Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise and take part in this debate on behalf of the Progressive Conservative Party. I must say I have listened intently to all speakers on this bill. It has been a useful exercise to hear the various perspectives.
I think we would find almost to a person that the legislation will receive a great deal of support. However, one overriding issue in the government's decision to bring in this legislation is the fashion in which it has chosen to do so. As the previous speaker, my colleague from the New Democratic Party, indicated, this is really a cross-threaded bill. It is a bill that mixes issues that really do not belong together. Not to diminish at all the importance of this, I cite, as an example, that the only way in my mind that I can tie this bill together would be to suggest that somehow a person wrestled an unlicensed gun away from a police officer and used it to dispose of an animal in a cruel fashion.
These issues do not fit together in any semblance. Therefore, the bill should be divided and put into a more proper perspective, one Canadians would understand and appreciate in a more real way. In my submission it diminishes the importance of these individual issues to try to force them together and to force Canadians and parliamentarians to contemplate them at the same time.
The consolidation of the current criminal code with respect to the cruelty to animals provisions, which are put in place by the bill, are certainly those that are needed. They are needed to modernize the current law as it pertains to this aspect of justice. It is something that has emotional and visceral reactions from those in the private sector.
Obviously, there are concerns, which have been touched upon, that the bill might go too far in its definition of cruelty. I hope to touch on those issues with respect to a balance and the counter-arguments that have been brought forward by those in the hunting, fishing, angling and farming vocations. It may go too far in the responsibility that is attached, for example, to property owners. However, that is not to say that these issues cannot be addressed and ironed out at the committee, which is the proper and just fashion in which to do so. I say that, somewhat tongue in cheek, on the understanding that the committee will be given an opportunity to really debate and to put forward reasonable amendments that the government will be amenable to.
We know that has not been the case most recently. We saw an example of a bill, perhaps the most important bill in this session, being jammed through the committee without any discussion whatsoever or without any opportunity by opposition members to bring forward amendments. It will leave this place on a rocket. It will be pushed through with closure. While the government House leader used to stand on his desk and rail like a banshee against the prior government, he is now using these same tools, which were so offensive to him when he was in opposition, to do the same thing, only worse. The only real examination of the youth criminal justice bill will occur in the other place. It is encouraging to see that members of the reform alliance and the Bloc are so appreciative of the work that will be done in the other place and I look forward to their support.
Turning our attention to Bill C-17, the amendments to the criminal code will remove the reference to “illegitimate child” and ensure that the evidentiary protection afforded to other victims who testify at trials is also provided by some of the changes. Amendments with respect to persons with disabilities who have been victims of sexual exploitation are very important and practical changes. The Conservative Party is entirely supportive of these amendments.
With respect to the Firearms Act, the expansion of the class of recently prohibited handguns that are grandfathered and the changes to clarify the licensing requirements of employees in the firearms business are practical changes that are necessary and that arguably should have been in place in the first instance. Again, I hearken back to my earlier comments on what that has to do with cruelty to animals. What does it have to do with respect to changes to definitions in the criminal code? There is real confusion in the bill.
An omnibus bill is a hybrid that brings in several aspects of legislation that have no tie-in. What it does, in effect, is force divisions among all parties with respect to their ability to support certain issues, because there is no relation.
The cruelty to animals aspect is perhaps what is most prevalent and most controversial about the legislation. The Department of Justice reviewed provisions in 1998, and a consultation paper entitled “Crimes Against Animals” was distributed to allow groups and individuals to suggest modifications that would be required to deal effectively with cruelty to animals. No one in his or her right mind would oppose or in any way try to delay provisions that would protect harmless animals, in most instances, animals that are either in the wild or in captivity. These provisions in essence bring about a greater recognition, through the criminal code by sanctions, that this is something that society will not tolerate. This is an action that is abhorred and is certainly not acceptable.
