moved that the bill be read the third time and passed.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise this morning on behalf of the residents of Dufferin—Caledon to speak to Bill C-217, which is my bill to protect and defend our nation's war memorials and cenotaphs.
As members will know, Bill C-217 seeks to add significant penalties to the mischief section of the Criminal Code for those convicted of mischief against our war memorials, cenotaphs and similar structures that honour those who have died as a result of war. The first offence would carry a fine of not less than $1,000. The second offence would carry a jail term of 14 days. The third and subsequent offences would carry a 30-day jail term.
All members of this House are familiar with veterans in their communities and likely with serving Canadian Forces members as well. We hold them in the highest regard for the sacrifice their service represents. Our war memorials and cenotaphs are places we set aside in our communities to honour them and especially to honour those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. We owe them a debt that can never be repaid.
Since we last debated this bill on February 2, 2012, I was pleased to appear before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights as it began its examination of Bill C-217 on March 27. I had the honour of being accompanied by Mr. John Eggenberger of Nepean, Ontario, a retired air force colonel and vice-president of the Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans Association. I was also accompanied by Mr. Earl Page, a Korean War navy veteran from Woodstock, Ontario. These two gentlemen underscored the need for more stringent sanctions against those who would desecrate or vandalize our cherished cenotaphs and war memorials.
Mr. Page, in particular, made an impassioned presentation during which he recounted the events of a shocking act of vandalism that took place in Woodstock on November 10, 2009, the night before the Remembrance Day ceremonies. Residents of Woodstock arose to discover that vandals had spray-painted swastikas and offensive messages on the town cenotaph. With no time to remove the offensive graffiti, the ceremony proceeded with this heinous damage in full view.
Mr. Page commented on the disgust felt by everyone, especially the veterans attending the ceremony in Woodstock on that Remembrance Day. I will quote from Mr. Page's presentation at committee on March 27. He said:
...I wanted to express my deep disgust on behalf of all the people in Woodstock, all the veterans in Woodstock, as well as the many children there. Children were mentioned. We always have a great many children out to that cenotaph on Remembrance Day, and they all come and shake our hands. They're happy to see us. Since the desecration of our monument, the city has gone to the trouble of re-facing all the names on that monument, and it cost the city a great deal of money. I know the feelings of the veterans: if we had got hold of that guy, I don't think he would be walking around today. But he was not a child, or even a teenager—he was an adult, and he got away with it. We spent six or seven days going to court to see what was going to happen to him, and he got off with a slap on the wrist, a couple of days of community service. Terrible. I won't say much more, because I'm liable to say things I shouldn't. Thank you.
During the previous hours of debate on this bill, I have recounted many similar examples of such profound disrespect to our fallen soldiers, our veterans and our men and women serving in the Canadian Forces today. As the mischief section of the Criminal Code is currently written, war memorials and cenotaphs fall into the same category as a mailbox or parking meter when it comes to penalties. They certainly deserve better protection than that.
During the examination of Bill C-217 at committee, colleagues from the opposite side of the House made numerous references to mandatory minimum sentences, restorative justice, judicial leeway, discretion and so forth. The member for St. John's East and the member for Mount Royal, who are both very experienced and knowledgeable members, expressed opposition to the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions of Bill C-217. Both of those members and other members of the opposition were pushing for restorative justice and judicial flexibility to be written into the bill. Indeed, several hours of the committee's time was taken up with debate on their amendments in this regard. It is my contention that they missed the point.
Nothing in Bill C-217 precludes a judge from ordering some form of restorative justice, restitution or apology, or other alternate sentencing. A judge could order a guilty individual to spend time at the local Legion to perform community service or even scrub the monument with a toothbrush, for example. The judge would be as free to do as he or she sees fit on a case by case basis after the guilty individual is ordered to pay a $1,000 fine for the first offence.
Staying with the committee for a moment, I should note that an amendment put forward by the government was adopted. It would move the maximum imprisonment under indictment from five to ten years. This is a technical amendment that was brought to my attention by officials with the Department of Justice, and I thank the department for its guidance in this regard. I might point out that the opposition parties voted against the government's amendment, and they also voted against the bill itself in a recorded division at the conclusion of clause by clause. This action speaks for itself as to how seriously they view this issue.
I return to my observation that, under the current regime of the mischief section of the Criminal Code, a war memorial or cenotaph is not accorded the pride of place that we accord them in our communities.
These honoured places we know so well represent shared military heritage and its key role in defining who we are as a country. We can all recall the major milestones and some of the lesser ones in our military history: Ypres, Vimy, the Somme, Dieppe, Ortona, the liberation of the Netherlands, the Korean War, the Suez crisis, Cyprus, the Golan Heights, peacekeeping throughout the Cold War, the first Gulf War, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Afghanistan and, more recently, Libya, to name but a few.
Those names evoke strong emotions among Canadians, and rightly so. They and so many others are part of what defines us as a country. We are a country that defines freedom and liberty to the point that we have sent and continue to send our sons and daughters to dangerous places in the world in defence of that freedom and liberty. We understand collectively as a country what this has cost us in lives sacrificed. To properly honour that sacrifice, we have erected war memorials and cenotaphs across the land, where communities gather to pay tribute to those who have fallen and those who have served.
