Bill 16 passes third reading, advocates say changes threaten supports for victims of crime

The Alberta legislature on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. Emily Mertz, Global News

On Thursday, UCP MLAs voted in support of pushing Bill 16 through a third reading in the Alberta legislature, much to the dismay of victims of crime and their advocates.

Bill 16 will give the province the ability to take money from Alberta’s victim of crime fund, which has been protected since its inception nearly 30 years ago.

The fund comes from a surcharge on fines paid by criminals when they’re convicted of an offence.

It’s designed to help victims navigate the justice system, heal and offset costs incurred as a result of the crime perpetrated against them.

“It’s very daunting for a victim to go to a courtroom and tell their story, over and over again. So we walk them through that criminal justice system, every step of the way — give them support,” explained Brian Turpin, the president of Alberta’s police-based Victim Services Association.

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“Bill 16 now proposes to use a portion of that for hiring police, additional Crown [personnel] and of course the drug courts.”

Global News asked for an interview with Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer, but never received a response.

“This legislation expands the scope for which the victims of crime fund can be used, for prevention purposes,” MLA Angela Pitt said in the legislature. “Fewer victims is better in the first place.”

Turpin said he appreciates the desire to improve the justice system but questions how those measures are being financed.

READ MORE: Victim services group concerned Alberta Justice minister could ‘raid’ fund for other purposes

“That’s an operational thing with the department of justice, and the money shouldn’t be taken from the victims of crime fund,” he said.

The change puts Alberta in uncharted territory, as Turpin noted that all other provinces have protected the use of the fund, restricting it to uses that support victims.

“We’re nervous about the sheer survival of victim services in Alberta,” he said.

The fund had a $74-million surplus, a problem flagged in 2016 by then auditor general Merwyn Saher. At the time, he encouraged the government to use the available funds to better assist victims and to expand supports.

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READ MORE: Alberta auditor criticizes crime victim fund

Turpin said the association was working on that but now it’s all in limbo.

He said he’s discouraged because the government didn’t ask for his organization’s input until the final hour, the day Bill 16 passed third reading.

“There was no consultation with the victim service agencies and organizations that provide support to victims, and there was really no consultation with victims,” Turpin said.

Red Deer County councillor Christine Moore also takes issue with the way the bill was presented, saying it’s like “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

“I understand the challenges we are facing fiscally, and I understand the government has to fund the policing that was promised in the campaign,” she said, “but what we were not told, was that the funding was going to come from an association such as victim services.”

Moore and her colleagues on the Red Deer County council penned a letter to the government, asking it to stop moving forward with Bill 16.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” Moore said. “I don’t think it’s transparent. And you know who is going to suffer? The victims of crime — and that is wrong.”

Moore said through her work with the local police advisory committee, she learned just how vital the supports are to both victims and the RCMP.

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“It takes the workload off the RCMP, that victims services are there,” she explained. “That they provide this service and they’re volunteer-based, that look after these hundreds of files.”

Global News spoke to a young woman who cannot be identified because she was the victim of a sexual assault.

She took two years to muster up the courage to go to police about her crime.

“I didn’t report because when you’re 18 and in the middle of a university degree, you just want to pretend it didn’t happen and make it go away – but it doesn’t go away,” she said.

Her assault happened in 2014 and so when she filed her complaint in 2016, she did not fit the listed eligibility criteria for the victims of crime fund.

She said the bills from her attack piled up, adding to the mental stress and pushing her to contemplate suicide.

“It’s just incredible how much it hinders us in our lives, having to pay for medication, therapy, rapid HIV tests, dropped classes — all of it out of pocket and not having any help getting through it,” she said.

To get counselling, she had to wait on a six-month-long waitlist at the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton. After those free sessions were used, she started paying $180 each time she got therapy.

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She said the money in the fund belongs to victims, and the surplus could help open up the eligibility requirements for victims.

“I just want the supports to be there that I wish had been there for me when I was that age. The last six years were a lot harder on me than they needed to be. I just don’t want anyone else to go through this.”

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