chamber. Given that, we may need much more time than we normally would because normally, as you know, we check the transcript and the hearings of the other place. We’re really starting from ground zero here. You would agree that we need more time than normal, I assume.

Senator Gold [ - ]

Every bill is different, raises different issues and requires different points of view to be properly brought to bear on it. So I don’t know what is typical for a very short bill like this, the principles of which — I hope to your satisfaction — I have certainly outlined accurately. The government has made a policy choice, in consultation, not only with all provincial governments but with other stakeholders, to make some additional changes to the existing bail reform system, which already contains measures and reverse-onus provisions for serious crimes. This simply adds to — and, in some senses, perfects or completes — some of the work that was already done by us in the chamber with the bills, which I mentioned, in 2019.

I am confident that the committee will hear from the necessary witnesses and that all points of view will be properly canvassed. Senators will have the opportunity to question not only the minister and the officials, but also those who have different points of view. I have every confidence that our debate in the chamber will be as robust as we choose for it to be.

Senator Downe [ - ]

Well, colleagues, the members of Parliament have dropped the ball. Their job is not to prance around during Question Period looking for clips. Their job is to review legislation. That’s our responsibility as well. I will remind some of the newer senators here that when I first came to the Senate, we had a very similar situation of the New Veterans Charter. It went through the House of Commons in two minutes and came to the Senate, and the Senate failed to do the job. It passed in a total of five hours. Most of that time — four hours and 50-some minutes — was in the Senate. Years later, we found out from the Parliamentary Budget Officer that those changes cost veterans, who were injured in service to the country — and their families — millions of dollars in lost benefits because the Senate and the House of Commons did not do their jobs.

We’re back in a very similar circumstance. The onus is now on the Senate — the much-criticized Senate — to do the work that the House of Commons has not done. I know that colleagues on the committee and the whole institution will do that. I hear you, Senator Gold, and this is my question: Can you tell us that we’ll have the time necessary to do that work so Canadians are not short-changed by this legislation — as they were by previous rushed legislation from not only the House of Commons but the Senate?

Senator Gold [ - ]

Thank you for your question and your comment.

I have confidence in the Senate. I have confidence in the committee that it will develop a work plan that is appropriate to the bill — its content, the issues it raises and its importance. I’m confident that the Senate will strike the appropriate balance as we have always done — at least in this era — balancing the importance of the bill and the support for the bill from those who are seized with the responsibility of living with it — Indigenous and other communities, and provinces and territories — and the need for us to do our constitutional job of providing proper, critical review of legislation before us. That is what is before us, and I have every confidence we will do the job Canadians expect us to do.

Hon. Renée Dupuis [ - ]

Senator Gold, in your speech, you spoke about victims of violence and intimate partners. You spoke about people who have a history of sexual offences and sexual violence.

When you were talking about the organizations that the government consulted when drafting Bill C-48, I heard you say that you consulted the provinces, the territories and a few national Indigenous organizations. Perhaps I misunderstood what you said, but I didn’t hear you mention national associations like the Native Women’s Association of Canada, yet I think we can all agree that, when it comes to intimate partner violence, the victims are often women.

Can you specify which national women’s organizations were consulted on this bill?

Senator Gold [ - ]

First of all, I don’t have the complete list, and I’m sorry about that. I was told that discussions and consultations were held not only with the national organizations that I mentioned but also with many others. Once again, I would invite you to ask the ministers and officials that question when they appear before the committee.

Hon. Pierre J. Dalphond [ - ]

My question is along the same lines as the previous questions, Senator Gold.

The Senate has a duty to carefully consider all of these bills, especially those that reverse the burden of proof. Wouldn’t you agree that that burden is even greater today? The House of Commons passed this bill without convening a real committee of the whole. There were no submissions or witnesses, and the bill passed in one day.

In that context, shouldn’t we be a little more thorough and take a bit longer than usual to get written submissions from the Canadian Bar Association, the Barreau du Québec, the Association des avocats de la défense and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which is quoted in The Globe and Mail today criticizing the fact that it wasn’t consulted and that it didn’t even have time to prepare?