We would repay that sacrifice and service poorly indeed if we did not do all we can to deter the senseless desecration of these honoured structures and places. My goal with Bill C-217 was to lift cenotaphs, war memorials and other similar structures above the mundane and properly recognize them in the Criminal Code as having special value, value deserving of significant sanction in the criminal law of this country if someone chooses to violate them.
I have related this story before in the House but it bears repeating as to what prompted me to introduce this legislation. In early 2008, in my community of Orangeville, Ontario, the town arranged for our local cenotaph to be sent for restoration. In late October, it was reinstalled with an appropriately solemn rededication ceremonies. Then a few days later, just days before Remembrance Day, vandals hit it with eggs. It cost the town of Orangeville more than $2,000 to repair the damage.
This was the original impetus behind the bill. As I did research on this, I found that this incident was, sadly, not isolated. Without having to dig very deeply, I found dozens of incidents over only the past few years from coast to coast of vandalism and desecration of these important monuments. In many cases, perpetrators received either a slap on the wrist or even went scot-free.
It was said during testimony at the justice committee that we should take into account youthful indiscretion or the lack of education as to the significance of our military history when considering cases of vandalism of this kind. I could not more vehemently disagree. I think of the tens of thousands of Canadian youth who lay in war graves in Europe, North Africa, the Pacific and elsewhere. There is no youthful indiscretion there.
Part of educating those who remain ignorant of the value of our war memorials and cenotaphs includes making it clear in our criminal law what the consequences are for dishonouring them.
The severity of the penalty gives Canadians an indication as to how seriously we as a society and we as parliamentarians view this associated crime. To suggest that vandalism against a war memorial or cenotaph is done on a lark or a whim and should be treated less harshly is frankly offensive to the memories of those we honour with our monuments.
Members will know we just celebrated the 95th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge. Many consider this to be Canada's coming of age, as all four components of the Canadian expeditionary forces fought together as a single unit for the first time. Great odds were overcome at a great cost of life, far out of proportion to our size as a nation. It is a key defining moment in our history as a nation. The Governor General recently led a delegation of thousands of Canadian students to the monument in Vimy to commemorate this important milestone. As well, during 2012 we are celebrating the bicentennial of the war of 1812. Canadians can be justifiably proud of our role in that conflict, another pivotal moment in our history. Throughout this year, many will be paying tribute at our local cenotaphs and war memorials. In two years' time we will commemorate 100 years since the outbreak of World War I, which cost our country immeasurably.
All this is to say that Canada has a proud military history. We have never sought a war, but we have always come to the defence of democracy and freedom when called upon to do so. We have always recognized the bravery and sacrifice of the best among us through our memorials and cenotaphs in the ceremonies we hold there.
Most members know someone who has fought or served at some point in our great country: a father, a brother, a grandfather, an uncle, an aunt, a sister, a mother or a friend. We appreciate these men and women for their dedication and courage and the sacrifice they have shown for Canada. Their willingness to fight abroad for our freedom here at home is an inspiration. The memorials in our communities are dedicated to these people, and none of us wants to see them damaged or defiled. The increased penalties called for in Bill C-217 will make potential vandals think twice before acting against a memorial that holds such significant meaning for this community.
Canadian Forces members continue to serve in Afghanistan, engaged in training the Afghan security forces. Just last summer combat operations ceased and the bulk of our combat troops returned home to a grateful nation. Over the course of 10 years of combat operation, Canada's longest-ever combat mission, we lost 157 brave men and women. As a result, our cenotaphs and war memorials have taken on new significance and value, especially in those communities that lost one of their own. Protecting them from vandalism is more important now than ever.
As members of Parliament, we serve our democracy in a very direct way. It was to protect that democracy and the freedoms that go with it that so many brave Canadians signed up and continue to enlist in the Canadian Forces. Too many of those Canadians did not make it home, and so we have places of honour and great respect in our communities to recognize their sacrifice. We would repay them poorly if we did not do absolutely all we can to discourage people from dishonouring those hallowed places.
Those of us who enjoy the hard-won freedoms that are part of modern Canada owe it to those who have paid in blood and life to keep these honoured spaces free from harm or dishonour. As citizens and residents of this great country, we have a duty to protect and preserve our memorials and cenotaphs in memory of those who have fallen.
To conclude, I would like to thank all the members of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights for their work on Bill C-217. They gave it thoughtful consideration. While I did not agree with everything that was said, I nevertheless want to acknowledge their work. In particular, I want to thank both the chairman, the member for Oxford, and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice, the member for Delta—Richmond East for their stewardship of Bill C-217 through the committee process.
Canada's long and proud tradition of standing up for freedom and democracy and defending our values is one of the things that make us the greatest in the world. I believe the passage of Bill C-217 is necessary to ensure that those who would damage our honoured places think twice before they act. I would therefore urge all hon. members to support Bill C-217.