Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak today in favour of Bill C-202, an act to amend the Criminal Code and strengthen the laws involving criminal flight from police pursuit.
I will begin my remarks by recognizing the efforts of the policing community in bringing this matter to fruition. This is a very practical and admirable amendment. Those congratulations must also extend to the hon. member for Pickering—Ajax—Uxbridge and his supporting mover from Leeds—Grenville. They have both displayed exemplary perseverance and a non-partisanship that is uncommon and remarkable in this place. The member for Pickering—Ajax—Uxbridge obviously recognizes the need for greater good in areas of justice and public protection. I offer him our unconditional support. Chapeau, monsieur.
The Conservative Party has always supported crime prevention and police forces across the country. We have continually demanded that government correct the problem of underfunded and overworked police forces that are trying to deal with the growing violence that exists in the country, especially amongst youth, biker gangs, organized crime and cross-border terrorism. The example we saw in Washington state in December 1999 exemplifies some of the problems that exist in law enforcement in the country. Human smuggling and other issues are the daily tasks that face our men and women in blue.
The RCMP Public Complaints Commission, speaking specifically to this bill, issued a report last December calling on police to take measures to reduce death and injuries caused by dangerous police chases. This has highlighted the problem that exists in the country and highlights recent government neglect of policing and public safety. Funding cuts to the RCMP and indirect cuts through transfer payments have also affected municipal police forces. Other problems have been created because of government policy in the area of prisoner release, like dangerous prisoners being placed in minimum security prisons. I note for the record that Gary Fitzgerald is still on the loose from Ferndale prison. We also have a weak youth criminal justice system.
The government has consistently shown that combating criminal activity is not a priority. Yet we see a backbench member, the hon. member for Pickering—Ajax—Uxbridge, bringing forward what is obviously a very informed and exemplary piece of legislation.
I understand from a reliable source that this is the first time a backbench member has been able to achieve this level of change within the criminal code. He has obviously come up with a good piece of legislation. It is surprising and disappointing that his party was not able to do so through the Minister of Justice. Perhaps the hon. member on the back bench should be on the front bench.
While the Liberals have misplaced billions of dollars at HRDC, the RCMP cannot even investigate major fraud files in British Columbia because of a lack of resources. Simply repeating bland generalities, as we have heard from the solicitor general, does very little to help frontline police officers. I suggest that it increases the growing cynicism and sense of frustration in those brave men and women. Hopefully the RCMP will not be forced to engage in its own fundraising efforts similar to what we saw in the controversial true blue campaign in Toronto because of the lack of government support.
I hope Bill C-202, which has been delayed since December, will receive no further delays. There have been attempts to amend and improve the legislation, which has been embraced with open arms by the hon. member. It must be underlined that this bill is far too important to be engaging in partisan politics or to be holding it up. It is important for frontline police officers and innocent civilians who could be injured or killed as a result of high speed chases.
Bill C-202 will serve as a deterrent. Many of the substantial changes, which have been outlined by previous speakers, are: up to five years in prison for evading a police officer using a motor vehicle or injuring someone in the process; up to fourteen years for a person killed in a pursuit by irresponsible driving; or, a life sentence for those who engage in such an activity. We should have no qualms about codifying in our criminal code that escaping from the police, who are in pursuit of a person, poses a danger to everyone on our highways and roads.
Whether it be in a community of a small town or a large city, it goes without saying that this type of activity is extremely dangerous. Whether a person is injured with a knife, a gun or any type of weapon, or a car that is used in a irresponsible fashion, the criminal code has to be amended and codified so our judges and our justice system can respond appropriately and proportionately. The judges of this country must be given leeway to respond to and reflect on the gravity of these types of offences.
These amendments, which we are supporting, toughen up the original draft and allow more judicial discretion. We know judicial discretion is a wonderful thing if it is properly exercised. The amendments surrounding flight, and the type of carnage, injury and death that can result, are aimed at doing just that; toughening up response and responding appropriately with general and specific deterrents aimed at both treating the offender with a firm hand and sending a message to the general public that our system is adequately responding and responding in a way that is appropriate.
Minor aspects of this bill involve those who cause police chases. They are now being charged with crimes that include crimes under the Highway Traffic Act, offences which vary from province to province. Dangerous driving and criminal negligence causing bodily harm or death are already there but this singles out and puts the focus on a specific problem. It also brings about a greater form of continuity and a common response from the provinces across the country. We all know that consistency and an even-handed approach is what the criminal code should try to portray.
Issues of flight from police came to the forefront last year, particularly in Toronto. March 21 marked the death of Father Ilce Miovski, age 50, and March 27 marked the death of Valeri Kovaliv, age 41. Both were pedestrians, innocent victims, hit by runaway vehicles fleeing the police. It was only March and he was 1999's fifth victim of a police chase in or around greater metropolitan Toronto.
Enacting tougher legislation would reflect the public's abhorrence to such reckless and dangerous acts and would deter flight from police. It would make an example of criminals who place innocent lives at risk through such thoughtlessness.
Lives at risk often include the lives of police officers who often drive outdated unsafe police cruisers due to cutbacks. Innocent bystanders on the street are most at risk when killed in the midst of a car chase.
Criminals may be fleeing from an unpaid parking ticket or a speeding charge which has led to such a chase. Many flee because there are legal consequences for relatively minor criminal offences.
We all know there are other instances where high speed chases are a result of criminals who know that when they are taken into police custody they will face serious ramifications for outstanding warrants or other criminal acts that they may have committed prior to becoming engaged in the chase.
Many in the country feel that police chases using such tactics as roadblocks, spike belts, helicopter surveillance et cetera would be a more effective approach. In reality, increasingly we find that the lack of funding impacts greatly on the ability of the police to engage in other types of responses. These devices do not always help.
A very real example involved Calgary police Constable Richard Sonnenberg who on October 8, 1993 used a police spike belt to stop a car from fleeing police. The car was driving, as I understand it, at 170 kilometres an hour. The car veered away from the police spike belt and hit the officer killing him instantly.
The police are very often faced with making split second instantaneous decisions. We must remember that anyone is at risk, anyone can be killed when these types of chases begin.
A further tragedy was that in the case of Mr. Sonnenberg the criminal was given a six year sentence for criminal negligence causing death. This underlines the importance of the provisions of Bill C-202.
We know that life does not mean life in this country, but I would suggest that the recognition of this type of offence resulting in the loss of life and it being codified in the criminal code sends a very important message to all. The need to give our justice system the ability to respond appropriately to those who escape justice does send that message.
Increasingly police are faced with this difficult situation. We know that the public complaints commission has released some very pointed and useful responses that the government should be quick to embrace.
I want to conclude by saying that we can do more, but this bill certainly addresses part of the problem and it is a big part that we in this House can all embrace and pass quickly. It is a very smart and reasonable step in the right direction, a direction that recognizes the attempts to address the serious problems with flight from police. I urge all hon. members to support this bill and others aimed at improving Canada's criminal code.