Shouldn’t we take our time on this? If the House of Commons thought this bill was so urgent, it could have passed it before June 22. They passed it the first day they were back in the House. We could have worked on it over the summer.

Senator Gold [ - ]

At the risk of repeating myself, it’s up to the committee to decide how to proceed with this bill.

I wear two hats: one as a parent and the other as the Government Representative. I also have some suggestions when it comes to witnesses, like the other committee members I’m sure. As I already said to Senator Downe, we need to take our time, given the issues raised. Yes, it’s always interesting and important to consult committee evidence from the other place from time to time. However, in my experience of nearly seven years in the Senate, it isn’t often that we say that they’ve done good work and there isn’t much left to do. The same witnesses appear regularly before our committees with the same briefs; the same questions are asked and the same answers are given.

For me, it’s not simply a question of saying they didn’t conduct a study. They made their decision, and it’s their prerogative to do so. We have a job to do, and I prefer to focus on the need to study this bill properly, regardless of what happened in the other place. Again, I’m confident we will do the job right. This bill is rather short, but that doesn’t make it any less important. It’s not a quantitative issue, nor is it new. There’s already case law on reverse onus. The courts have provided us with certain criteria. We have a responsibility not only to study the bill properly, but also to respect the parameters of our role in making constitutional public policy choices, with the support of all the provinces and territories. We have to find the right balance. Once again, I have full confidence in the House, and I believe that the committee is in a good position to study the bill.

Hon. Brent Cotter [ - ]

Senator Gold, thank you for your remarks and for your leadership on an important bill that is being considered by this chamber.

I’m a member of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, where it seems likely this bill will go, so I’ll have a decent number of opportunities to explore the bill, but I did want to ask one, what I would call, institutional question, in your capacity both as sponsor of the bill and as Leader of the Government in the Senate. You made reference to the five-year review and you used, I thought very carefully, the words “reviewed by Parliament.” But I think as you know, the bill calls for a review by the House of Commons.

I have in front of me here the clause, which is clause 2 of the bill, a review on the fifth anniversary to be carried out by a standing committee of the House of Commons.

This strikes me as not entirely respectful of this portion of Parliament, and in light of your endorsement of the confidence you have in the Senate, which I believe was part of your speech, I wonder if you could speak to what I would call an oversight. I would be interested in your view on that, especially since, as I seem to understand, the House of Commons didn’t study it at all in the first go-round.

Senator Gold [ - ]

Thank you for your question. It’s a fair question. I think that’s a question that should be explored at committee and posed to the officials as to why specific mention was made not just simply of Parliament but of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights in the House of Commons, which is typically the place in the other place that deals with these matters.

Hon. Mary Jane McCallum [ - ]

Senator Gold, I was invited to attend a brunch with the police association and the premiers on bail reform this summer, and I raised a concern at that time. One of the panellists gave an example of an offender who had stolen a bottle of liquor and, 10 years later, he is a hardened criminal is what she said. Because of the way the system is set up, at that time, we were told that 70% of the people in the provincial jails were Indigenous and the majority had not even been to court.

Indigenous relationship with police administration, police officers and the justice system is already precarious. How will racial profiling and racism be addressed? If they are not, there will be a continuous flow of new criminals, and no law will be able to handle the load, even if additional resources are given. An example I’ll use is 80% of the Indigenous prisoners who are in the pen were children who were apprehended. So we need to look at reducing the flow of child apprehension so we don’t have that flow going in, because we’re not going to change the penitentiary system. How will this be addressed?

One comment that came up was people were so upset in there that they said, “Throw them in jail and throw away the key,” which caused me great concern. Thank you.

Senator Gold [ - ]

Thank you for your question, senator. The social determinants of crime, the overrepresentation not only of Indigenous and marginalized people but also of poor people, those who don’t have access to the resources that others do, is a real problem, a tragic problem and something that we should be ashamed of.

