Mr. Speaker, I rise today in the House in support of Bill C-35, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (law enforcement animals, military animals and service animals).
Hundreds of service animals in this country help Canadians in their day-to-day lives and at work. Two weeks ago I was in LaSalle and took part in a Vélo Plaisir activity organized by the Optimist Club. There was a police officer there with her law enforcement dog. It was quite lovely. The dog was seven years old. The police officer talked about the lifespan of her dog, what the dog had done and what her areas of expertise were, and she explained how these dogs are trained. These dogs are very important. Whether we are talking about courageous RCMP dogs or specially trained dogs that valiantly serve members of our armed forces, these animals provide an invaluable service that cannot be overstated.
Since their job is often dangerous, these service animals can be exposed to risks that pose a significant threat to their lives and their well-being. As members of Parliament, we therefore have a responsibility to do our best to protect the animals that serve us so courageously. The existing laws are inadequate, since too many animals that serve this country and its people fall victim to criminals who show a total lack of respect for the lives of these animals and the services they provide to Canada.
One example of the current legislation's failure to protect them happened in Edmonton in 2013, when a man who was trying to flee from the RCMP stabbed Quanto, a police service dog, 27 times, causing his death. The charges brought against the offender did not fit the brutality of his crime. The man was found guilty of animal cruelty. The current legislation does not provide strict enough penalties for the killing of a police or military service animal. These legal provisions do not go far enough to protect the animals that serve our country and its citizens. Killing a service animal is considered a lesser offence than others that an offender could face. These charges are often dropped as part of plea bargains. It seems to me that killing a service animal while trying to escape police is a serious offence that should carry a tough penalty. The brutal stabbing of Quanto was more than just an act of animal cruelty; it was murder.
Cases like this one clearly demonstrate the need for new legislation on this issue, because current laws have not been enough to deter these crimes, and penalties have not been strict enough for those who deliberately hurt or kill service animals. Accordingly, my NDP colleagues and I believe that if an individual acting in bad faith tries to commit a crime against a service animal, it is reasonable to hold that individual criminally responsible for their actions. Existing legislation fails to give the courts and law enforcement officials the power to properly penalize offenders and protect the service animals who work alongside police officers and military personnel.
Our party has long stood opposed to all forms of animal cruelty. We have remained committed to the needs of animals and the eradication of cruelty toward them in our policy proposals and party platform. In addition, we have put forward concrete bills that would better protect the safety of all animals.
While we have been disappointed in the past by the government's unwillingness to support us in these measures, we are pleased that it has finally begun to acknowledge the protections that animals should be afforded. It is our belief, however, that all animals should be free from harm, be they dogs in the canine units or animals at large, and that these protections should not be predicated on animal categorization.
Given our long-standing support of these issues, the decision on the part of the government to bring forth legislation that would better protect service animals and punish those who intentionally harm service animals is a necessary and overall well-received action. However, the legislation is far from perfect.
Our party supports the major premise of the bill, namely, the protection of service animals and the punishment of those who would do them harm. We do, however, have major reservations concerning the impact that some provisions of the bill would have on those in the criminal justice system and the ability of judges to do their job to the best of their ability. In every province across the country, judges comprise a core group of individuals whose actions and expertise have helped to create a legal system that is the envy of countries all around the world. A major part of their job is to make judgments and assessments concerning circumstances of an event when determining the proper sentencing of a crime.
In addition to our concern about the proposed restriction of the sentencing powers of judges, our party believes that, by now, the Conservative government should be acutely aware of the consequences of minimum and consecutive sentencing. Offences that have minimum and consecutive sentences have serious and far-reaching implications for our criminal justice system that should not be taken lightly or brushed aside by the sponsors of this bill. In short, some parameters of the legislation stand to cause unnecessary strains on the Canadian justice system, while simultaneously making it more difficult for judges and other legal experts to do the job for which they are most qualified.
We believe these aspects of the bill require attention so as to ensure criminals can be punished for their actions, while not creating unnecessary burdens on the criminal justice or restricting the sentencing power of judges.
As it currently stands, the bill would serve to undermine these core responsibilities of judges by tying their hands when they are attempting to make decisions that are both legally responsible and fair to the circumstances before them. Forcing judges to hand out minimum sentences to offenders ultimately takes away this freedom and speaks largely to the lack of trust that the government has shown to professionals in our legal system time and time again.
Our party believes strongly that certain provisions of this bill can be rewritten and reworked so as to ensure that service animals across the country are properly protected from harm, that those who would do service animals harm would be effectively punished for their actions, and that judges could retain their powers over sentencing those who willingly break the law. In short, we believe it is the job of a judge, not the Prime Minister or the Minister of Justice, to sentence criminal offenders.
Our support for this bill is not therefore unconditional or without some reservations.
Our party has a long and proud history of supporting the protection of animals, whether they are also pets or the service animals that work to protect Canadians every day. We strongly believe that those who senselessly seek to do harm to animals should be punished and made to answer for their crimes.
We also recognize, however, that judges across the country act as the agents of the legal system. They best understand both the law and the specifics of the case before them. It is our belief therefore that the freedom to determine correct sentencing in this and other cases is one that should remain in the hands of judges. We seek therefore to protect the livelihood and well-being of the animals across the country that do their jobs to keep Canadians safe, but we also believe that the expertise of a judge and his or her ability to properly sentence criminal offenders is similarly something that should be protected.
Overall, we are optimistic that the bill will correct some of the legislative failings of previous laws in protecting our valued service animals across the country, and we hope its provisions will deter and adequately punish those who would do harm to animals like Quanto.
I would like to end my speech by saying that the NDP has always sought progress on the animal protection agenda, be they pets or law enforcement animals.
Just this morning, I met with an animal welfare group. They told me that they like the bill. They think the bill is very good but, as I said, it has some small flaws. In general though, this bill will protect these animals.
Really though, do we want to categorize animals in Canada and say that some are more important than others? I do not know. I am asking my colleagues opposite.
In closing, I would like to thank all of the men and women who train animals—dogs in particular. I know that it is hard work and that training animals to serve takes a lot of patience. These trainers develop such a beautiful relationship with their animals. The least we can do is protect these animals.
I am ready to answer my colleagues' questions.