I am a fellow British Columbian. Everyone in B.C. is very well aware of the wildfire risk, particularly with what last year represented. We had an absolutely terrible fire season.
I have had previous career experience working in the bush. I had eight years serving as a tree planter. I have worked throughout the interior. My brother was a wildfire fighter for about three years. He had seen another difficult year in 2003. I also have many friends who serve as volunteer firefighters, so I very much understand the risk they put themselves in to protect us and that their equipment is vital to the job that they do.
The media has reported on several occasions some of the theft that has happened. In 2016, the Vancouver Sun published a story about a communication tower's equipment that had been intentionally vandalized, which caused between 80,000 and 100,000 dollars' worth of damage. In 2017, CTV News covered a story about a water pump and hoses that were stolen from the Harrop Creek wildfire northeast of Nelson. The theft of the pump and 10 hoses really impacted the effectiveness of the firefighting activities, and posed safety risks to the public and to the first responders working to contain the fires. I want to underline the seriousness of the crime when someone intentionally vandalizes or steals firefighting equipment.
I want to get three main points across as I talk about the bill.
First of all, I want to acknowledge that firefighting is extremely important work and that we support first responders, but I feel that giving the judiciary power for life in prison for theft and vandalism is extremely excessive.
The second point I want to make is that stronger penalties do not necessarily provide a deterrent. While this equipment is used in a life-saving situation, a 25-year prison sentence for a non-violent offence is unjustified and it is not in keeping with the current penalties for such an offence.
The third point I want to make is that, instead of focusing on increasingly harsher penalties, I think we should be committed to crime prevention. With reasonable, measured, and effective actions, we could shift the focus from crime and punishment into more collaborative ways to make our communities and those serving them safer.
Last year, 2017, I had the honour of serving as our party's justice critic and serving on the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. One of the major pieces of government legislation that we reviewed on that committee was Bill C-51, a major Criminal Code cleanup. One of the things I learned last year is that when one becomes a student of the Criminal Code, one learns just how many redundancies and inoperative provisions exist within the code, and that, really, as an entire document, it is in need of a serious overhaul. Bill C-51 spent much of its effort trying to eliminate many of these redundant and obsolete sections, particularly the redundant sections. It tried to get those redundant sections that were otherwise covered in other sections of the Criminal Code and that, if left in there, would simply add to confusion for those who work in the judicial process.
If we look at what Bill C-365 provides for, a life in prison is very much an excessive penalty. I would draw hon. members' attention, as it has been mentioned in many of the speeches, to the many sections in the Criminal Code that can already be used to severely punish someone who is guilty of such a crime. One of the main sections I would draw hon. members to is section 718.1, which states quite clearly:
A sentence must be proportionate to the gravity of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender.
If someone is before a court on a charge of vandalism or theft of firefighting equipment, and it can be properly determined that it caused injury to persons because the firefighters were unable to use that equipment, there is no doubt in my mind that a judge and/or jury would look at the gravity of the offence, the harm caused by the offence, and would lay down the appropriate sentence.
By no means do I want to say that such a crime should go unpunished. I am simply stating the fact that the Criminal Code already has provisions to allow for proper sentencing measures.
The other point I want to get across is that there is a wide body of evidence out there that shows that strong penalties do not necessarily provide a deterrent. We want to make sure that the crime in question is prevented in the first place. That is in everyone's interest.
I want to read a quote from the The Economist, which states:
A review by Steven Durlauf of the University of Wisconsin and Daniel Nagin at Carnegie Mellon University found little evidence that criminals responded to harsher sentencing, and much stronger evidence that increasing the certainty of punishment deterred crime. This matters for policy, as it suggests that locking vast numbers of people in jail is not only expensive, but useless as a deterrent.
Another quote I have comes from a study by professors Doob, Webster, and Gartner, which is titled “Issues Related to Harsh Sentences and Mandatory Minimum Sentences: General Deterrence and Incapacitation”. It states:
At this point, we think it is fair to say that we know of no reputable criminologist who has looked carefully at the overall body of research literature on “deterrence through sentencing” who believes that crime rates will be reduced, through deterrence, by raising the severity of sentences handed down in criminal courts.
If we all use our common sense, we know that most people who commit criminal acts are not pausing in the middle of the act thinking that if they break a certain section of the Criminal Code they are going to get such and such a sentence. Most people who commit crimes are not even aware of the sections of the Criminal Code they are breaking. Therefore, the suggestion that by adding this section we are actually going to deter the crime is not backed up by evidence. There are much better ways to safeguard equipment and the people who are using it.
What exactly do we want to achieve with this debate? We can have a more measured and effective approach to solving the problem. If we focus on prevention, we can solve the problem proactively. People should be made aware, through public awareness campaigns, of the impact that vandalizing or stealing equipment can have. We already know that public awareness campaigns for drinking and driving have led to a national decline in such instances. Therefore, there is evidence that such campaigns work.
We should consider other options to reduce the theft and vandalism of firefighting equipment. They could consist of educational materials or awareness campaigns, investing in better security and surveillance systems, and making sure that the equipment has proper lock-up procedures in place for firefighters to use.
I want to end by reiterating that my colleagues and I, and I am sure everyone in this House, not only the friends I have and the people I have known through my career as a tree planter, very much commit to supporting firefighters and all first responders. I want to work with all first responders to make sure that we have policies that find effective, measured solutions to problems of equipment theft and vandalism.
Fellow British Columbians lost homes in the B.C. wildfires. We have to acknowledge the terrible loss they went through. They very much need help in rebuilding their lives, and we should all work together to have that as a laudable goal.
I do not dispute the seriousness of the crime, but I feel very much that there are better measures we can employ to stop it from happening in the first place. I do not think Bill C-365 is that answer.