Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-17, which I could not describe as complex, because it is fairly straightforward, but rather as a bit of a mixture, since it addresses several different things.
It is, of course, an omnibus bill but, with these, we are more used to having changes to a number of things that are somewhat interconnected. Here we have different things. This is not a bill that strikes me as problematic; I would say it is an improvement.
I will quickly go over the range of points addressed by this bill. I am going to focus on one point in particular, the one I find rather more important, requiring more reflection and attention.
As we have been hearing since this morning, Bill C-17 addresses a variety of issues, the main and most important of which as far as changes are concerned relates to cruelty to animals. Its main aim is to group together the present provisions of the Criminal Code under one new section. I believe that it is a worthwhile step forward in dealing with animal cruelty. Just reading the amendments, we can see that this government is attempting to make some innovations in this field and to update the situation.
Nonetheless, there are some weaknesses or flaws in the bill. Improvements would have to be made. I believe that careful attention needs to be paid to the innovations the minister wishes to make by introducing this bill. It gathers into a single bill the various offences to be found here and there. The government now wants to concentrate them, and that is fine.
In addition, the whole issue of disarming officers of the peace is contained in the bill. On September 1, I met in Halifax the Canadian Police Association. Naturally, this subject came up for discussion, and statistics were provided to me, but I had gathered a few of my own as a member of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.
In the province of Ontario alone, over the past 25 years, some 22 police officers have been gunned down with their own weapon. At the moment, the measures in the Criminal Code do not satisfy the police community.
If the police support these amendments, I can tell you honestly that I will not do battle, because in the end we will no doubt support the way they are drafted. In any case, we support the aim, which is to make disarming an officer of the peace an offence.
Then there is section 214 of the criminal code on illegitimate children. I could not believe that in the year 2000 we would find this in the Canadian criminal code. In my view, children have not been illegitimate for a long time. I would go so far as to say that there is no such thing as illegitimate children, since the child is the product of the mother and the father, and that is the way it is.
Therefore, I fully support the amendment in this omnibus bill to delete the expression illegitimate child which, in any case, should never have appeared in the criminal code. But at one time that expression reflected the moral standards of the day.
This omnibus bill seeks to increase the protection granted to extremely vulnerable people in society, namely the disabled, against sexual exploitation by adding a new category to the list of offences targeted by special evidence rules.
We must salute and, more importantly, support these amendments, which seek to help crown attorneys, among others, collect evidence to build solid cases.
Because the political will was there to amend some legislative tools to help collect evidence under certain circumstances, to help crown attorneys build solid cases, the Minister of Justice found a way—and I congratulate her—of bringing in amendments to the criminal code to facilitate the work of crown attorneys in the collection of evidence.
I am convinced that, in her department, and I am sending this message, there are public servants who could find an effective way to fight organized crime, to help crown attorneys collect evidence to build their cases and to provide them with all the necessary legislative tools.
In this bill, the minister shows her interest for a group we must protect, namely disabled people and those who are more at risk of being abused, people who may be less able to communicate evidence for reasons of accessibility and other reasons. It was therefore important and appropriate for the minister to include these changes in her omnibus bill.
Finally, I do not intend to revisit an old issue here, but Bill C-17 proposes significant changes to the Firearms Act regarding the issuance of licences for handguns to employees and storekeepers. These amendments in the omnibus bill are very understandable. This is not very complicated. The purposes and the objectives of these amendments are understandable.
I cannot get too fired up about Bill C-17 because basically these are acceptable provisions that we must look at carefully. However, I do not give my blessing to all these amendments. Some serious work will have to be done, and that is how we have always proceeded in the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. We will have to examine each of these amendments to the criminal code closely, because I think that they will very definitely have repercussions. The part of Bill C-17 which has perhaps got people talking the most, which has captured their interest, is the first part, which deals with offences under the heading of “Cruelty to Animals”.
Upon reading the bill, I immediately had certain questions and concerns. I listened carefully to the explanations from the government side. I can say that, on the face of it, my many questions have not been answered.
Nor are the minister and the government members answering the questions that legal specialists, farmers or industries that work with animals have with respect to this part of the bill. This entire section will have to gone over very closely in committee.
As far as the bill's provisions relating to cruelty to animals are concerned, there are some arguments on both sides. I will try to summarize them, and to reach a conclusion at the end.
Legally speaking, there is recognition of the importance of readjusting the provisions of the criminal code, but it seems the legislator has yielded to pressure from the animal defence people, imposing penalties that are judged too severe. This is a legitimate objection, looking at the penalties imposed on offenders.
The Barreau du Québec has issued an opinion on this part of the bill. It finds it shocking and inappropriate that these new provisions are to come under part V of the criminal code, “Sexual Offences, Public Morals, Disorderly Conduct and Cruelty to Animals”, because there is a risk of reducing the importance of offences toward people.
The Barreau du Québec calls for the creation of a specific statute apart from the criminal code, or at the very least that these offences be grouped together in a specific section of the criminal code.
