Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague who, by introducing this bill, has made it possible for me to address such an important matter in this chamber.
However, I would first like to say that this bill is a little like many other government bills, even though it is being introduced through the back door as a private member's bill. Bill C-217 seems to be inspired by media headlines. The danger with this type of bill is that it meddles with the Criminal Code. We are supposed to be good managers of this country, good legal experts and supposedly good lawmakers. Lawmakers do not talk for the sake of talking. The danger is that by making piecemeal changes to sections of the Criminal Code, which is something that the Conservative government does on a regular basis, we are creating a monster and those who manage criminal matters every day will have a great deal of trouble working with it.
When we studied the bill in the Standing Committee on Justice, the critic at the time, my colleague from Newfoundland and Labrador, specified that we had no problem with the substance of the bill. We all recognize the importance of war memorials. We have no problem with that. Our problem was, and still is—because the amendments have not been passed yet—with the fact that the government introduces in Bill C-217 changes immediately following section 430 of the Criminal Code on mischief involving religious worship.
The section stipulates:
Every one who commits mischief in relation to property that is a building, structure or part thereof that is primarily used for religious worship, including a church, mosque, synagogue or temple, or an object associated with religious worship located in or on the grounds of such a building or structure, or a cemetery, if the commission of the mischief is motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on religion, race, colour or national or ethnic origin,
a. is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years; or
b. is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding eighteen months.
It is because we raised these points that the government presented its amendment, because the maximum sentence did not make sense. The government recognized that. If we considered that the purpose of the bill was essentially to introduce minimum sentences, then the official opposition could not support this type of amendment given that, in the same section, this did not exist for the other things. Never, during the entire hearing in committee of the various witnesses, was anyone able to tell us in an intelligent or consistent manner why war memorials are more important than places of religious worship or cultural property.
It is important to be consistent. Indeed, there will be a problem when and if this goes before the courts. We do not write just for the sake of it, to return to our ridings and go to the Royal Canadian Legion—that I joined a few months ago—and say that they will be proud of us because we voted in favour of Bill C-217 and we have agreed to make things much more serious. It is important to be consistent. As legislators, we have a responsibility. If this government does not understand its role as legislator, at some point, Canadian society as a whole will pay the price. We agree that there is a problem, but it is important to be realistic. It is not something that happens every day, but there is a problem. That it would happen once, is once too often.
I would have been a little uncomfortable had I not received a letter from the president of the Royal Canadian Legion, who wrote to us, during our committee hearings, on behalf of the Royal Canadian Legion. If anyone is proud of their history—of our land, air and sea forces—and of what has been done in Canada's name throughout the world, it is the Legion.
I participate in enough activities with these people to know that they are proud and that they want to educate young people about our history. They want young people to be more familiar with what is happening now and what has happened in our history. The youth of today are quite often unfamiliar with Canada’s history. My colleague who introduced Bill C-217 stressed this when he compared our situation to that of Europe, where young people are so proud of their history. I have travelled throughout Europe and I have been to Normandy. It was one of the most wonderful trips of my life, and the most emotional. I saw all the tombstones of our Canadian soldiers, which are maintained by people who go there every day. Of course, it is a proud moment to stand before these tombstones, and one that makes you want to return.
Will slapping people with a $1,000 fine solve the problem of ignorance of history? As the president of the Royal Canadian Legion put it so well:
The punishment should fit the crime and although no incident of this nature can be condoned, there should be provision for restorative justice measures with a mandated dialogue between veterans groups and the offenders. There should be provision where offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions, to repair the harm they have done, by apologizing to a group of Veterans, or with community services. It provides help for the offender to avoid future offences and provides a greater understanding of the consequences of their actions.
That is the Royal Canadian Legion's vision, which I share. There is a reason why the Criminal Code section on mischief does not provide for a minimum fine for mischief in relation to cultural property or places used for religious worship.
We feel that war memorials belong in the section on mischief. While we do not necessarily object to mentioning war memorials specifically in that section, it is important to be consistent with the rest of the section, because there is a danger. The member for Dufferin—Caledon was asked about this when he testified in committee. Anyone who has done some criminal law and gone to court knows what will happen to avoid the minimum fine. Take the example of a stupid young person who gets a good slap on the wrist from the authorities so that he understands the seriousness of what he did and is properly punished. You would have to be pretty stupid to do this sort of thing. But who did not do something stupid when they were young? Do we have to slap people with a $1,000 minimum fine to make them understand that what they did was wrong?
The best proof that this is not necessary is that these individuals rarely reoffend, which goes to show that the punishments handed down under the current legislation are successful. Something is missing, though. Students in this country need to be made aware of our history.
I will repeat what I said the first time I took part in this debate, for anyone who did not hear. In my former life, I was a radio broadcaster. One of my best radio programs was one that I had to fight for to some degree, since my program director thought my idea was completely crazy. After travelling to Europe, I said I wanted to do a special program on November 11, which I wanted to begin by observing a minute of silence. For anyone who does not know, a minute of silence on the radio is very expensive. My director asked me if I had gone mad. I told her that I thought it was worth commemorating what happened in our past and giving our listeners a little history lesson. That was my best program. It was an open-line broadcast. People called in to talk about what had happened. That is what needs to be done, rather than adding a subsection that will only complicate section 430 and confuse people, because they will no longer know which section to invoke when laying charges, in order to prevent the minimum fine from being given.
This bill is thoughtful in the sense that it comes from good intentions, but once again, this Conservative government has failed to reach the right conclusion.