It is, as was alluded to, something that changes the attitudes with respect to animals being deemed as property. The reasoning is of course that it is now recognized as a common symptom of a deeper mental illness. Individuals who involve themselves in cruelty to animals, as hon. members know, very often go on to involve themselves in other types of crime perpetrated against humans and property. It is seen as an escalation when a young person who is abusive to animals later goes on to commit crimes against other children and adults. There is an escalation of criminal behaviour when people start by abusing animals. There is mounting scientific evidence that verifies this link between animal abuse and, often, domestic violence and violence against other humans.
The public, the police and many interest groups have been calling for more effective federal legislation and federal law to deal with cases of animal abuse. There are numerous examples, too numerous to cite and often too heinous in their description, that verify and justify a change in the legislation.
Currently in cases such as we have seen, under the old provisions an offender could receive only six months in jail or a $2,000 fine. I would suggest that this is an inadequate response given the gravity and sometimes the symptoms and specific facts of a case. The old provisions did not truly express denunciation of and deterrence for those involving themselves with cruelty to animals. There was also a provision to have a ban on the ownership and possession of certain animals. That as well could be increased.
In this country we know there are still a lot of instances of animal fighting taking place. There are instances of animals such as racehorses and greyhounds used for racing being treated poorly in their confines.
Mr. Speaker, as a person who has followed criminal law, you well know that having legislation here sends an important message that raising the ceiling of the reaction of the criminal justice system will in fact change the attitude. It expresses the government's and the public's non-acceptance of cruelty.
The Minister of Justice has explicitly linked animal abuse to rape and to child abuse, citing U.S. studies which pointed out that those who torture animals are more likely to involve themselves in similar cruel activities. I agree with the minister. There is mounting evidence that this type of mindset has to be disavowed. Serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer, who brutally dismembered humans and even practised cannibalism, abused animals as a child, so again there is some suggestion that this type of mindset develops very early. Increased sentences with an increased response from the criminal justice system is something that the Progressive Conservative Party would support.
The sentencing changes, depending on the charge, are anywhere from two years' imprisonment to a maximum of five years when the crown proceeds by indictment, or six to eighteen months or a fine of not more than $2,000 when it is a summary charge. This is certainly more representative of a deterrent type of response.
Further changes also involve payment of additional costs incurred for the care and convalescence of an animal. Payment would be made to any individual or organization that cared for the animal and would include such things as veterinarian's bills and shelter. Again, this is a direct correlation between the harm done and the person who perpetrated the offence. It brings about greater accountability and greater direct responsibility and, I would suggest, is more demonstrative of condemning the action. It gives the person a greater understanding of the harm done. The same principle is behind restorative justice. It is a more personal connection between the offender and the unlawful act. These are positive steps, which our party supports.
However, we need to study the bill closely at committee so that we do not in some instances potentially criminalize farmers, hunters, trappers or fishermen engaged in their normal way of life. Presently the bill is loosely worded in some of the provisions. Some of the amendments that will be required would tighten this up and would make it more operable in a practical sense.
Under the proposed legislation farmers feel that they could be prosecuted for common practices such as branding or dehorning of cattle. Castration of cattle would be another element we will have to discuss at the committee.
Some anglers are convinced that fishermen could be charged with regard to tactics including baiting. This proposed legislation would surely be a real impediment to fishermen who need to bait hooks in order to catch fish.
The Canadian Jewish Congress has expressed worry that Bill C-17 might interfere with Jewish ritual slaughter methods.
Biomedical researchers are worried that their work might also lead to criminal prosecution.
There are instances that we have to turn our minds to. That discussion should properly take place at the committee.
Some of the groups have requested that the language in the legislation be clarified, particularly with interpretations of phrases such as these I am quoting from the bill: “unnecessary pain, suffering or injury” and “brutally or viciously” killing an animal.
They want some protection from other practices. I am quoting some examples from the correspondence that I received, such as: identification, medical treatment, spaying or neutering; provision of food or other animal products; hunting, trapping, fishing and other sporting activities conducted in accordance with the lawful rules relating to them; pest, predator or disease control; protection of persons or property; scientific research unless the risk of injury or serious physical pain is disproportionate to the benefit expected from the research; and finally, training and disciplining of an animal.
