Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today on Bill C-36, an act to amend the Criminal Code (elder abuse). While this is a very small step forward in dealing with the silent scourge that must be brought into the light, it does not nearly address the true scope and range of elder abuse in Canada.
The World Health Organization adopts a definition from the United Kingdom for elder abuse, which is, “a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person”. This abuse comes in many forms: physical, psychological or emotional, financial or material, neglect or even sexual abuse.
The Parliamentary Committee on Palliative and Compassionate Care found an expanded definition, which includes institutional abuse, such as a loss of freedom and control, inadequate care, insufficient diet, misuse of physical and chemical restraints in long-term care facilities; medical abuse, such as senior Canadians having their wishes ignored or seniors being subject to support cutbacks; or systemic victimization, be it marginalization by the government and bureaucracy or by the medical system.
Over the course of the last two years, I had the distinct privilege to serve on the all-party Parliamentary Committee on Palliative and Compassionate Care, where we examined in depth the hidden crime of elder abuse in Canada. Ours was an ad hoc committee, founded out of a non-partisan and mutual concern for end-of-life issues and oriented toward improving care for elderly, dying and otherwise vulnerable Canadians.
My experiences as a young man and then later as a lawyer shaped my inherent belief in the need to stop these silent injustices. As a young law student, one of my summer jobs was through a provincial government summer employment program through which I worked with the Guelph Police Service. I was put to work inside the station and frequently had opportunity to go out on calls.
I will never forget attending a call with an officer of the police service involving a domestic dispute. It was enlightening. For the longest time, we further subjugated the victims of these terrible crimes, and I could not understand why, when a spouse or child was abused, it was the victim who was forced to leave with the police. It took years, but we finally changed professional opinion of the right protocol and eventually public opinion so that the offender was removed from the home and not the victim.
I have come to realize that elder abuse is a similarly silent but pervasive problem. In my former life as a lawyer, I was often called upon to assist with wills. I often had to spend considerable time determining whether older clients were being pressured to give me will instructions to satisfy the desires of their children. Too often older parents were asked to guarantee loans that could never be paid and for which they would become responsible, causing considerable emotional and financial damage. Too often children attempted to convince aging parents to transfer title of their home into their names to avoid probate fees upon death. I saw cases of children taking advantage of their parents by forcing them out of their homes after title was transferred.
Too frequently I witnessed children of aging parents coming into my office because another sibling with the power of attorney for the parents had misused the power and absconded with money from the parents' account. I could go on and on. However, I urge my colleagues to read the committee's report, “Not to be Forgotten”, wherein members will find numerous accounts of reported physical and emotional abuse of seniors and compelling, offensive and, frankly, sometimes gruesome examples of mistreatment at the hands of family or caregivers.
Now, as a member of Parliament, it breaks my heart to get a call from an elderly mother or father expressing horror over their yelling and screaming children, being forced into compliance, feeling trapped because if they report this abuse, they feel that not only will they lose a caregiver but they will lose their children. The parental bond is so strong, even in older age, that we are right now on the issue of elder abuse where we were 30 years ago with spousal abuse: a fear of reporting and lack of committed resources and programs to adequately research, detect and deal with its frequency.
We have the facts on our side to make this better. We know that elder abuse does not discriminate by gender, ethnicity, income or education. Regardless of one's cultural upbringing, previous career or social standing, any senior can become a victim, and it is shame or guilt that often silences them should they even have the capacity to report the abuse. Between 4% and 10% of Canadian seniors will experience a form of abuse in their lifetime, yet nearly half go unreported. When we consider how rapidly our population is aging, we have a problem on our hands that demands attention.
Elder abuse is often committed by a person known to the victim. It might be a son, daughter, grandchild, or another family member. It might be a friend or a professional caregiver, such as a paid care provider or staff. Family violence against elderly Canadians has increased by 14% since 2004. Abusers can also include neighbours, landlords or other authority figures.
Tragically, it is their love that makes them the greatest victims. Abused elder Canadians often do not reveal their mistreatment because of fear, love for the abuser, a lack of understanding, a physical or mental impairment, or simply a lack of awareness that this treatment is not okay and that there are resources they might draw upon.
The bill is really just a paragraph that would change a single section of the Criminal Code of Canada. Section 718 of the Criminal Code addresses the purposes and principles of sentencing; this bill would add a subsection to paragraph 718.2(a), which already states:
A court that imposes a sentence shall also take into consideration the following principles:
(a) a sentence should be increased or reduced to account for any relevant aggravating or mitigating circumstances relating to the offence or the offender, and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing,
This bill would add one other element:
(iii.1) evidence that the offence had a significant impact on the victim, considering their age and other personal circumstances, including their health and financial situation,
While it is admirable that we are including this as a factor in sentencing, the words in the current law, “without limiting the generality of the foregoing”, already allow a judge to consider age as a factor. This really is a cosmetic change, and cold comfort to the victim of abuse. Simply adding age as a factor does not deal with the root of the problem, and it runs the risk of not dealing with the result either. We need a more comprehensive approach to this problem.
Our committee found that we need to develop a broad-based public awareness campaign to raise the level of consciousness and understanding of these abuses and highlight the importance of reporting and ending it. It is important to ensure that we do this with proper consultation, as seniors focus groups recently found some ads that were broadcast too creepy and alienating. Our communication strategy must be inclusive to have its maximum effect.
We found that prevention programs are essential. By creating programs that integrate or further involve seniors in society, we can minimize risk, negate some of the harm and increase respect for seniors. A comprehensive strategy involves the development of adequate intervention and advocacy from and on behalf of senior Canadians. Abuses of any kind have pervasive psychological, physical and emotional effects that must be addressed immediately.
Finally, none of these measures will be sufficient without adequate and appropriate judicial remedies, and the bill addresses this final issue in some part. However, we are faced with a very serious crisis and we must act now to address it lest it get out of hand.
If there is truly one issue presently facing senior Canadians that is unsustainable, it is that we are not doing enough to end abuse at the hands of loved ones or authority figures and that we are still retreating into the mindset that so long as we threaten the perpetrator with an increased sentence, we solve the problem. This really is a myth.
Our mothers, fathers, elderly relatives and neighbours built this country for us. We stand on their shoulders and we would not be here without them. It is unpalatable that we let this go unaddressed.
I ask now that, while acknowledging this is a very small start, we do not stop until we adequately address the root of and solutions for elder abuse.