I believe that the objective of the Barreau du Québec is to ensure that the criminal code, which is relatively easily followed by an informed reader at the present time, does not become any more complex than it already is. Hon. members will note that I have said “an informed reader”. This is certainly not as easy a read as a novel, but there is a certain logic in the criminal code, in its structure and in the sentences, the way sentences are determined and so on. Adjustments would have to be made, but that logic would have to be retained. I think I am echoing the Barreau du Québec's position by saying that perhaps these offences ought to be grouped together in a specific section of the criminal code.
A reading of the bill will show that a definition of “animal” is given. I heard a member of the Canadian Alliance answer another member's question as to whether or not humans were covered by this law. This was not covered in the definition of animal, at least I hope so.
The definition satisfies the legal world. It is fairly clear. One wonders why the legislator put it in subclause (8) at the very end of the definitions. The definition of an animal should be put at the very start, ahead of the consequences of cruelty to an animal. This is normally the way it works; the definitions are at the start of a bill. I see no reason why it should be otherwise in a specific section of the criminal code.
This section should start with the definition of the word “animal” before proceeding to the heart of the matter, that is, who commits an offence, how it is committed and what are the offences involved, as in the bill.
The Barreau du Québec also said that the important point with this bill is the one concerning the means of defence made available to offenders. Lawful excuse, as provided in paragraphs 182.1(1)( c ) and 182.1(1)( d ), addresses concerns expressed by the animal industry, namely the context of an experiment or an accepted industry, be it for profit such as a slaughter house or recreational such as hunting.
However, having heard certain comments by the animal industry, we do not think this bill addresses their concerns. And rightly so. I will come back to this a little later on in my speech.
There is a new provision regarding the offence of failing to provide adequate care. Even the legal experts think that this offence should be dropped from the bill, because it is not based on any tangible evidence and thus runs counter to the spirit of the criminal code.
With no material evidence to go on, it will be very difficult to prove this offence beyond all reasonable doubt. Given the legal principle that there must always be a point to what lawmakers say—when I refer to lawmakers, I am of course not referring to the Minister of Justice—this means that if we include in the criminal code a provision for which it will never be possible to produce tangible evidence, we will never be able to use this provision, and lawmakers' work would be pointless, which goes against a basic legal principle. The House knows what I mean.
As for the reception of the legal community, it is quite favourable. The animal industry, however, has some serious questions. It feels that the earlier provisions in the criminal code have not really been reproduced, and that there are loopholes. Amendments should be made to the legislation to better serve this industry, whether it be lucrative or recreational in nature.
Some hon. members have referred to the farmers in their ridings. There are farmers in my riding also, and even wild animals in captivity. There are, of course, questions to be raised with regard to this bill.
The bill could easily be improved, if there were a certain political will. It is not a bill, at least as far as the Bloc Quebecois MPs are concerned, that will have us tearing out our hair if the wording is not the same as in the criminal code.
The purpose of the bill is to improve and to update the approach being taken to animals, compared to the practice a few years ago. Hon. members will understand that the minister cannot be asked to reproduce word for word what was in the criminal code. It is being changed precisely because it did not correspond to everyday reality.
Nevertheless, there were certain things in the sections they want to do away with, including subsection 429(2) which refers to legal justification or colour of right to justify certain actions by the owner of an animal. These are not carried over into Bill C-17; there is nothing like them.
There is reference to “lawful excuse”, but this is very broad. How are the courts going to interpret “lawful excuse”? As legislators, we must provide the courts with as much guidance for their interpretation as possible. We are not doing our job properly if we leave things the way they are. I believe what we mean by “lawful excuse” needs to be clarified.
We have heard some of the major questions raised by owners. Is the practice common among farmers with horned animals of removing the horns of the beasts considered to Cause an animal “pain, suffering or injury”? Would the courts interpret it this way? This is not clear. The government should be clearer in its legislation.
For example, those who raise animals of prey trim their beaks, others cut the tails of certain animals. Does this come under the offence of causing “pain, suffering or injury?” Doubtless it does not. I think we should not give the courts any room for interpretation. Owners and farmers are quite right to have reservations, doubts and questions about these problems.
There is also the whole issue of researchers who use animals. People may oppose this, but medicines have been developed as the result of testing, in a prescribed manner, I concede.
We already have a code, which could perhaps be better structured, be better tracked to see what is done in the industry. Nor can animal research be completely prohibited and certain possible justifications for the people who are going to use animals not included in the bill. Thought should also be given to all the organizations for the defence of animal rights. I think that everyone is aware of their perhaps extreme position, but on the other hand, there are researchers who use animals.
There is also the issue of criminal intent. I believe very sincerely that there should be more clarification on this in the bill.
All this is to say that we support the spirit of the bill, but a fair balance must be found between the purpose of the legislation and its usefulness. This is not the first bill the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights will be considering in order to find the fairest possible solution. Once again, it is not a very controversial bill as far as the Bloc Quebecois is concerned.