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Evidence of meeting #38 for Justice and Human Rights in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was children.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Crystal Dunahee  President, Child Find British Columbia, As an Individual
Rodney B. Freeman  Woodstock Police Service
Michel Surprenant  Vice-President, Association of Families of Persons Assassinated or Disappeared

11:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dave MacKenzie

I call the meeting to order, this being the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, meeting number 38. Pursuant to the order of reference of Wednesday, February 29, 2012, we're studying Bill C-299, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (kidnapping of young person).

We are awaiting the arrival of one other witness. We have two witnesses before the committee today. Ms. Dunahee is appearing by video conference from British Columbia.

Welcome. You can hear us?

11:05 a.m.

Crystal Dunahee President, Child Find British Columbia, As an Individual

Yes, I can.

11:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dave MacKenzie

Very good.

We also have Chief Rod Freeman from the City of Woodstock.

In your correspondence with the clerk, I think he indicated an opportunity for an opening address, and Ms. Dunahee, if you have an opening address and you want to begin, please go ahead.

11:05 a.m.

President, Child Find British Columbia, As an Individual

Crystal Dunahee

Thank you.

This morning I spent some time going through the notes from your last meetings and I was very interested in everything that all the members had to say. I'm not a lawyer by any means and I'm trying to understand everything that is coming forward. There obviously is a need for some change to our Criminal Code and this is probably the best forum to make those changes.

11:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dave MacKenzie

We're not all lawyers here either, although most of them are.

Chief, if you have an opening address, I would just say to you that the microphones will be operated from the table. You don't have to turn them on and off, and the earpiece is for translation. Some of our colleagues will speak to you in French, but you can speak back in English and it will get translated.

11:05 a.m.

Chief Rodney B. Freeman Woodstock Police Service

Thank you very much. I do have some notes I'd like to start off with.

11:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dave MacKenzie

If you have notes and you wish to make an opening address, please go ahead.

11:05 a.m.

Woodstock Police Service

Chief Rodney B. Freeman

Thank you. Good morning.

Let me begin by thanking each of you, members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, for having me appear today to comment on this very important issue. It is truly an honour and a privilege for me to be here before you.

My name is Rod Freeman and I am the very proud chief of police for the City of Woodstock. As all of you are now aware, our community has just achieved justice through the court system in relation to the tragic abduction, sexual assault, and first-degree murder of eight-year-old Victoria Stafford.

That investigation began on Wednesday, April 8, 2009, when Victoria was taken from our streets in broad daylight at 3:30 in the afternoon while walking home from school. She was lured to a waiting vehicle by her kidnappers, who had enticed her with the promise of seeing a puppy. Victoria was pushed into the back seat of the car and forced to the floor between the seats. Within near minutes, Victoria was taken from Woodstock eastbound on 401, eventually arriving in Mount Forest, which is north of Guelph, Ontario.

For approximately two-and-a half-hours, Victoria had endured the terror of being forcibly taken by strangers away from her mother, her brother, her family members, friends, and our city. While sitting on the back seat floor, concealed under a jacket, she was bullied and terrorized by the now-convicted Michael Rafferty to keep her controlled and hidden.

His accomplice, the also-convicted Terri-Lynne McClintic, provided false comfort to Victoria, knowing fully the horror that lay ahead for the little girl. This horrific situation ended a short time later with Victoria's violent rape and murder. Her body, put into garbage bags and concealed under rocks by her abductors, was not recovered until 103 days later, on July 19, 2009. She was then returned to her family to be laid to rest with dignity.

For this reason, and for the protection of our country's most vulnerable citizens, our children, I find myself here before you today. I hope to contribute to your deliberations in some small way, deliberations that result in crime prevention strategies being discussed or created to prevent tragedies such as Victoria's—a fate that no child should have to endure—and measures being created to deter offenders from victimizing our children anywhere in our country and to hold those evil offenders who victimize our children fully accountable before a court of law.

As a chief of police, I fully support any legislative amendments that will assist in making Canada's communities safer, will safeguard our children, and will provide support to victims of crime. Canadians need to know that their police services and government officials at all levels are working together to ensure their safety, and in particular to ensure the safety of our children and others most vulnerable in our communities. This is why I'm here today. My citizens of Woodstock and all Canadians want to be reassured that if our children are victimized, the offenders will be dealt with firmly by the criminal justice system and will face the appropriate consequences for serious criminal acts, such as the kidnapping of a child under 16 years of age by a stranger.

Thank you.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dave MacKenzie

Thank you, Chief.

Now Mr. Surprenant has arrived.

I think you perhaps had correspondence from the clerk indicating that if you wished, you had an opportunity to make an opening address.

11:10 a.m.

