Strengthening Military Justice in the Defence of Canada Act (Bill C-15)

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today in the debate on Bill C-15, An Act to amend the National Defence Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts. The short title is always the jazzier version, which is “strengthening military justice in the defence of Canada” bill.


I will pause before diving into the details of Bill C-15 that concern me. I find the character of this debate at second reading, and I am sure anybody observing this on the parliamentary channel will also find it, unusual in that, so far, until I rose to speak on behalf of the Green Party, we have only been hearing from members of the official opposition.

I do not know why this is. I think it is symptomatic of the unnecessarily partisan nature of debates in the House on legislation. There was a time, and I worked in Ottawa in that time, when working on legislation was not a partisan matter, but a largely co-operative and consensual matter to come to the best possible conclusions about how to improve legislative efforts before us.

Amendments were not considered a threat to the government of the day. The amendment and the debate processes were seen as part of the role and proper function of Parliament. In that sense, it would be totally in keeping with parliamentary democracy to always see members on all sides of the House put their oar in at second reading and suggest where they think the committee, which will be the specialist members of Parliament on all sides of the House, will dig in and what the committee should focus on when it looks a bill, such as a bill of this nature, which is largely a good work but has areas that need fixing.

We should approach debates in the House with much less partisanship. Every question I have heard from the hon. parliamentary secretary toward members of the official opposition has been to accuse them of somehow being hostile to the purposes of the bill or to try to stop it from being passed. I hear this far too often in this place.

When parliamentarians from any side of the House speak to legislation, that is our role and our job and it is not a political game or waste of time. The very purpose and essence of parliamentary democracy is to ensure that legislation, which Canadians will have to live with for a very long time, is derived through the most exultant of intellectual processes invoking rigour, thought and research so we come up with the very best possible legislation, not the very nastiest of debates.

With that set aside, I want to speak to the bill.

I want to associate myself with the purposes of Canadian military justice as set out by someone who has been quoted quite a lot in debate today, a former colonel and now professor in the faculty of law at Ottawa University, Colonel Michel Drapeau.

In this article, which originally appeared in the Hill Times, he set out very clearly where we were as we approached this debate today. He said:

At the end of the day, Canadian military law, which incorporates both the criminal law of Canada as well as civil offences committed outside Canada, is a vital and necessary law in order to maintain discipline and order among the troops, and is believed to be one of the many reasons why the Canadian Forces are considered one of the world’s best, despite its small size. Considering the power that military law has over its audience, our citizen-soldiers deserve a world-class military justice system. A military justice system which is, first and foremost, just and fair to the accused while being responsive to the military need for discipline.

Obviously, the National Defence Act is still deficient in some major areas and it requires more than tweaks and tinkering to bring it into the 21st century.

That sets the context. This is not a wholesale assault on military justice coming from opposition benches. It is an attempt to ensure that this time that when we take a crack at military justice, considering that the comments and the work goes back to the work of Judge Lamer back in 2003, that we get it right in the 21st century.

As a general comment, we have missed out because we are still reaching back to 2003, nine years ago, for our recommendations. They are good recommendations but the world has moved on in a number of areas.

Again, as a general comment, I hope the committee will look at the reforms that have been taking place among many of our allied nations and friends, such as the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Germany and France, that have been looking at their military justice systems. I do not like using nouns as verbs, but since Professor Drapeau did it, I will repeat it, “civilianizing”, taking a military justice system and seeing if we cannot combine resources. His recommendation is that the military justice system be folded into the Federal Court. There would then be within the Federal Court a specific area of expertise around military justice. This would achieve quite a lot of efficiencies and cost savings, something the Conservative government usually likes.

Another comment from Professor Drapeau, which is overarching to this whole process, was why we were looking at the bill now when just last March, Justice Patrick LeSage was appointed to conduct a review of the military justice provisions of the National Defence Act. Would we not be wiser in the House to see what he recommended in light of all the things that have transpired over the last nine years since the report of Justice Lamer?

In any case, in moving to some specific areas of concern about the legislation, I am sure the committee will look at this, but I hope it will be open to amendments.

To the question of efficiencies and costs, it is quite surprising to find new judicial positions being created. Particularly, on the creation of a reserve force military judge panel, Mr. Drapeau noted that the current military judiciary had one of the lightest case loads of any branch in Canada. We know the Supreme Court of Canada has a heavy case load as does the Federal Court and most provinces. Under the weight of their case loads, justice grinds slowly. However, here we have a light case load with the creation of an additional reserve force military judge panel, which Professor Drapeau terms, “a costly extravagance”. We should look at that and see if we really need those provisions and additional judges.

