Human rights? That’s our middle name! – Liveblogging the Justice and Human Rights Committee

Just a quick heads up to any of y’all who are – shall we say ever so slightly less fascinated in what Justice Minister Rob Nicholson has to say about supplementary estimates than the debate over Brian Storseth’s motion to have the committee look into Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act: You might want to check back here closer to, oh, say, 5pm, since that’s when that last item of business is scheduled to take place.

3:15:41 PM
Testing, testing – is this on? Sorry about this, but the minimeltdown that interrupted last week’s Finance committee liveblogging has made me just a wee bit paranoid about my connection to the rest of the world. I wouldn’t want my readers to miss a single scintillating moment of supplementary estimates, after all.
3:24:13 PM
And here’s the minister — looking dapper if not exactly skipping with glee at having the chance to chat with the committee about why his department needs more money. He’s also scrumming at the table before the meeting has even begun, which is usually bad form for a witness, but in his case, I’ll cut him some slack because it’s likely that nobody will have time to follow him out afterwards, given the second item of business on the agenda. Anyway, committee members are waiting, with varying degrees of visible (im)patience.

3:28:27 PM
Okay, here we go. Bang goes the gavel, and the Chair – Ed Fast, who we will absolutely not call Fast Eddy, ironically or otherwise, no matter how tempted we may be – who explains that originally, this meeting was supposed to be devoted to the Director of Public Prosecutions, but due to scheduling rejiggering, the minister is up instead. He introduces the clerks, assistant clerks and analysts, and turns the floor over to Rob Nicholson.

3:31:17 PM

Okay, for a moment there, it sounded like even the Justice Minister was going to be Talking About The Economy, which sent a collective shudder of horror through the surprisingly well-populated media tables; he even gave a mini-ministomercial for the budget, but only as a segue to stress how important it is for departments — all departments — to be even more accountable than ever. He moves onto various high priority issues — the aforementioned Director of Public Prosecutions, as well as “family-centred” family justice law, which seems to be mostly about divorce and access.

3:36:06 PM
You know, the programs and initiatives that the minister is touting – entirely worthwhile though they may be; who would come out against a federal victim strategy, honestly? – are, as far as I can tell, stuff that should have been covered in the original main estimates. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the purpose of supplementary estimates, but isn’t it supposed to cover unexpected overruns, not just equine therapy in Western Ontario as a treatment for youth addicted to drugs? Not that I’m against that, either – I just don’t see why it wasn’t in the mains.

3:38:45 PM
Brent Rathgerber is very, very, very tall. That, or everyone else on that side of the table is unnaturally short, but I’m thinking the former. It’s always more surprising when politicians turn out to be taller than expected. I remember being absolutely stunned by the daunting loominess of Christian Paradis.

3:41:07 PM
“We have accomplished much in terms of crime legislation” … Wait, was that just to make sure we’re paying attention? Because yeah, the Tackling Violent Crime bill did make it through to Royal Assent after much pouting, tantrum-throwing and eventually, outright threatening of the Senate, but we didn’t have a functioning Justice committee from March til June, which suggests that the legislative load was maybe not as high as it could have been.

3:42:57 PM
Youth = scary. Okay, not all, just the violently offending ones, but that was important enough to take up a full five minutes of opening statement. Also, abuse of elders — also important — and other good, crime-fightin’, wrong-rightin’ activities. Also, the minister is very very thankful to the committee for the work it has done, and will continue to do. Hurray for committee! Hurray for the Justice department! Hurray!

3:46:16 PM
And – questions! First up, Brian Murphy, who notes that opposition MPs were definitely aware of the cross-country meetings the minister held on youth justice, although they weren’t actually invited to take part, but have subsequently heard from many local stakeholders who *did* attend the meetings that they – the stakeholders, that is – were adamant that the “denunciation and deterrence” approach was not appropriate. He wants to know whether anything has actually come out of these meetings – a report, say, on what he heard. Was there value for money? The minister chuckles in what he clearly intends to be a good-humoured, tolerant way: Of course he listened to stakeholders, and he heard many different things.

The roundtables, he suggests, only cost $85,000 – not sure if that is per meeting or total, but it doesn’t sound as though *that* would have been sufficient to push the departmental budget into the red. The government plans to bring in legislation – in fact, it tried to do so during the last parliament – and — okay, he’s now used the words “quite frankly” even more than does the PM on a particularly terse and surly day.

