Mr. Speaker, I welcome the opportunity to speak to Bill C-217, which deals with the important issue of mischief related to war memorials. I thank the member for Dufferin--Caledon for turning our attention to this important problem.
This is a topic with which I am personally familiar, as there are a large number of war memorials in my riding of Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca. The most significant of those is the cenotaph in Memorial Park in Esquimalt. This memorial was unveiled in 1927 to honour the dead from the Great War of 1914-1918. Over time plaques have been added on to this memorial. It now also honours the dead of World War II, Korea and those who died in peacekeeping missions. With its central position in our town, right next to a major bus stop and bus route, it is unfortunately often the target of graffiti. I would argue that has almost always, if not always, been out of ignorance rather than a specific targeting. It is simply a large surface for taggers and is very close to high traffic areas.
As a former city councillor, I am very familiar with the costs of these incidents. The municipality maintains this memorial and pays the cleanup costs for the graffiti that regularly appears there. However, I am also very aware of the cost in terms of the indignity to the veterans and the hurt it causes in Esquimalt, which is very much a military community.
One of the most serious incidents occurred on a Sunday in July of 2008, when a vigilant citizen actually noticed suspicious activity in Memorial Park at about 10:30 p.m. This citizen called the police and a 14 year-old youth was apprehended and released on a promise to appear in court on a charge of mischief. On Monday morning a group of community volunteers, known as ETAG, Esquimalt Together Against Graffiti, was out cleaning the graffiti off that memorial. This volunteer group strives very hard to ensure the prompt removal of graffiti from all public and private property, to take away the thrill that taggers get from seeing their tag in existence in the community. ETAG is very effective. It is a very large group of very hard-working volunteers. Long term chair, Peter Justo, who just retired as chair of that group, and Emmy Labonte and others are out within 24 hours removing graffiti.
They were working on a very large amount of graffiti on this very important war memorial. In fact, not only did the volunteers against graffiti step up, the president of the Esquimalt Legion, Mr. Ken Levine, stepped forward. He called for what he characterized as appropriate punishment for the youth. He did not call for jailing the youth. I think members opposite will be interested in what he thought was the proper solution. He said that the youth ought to have to come to the legion on a regular basis, meet with veterans and hear their stories of sacrifice on his behalf. He felt that when the youth had that re-education, he would then be very much committed to talking to other youth who were taggers to try to avoid tagging the war memorials.
This is the president of my local legion who took a very progressive stance. Again, when we think of a 14 year-old youth, what probably is most awful about that is regularly scheduling his time to meet with old people and listen to them. It would not be as if the youth would feel he was getting off lightly.
Very interestingly, the two police officers involved also publicly called for using this form of restorative justice for this youth rather than see him face a term in some youth custody facility, perhaps putting him in touch with other youth that might lead him further astray, when really the problem was an isolated incident of tagging, with no intention of insulting veterans.
The president of the legion identified the real problem, and that is the failure of youth to understand the great sacrifices that have been made on their behalf by members of the Canadian forces. I believe, in calling for restorative justice, he identified the real solution to this kind of problem.
Some three months after Remembrance Day, it is a good time for all of us to reflect on what more we can do to help build that public education and public consciousness of the sacrifices members of the military have made. I am sure all hon. members attended Remembrance Day events, as I did. One of the most encouraging things I have seen in the past five years is the increasing numbers of youth who show up at those Remembrance Day ceremonies, and not just those who are in cadets, or scouts, or other programs, but simply youth in the crowd paying respect for what has happened in the past.
We are making progress in raising that consciousness of the great contribution the Canadian military makes, but we can do more to try to make it part of our common culture as Canadians to have this respect on an everyday basis and not just on Remembrance Day.
There are many other ways this could be done and I want to single out a grant by Heritage Canada to the Museum of Strathroy-Caradoc. Why would I know about a grant to a museum in Ontario? It created a travelling exhibition on the life Sir Arthur Currie, one of our great generals, who was born in Strathroy but started his military career with the militia in Victoria. This exhibition has been travelling around Canada, with the support of Heritage Canada, trying to make Canadians aware of one of our great heroes, a person not without controversy but a person who made an enormous contribution during the Great War.
We can also promote the work of authors like Tim Cook, a prominent military historian, whose book called The Madman and the Butcher, which I just finished reading, chronicles the unfortunate conflict between the war minister Sam Hughes and the brilliant general Sir Arthur Currie. The more Canadians know our history and the great things that have happened in the past, the fewer problems we will have with the kinds of things addressed in the bill.
We can also go beyond symbolism and support policies that really show respect for our 728,000 or more veterans. We can support policies that would help end the shame of veterans at food banks, in particular the food bank in Calgary which had to be set up to address the needs of 200 veterans and their families. We can support the efforts to end the shame of homeless veterans in our country. It is very difficult to get a number since most veterans do not wish for people to know that they are homeless. They do not wish their families or friends to know. We can support programs that address the suicide rate for veterans, which is quite shockingly high in our country, some 46% higher than other Canadians.
One very important action the government could take is to fully implement the NDP's veterans first motion, which passed in the House in 2006. This would mean doing several things.
It would mean eliminating the unfair reduction in long-term disability payments for injured Canadian Forces personnel and eliminating the clawback of retirement pensions for Canadian Forces and RCMP members who happen to also receive CPP benefits. It would mean eliminating the marriage after 60 rule that prevents spouses from receiving pension and health benefits after the deaths of their veteran spouses if they happen to marry after the age of 60. It would also mean extending the veterans independence program to all widows and veterans so veterans could stay in their homes, take care of themselves and not become a burden on the public, which is something I know all veterans wish to avoid.
Once again, I want to thank the member for bringing our attention to this problem. I know all members share a concern about mischief related to war memorials. However, I am not sure that the government penchant for thinking everything can be solved with a jail term is the right solution to the problem, and that is the solution proposed in the bill.
The solutions lie in restorative justice. They lie in making the perpetrators of these acts of vandalism aware of the harm they cause both the specific people honoured in those memorials and their families and to the larger community. They lie in public education about our military history and the important contribution the Canadian Forces have made, not just in defending Canada but as a part of international peacekeeping missions around the world.
In my career I happened to have the distinct privilege of being in East Timor when the Canadian Forces were there and saw the great work they were doing in rebuilding houses in a country that had been destroyed through civil conflict. I also had the privilege of serving in Afghanistan as an international human rights observer and again was able to see the Canadian Forces in the field attempting to do very positive, difficult and dangerous work there. The more the public and young people know about these kinds of contributions, the fewer problems we will have.
I also think, as I said, that the solution lies in demonstrating respect for veterans in a concrete way by governments all across the country to ensure we do not end up with veterans, who have served their country well, living in poverty, having to go to food banks and ending up homeless on our streets.
I call on the members on the other side to think very seriously about the solutions they propose when the bill gets to committee and to think about changing the solution that is in this bill to something that reflects the need for restorative justice, public education, fairness and fair treatment of our veterans rather than seeking jail sentences as a solution to this problem. I look forward to further discussion of the bill.