Michel Surprenant Vice-President, Association of Families of Persons Assassinated or Disappeared

Hello. My name is Michel Surprenant, and I am the vice-president of AFPAD, an organization that deals with issues related to persons assassinated or disappeared. My particular interest is sexual predators.

Good morning to you all.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dave MacKenzie

Good morning, sir.

If you wish to make an opening address to the committee, you can do so. We have five to seven minutes allotted for that.

11:10 a.m.

Vice-President, Association of Families of Persons Assassinated or Disappeared

Michel Surprenant

No, that's okay.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dave MacKenzie

Okay, thank you very much.

We will start with the rounds, commencing with Madame Boivin.

11:10 a.m.

NDP

Françoise Boivin NDP Gatineau, QC

Yes, thank you.

I'd like to thank the witnesses for being here.

Chief Rodney Freeman, we all followed that case. We all rejoiced, in a sense, at the verdict and at what sentence is coming in that horrible case. You were describing the event, and it just gives us chills.

On Tuesday, Mr. Wilks spoke to us about his work as a police officer before becoming an MP. He told us, justifiably, that unless you've been through it before, you cannot know what it's like to knock on a parent's or anyone's door and tell them that someone has died, sometimes under absolutely horrible and inhuman circumstances. You wonder how a human being can even do this kind of thing. I think we all feel that way. Kidnapping and confining a child under age 16 is terrible, as is any kind of confinement, in my opinion, especially when harmless people who have no way of defending themselves are involved. That's even more difficult.

The issue isn't really how horrible the crime is; it's knowing what to do with that type of crime. We need to ensure that Bill C-299 of our colleague Mr. Wilks will help us achieve the intended goal. This is what I take pains to say over and over again every time we study this type of bill.

There is a danger, you know. This is for the three witnesses. This week, the National Post hit the nail on the head. Some politicians stand up in Parliament and wave around the front page of a newspaper. Right away, we want to react, we want to do something, but without thinking about the long-term consequences.

Of course, when we hear a story like Victoria Stafford's, everyone wants to rewrite the Criminal Code in the hope that the worst punishments will be imposed on the guilty, but within a democratic and human society, we must make sure we proceed properly, given our charter.

I'll tell you what worries me about Bill C-299, and I would like to hear your comments about it. Section 279 of the Criminal Code already sets out a sentence of life imprisonment. We cannot be more severe than that, unless we reopen debate on the death penalty, which I hope we don't. This is the maximum sentence we can impose for any kind of crime.

Having said that, based on the analysis of people's files and the jurisprudence related to this section, people who have been found guilty…

11:15 a.m.

Vice-President, Association of Families of Persons Assassinated or Disappeared

Michel Surprenant

Which section are you talking about?

11:15 a.m.

NDP

Françoise Boivin NDP Gatineau, QC

Section 279 of the Criminal Code, which includes kidnapping. That's the section the bill is aiming to amend.

Even Justice Major, a former Supreme Court judge, very clearly said when he came to testify before us that the jurisprudence would show that the sentences varied. In general, sentences of less than eight years are not imposed. Setting the minimum sentence at five years concerns me. That concern is different from the concern I had about imposing minimum sentences in the case of other offences, where the judges are in the best position to properly analyze the file. In fact, I would like it even better if a judge did this type of thing, rather than the Crown or the defence. It needs to be someone impartial who can look at the file from all sides, based on the sentencing principles that already exist in section 718 of the Criminal Code. You must know them quite well, Chief Freeman. The section stipulates that there are aggravating factors when it comes to children, and so on.

I'm concerned that we are sending a strange message to the community by imposing a minimum sentence of five years, which is less than what is normally imposed. If I were a defence lawyer, I would make the argument that the legislator does not talk needlessly. If it thought it good to impose a minimum sentence of five years, is it possible that people think a sentence of 8, 10, 12 or 15 years is too harsh? I don't see why we are establishing a minimum sentence that is less than what is normally imposed in similar circumstances.

In addition, Ms. Dunahee, I would like you to speak about your work. You told us that the committee might not be the right forum to do so. That's true, if we think of your work and your needs in terms of looking for children when they disappear, and so on. Perhaps this isn't the right committee for that, but we are certainly quite interested in what types of problems you face and that could be very useful. I think that was sort of what Mr. Wilks wanted to do. I'm tempted to say as well that perhaps we aren't carrying out the right exercise to resolve the problems you deal with every day, you and your organization.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dave MacKenzie

Thank you, Madame Boivin. You've already used up way more than your time.

11:15 a.m.

NDP

Françoise Boivin NDP Gatineau, QC

But we have so much time today; don't we have longer?

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dave MacKenzie

I think we'll have to have the answers with another individual.

