Craig's Speech on Bill C-394, An Act to amend the Criminal Code and the National Defence Act (criminal organization recruitment)

June 18th, 2012 - 11:30pm

Mr. Craig Scott (Toronto—Danforth, NDP):  Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise to support Bill C-394 going to committee. I think we have an opportunity here for some serious cross-party co-operation with respect to this private member's bill. That said, I have some of the same concerns I always do with private members' bills being the vehicle for criminal law reform. They have serious limitations I will address a little bit in my remarks, and that is why I was very pleased to see that one of the parliamentary secretaries to the Minister of Justice is involved in the file. I hope that as much as possible, a broader, more holistic justice department input to this private member's bill can be forthcoming.

We are all aware that street gangs are becoming more and more of a problem in this country. My own city, Toronto, is ranked among the cities having the largest growing problem. We all know recent events at the Eaton Centre in Toronto, which is actually linked to ongoing gang violence within an area very close to my own riding, although not exactly in my riding, of Regent's Park where, at the end of March on one evening alone, five different incidents occurred producing 90 bullets flying around a housing community in that one evening. The escalating gang violence in that area of Toronto was what, it appears, led to the shooting at the crowded Eaton Centre food court.

Clearly something is wrong, if not terribly wrong, and we must act now, so I welcome the member's private member's bill. It is completely consistent with what the NDP has been calling for since the 2011 election, when it was part of our campaign platform to create an offence for gang recruitment.

That said, we recognize that it cannot be viewed in isolation as an ad hoc measure, which brings me back to the concerns I have with private members' bills and their limitations.

It is important that we rely, as we move forward to committee, on serious, expert studies about what works and what does not and how this one provision will and will not fit with a broader, more holistic strategy.

There is a 2010 report from a leading academic, Scott Wortley, of the University of Toronto, called “Youth, Gangs and Violence: Characteristic Causes and Prevention Strategy”. In this report he notes a few things that are very important for us to keep in mind, because I would like to focus mostly on the issue of youth. He says, “Gang violence is more likely to occur in public spaces, involve weapons, especially firearms, and involve multiple victims...and is more likely to result in the victimization of innocent bystanders”.

He goes on to speak more generally about the involvement of youth gang members in much higher levels of crime and violence than non-gang youth as something that studies in Canada and in other countries have consistently shown.

He finally notes that youth gang members are much more likely to become the victims themselves. I think this is really important for us to remember, the victims themselves of serious violence, including homocide - than youths who are not involved in gangs. In this respect it helps us consider the fact that members of gangs themselves can be viewed as, victims.

One of the issues that will be coming up in committee, I hope, is youth recruiting youth. It is not simply a matter of youth being recruited, but of youth as  the recruiters. It is not entirely clear what a criminalization provision will do to that very important complex social fact. We have to keep in mind that members of youth gangs are, not surprisingly, youth. They are used for the recruitment of their peers, and simply criminalizing that behaviour would not get us very far, I submit.

We have to counter the flaring up of violence and what looks to be the increase in gang activity not only by clamping down on violence in a pure Criminal Code mode but also by looking for more long-term solutions. As Professor Wortley said in his report, “Enforcement alone is not going to stop this problem”.

We have to focus on prevention. Members opposite sometimes feel that the NDP overdoes its focus on prevention. They think that somehow this means the NDP is soft on crime. Far from it; it simply means we understand the most effective ways to root out crime before it starts and to prevent it from occurring again.

There is a whole continuum of measures that need to be put in place by a society to give opportunities to those who might otherwise turn to crime or, in this instance, those who might be susceptible to being recruited. If they fall off the wagon, so to speak, they end up being put in jail. We have to make sure that downstream measures within our jail system do not recreate the tendencies to engage in criminal behaviour. This more holistic, long-term and continuum-like approach of the NDP is perfectly consistent with a hard-on-crime approach; it is just a smart-on-crime approach as well.

Gangs have always targeted young people, but they seem to be doing so increasingly. As the member for Brampton—Springdale, who introduced the bill, stated in his own introduction, criminal organizations do appear to be targeting youth as young as eight years old and quite commonly in the range of 12 and 13 to participate in criminal activities and to become actual members of organizations. Members are even hanging around boys and girls clubs just, for example, hoping to recruit innocent children.

As we have already heard from the member for Ottawa South and the member for Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, the most vulnerable to being recruited tend to be young people who are marginalized, those who are from lower socio-economic groups, those who are from tougher family situations and some who in a more long-term sense are looking ahead to their future prospects in society and are in some despair about where the opportunities do and do not lie for them. These background social facts are as important as the immediate goal of preventing recruitment or preventing organized crime youth gang activity itself.

The NDP's priority is to approach this using a balanced approach. We want to make sure that people live in safe, non-violent communities by putting the emphasis on more programs to prevent young people from being recruited into gangs. I am speaking of programs like the Remix Project created some five years ago in Toronto to serve the needs of young people who are vulnerable to being recruited to gangs.

I have had the opportunity with colleagues to have an early meeting with Boys and Girls Club representatives, knowing the bill would be coming forward. I urge other members to listen to their perspectives and the perspectives of other organizations that work closely with youth.

Among the concerns we heard, in what was at this stage still a fairly casual discussion, was exactly what I have already raised: the youth-being-recruited-by-youth issue cannot be ignored. It has to be adressed head on. Youth themselves can be recruiters, and this will criminalize their behaviour as well as anybody else who is recruiting.

The second part of the strategy is that we need to have programs and measures that take a positive approach and creation of bright options for youth looking into the future. These two messages I took away from our early conversations as being absolutely key.

The NDP has called for an offence of gang recruitment, but we have also put it in the context of a long-standing defence of such measures such as putting more police into communities and creating dedicated youth gang prevention funds and activities.

Let me now go to three concerns about the bill that have to be taken into account. We cannot simply say that we are in favour of it in principle and would like to see it in committee and that therefore everything is fine. It is not entirely fine.

The first point is that the nature of a private member's bill means that at least from the beginning, the justice department is not involved. We do not have anything resembling a whole-of-government approach to the bill. It is one of the classic areas that I hope I have already outlined in my remarks that needs a more holistic, continuum-like approach to the issue.

That does not mean that something like this cannot go forward on its own, but it will be a real shame if we lose the opportunity to build this initiative into a much broader understanding of what else is out there and, most importantly, what needs to be put in place for this not to be simply a punitive approach to the problem. It is an approach that is necessary as part of the solution, but on its own, it will only make us feel good but get nothing done.  

It is important to note, and I do not mean to make this sound too partisan, but the Conservatives have not been generally favourable to the preventive side. In January 2011, a scarce year ago, the Conservatives announced severe cuts to the Youth Gang Prevention Fund, and it was only a push-back from the NDP that had that reinstated.

We really do need the Conservatives to approach this more holistically.

Secondly, we have to focus on the mandatory minimum concern that was already brought up.

Finally, ending here, we really have to look at the issue of youth recruiting other youth, and make sure the committee process hears from witnesses who know about that and have real ideas on how to deal with it.