Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-50, amendments to the Criminal Code in relation to cruelty to animals.
Members who have been in the House longer than I will remember from the last Parliament when the bill was Bill C-22. This legislation has been before this House consistently since 1999 when it was first introduced in an omnibus criminal law bill, Bill C-17.
Canadians from all walks of life have expressed and continue to express support for stronger animal cruelty laws. I know the minister continues to receive countless letters in support of these amendments. I have certainly received letters and heard concerns from my constituents. As MPs we hear from a lot of people. I heard from someone this morning in relation to the puppy mill in Quebec which my NDP colleague spoke about previously. This issue is very much on the minds of Canadians.
For various reasons the bill has never passed both this House and the other place in the same form. It is true that when it was first introduced, a degree of discomfort was felt by a number of industry stakeholders, farmers and animal researchers, about the potential negative impact of the legislation on their activities. These are legitimate concerns and they have been addressed.
Over the past five years, significant work has gone on in Parliament, in the chamber and in committee, as well as in meetings and discussions with concerned parties to bring a greater consensus in support of this legislation.
In the summer of 2003 when a final set of amendments were made to the legislation, a broad based coalition of industry groups came to feel more comfortable with the legislation and in fact supported these amendments, alongside animal welfare groups and veterinary associations. These groups even wrote to urge the minister to re-table this very legislation.
Since that set of changes, not just those people who advocate for the interests of animals, but also many of those whose livelihoods actually depend upon the use of animals are now eager to see these amendments become law. Those groups include organizations representing the agricultural sector, trappers, fur farming industries, and the animal research community. This indicates that we have addressed a wide range of concerns.
One of the objectives of the reforms is the enhancement of existing maximum penalties for animal cruelty. Today even the most heinous mutilation or torture of animals can result in only six months' imprisonment or a $2,000 fine. There is widespread consensus that these maximum penalties are too low to deter or denounce behaviour that we know happens across this country. Our views toward animals have changed a lot in this country and in this world over the past number of years.
Part of the penalty enhancement reform involves making these offences dual procedure and giving the Crown the ability to proceed by indictment in the more serious cases. In those cases, the maximum penalty goes up from six months in prison to five years, and the ceiling of $2,000 is removed, in keeping with the sentencing for all indictable offences in the code.
There are more specific sentencing measures in addition to these general standard ones. Currently there is a two year maximum on orders preventing the offender from owning or possessing animals. This two year maximum ceiling will also be removed so the courts will have the power to make an order for any length of time the court considers appropriate.
In addition, Bill C-50 will introduce a new power for the court to order, in addition to any other sentence, that a convicted offender repay the costs of taking care of the animal in question. If a person or organization took in the animal after the cruelty incident, the person who committed the offence would be responsible.
In every province there are statutorily created societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals. We all know those. These agencies are under a legal obligation to protect animals from cruelty by seizing and caring for them when they are in distress, for example a puppy mill, yet these statutory bodies receive very little in the way of public funding. When they take in an animal that has been abused, care for it and provide veterinary services, food, shelter and comfort, they generally do so with money obtained from public donations.
We all know people in our communities who do this kind of work. In my community of Dartmouth--Cole Harbour, I think of people like Judith Gass, a former Progressive Conservative candidate in the 1993 federal election, who does great work. I also think of the many vets in my riding who talk to me about the concerns they have when they see animals in distress.
Bill C-50 will make it clear that the offender may be found responsible for repaying the costs associated with his or her criminal act. That is good sentencing policy. By holding the offender accountable for the costs, we do a better job at educating the offender about the consequences of his or her crime and hopefully this contributes to his or her rehabilitation.
Law reform is about more than adjusting numbers. It is also about making sure the substance of the law prohibits all forms of misconduct and does so in the clearest possible language and provides the most coherent structure of offences. Bill C-50 also contains a number of elements that accomplish this important set of objectives.
The amendments will create a new offence that directly targets the wilful killing of an animal with brutal intention, such as by strapping an explosive on the animal--we have heard of that--or fastening the animal to a railway line. These types of acts, which most people consider impossible to imagine, are perhaps the most despicable form of cruelty we can imagine and may not be caught by our existing law if the person had or could prove a legitimate excuse for killing the animal. We are closing this loophole so that even when the law allows a person to kill an animal, he or she cannot do it with the intention of being brutal.
Euthanasia, slaughter, hunting practices could be humane. The hallmarks of humane euthanasia are that the methods are tried and true. They involve a minimization of pain and suffering. They are reproducible and reliable and do not pose any risk of failure or risk of harm to others.
Sometimes a person who kills an animal has another set of intentions reflected in acts that are not reliable methods of killing, which pose risks to that person or to others and which have uncertain and non-reproducible effects. Exploding an animal in a microwave, which we have heard of, or dropping it from a tall building are examples. If someone kills an animal with that state of mind, there is a good chance he or she is being deliberately brutal. The law must clearly prohibit and sternly punish this type of behaviour.
Another set of changes will clear up some of the language that is currently confusing. The code now has a set of offences in relation to cattle, a set of offences in relation to animals that are kept for a lawful purpose, and another set of offences for all animals. This produces duplication and some overlap. There are also omissions. For instance, there are special provisions on cockfighting and the keeping of cockpits. We know, sadly, that dog fighting also happens in our country. Why should our law not also prohibit that? There is no reason.
Bill C-50, a comprehensive law reform package in this area will rectify that deficiency. It will also remove current language, such as “dogs, birds and other animals”, which is a phrase that can do nothing except confuse. It will also remove the nonsensical notion of wilful neglect, which does not exist anywhere else in criminal law because it conflates two entirely different concepts. Wilful means deliberate and intentional, whereas neglect means inadvertence. Combining these two into one concept is bad criminal law. Bill C-50 will rectify that.
The bill will also provide a definition of animal when none currently exists. That definitely will be a “non-humane vertebrate”, for example. Today, there is no definition. This means that a worm or a snail or any possible living creature would probably be included. Since many industry groups have expressed concern over such an interpretation, Bill C-50 brings desirable clarity to the question. Without Bill C-50, the question of the scope of the law remains open and it leads to uncertainty.
Finally, Bill C-50 will create a new part of the Criminal Code with the title “Cruelty to Animals” as a chapter devoted just to these offences. This will permit the offences to be taken out of part XI, “Wilful and Forbidden Acts in Respect of Certain Property”.
I am aware that this change has been the subject of debate and discussion, but let us be clear about it in the bill. This change will not and cannot have the effect of altering the legal status of animals as property. The fact that animals are property is a result of property law, which is within the constitutional authority of provinces, not of this Parliament. The common law of this country and that of our Commonwealth cousins bears out centuries of jurisprudence that firmly establishes that animals are the property of the people or of the Crown. There are some people who would disagree with that. There are people who were referred to earlier as radical in this cause. This is a mainstream bill. This is not an extreme bill. It is legally impossible for the relocation of offences from one chapter of the Criminal Code to another to have any effect whatsoever on the legal status of animals as property.
The bill reflects the mainstream and widely held view of Canadians that the people with whom we share this planet are worthy of more respect than maybe we accorded them years ago. The bill is a meaningful and reasonable solution that addresses the needs of many stakeholders, people who work with animals, people who own animals, as well as people who just like to be with animals. The bill provides a sensible solution for all Canadians. I urge the adoption of Bill C-50.