This government, provincial governments and territories are doing what they can to provide better resources, whether it’s social services or the like, but the work will never be complete. So you’re right to point out the despair that many experience when they find themselves in the system and it goes from bad to worse.

This bill is a very targeted measure to deal with people charged with offences and under what additional circumstances they might have to demonstrate to the satisfaction of a judge that they don’t pose a risk to the public at large, to their partner or to their community.

It builds upon a recognition in the law of many years that there are circumstances where it is totally appropriate, notwithstanding the presumption of innocence, to at least require the person to demonstrate their willingness and ability to abide by the rules and comply with their conditions.

It makes more public the criteria that judges apply when they have to make the decision whether to release somebody back into the community when they are facing trial for an offence. It is important to remember that we are dealing here with only the circumstances where there are charges of very serious violent offences, whether it’s with a firearm or with bear spray or knives, or of violence and repeat violence against intimate partners and so on.

This bill does not attempt to tackle the real problems that you raised that are with us, sadly and tragically, but it is a step in the right direction to mitigate the risk of violence to individuals and to communities. In that regard — if you’ll allow me to use a cliché — we can’t let the better be the enemy of the good here.

This is an important step. It does not address any of the important issues that you raise. That’s for other bills and other measures from all levels of government.

Hon. Mary Coyle [ - ]

Honourable senators, I wasn’t going to ask a question, but because of the question raised by Senator McCallum I’m happy, frankly, to have this discussion we’re having here right now, both about the process and the need for a robust debate on this important bill and a really thorough study.

Senator McCallum raised an issue that sparked in my mind this question and so much of this is based on reverse onus. This is a deviation from how we normally operate in our justice system in Canada. I am concerned about different groups being disproportionately disadvantaged, as they always have been, but even more so — possibly — under this legislation if the onus is on the person to prove that they deserve bail. That can sometimes be an advantage to someone who has the money and resources to hire good legal talent to help them. Because we haven’t had a thorough study yet — hopefully we will — I’m just curious whether the government has looked at this issue of advantage to those with resources in a situation of reverse onus and what the implications of that would be.

Senator Gold [ - ]

The government takes very seriously the impact of the criminal law and the criminal justice system on Canadians and is very aware — as we all are — of the disparate impact that any otherwise neutral law has on those with means and those without. Independent of whether it’s a reverse onus, if you have the means to have a good lawyer, you’re going to navigate the system far better than if you’re impecunious. That’s a fact of life in our society.

This government has taken these issues very seriously, and again — at the risk of saying more than is necessary at second reading — to its credit, as compared with previous governments.

That said, this builds upon an existing body of law in the Criminal Code and an existing body of law in our courts that recognize that it’s appropriate, at times, to reverse the onus because otherwise the risk to public safety, individuals and communities is unreasonably compromised, potentially. Judges always retain the same discretion, for better and for worse, in the face of someone accused of a crime in applying for bail.

These are proper questions for the committee, proper questions for the minister and the officials and for the other witnesses, but I am assured that the government is taking these considerations very seriously and believes that the collateral impact of these changes, modest though some of them may seem — and some of them are, as I explained in my speech — will not materially change what is the unfortunate disparate impact of our criminal law on those with more and less means.

Hon. Claude Carignan [ - ]

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak at second reading of Bill C-48, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (bail reform).

This bill has followed a somewhat unusual trajectory.

The federal government introduced it with great fanfare at first reading in the House of Commons on May 16, 2023, then stalled on bringing it back for second reading speeches and moving it forward in the House.

However, on September 18, 2023, the bill went through all stages in the House of Commons and the members passed it. The government therefore can’t accuse the opposition of delaying the study of this bill.

Yes, the bill was passed in the House of Commons, and it may pass at second reading today in the Senate, but that doesn’t mean it goes far enough and contains all the necessary measures to fix the problem it seeks to fix. That problem is the need for tougher bail provisions to better protect Canadians against those who commit serious crimes when they are out on bail.

