Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise on behalf of the constituents of Surrey Central to participate in the debate concerning Bill C-15B, an act to amend the criminal code (cruelty to animals and firearms) and the Firearms Act.
The purpose of the bill is to reintroduce the proposed amendments to the cruelty of animals provision of the criminal code while consolidating animal cruelty offences that were introduced in Bill C-17 with a few changes, some of which we consider improvements and others which are of concern to Canadians.
Among the improvements are increased maximum penalties for persons found guilty of cruelty to animals, those who act willfully and recklessly in killing or harming animals. However, with a widened definition of the term animal, it creates a number of concerns for those who are dependent on the harvesting and husbandry of animals for their livelihood.
The new provisions would not prevent legitimate activities from being carried out. The law would only proscribe illegal activities. The problem is, and therefore the concern, these new provisions would narrow the scope of what constitutes legitimate activities. Why does the minister not simply raise the penalties for committing animal offences?
Problems arise with the definition of animal in the bill. The proposed definition of animal in Bill C-15 would include non-human vertebrates and all animals having the capacity to feel pain. This new definition would extend legal protection to a number of living organisms which have never before been provided that kind of protection. This definition is too wide and would open the door for the prosecution of those who earn their livelihood working with animals. Our key concern is that the criminal code would no longer provide the same level of legal protection presently afforded to those who use animals for legitimate, lawful and justified practices.
The phrase “legal justification or excuse and with colour of right” in subsection 429(2) of the criminal code provides protection to those who commit any kind of property offence. The parliamentary secretary to the minister attempted to assure the justice committee that it is the government's intention that the defences in subsection 429(2) of the criminal code would continue to apply to cruelty to animal offences and that those defences would be implicit in the new legislation. Both the Canadian Alliance and the Bloc members moved amendments that would have made these defences explicit and the government members opposed them.
However in the new bill animal cruelty provisions would be moved out of the general classification of property offences and into a section of their own which would remove these provisions outside the scope of that protection. By moving the animal cruelty section out of the range of property offences would emphasize animal rights as opposed to animal welfare. This is a significant alteration in the underlying principle of the legislation, and could elevate the status of animals in the eyes of the courts.
Our concern is that the legislation could open up the possibility that farmers, sporting groups and scientific researchers would be unjustly prosecuted. As a result, animal rights groups in Canada would use the new legislation as the basis for such prosecutions. They have already stated their intentions to do so. Liz White, a director with Animal Alliance of Canada, has said:
My worry is that people think that this is the means to the end, but this is just the beginning. It doesn't matter what the legislation says if no one uses it, if no one takes it to court, if nobody tests it. The onus is on humane societies and other groups on the front lines to push this legislation to the limit, to test the parameters of this law and have the courage and conviction to lay charges. That's what this is all about. Make no mistake about it.
The people who are most concerned about the bill are the agricultural groups, farmers, industry workers and medical researchers. They do not condone intentional animal abuse or neglect in any way. It is fundamentally important to the success of their livelihoods that they treat their animals with the care and respect that the bill intends to afford animals.
Moving the animal cruelty section out of the ambit of property offences to a new section on its own is seen by many as emphasizing animal rights as opposed to animal welfare. This significant alteration and the underlying principle of the legislation is something that needs to be carefully considered.
The Canadian Alliance asked government members to retain the cruelty to animals provision in the property offences section of the criminal code but they refused. Many groups are concerned that elevating the status of animals from property could have significant and detrimental implications for many legitimate animal dependent businesses. Our party supports increasing penalties for cruelty to animal offences. However we do not support the widening scope of what currently constitutes a criminal offence against animals.
The amendments to the Firearms Act are of an administrative nature and would simplify the registration process and reduce costs by incorporating information technology. My Canadian Alliance colleagues and I are opposed to these provisions on the basis that we have long held that the act be repealed entirely. We believe there should be severe mandatory penalties for the criminal use of any weapon. We are committed to keeping guns out of the hands of violent criminals as a necessary part of making our communities safer. We would replace the current firearms law with a practical firearms control system that would be cost effective and would respect the rights of Canadians to own and use firearms responsibly.
I support increasing penalties for cruelty to animal offences but I cannot support widening the scope and definition of what currently constitutes a criminal offence. This legislation would influence and cause the courts to interpret such offences in a different way which may have a detrimental effect and implications on farmers, hunters and agricultural producers.
The minister amended the bill to provide a screening mechanism for indictable offences. That would allow a provincial court judge to prescreen such prosecutions and decide whether they should proceed. The Canadian Alliance in no way condones intentional acts of cruelty to animals and supports increasing the penalties relating to such acts. However, while cruelty to animals cannot be tolerated, the criminal law should not be used as a tool by special interest groups to destroy the legitimate farming and related food production industry.
We will strive to ensure that the legitimate use of animals by farmers, sportsmen and medical researchers is protected.