Mr. Goguen.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Robert Goguen Conservative Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, NB

Thank to the witnesses for appearing here, and to those who are at a distance, thank you also for your participation.

I have a question for Chief Freeman.

I want to take you back to the initial news conference that you gave after the abduction of Tori. You were saying that “returning Victoria to our community and to her family will bring some sense of relief to Tara McDonald [the mother] and Rodney Stafford [the dad] and all the family”. We all know, unfortunately, that this did not happen.

In your experience, kidnapping cases don't involve just kidnapping, do they? There are always more horrific events that surround them, whether it be sexual assault or murder. Is this something that's fairly common in your, I guess regretful, experience?

11:15 a.m.

Woodstock Police Service

Chief Rodney B. Freeman

Thankfully and fortunately, this is the only experience during my career that I've had to deal with such a horrific investigation. This has been the worst that all of us have experienced in our careers, and I'm talking about the 1,000 police officers who shared in this investigation from 14 police services across the province.

You're absolutely correct that usually a kidnapping is accompanied by other offences that will generally take the severity of the penalty to another level.

In our particular case, this started off as a kidnapping. If it had turned out differently and we had somehow.... We had absolutely no chance of recovering Victoria alive, now that we know what the evidence is. It all came out in trial. Our police service had absolutely zero chance of recovering Victoria alive. This was always an investigation, as it turned out, to hold her murderers accountable.

But say, for example, we had caught them before they hit Highway 401 and we had simply had a kidnapping offence. Currently there is no minimum sentence for kidnapping. The offenders could get six months or whatever is meted out.

What we are hoping to establish is that, at a minimum for that lone charge of kidnapping, there be a minimum standard sentence of five years in penitentiary.

An offender has all the other opportunities for parole and so on to get out before a five-year period. But we're looking for that sentence of five years so that the offender is taken off our streets, rehabilitated if possible, but certainly facing a stiff punishment for that offence—while recognizing that kidnappings in the past, and I'm sure into the future, will always involve more than one offence.

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

Robert Goguen Conservative Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, NB

I guess what you're focusing on is possibly deterrence, whether it be specific or also general, a message to the public.

On May 15, Mr. Justice Major, who is a retired Supreme Court of Canada judge, appeared. He was questioned about whether he felt the minimum sentence in this type of offence, the kidnapping of a vulnerable child, would survive the “cruel and unusual punishment” test because it was a reasonable sort of infringement upon democratic rights. That was his take on it.

From your point of view as a police officer, would it really have the deterrent effect that we hoped it would? Is it reasonable, from our point of view, to put in the minimum mandatory sentence?

11:20 a.m.

Woodstock Police Service

Chief Rodney B. Freeman

Yes, sir, I think it is. That's the short answer. As a police chief and a father of two kids that are under 16 years of age, I have absolutely no mercy and I see absolutely no justification in a circumstance where a stranger would scoop up a child—any child, male or female, under 16 years of age—and forcibly take them away from their area of safety. I see that as absolutely unforgiveable and absolutely unjustifiable, and I believe in my heart, as both a police chief and a father, that a five-year sentence should be the minimum that they should expect. I think many Canadians share that belief with me.

Let's not stop there. If it involves a firearm, certainly, it is punishable by life in jail. If it's a run-of-the-mill, straight kidnapping, I believe that if it's prosecuted as an indictable offence, the maximum is 10 years. If we were to open up this discussion even further, let's take that 10-year cap and make it life, too. So it would be a five-year minimum with a maximum of life, firearm or no firearm, whatever the case may be.

I'm emotional about this right now, I admit. This has been a brutal three years, and the Stafford and McDonald families didn't see closure when we returned Victoria's body to them. I saw more of an indication of closure when the verdict was rendered by the jury of guilty on first-degree murder. Then I saw closure in their eyes. They will still have to work to heal in the next few months and years, because Victoria was a perfect child—a blond-haired, blue-eyed, eight-year-old girl whom any one of us would be privileged to have. But she is no more.

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dave MacKenzie

Thank you.

Mr. Coderre.

May 17th, 2012 / 11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Denis Coderre Liberal Bourassa, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

In any case, I think we are all very moved by these situations. We all want to protect our children. So it is not a partisan issue, but a question of justice and security. Will our environment be safer if we increase the minimum sentence?

We also need to answer another question. Should we be tying the hands of a judge who could have the capacity to make a decision based on the situation?

This is not a curve to you, Mr. Freeman, but do you trust the way judges work right now? Do you believe in their judgment? That's an important question. There could be a situation where the judge says he is not going to go there. We already have some provisions in the law, the Criminal Code, where you can get up to life in prison.

I'm not a lawyer. I'm a father too. I'd like to have your thoughts on that.