This bill applies to individuals the police haven’t released after their arrest. In these cases, these individuals have to appear before a judge quickly to get a bail hearing.

Bill C-48 proposes adding offences for which an accused must demonstrate to the judge, during this bail hearing, that their release before trial is justified. One of these offences is currently set out in section 95 of the Criminal Code: possession of a loaded prohibited firearm. The 13 provincial and territorial premiers unanimously asked Prime Minister Trudeau, in a letter dated January 13, 2023, to place the burden on the accused for this offence.

Their letter reads, and I quote:

A reverse onus on bail must be created for the offence of possession of a loaded prohibited or restricted firearm in s. 95 of the Code. A person accused of a s. 95 offence should have to demonstrate why their detention is not justified when they were alleged to have committed an offence where there was imminent risk to the public, as is already the case with several offences involving firearms. A review of other firearms-related offences is also warranted to determine whether they should also attract a reverse onus on bail.

This is one example of why the bill doesn’t really go far enough. There are a number of serious violent and gun-related offences that aren’t included in Bill C-48.

In other words, these offences, though intrinsically serious, place no burden on the accused to show why they should be released. Some of these offences are: aggravated sexual assault without the use of a firearm; aggravated assault; hostage-taking without the use of a firearm; attempted murder without the use of a firearm; arson with disregard for human life.

I’m also thinking about offences such as manslaughter with a firearm and criminal negligence with a firearm causing death. Both of those offences are punishable by a minimum sentence of four years in prison, and that minimum sentence was deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Morrisey and R. v. Ferguson.

I’m sure that if we asked Canadians, they would say that people who commit such dangerous crimes must remain behind bars while awaiting trial or, at the very least, have the burden of proving that their release is justified.

Bill C-48 doesn’t remedy that, and I hope that the witnesses who appear before the Senate committee, including those in law enforcement, will speak out about this problem. Right now, there’s a statutory presumption set out in sections 493.1 and 515 of the Criminal Code that ensures that these accused must be released at the earliest reasonable opportunity and on the least onerous conditions that are appropriate in the circumstances, unless the Crown prosecutor can prove to the judge that it is necessary to detain them while awaiting trial or to impose on them onerous conditions of release.

Here’s another example of why Bill C-48 doesn’t go far enough. Bill C-48 proposes placing the onus on a person to justify why they should be released on bail when charged with an offence involving violence and the use of a weapon against a person and convicted of another offence involving violence and the use of a weapon against a person in the five years preceding the date of their indictment for that offence.

In other words, Bill C-48 is for repeat violent offenders. The problem is the five-year maximum between the commission of the two offences. Hypothetically speaking, a person who commits a violent offence with a weapon and would be sentenced to 10 years in prison for having committed the same type of offence isn’t affected by Bill C-48, since more than five years would’ve already gone by between the two offences.

In other words, if that person commits a violent offence with a weapon the day after being released from prison, there’s no legal presumption that they should remain behind bars while awaiting trial for this new offence. Could the federal government have set in Bill C-48 a 10-year limit between the two offences instead of five, or better yet, could it have simply eliminated this five-year threshold between the two offences? The federal government should have thought of that before introducing Bill C-48. That’s why I maintain that Bill C-48 could have gone much further to protect Canadians from repeat offenders.

Basically, this doesn’t necessarily surprise me from this government. This is the same government that proposed Bill C-75 in 2018, with the support of the Bloc. The Conservatives and police forces continue to denounce the bill as lax, because C-75 unduly favoured the release of violent repeat offenders or those who commit serious crimes with handguns.