3:53:00 PM
Onto Real Menard, who picks up where Murphy left off – see, that’s how you make the most of committee, opposition parties; cooperation. He, too, wants to see the documents used during those consultations, as well as the conclusions. I’m wondering if maybe he and Murphy have some idea what is in that report.

Oh, and what’s his take on that whole human rights commission thing?

3:54:54 PM
Ha ha ha, Nicholson begins his response with an even less convincing laugh: the result of the consultations will, of course, be the legislation that his government eventually introduces. Wait, why doesn’t he want to release that report? Doesn’t publicly-funded public opinion research have to be made public within a certain period of time?

Oh, and as for the Canadian Human Rights Act, he looks forward to the committee’s eventual report on that subject. Uh, he’s counted noses, right? I mean, anything could happen when it goes to a vote, but I wouldn’t be betting on Storseth’s motion actually being passed.

Real Menard, meanwhile, thinks that the committee should look at adding social condition to the areas covered by the existing CHRA.

4:00:56 PM
Hey, is here! I hope he, too, is hungry for more background on the supplementary estimates. Then again, who wouldn’t be?

4:01:39 PM
Joe Comartin takes the mic, and starts off with an oblique reference to how the last committee ground to a halt – okay, actually not that oblique – before asking what the status is of the government’s plan to combat identity theft. The minister actually seems enthusiastic about the question — he isn’t willing to say that it will be his *first* priority, as far as the legislative agenda, but he’ll be talking it over with cabinet.

Moving on, Comartin wonders about that Toronto Star article this morning on crime prevention money left unspent (see today’s Need To Know for the link) and the minister seems slightly puzzled by the question. Shoddy prep work, clippings people!

4:06:23 PM
Comartin keeps hammering away on that unspent money, and Nicholson defends his department’s handling of its budget; he’s also bemused by the suggestion that the Office of the Ombudsman for Victims has been somehow slow to get off the ground.

4:07:28 PM
Good, if unlikely to be answered question — and points for sneaking it into the fairly narrow mandate of supplementary estimates review: Has Justice spent any money obtaining a legal opinion on the Omar Khadr case? Yup, the minister deflects — he doesn’t comment on specific cases. Nice try, though.

4:09:06 PM
And now, over to the government: Daniel Petit, to be precise, who delivers a mini-tirade on organized crime in Montreal, and how it is bad.

4:10:50 PM
Also bad: Drugs. And crime. I have no idea how this question fits into the previously mentioned narrow mandate, as far as supplementary estimates, but the chair lets him get it out of his system, and the minister takes advantage of what is basically an open invitation to talk about crime and drugs, and how both are not, as it turns out, good. He – the minister – would also like to “go further” on drug crime — specifically, the importers and exporters — through mandatory jail terms. I wonder if any of the opposition members can work a question on inSite into the next round.

4:14:30 PM
Rob Moore takes the last bit of time allotted to the government for this round, and obligingly gives Nicholson another minute or so of open mic time to discuss victims’ rights. Which are *good*, just to keep everyone up to date. He’s glad that there is now an office dedicated to supporting victims, and he thinks it will be a permanent feature of the judicial system.

4:18:27 PM
And with that, we’re onto the second round, and Ujjal Dosanjh keeps the pressure on over the leftover funds that could have gone to groups and programs dedicated to preventing crime. Nicholson, who is sounding just the slightest bit tired of this line of questioning, invites Dosanjh, and anyone else, to let him know about any “innovative ideas” out there that could use government funding. Really! He also reels off a list of programs that *have* benefited from the money, and by the end, is speaking so fast that the Bloc’s Marc Lemay has to give him the universal ear pointing wave that translates to, roughly, “You’ve totally lost the interpreter – slow down”. But he has so little time!

Another question from Dosanjh about drug courts – in fact, it’s more like a que–, since the chair points out that he’s actually out of time – which seems to have something to do with the Vancouver court.

4:24:23 PM
Marc Lemay follows, thereby confirming my far too scattered recollection from last week’s barrage of routine motionizing: the Justice committee didn’t fall for the motion to give the government every second question in all rounds after the first. He wants to know about rehabilitation and post-release support for prisoners, and “cyberpredators”, which makes me think of the Operative. I miss Firefly. Also, everyone out there: do watch the premiere of Dollhouse this Friday on Fox — it deserves a chance!

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, back to the minister, who points to the saga of Swirly Face as an example of global cooperation against internet-enhanced child abuse, and chides the Bloc for not supporting mandatory sentences.

