Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise today to address Bill C-284, an act to amend the criminal code, sponsored by my hon. colleague from Churchill.
The bill would amend the criminal code in order to introduce new provisions for corporate criminal liability. Bill C-284 originated in response to the horrible catastrophe that occurred at the Westray mine in Stellarton, Nova Scotia in 1992 in which 26 people, just named by my hon. colleague, were killed.
On May 9, 1992, all the miners in the Westray mine were killed following an explosion that could have been prevented. A commission of inquiry was established under Mr. Justice Richard of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court. Mr. Justice Richard concluded that the miners were in no way responsible for the explosion but rather that safety conditions at the mine were at fault.
It was also revealed that the miners who worked at Westray had been attempting to reform their working conditions but to no avail. Their efforts were seemingly ignored by management, by regulators and by the government.
Justice Richard recommended that parliament introduce criminal code amendments to strengthen corporate criminal liability and to introduce a new offence of corporate killing.
Since that time there have been two legislative initiatives in this regard. Bill C-259, similar to the current bill, was introduced by the member for Halifax in the 36th parliament. The member for Pictou--Antigonish--Guysborough later introduced a motion to bring forth similar legislation and the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights voted unanimously to act in accordance with the motion. The bill was introduced in this new parliament and we have it before us today.
Bill C-284 contains provisions that would have the effect of holding directors and officers of corporations criminally liable for the actions or omissions of the employees of a corporation. It would also hold directors and officers criminally liable for failing to provide a safe working environment for employees. Both the United Kingdom and Australia have embarked upon similar legislative provisions.
I will begin my assessment by stating that I believe in principle with the general intention of the bill in addressing the issue of negligence on the part of corporations in providing safe working conditions for employees. I believe all actors in society, including corporations and government agencies, act rationally in their own self-interest and that it therefore makes sense to craft laws that provide incentives to act in a manner that promotes the well-being of their employees and of their clients.
I do however have certain concerns with the bill in its current form. I believe we must tread very carefully in our legislative endeavours for fear that we may inadvertently alter our legal system in such a fashion as to provide a basis for criminal culpability without criminal intent, which would not be congruent with natural justice.
I believe firmly that in any case of criminal prosecution the person or persons absolutely responsible for any acts or omissions must be held accountable. Generally, however, the larger a corporation gets the more divorced the directors are from day to day operations and decision making by management. I do not mention this fact to deflect responsibility from these directors. I mention it in order that we may most accurately direct matters of investigation, responsibility and prevent potential culpability in order to ensure that the intended end of fewer workplace deaths is actually achieved.
Directors of corporations tend to deal with issues such as strategic marketing and profit margins, whereas middle management tends to deal with operations on the ground. Is it fair to say that the manager who oversees the safety conditions in the factory is not ultimately responsible for the safety conditions in the factory, whereas the director who spends his or her time studying pie charts relating to relative market share is culpable of corporate killing?
If corporate directors knew of the risks involved, as they did at Westray, then they should face penalties. If they did not, and could not reasonably be expected to do so, then no culpability can properly be assigned.
Our criminal code contains provisions for criminal negligence. Perhaps these need to be strengthened for there is no question that workplaces are responsible for the safe conduct of business. Should we go down a path that would automatically pursue company directors, even when they are entirely removed from day to day operations, in order to satisfy a need for quick blame and closure? I am hesitant to believe so.
Equally important, I find a great deficiency in the bill as it addresses private corporations while leaving Canada's largest and most impersonal institutions, that is to say, government departments and crown corporations, outside its reach. Let me offer an example.
Several years ago here in Ottawa an employee of the transit company, OC Transpo, walked into his workplace and opened fire at his colleagues. There were fatalities. The later investigation revealed that the abnormal behaviour of the person in question was reported on more than one occasion to staff supervisors but that they had failed to take action.
Surely that would be a textbook example of the kind of criminal culpability the bill seeks to create. However, under the proposed legislation, the fact that OC Transpo is publicly owned would exonerate its directors and managers and the politicians who oversee it. It seems incomprehensible to me that no one would be held criminally responsible, other than the shooter, for the simple reason that these events transpired in a public sector workplace rather than in the private sphere.
However I do think there is a need for such measures to be applied in a manner that creates liability for governmental and semi-governmental agencies so that they too can be prosecuted when they abuse their trust. This should certainly be so in cases that lead to needless deaths and, let me suggest, it should also be so in cases where the abuse of power leads to a loss of property or civil liberties.
One interesting example of how this was done can be drawn from the United States. Under a 1997 law, government agencies, such as the internal revenue service, now face severe financial penalties if they abuse their power in order to engage in malicious prosecution, when they conduct actions toward those who are in their care in bad faith, or when they otherwise violate their legal mandates. This law, which is known as the Hyde amendment, has been remarkably successful in reining in this notoriously abusive agency.
If such a law were to apply in Canada with regard to any gross abuses in the behaviour of governmental and semi-governmental agencies toward their employees, we might see some form of justice toward the victims of tragedies like the one that occurred at the OC Transpo sheds.
I wish to conclude by congratulating my colleague from Churchill. She is right to highlight the need for improved workplace safety. I say to my colleague, yes, the cause is just, but we must be careful not to create new injustices in our efforts to remedy existing ones.