I would like to quote from a letter dated January 12, 2023, that the Association des directeurs de police du Québec sent to the federal Minister of Public Safety in response to the tragic and preventable death of a fellow police officer, Grzegorz Pierzchala:

We cannot . . . tolerate violent criminals who repeatedly use firearms to endanger the lives of our police officers and Canadian families. These repeat offenders must not be allowed to move freely in our communities. We therefore ask you to reverse your government’s recent decision regarding the release process for violent and repeat offenders charged with firearms-related crimes. . . . Police officers have the right, as does the public, to be protected from the criminal behaviour of violent and repeat offenders, particularly those charged with firearms-related crimes. This right must take precedence when decisions related to release and sentencing are being made.

That being said, despite these serious reservations, I urge you to vote in favour of Bill C-48 at second reading in the Senate so we can continue our study at the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. I support the bill’s objective. Given the increasing incidence of crimes committed with illegal handguns in major Canadian cities, we must take urgent action to tighten bail rules. We all, including the Quebec Court of Appeal, recognize the dangers associated with this uptick in crime.

In fact, in its 2022 decision in Dallaire v. R., the court stated the following:

Canadian society strongly condemns the use of illegally owned firearms by criminals who use them illegally, dangerously and often fatally. Recent events in Quebec, such as in the Montreal, Montreal North, Longueuil, Laval and Rivière-des-Prairies areas, confirm this very real danger to peoples’ safety and to social peace.

Given the urgency of this problem and the bill’s objective, which is universally supported, I agree that an exception should be made for this bill, that is, that it should pass second reading immediately so it can be referred to the Senate committee immediately for a thorough and in-depth study as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, I’m still disappointed by the lack of strong measures in this bill to protect our fellow Canadians. Thank you, colleagues.

Hon. Kim Pate [ - ]

Honourable senators, there is no doubt that the horrifying and egregious acts of violence that led to this bill are just that. However, they were outliers, and they were not the result of an inability to detain; rather, they were primarily the result of the inadequacies and failures of social, housing, economic and health — especially mental health — systems.

At a time when there are crises of mass incarceration — particularly of Indigenous and Black people, as well as those living in poverty with mental health and addiction-related issues linked to the past trauma of abuse — why is this being offered to Canadians?

Provincial jails are already full, as you have heard, with more than 71% of people who are awaiting trial — the majority of whom are there because they are poor, racialized or dealing with past trauma, addiction and mental health issues.

We know that Indigenous women alone represent 50% of those serving federal sentences. Did you know that they represent upward of 75% to 99% — and sometimes even 100% — of those in provincial custody?

When we look at young women and girls, they represent 95% to 100% of those in jails designated for girls and young women in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the North.

Meanwhile, are Indigenous and Black communities provided with the resources they need, if we are to redress that overrepresentation? They’re offered a pittance, perhaps. Instead, they — we — are offered this, which puts the burden on specific accused to prove that they should be released from jail.

It also proposes expanding the use of reverse onus in intimate partner violence cases — without any analysis of the likely impact of this in terms of reducing reporting in an already vastly discriminated against, under-represented and underserved group.

Where is the legislation and policy to shore up the very systems that currently keep victims of intimate partner violence at risk? This includes the economic, housing, social and health supports that truly assist women to escape and be safe.

Where is the action on the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Calls for Justice of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls?

Where are the community-based and educational programs to address attitudes and biases that persist about violence against women, intimate partner violence and poverty?

Who will this bill actually end up jailing?

Let’s look at Indigenous women who have experienced violence: We know that when they are trying to escape violence, if they actually do it without grabbing something to help protect themselves, they are more likely to end up dead, quite frankly, than they are to escape.

These women are not who we think of as being a risk to public safety, yet they will face the greatest barriers in lifting a reverse onus. We see this already in the vast numbers who plead guilty, even when they have self-defence or the defence of others, or even when they are not responsible for the death or harm.

Criminal lawyers are already signalling that people of means may be able to meet the new reverse onus by proposing strict supervision and release conditions that they can self-fund, which will deepen the inequities of the legal system.

They and other groups — who are troubled by the other place’s fast-tracking of Bill C-48 — have underscored that “. . . a wealthy white person is able to displace a reverse onus presumption on bail far more easily than a racialized person from an impoverished background.”