There certainly is a great deal to contemplate when we are considering this legislation. Poisoning of an animal or using a mousetrap, potentially, not to put too fine a point on it, is something we have to consider when putting provisions into a criminal code that could cause serious ramifications for an individual. It is the same sort of thing as creating any kind of new offence.
That leads me to the point with respect to changes to the Firearms Act. We know now that as of December 1 law-abiding citizens who have properly licensed themselves, who have properly licensed handguns in the past, who have been through training sessions and who have done everything in accordance with the law, would become criminals simply not by licensing a long gun. We have to be very careful when we go down the path of criminalizing ordinary citizens. That is without getting into all the other ludicrous aspects of this long gun registry, which is costing hundreds of millions of dollars and will not affect dangerous crime at all.
The existing legislation touches as well on some traditional practices of hunting, fishing and farming. Yet they do not fit into the category of mean-spirited violence. It is imperative that animal cruelty legislation be clearly designed to target only those who engage in brutal practices against animals.
The justice minister has been contemplating an amendment that would exempt farmers, hunters and animal researchers from the bill. A change is certainly needed to provide legal security for lawful practices of animal related professions.
One must consider the genuine need for clarity and progressive legislation in this area. It is careless legislation that endangers individuals and that is something that I think most Canadians find very disheartening. It is obvious that little consideration was given to the broad effect of this bill and the impact it may have on certain professions. Discouraging as well is the lack of foresight, in that this bill was brought forward in an omnibus fashion and it deals with many other issues that confuse these important issues.
The elements of the bill that touch upon disarming of a police officer have also been given a fair bit of discussion and contemplation. I would suggest that this is one aspect that is very straightforward. It is one that has the enthusiastic and overriding support of police across the country and of many groups. I know that Grant Obst, the president of the Canadian Police Association, Dave Griffen, the executive director, and supporters of the association, who were here on the Hill this past weekend participating in the police memorial service, are very enthused that the government has chosen to bring this legislation forward. It is something they have lobbied for. It is something that they feel will have an immediate impact.
It goes without saying that it is very important to give specific recognition in the criminal code with regard to a person in an agitated state trying to take a weapon from a police officer. Any time there is a firearm or a weapon involved there is the imminent chance of bodily harm; there is the imminent chance that a person could lose his or her life. If a person chooses to try to disarm a police officer, for whatever reason, there is grave danger afoot.
We know that oftentimes a police officer using a weapon is doing so in the gravest circumstances, in order to try to de-escalate or control a situation. There is grave danger and harm when a person tries to interfere with a police officer, either by taking his weapon or by interfering in the use of a weapon by a police officer.
The Progressive Conservative Party is very supportive of this particular legislation. It is something that we feel is necessary to send a strong message to the public and a strong message to those who would engage in that type of serious, dangerous conduct. Police officers themselves, I think, will receive some comfort in knowing that it is a bill that will give specific recognition to that offence in the criminal code.
If officers are deprived of their weapons or are unable to carry out arrests effectively, it very much interferes with their important work. This new section does define weapon for the purposes of subsection (1) as “any thing that is designed to be used to cause injury or death to, or to temporarily incapacitate, a person”, and would include such things as firearms, obviously, and pepper spray and batons. It is deemed a hybrid offence. It has a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment and the crown of course can elect to proceed by indictment or by summary conviction.
As I alluded to, the president of the Canadian Police Association, Grant Obst, and his organization initiated this process and have been leading the proposed movement to bring about this specific offence. They “welcome the introduction of this new law and encourage its speedy passage by parliament”. Those are very supportive sentiments. Those sentiments are shared by the Progressive Conservative Party. We will be supporting this aspect of the bill.
Although the government could certainly do more for police, particularly in the areas of funding, speedy passage of legislation as it pertains to criminal gangs and organizations, and the seizing of stolen property, I would suggest that this is an important, practical response to a need that exists, a response to a void that exists in the criminal code.
