Canadian lawmakers spent time this week debating two competing bills: Bill C-93, the Liberal bill designed to ease the criminal record pardon process for Canadians convicted of cannabis possession in the past, and Bill C-415, an NDP private member's bill that would eliminate those criminal records entirely.
The debate on the Liberal bill started Monday with a speech by Liberal MP Karen McCrimmon. (She's parliamentary secretary to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, the bill's sponsor.) McCrimmon explained how Bill C-93 would work: it would waive the $631 application fee to apply for a pardon, and do away with the waiting period to apply for pardons after a sentence is served. The bill would also streamline how the Parole Board of Canada processes those pardons, making them all but automatic.
"If the police and court records showed that a person's only conviction was for possession of cannabis for personal use, that person would get a pardon," said McCrimmon.
McCrimmon commented on why the government bill doesn't offer unilateral amnesty to Canadians with criminal records for cannabis possession, who will still have to apply for their pardons.
"Canadian law has never had an offence known as cannabis possession," said McCrimmon, who argued that finding and issuing an amnesty for all those offences would require a massive amount of resources at all levels of government, and would take a long time. Having Canadians apply for their own pardons would get results faster, she said.
McCrimmon also dismissed the criminal record expungement approach proposed by NDP MP Murray Rankin in Bill C-415, arguing that the effect of a pardon or an expungement would be virtually the same. Cannabis prohibition didn't violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, so those offences don't merit expungement, McCrimmon said.
Speaking in French, Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus said his party considers C-93 "pretty reasonable," but expressed some reservations as he called for further study of the bill in Committee; in particular, Paul-Hus suggested the cannabis pardons program could cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars in lost pardon fees, and that taxpayers shouldn't have to foot that bill.
Conservatives would support the pardons bill for now, at least while it gets studied in committee, he said.
In his Monday speech, NDP MP Murray Rankin said the New Democrats will oppose Bill C-93, which he called "too little, too late." He made the case instead for his own private member's bill, Bill C-415 that would completely expunge criminal records for cannabis possession.
Rankin's bill was up for debate on Thursday. McCrimmon again argued that record expungement is, for all intents and purposes, the same as a pardon, and claimed pardons would actually be preferable to expungements for Canadians who want to travel to the U.S.
"For example, if the United States had previously noted a person's conviction in its records, they could still have that information, despite one's pardon or expungement. If U.S. authorities ask someone to provide evidence of their pardoned conviction, they can get that from the Parole Board. With expungement, there would likely be no Canadian records to provide," she said.
Rankin pushed back against McCrimmon, saying "the government is trying to conflate expungement and pardon as if there were no difference." He also questioned the Liberal assertion that record expungement would be impractically time-consuming and expensive.
"If it costs money and it is inconvenient, let us talk about what it means to that black person in Toronto who cannot get his or her foot on the social ladder and has to perhaps be on social assistance, or that Indigenous person who cannot rent an apartment because they have a criminal record," said Rankin. The NDP MP said he hopes both bills could be considered together during future study by committee, and that "people of goodwill could try to find a solution which would involve expungement."
The House of Commons is now on break for two weeks. The next vote on the Liberal pardons bill is expected some time after the House resumes, said a spokesperson for Goodale. Rankin's office said the next vote on the expungement bill is expected May 1.
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