I want to direct most of my attention to the changes in grievance procedures. I will start the discussion by going back to Mr. Justice Lamer’s report. Members can find this on page 86 of the report tabled to the Minister of National Defence in September 2003.

Mr. Justice Lamer puts it quite clearly. He wrote:

Soldiers are not second class citizens. They are entitled to be treated with respect, and in the case of the grievance process, in a procedurally fair manner….It is essential to the morale of CF members that their grievances be addressed in a fair, transparent, and prompt manner.

It is here to which quite a number of Mr. Justice Lamer’s comments were directed in his recommendations. It is important to set the grievance process in the context to which Mr. Justice Lamer set it. The rest of what we are dealing with in the act is important, but I am concentrating on this because I heard relatively less of it in debate at second reading.

Unlike the rest of the military justice process, the grievance process is inherently non-adversarial. Nobody is being charged and it is not a question of whether members of our military force have access to a lawyer. It is a fundamental question of whether receipts have been honoured properly or that their working conditions are appropriate. It is in the standard management-labour context a grievance, but their grievances are treated differently.

Mr. Justice Lamer said that we should use a process that is, in essence, co-operative. Certainly this is a place where I can see efforts to take Justice Lamer’s comments onboard. His recommendation 75 is virtually verbatim in clause 6, which in the act would be section 29.11, to move matters along as informally and expeditiously as circumstance and fairness permit. However, there are many other recommendations of Mr. Justice Lamer that have not been dealt with in this act.

One of the changes in the act for grievance procedures was not recommended by anyone. I query why we have to continually change the names of things but, for some reason, Bill C-15 would change the name of the Canadian Forces Grievance Board to the Military Grievance External Review Committee. Any time the name of a board is changed, although it may be a small matter, all the stationary needs to be redone. Why this change in Bill C-15 instead of some of the more pertinent things that Mr. Justice Lamer wanted done with the grievance procedure?

Right now grievance procedures still go all the way to the Chief of Defence Staff. The Chief of Defence Staff can delegate, but recommendation 78 would give the commanding officer a maximum of 20 days to try to explore alternatives to the grievance process before it would start to go up the hierarchy to the Chief of Defence Staff.

Christine Moore: Mr. Speaker, I have a question for my colleague on the specific issue of the summary trial system reform.

Having served in the armed forces, I think some people in the military do not grasp the complexity of the military justice system. For example, a 17 or 18-year-old can be summarily tried for a relatively minor offence, not fully understanding what is happening. Summary trials are very impressive. Everyone moves very quickly. You are escorted in front of the commander. It is all very impressive.

Does the member think young soldiers understand the impact summary trials can have on their post-military career?

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, I thank my friend from Abitibi—Témiscamingue for her question.

I am not in a position to comment on the way things are for members of the Canadian armed forces. She is, however, having served in the Canadian Forces. I think she has a better understanding of the world in which our military personnel lives.

We could simplify the summary procedures. They are not necessarily unconstitutional, but there certainly are questions raised about their constitutionality.

A summary proceeding is one of those areas where we might move to something much closer to a civilian process, with civilian judges and all the access to rights and a clear understanding of the charges, for the members of our military. Again, members of our Canadian Forces are not second-class citizens and they should never face charges they do not completely understand.

Kevin Lamoureux: Mr. Speaker, what I would like to pick up on from the previous question is this. I, too, was a member of the Canadian Forces. The last thing one thinks about when joining the forces is what kind of court system they have or what kind of disciplinary action they take. If accepted, one is quite honoured and privileged. I enjoyed the experience.

At this point, I would like to emphasize just how small the percentage is of members of the force who actually find themselves in the position of having to go through a military court proceeding. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of 40 to 60 cases in any given year is a guesstimate.

The principle of the bill is to try to narrow the difference between civil and military courts. The Liberal Party supports that principle. That is one of the reasons why we have no problem with it going to committee.

Would the leader of the Green Party provide her thoughts with respect to the importance of where we can ensure there are civil court procedures that would be afforded in the same fashion to military courts and how we can narrow that difference?

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, the court martial proceedings on battlegrounds are a very specific set of circumstances which apply themselves poorly to a civilian context. As has been pointed out, we have civilian workers in Afghanistan who happen to work at Tim Hortons and who fall under military justice.

We need to ensure that the men and women of the Canadian Forces have a system of justice that is no less protective of their rights, no less clear in ensuring access to counsel and that the charges against them are completely clear. There really is no reason to have a completely separate class of justice for members of our military.