There are other amendments that I spoke of earlier with respect to the definition of child. Removing the negative and unnecessary connotations that stem from the term illegitimate child is something that I think is certainly politically correct but it is also something that is important to those individuals born out of wedlock who have carried this unfortunate moniker.
With regard to sexual exploitation of persons with a disability, adding this to the criminal code is a specific recognition in language. Again, it is something that I feel is important not only to the legal community but to those who for reasons not brought about by themselves find themselves deemed persons with disabilities who are in the court system and are faced with these types of designations. I feel that victims of sexual exploitation will receive and should receive the same evidentiary protections that are afforded to others. Again, this is a very practical and common sense amendment that takes place in the criminal code, one we are completely supportive of and embrace in this legislation.
The technical amendments for the firearms are straightforward. They deal with licensing requirements. I think the employees and businesses that deal with these regulated items are supportive of this for the most part. It is legislation that should have and could have been included in the original bill, as unpopular as that bill was. This aspect was left out. For employees who handle or could handle firearms or prohibited or restricted weapons or prohibited devices of any kind, it brings about, in the course of duty, requirements for being authorized and licensed with respect to restricted weapons. These proposed amendments set out similar licensing requirements that pertain to others who handle firearms.
Again I would suggest that although it is necessary, it is certainly an indication that the government was somewhat negligent in its initial drafting and that it is backpedalling on other aspects of the bill.
We have seen now that the government is extending the dates with respect to the fees associated with licensing. The legislation is something that will continue to be contentious and could well wind up as an election issue in the coming days or weeks when the Prime Minister and his spouse decide to pull the plug.
Overall we are supportive of most aspects of the legislation singularly. However, we are forced to deal with them jointly in the legislation because of the manner in which it has been brought forward. As I have indicated in my remarks, there are very positive and very practical elements to all of this. It is just unfortunate that the government has chosen to bring about legislation in this way and to do so in such a fashion.
One might also question the priority given to the bill. This is not to diminish the importance of any element of the legislation, but we also have important legislation that would offer tax relief and legislation aimed at bringing about or trying to fulfil a promise the government made seven and a half years ago to redraft and rework the youth criminal justice act. That simply has not come about because the government does not like to compromise.
The government does not like to work with the opposition even when there are reasonable requests and reasonable efforts made to improve government bills, or ideas that originate on the opposition side as we have seen in many instances. The government's response is usually not to embrace those ideas but to reject them in the first instance, and then in a very Janus faced fashion turn around and call them its own. We have seen that happen on many occasions. That is the Janus-like persona of the government.
We have seen it on free trade. We have seen it on the GST, privatization, helicopters, and the Pearson airport. The government said one thing in opposition. Then, lo and behold, when it was rewarded by the electorate for making these statements it crossed the floor, formed the government and reversed itself, swallowed itself whole and condemned the very ideas it purported to support when in opposition.
This is something for contemplation by the electorate, something that no doubt will be discussed and debated during the course of a campaign. Although I do not hear much hue and cry from the opposition to rush headlong to the polls, it is quite obvious that the Prime Minister feels it is to his optimum advantage at this time. Therefore, with his persona, he is very quick to use that advantage.
Canadians will have to assess whether it was necessary. They will have to assess the timing of it. They will also want to assess his record. They will want to assess what accomplishments he can point to in his government's mandate in the short time it has been here, just over three years since the last election.
The bill has provided the impetus for Canadians to hear from members of the opposition what they think of the legislation. Also it is an opportunity to talk generally about the government, its mandate, its priorities, and to assess whether those priorities are in line with those of Canadians who are suffering at this time because of problems with health care and in the education system.
My colleague from Madawaska—Restigouche talks often about student debt, individuals with seasonal employment situations who are struggling to get by and to feed their families, and individuals across the country who find themselves mired in the justice system because the wheels of justice turn so slowly.
Perhaps there will be more time on other occasions to discuss these greater issues, but at this time the Progressive Conservative Party looks forward to dealing with the bill at committee level and dealing with the other issues in a more comprehensive fashion at some time in the near future.