Long-awaited federal overhaul of witness protection program coming today

OTTAWA – The Conservative government plans to introduce long-anticipated legislation today to modernize the federal witness protection program.

The RCMP-administered program shields people who help the police by providing everything from short-term protection to permanent relocation and identity changes.

Revelations five years ago that a protectee committed murder while in the program triggered a wave of review and discussion.

The legislation is expected to include a more independent process for deciding who gets into the secretive program, as well as improved training and more sophisticated practices for handling protectees.

Some members have sued over the program, while others have been kicked out.

The proposed federal changes follow recommendations from a Commons committee, an inquiry into the 1985 Air India bombing and extensive consultations with the provinces.

Several provinces have their own witness protection programs, but often they provide only short-term assistance. In addition, obtaining new federal identity documents for protectees requires co-operation with the Mounties.

The proposed changes to the Witness Protection Program Act, passed in 1996, are expected to simplify the process of obtaining these crucial documents and generally improve relations with provincial agencies.

Ontario and Alberta have been pushing for more federal recognition of their witness programs as part of the national revamp.

The RCMP spent more than $9 million on the witness program in 2011-12.

An RCMP blueprint for changes, recently obtained through Access to Information, said youth gang members — not just organized criminals, bikers and other traditional protectees — should be allowed into the program.

The Mounties also advocated intensive psychological examination of potential protectees, a national support centre for the program, and an external advisory board to serve as a watchdog.

The Air India commission said it was inappropriate for a police agency with an interest in ensuring sources agree to become witnesses to also make decisions about admission into a witness protection program.

“This is a conflict of interest,” said the commission’s 2010 report.

In late 2009 and early 2010, the federal government consulted the provinces and territories on the program, and a number of provinces expressed concerns.

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