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Bill C-93 (Expedited Record Suspensions for Simple Cannabis Possession) - Third Reading

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak at third reading to Bill C-93, An Act to provide no-cost, expedited record suspensions for simple possession of cannabis.

Before I get into that, I want to thank Senators Colin Deacon and Marty Deacon, who both worked alongside me. I want to thank all the leaders in the Senate for their considerable role in agenda planning that has allowed us to get here this evening.

I want to thank Senator Carignan, the critic who has applied his extensive legal and parliamentary skills and knowledge to this bill; the chair of Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Senator Joyal, his steering committee and members of the committee for going the extra mile in considering the bill expeditiously. I also want to thank Senator Pate for her contributions. We know that we have a foremost Canadian expert on those — and particularly women — who are marginalized, victimized or incarcerated.

As stated last week in my second reading statement, the objective of Bill C-93 is to allow individuals affected by simple cannabis convictions the option of shedding the burden of stigma as well as eliminating barriers to meaningful employment, education, housing, the ability to volunteer in their communities and having a greater ability to travel.

Under this important legislation, individuals who have been convicted of simple possession will be able to apply for a record suspension or pardon free of the $631 application cost and also of the five- to 10-year wait times. It’s also important to note that there would be no subjectivity to this process. Once all of the required documentation is provided to Parole Board, the applicant would be granted a record suspension regardless of other assessment criteria used for regular pardons applications.

The proposed pardon process under Bill C-93 will be a simplified and expedited version of the existing pardons or records suspension process that has been in place for many years and it recognizes the tens of thousands of people who have been unfairly convicted of possessing a substance that is now legal and strictly regulated in Canada.

This applicant-driven process would allow individuals to apply for a record suspension as long as they have completed their sentence and where the only conviction on their criminal record was simple possession of cannabis. Simple possession generally refers to a criminal charge for possession of controlled substance, in this case cannabis, for personal use with no intent to traffic.

Due to an important amendment at the House of Commons, individuals could still apply even if they have outstanding fees associated with their conviction. This amendment, in addition to several others adopted at the House of Commons Public Safety Committee, would help those who may be disadvantaged or vulnerable to be eligible to apply for a record suspension under Bill C-93.

Last Thursday, the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs heard from the Honourable Ralph Goodale Minister of Public Safety and senior officials from several departments on the policy objectives and the practical application of this legislation, should it be adopted. The minister testified that this initiative is intended to assist individuals who have been convicted of simple cannabis possess in their rehabilitation, and to help those people lead productive lives in our society.

During his testimony the minister stated that:

It’s a question of fairness. It’s a question of faster reintegration into the mainstream of society. It’s an objective of trying to make sure - especially with respect to marginalized groups upon whom there was a disproportionate impact of the old cannabis law - that they are treated fairly and appropriately.

This is an objective shared by many cannabis amnesty advocates, including representatives from the Canadian Black Lawyers Association, the Canadian Bar Association and the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty.

During his testimony at committee, Mr. William Thompson of the Canadian Bar Association said that:

The CBA has long advocated a harm-reduction approach to drug use — one that relies on health care, treatment options and careful regulation rather than criminal prohibition to save lives and reduce the harms to users and the broader community. Reducing the continuing barriers to people, moving their lives on from these convictions is an important step in that approach. In fact, the section would support an automatic process to expunge simple possession convictions from people’s records, but it recognizes there may be practical impediments to that approach . . .

Colleagues, in addition to this testimony heard at Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on Monday, we also heard from Senator Carignan and Senator C. Deacon on expedited pardons last week. Based on their statements and those made from other honourable senators in committee, I think it’s safe to say that senators and expert witnesses alike are of the same mind on the objectives that Bill C-93 is trying to achieve. Many senators in this chamber, regardless of political stripe, would likely agree that the government should be doing more to recognize the injustices imposed by simple cannabis possession and especially those who are indigenous, racialized or living in vulnerable communities.

Many of us would likely want to see a more automated pardon process for those convicted of simple cannabis possessions.

In his speech last week, Senator Carignan referenced a program in California for called Clear My Record through Code for America. It is a computerized program that allows for the expedient removal of simple criminal code records, such as the simple possession of cannabis.

I completely agree that we should be looking to other jurisdictions and programs to inform how our government might address injustices associated with cannabis possession. However, I also recognize the difficulty in implementing a similar measure here in Canada in the near future.

Officials have been clear that while a more automated process is desirable, it will be challenging and will require considerable lead time measured in years. The challenge is that currently — and many of you know this — we have a vast, complex and widely distributed constellation of often paper-based records, with others likely stored on various forms of storage media that have constantly changed over the last decade or two. If your basement is like mine, I could describe my records in exactly the same way.

As a result, it’s not possible to electronically process pardons for all of those having simple possession charges. This would require the digitization of the hundreds of thousands of legal documents dealing with drug possession charges. The process of consolidating data across jurisdictional boundaries would require data sharing agreements and maintaining compliance with varying jurisdictional privacy codes. As a result, there is no fast route to automation, as desirable as that is.

The automated pardons and/or expungements preferred by many would take years and millions of dollars to realize and is best done in the context of broader justice system reforms. The Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs makes some very strong observations on this point.

Honourable senators, we have to focus on what we can reasonably do in the meantime. I believe Bill C-93 answers that question. We are all obligated as parliamentarians to ensure members of our communities are allowed equal participation in our society. We want to empower those who are disadvantaged because of their simple cannabis possession convictions so they too can access better jobs, appropriate housing and so they can volunteer and expand their travel opportunities.

I have no doubt that we as senators will continue to press for system reforms in the coming years and we have an opportunity to move closer towards those reforms today with Bill C-93.

Honourable senators, Bill C-93 is not perfect but as Senator Sinclair said last week, perfection can be sometimes the enemy of the good. I would encourage you all to join me in voting in favour of Bill C-93 so that we can help those carrying the burden of minor cannabis convictions to shed the stigma of criminality and participate equally in contributing to our society and their own well-being.