4:30:29 PM
The national sex offender registry – what’s up with that? That’s basically the gist of Rick Norlock’s softball to the minister. Why doesn’t it work? Shouldn’t we look into that? The minister notes that progress has been made, but acknowedges that more needs to be done. You know, I’m going to come up with a set of committee witness-specific emoticons to sum up standard responses like that.

Norlock also wonders about the “two-beer defence” in drunk driving cases, and Nicholson assures him that the government is confident that the current law is constitutional.

4:35:09 PM
Back to the opposition, and David McGuinty is up: he, too, wants to know about legal opinions on Omar Khadr. Interestingly, one of the government members – Storseth, I believe, but I was on my berry when he spoke up – tries to have the chair rule that line of questioning out of order, but the chair disagrees, and lets McGuinty go ahead. Told y’all I had a good feeling about this chair, not that it does much good as far as extracting an answer from the minister on whether there are any plans to deal with Omar Khadr “when he is ultimately repatriated” — McGuinty gets squiffy, but the minister stubbornly refuses to answer any specific questions.

Let’s see if he likes questions about our policy on lobbying for the commutation of the death penalty abroad, shall we? McGuinty asks whether all citizens are treated equally, and – oh, wait, now Daniel Petit is raging over McGuinty for bringing politics onto the floor – yes, what does he think he is; a politician? – and generally grouses and grumbles and demands the chair step in. Real Menard, however, points out that it is the privilege of *all* members to ask questions of the minister.

Eventually, the chair points out that actually, McGuinty’s time is up, although he does sorta kinda side with the opposition as far as whether his unanswered questions on Canadian citizenship and Omar Khadr were relevent.

4:43:17 PM
Over to Rathgerber, who must get so tired of people misspelling his name, and who has a very technical question on counting pre-custody time served in sentencing, and Nicholson falls back on his default answer: Legislation, like Gabbo, is coming. “We’ve just gotten started,” he assures the committee.

4:49:31 PM
Sorry about that burst of silence – sunspot-induced connection glurble, but it seems to be over now. Rathgerber had one more question for the minister, which was basically a straight line to allow him to stress that he never, ever wanted to put fourteen year olds in jail with hardened adult criminals, and then hands the microphone over to Storseth, who wonders about — bullying? Seriously? He’s bringing up bullying before he tries to persuade the committee to review Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act? I don’t know why, but that seems to be juxtapos-y, somehow.

4:53:56 PM
One last question for the minister, and it comes from Rob Moore, who may or may not be the parliamentary secretary for Justice; this was a source of some debate at this corner of the media section earlier this afternoon. We know he *was* the parliamentary secretary last time around, but we’re not sure if he still holds the post. Anyway, he asks about funding for legal aid, and the minister explains how eager he is to work with the provinces and territories to make sure they can live up to their responsibilities. “We all have a stake in seeing that the system works.”

4:58:26 PM
And that’s all for the minister: exeunt, pursued by scrum. Did I mention that he warned the committee not to get “bogged down” with “political gamesmanship”? Just making sure. Govern yourselves accordingly, y’all.

4:59:22 PM
Onto motions: first, the votes under supplementary estimate, all of which carry on a voice vote. That was quick.

5:00:26 PM
Wow, we have five motions to go through? That seems like a lot, but it has been a while since this committee has been, you know, functional. They’ve got a backlog.
First up, a motion to investigate impaired driving, which seems sort of wide-ranging, but the Liberals appear to be on board, so it should go through without much trouble. Oh, and the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP do as well, particularly to wrap up the work that has already been done.

5:04:38 PM
It turns out Rob Moore doesn’t even particularly *want* the committee to return a report to the House of Commons, to which Menard, not unreasonably, wonders what the point of this study would be. The chair suggests they figure out the details during the next meeting of the steering committee, and Menard is a little bit cranky that it is not the usual way that such things are done, but doesn’t seem ready to chain himself to the table in protest.

5:09:06 PM
Okay, that motion passed, not surprisingly: Real Menard puts forward his brilliant notion of combining the review of Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act with his motion to look at including social condition as a protected form of discrimination, and Storseth … … Drum roll … … … says that he’s actually not ready to bring *his* motion forward at this point, so he’ll be happy to discuss this with Menard in future. Okay, so – that’s that. That’s that? That’s seriously that? Wow, that was anticlimactic. On the plus side, I’m done twenty minutes earlier than I thought, which is always a pleasant surprise. I guess I’ll just have to come back to the next meeting, huh?

That’s it for me – I’m signing off for now, but I’ll be back bright and early tomorrow morning at either Finance or Environment. See you then!

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