Madam Speaker, I am rising today to speak in opposition to Bill C-217. I do so somewhat reluctantly. I have come to know the member who sponsored this bill in his capacity as chair of the citizenship and immigration committee on which I sit. I can say half jokingly that he treats us all with a kind of even-handed impatience. I know that his intentions in putting forward this bill are no doubt noble and stem from a profound respect for the veterans of this country. I also say “reluctantly” because I share that profound respect for our veterans.
I have had the opportunity and privilege to tell the House before that I am the son of a World War II veteran, and the grandson of a veteran who was very seriously injured in the First World War but survived and went on to have a career as a diplomat on behalf of his home country, Australia. My father had the privilege of growing up the son of a diplomat in New York City. When he turned 18, he had a choice to make. He was free to join the forces and fight in the Second World War. That was a choice that he made. I realize it is a choice that hundreds of thousands of young men and women make and I want to be clear how much respect I have for the choice that all of those folks make.
Lastly, in terms of my reluctance to oppose this bill, I want to talk about the importance of war memorials. There is no question that they serve and should serve as important symbols in our public life. They are not symbols that celebrate war but in fact mark the terrible tragedies which occur in war. One hopes that in building war memorials as well as assembling before them that the tragedy of war is felt deeply by so many. I think that in our society war memorials can really serve as markers on the road to peace. I hope that is the service they provide to society. For that reason, I feel they need to be protected.
However, running through this private member's bill and frankly so much of the government's legislation is a common thread. There is a tendency to respond with intolerance, never with the humility that recognizes the very human tendency for all of us to err, and never in a fashion that recognizes the real human capacity that most of us have to redeem ourselves if given the opportunity.
It seems that all transgressions under government and private members' bills coming from the other side seem to end with someone getting incarcerated, as if incarceration is a redeeming and ennobling exercise.
I want to tell a story that demonstrates why this approach to the bill is wrong-headed. It is a story that spans a great many years, but I will shorten it for the House. It is centred in my riding of Beaches--East York. At the centre of the story is the Malvern Collegiate War Memorial, a war memorial I have spoken about here before. It was built in 1922 to honour the sacrifice of the 25 “Boys of Malvern”, all graduates of that high school who fought and died in World War I.
About 25 years ago, the memorial was moved to accommodate some renovations to the school and in that process it lost an arm. It stayed that way for a long time. In its centennial year, the school's alumni association decided to restore the monument to its former glory. It took about seven years of hard work and considerable fundraising and the memorial was beautifully restored November 4 of last year. I attended the rededication of the memorial and spoke on behalf of the Minister of Veterans Affairs because that ministry had provided some funds for the restoration. There were about 400 people in attendance at that rededication. It was very much a well-attended event in my riding. The war memorial itself had a lot of national media coverage. It was something of a celebrated war memorial.
It was at that event that I met a woman, Dr. Vandra Masemann. She was there to speak at the rededication as both the president of the school's alumni association and also as the chair of the war memorial restoration committee. It was a very proud day for a large number of people involved in this restoration process. The national media turned out, as did many local and regional media outlets as well.
It was a wonderful day, a very proud day for so many people. However, within 36 hours the memorial had been vandalized. The video evidence showed four young men getting out of a car in the dark of night, climbing the monument and wrapping it in blue duct tape. In the process they caused a couple thousand dollars' worth of damage to the memorial. The national media returned to the scene to cover the event and the outrage of so many people who lived in the neighbourhood and contributed financially and with their hard work to the restoration project.
I met Vandra a couple of weeks later. We were sitting on the stage beside each other at the high school's graduation ceremony. During the ceremony she leaned over to me and said, “I want you to know that I oppose that bill.” She was referring to Bill C-217. I followed up with her after the ceremony. She asked me for a bit of time to put her thoughts into writing for me about why she opposed the bill, having put so much work into the restoration and being so proud of what she had accomplished.
Vandra's characterization of the vandalism was very clear and concise. She said that this was indeed a desecration of the war memorial. In spite of this, she had a very firm opinion in opposition to this bill. I want to quote her at length. She wrote to me:
I ponder on who are going to be the ones that do these things--young males around 18-24. These boys are the same as the Boys of Malvern who died and who are remembered on that monument. We cannot rescue those boys who died, but we can rescue the ones who have done such a foolish and stupid thing as to vandalize a war memorial.
We need to be much more creative about the kind of consequence that will teach them the awful significance of what they have done. Giving them a criminal record and letting them learn nothing from the experience is of no redemptive significance whatsoever. It is imperative that they understand the nature of the act they have committed, and surely their cell-mates will not be able to do this. I am in favour of a fine proportional to the cost of repairs as well as an educational experience that ensures they will never even dream of committing such an act again. It could be community service with a veterans' group or hospital, with the War Amps program or with projects that aim to gather the memories of the soldiers that are still living. It needs to be concluded with a public apology and an expression of atonement for having committed such a crime. Surely our lawmakers can come up with more imaginative solutions than 2-4 weeks in jail. Lastly, several of those who have commented have noted that this act could also be construed as a “prank”. Many may disagree with this assessment, but a jail term will not convince the perpetrators that it wasn't. Only a serious attempt at re-education will show them the error of their ways.
If members tend to think that this is all wrong-minded, let me bring Reverend Jim McKnight into this story. Reverend Jim saw the news about the desecration of the Malvern War Memorial. He is an alumnus of Malvern and came forward to admit publicly that 43 years earlier he, along with a couple of other buddies who have remained nameless, desecrated the very same monument with a can of white paint.
In 1968 Reverend Jim was a top student, editor of the school newspaper and president of the United Way committee. That night he was, in his words, as quoted in the Toronto Star, “giving society the finger.” The school's principal caught him but the police were never called in. Reverend Jim's punishment was a lifetime of regret. As he put it:
I didn't think it was a big deal; I thought it was just some statue till I saw the newspaper....I remember the words, 'Memorial desecrated'. Something about 'desecrated' threw me for a loop. Then, an older math teacher pulled me aside. He was visibly shaken. His big brother had been killed;...his name was on the memorial. That really got my attention.
Reverend Jim never spent time in jail, never even paid a fine. It was the math teacher, who was a fellow Malvern alumnus who spoke of being in Malvern in the 1940s, of empty desks, of friends being killed overseas. These are the experiences that helped a kid who gave society the finger one night appreciate the courage and sacrifice of our veterans. That is all it takes, a little life experience, a little education, a couple of conversations, to accomplish what this bill seeks to accomplish with fines and incarceration.