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November 29, 2023

Federal Ombudsperson for Victims of Crime

Remarks to to the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security on the Rights of Victims of Crime, Reclassification and Transfer of Federal Offenders

Honourable Members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me.

Congratulations to the new Chair.

We are on the traditional unceded, unsurrendered territory of the Anishinaabe Algonquin Nation. I honour the leadership, strength, and wisdom of Indigenous peoples, and I accept personal responsibility for pursuing justice and reconciliation.

Security reclassifications and inmate transfers from higher to lower-security institutions have received recent attention from politicians, the media and Canadians. My heart goes out to the families who have been victimized and have had to fight for information, even in federal court. These are not new concerns for victims and survivors, and recent debates highlight how victim rights are overlooked.

Sadly, Correctional Service Canada (CSC)’s transfer review did not even mention the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights (CVBR), in part, because it had little to offer. While the CVBR has quasi-constitutional primacy over the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA), victim complaints to federal agencies are generally deemed inadmissible or unfounded.

My Office is non-partisan and operates at arms-length from Justice Canada. Our regulations do not permit us to review transfer decisions, but we are mandated to address victim complaints and ensure their rights to information, protection, and participation are upheld by federal agencies. Rather than assessing if legislation and policies were followed, an Ombudsperson operates on principles of procedural fairness, and is intended to humanize government.

I am grateful for the Correctional Investigator’s comment on the need for parity between our Offices. We need supporting legislation and comparable resources. The government spends 16 cents on victim complaints for every dollar spent on offender complaints to our respective Offices.

We know that victims are not put first, and I’m not sure people understand the importance of information to victims of crime. When someone has been seriously and intentionally harmed by another person, it’s a common trauma response to need to know everything. Knowing the location of that person is especially important.

The transfer review concluded that more could have been done for the victims’ families and recommended that CSC create a multidisciplinary working committee. This is underway, and our Office is serving as Special Advisor to the committee.

Also, following consultation with our Office, the former Minister of Public Safety issued a Ministerial Direction to CSC to meaningfully engage with victims and elicit input prior to a transfer. He directed CSC to work closely with our Office and the federal Privacy Commissioner.

We have been collaborating well and have made recommendations outlined in our submission. The same recommendations have been provided to the multidisciplinary committee, and CSC is taking action to implement them.

Victim rights and offender rights can co-exist. We can do a better job of providing information while still respecting the Privacy Act.

How do we achieve that balance?

The interests of victims of crime need to be given equal weight to the interests of the people who harmed them. It’s not just the offender’s transfer, the offender’s parole hearing, or the offender’s release. These are significant for the people they harmed. So, whose information is it?

We hear complaints from victims of crime that public servants get to pick and choose what victims are entitled to know, and when, even if the consequences of not knowing cause fear, anxiety, PTSD reactions, or interfere with the ability to work. The impact of being told about a transfer as it happens or after it happens is grossly disproportionate to the privacy implications of providing advance notice.

The Corrections and Conditional Release Act is failing victims of crime. It limits information excessively - even upon request - and fails to provide protection and participation in ways that make sense to victims of crime. It is in conflict with the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights, which carries primacy in the event of inconsistency.

Canadians are demanding better, and policy changes and amendments to the CCRA could easily achieve that:

  • First, a trauma and violence-informed approach needs to guide communication, allowing victims to share safety concerns without providing traumatic details repeatedly in victim statements.
  • Next, the principles of the CCRA should be amended to explicitly include victim rights to timely and relevant information, protection and participation.
  • CSC should adopt a proactive approach to informing victims on pending transfers, including information on how decisions are made, and how to share safety concerns or request geographic restrictions.
  • CSC needs a clear, non-discretionary process to disclose information about transfers before they occur, unless specific safety or security reasons are provided in writing in advance.
  • Ensure the geographic location of registered victims is considered in all transfer decisions. An offender should never be transferred to an institution close to victims before they have been notified.
  • Finally, victims need clear information that explains how they can register to be informed about an offender and their sentence, and how to provide input for consideration before decisions are made. It should also be clearly emphasized that unregistered victims will not receive information.

We want a more compassionate, victim-centred approach at the heart of CSC’s transfer process. Victims and survivors of crime are worthy of respect and dignity and worthy to receive information.

Thank you