This bill undermines Canada’s commitments to a nation-to-nation relationship, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. It insists on recriminalizing those already overrepresented in the criminal legal system, instead of addressing those issues in a meaningful way.

We also face the added reality that there is no evidence to back up the assertions that the bill will have the desired effect on public safety. If it’s anything other than political posturing, why hasn’t it been the subject of proper scrutiny in the other place? The public should be horrified by the willingness of elected officials to bypass the usual process of studying a bill and evidence such as what Canadian crime rates actually are, including violent crime rates, and the fact that they continue to be at historic lows.

The rate of individuals being found guilty of a crime and incarcerated has declined, but, while it has declined, the numbers of people in pretrial detention has more than quadrupled in the last 40 years. Bail decision making in Canada has become more restricted and risk averse over time. The only contribution sending an individual to pretrial detention could make to public safety comes from the removing of that person from the broader community for a period of time, but doesn’t focus on what happens when that person returns to the community without access to the very supports that brought them there in the first place.

The only contribution sending an individual to pretrial detention could make to public safety comes from that removal, and, yet, we’re encouraging the increased reliance on pretrial detention, which will make it more likely that an individual will plead guilty just to be released from jail. This raises more concerns about another bill that we’re waiting to see: that of wrongful convictions and how we address them. Tightening the bail system and increasing reliance on pretrial detention will have discriminatory outcomes and undermine efforts to combat systemic discrimination and the legacies of colonialism.

I would argue, colleagues, that it is irresponsible and undemocratic to race this kind of performative legislation through Parliament. The bill facilitates throwing people, especially Indigenous women, into jail without a trial. The parliamentary process mirrors that of the system that already exists. We should be treating people fairly, not hastily. The government’s position is that the bill will address the public’s concerns related to repeat and violent offending, and offences involving firearms and other weapons. The public needs to be provided with meaningful, substantive and accurate information, a Charter and constitutionally compliant system, based on facts and evidence and free from political interference. That, my friends, is what I hope we will contribute through the Legal Committee and debates in this place. Meegwetch. Thank you.

Hon. Frances Lankin [ - ]

Thank you very much. I appreciate all the contributions, and I think that there are important issues for us to delve into. I particularly appreciate you raising not just specifically Indigenous and Black women, but the gender bias within the justice system.

One thing that I have been aware of from working with women’s organizations that work with women who have experienced intimate domestic violence and/or abuse within the home is the change in the attitude of policing that has gone on over a period of time. I would have thought there would be more sensitivity and a better situation, but the statistics I have seen — and from what I have been told — show that there has been a growth in the number of times in which a woman defending herself will be, in fact, charged and arrested.

I wonder if you have any other specific or general information about that. In particular, at the Legal and Constitutional Committee, I hope that in the study this will be one of the second reading concerns that have been raised that you will look into. You alluded to this in terms of speaking about the added difficulty that women face in these circumstances in having to meet the reverse onus, so I hope that you would undertake to examine that part of it, too.

Senator Pate [ - ]

Thank you very much for that question and suggestion. I would agree. Certainly, the findings coming out of numerous inquests into the deaths of women, particularly Indigenous women, but also the Mass Casualty Commission, really point to the need to do more of that work and understand how countercharging and the vilification of the victim has actually backfired, particularly when it comes to those who are intersectionally disadvantaged, whether it’s by race, gender, identity or poverty.

While there have been great strides made in awareness about these issues — I have certainly met individual police officers and I know of excellent police policies, they are not always followed. It’s often more unusual to see — and I think I have spoken about those previously in this chamber — when really exceptional work has been done by police officers. It shouldn’t have to be the exception, and I think that’s one of the areas that we need to examine. This kind of approach doesn’t come close to addressing the overarching issues that contribute to those situations.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore [ - ]

Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to adopt the motion?

Some Hon. Senators: Agreed.

An Hon. Senator: On division.

(Motion agreed to and bill read second time, on division.)

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