Mr. Speaker, this is my first time rising in the House since the election, so it is my turn to thank the voters of LaSalle—Émard—Verdun for placing their trust in me for the third time. I will do my best to represent them as their MP.
I would also like to draw everyone's attention to the fact that today is December 6. As a Montrealer, a Canadian and a Quebecker, the memory of what happened in Montreal on December 6 never fails to move me. Fourteen young female engineering students lost their lives. I will do my best to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.
I am pleased to speak at the second reading debate on Bill C-3, an act to amend the Criminal Code and the Canada Labour Code, which I introduced alongside the Minister of Labour last week. I will focus my remarks on the Criminal Code amendments contained in the bill.
I am proud of Bill C-3, but I will be honest. I am disappointed, as was the member for Saanich—Gulf Islands a moment ago, that we are having to propose criminal law reforms to explicitly protect health care workers and patients against intimidation and obstruction.
Since the start of the global pandemic 20 months ago, the health sector in Canada has faced unprecedented challenges. Health professionals have been working relentlessly and under extraordinarily difficult circumstances to save lives. A Statistics Canada survey revealed that seven in 10 health care workers reported worsening mental health due to the pandemic. However, that is only part of the story.
On top of the strain on mental health, our health professionals are also facing violence in the workplace.
Dr. Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association, told Canadians, during a news conference on this bill, that preliminary results from the 2021 National Physician Health Survey suggested that three out of four physicians had experienced intimidation, bullying and harassment in the workplace. She went further to say, “one in three say that this happens regularly. This number jumps to 80% of female physicians.” These numbers are telling me a deeply disturbing story, especially when we look at the impact on people who identify as female in the health profession.
Most Canadians have shown tremendous respect for our health care workers and have followed the guidance of public health authorities. Unfortunately, a small number of individuals refuse to believe the authorities or follow evidence-based public health measures. An even smaller group has even uttered threats, including death threats. These people have also committed acts of violence against health workers who were simply doing their jobs by providing essential care to Canadians.
Violence against health care workers is a long-standing problem. Ever since the pandemic hit, health care workers have expressed concern about their ability to keep doing their jobs. Some have even been forced to quit. Moreover, people who need health care services have expressed similar concern about their ability to keep accessing health care facilities safely.
I cannot stress enough how disappointed I was to learn of this behaviour. There is simply no place in Canada for such conduct, and we will not tolerate it. The ability to express ourselves and to protest what we do not believe is right is a cherished freedom in this country, but Canadians understand the difference between expressing our views and threatening those we disagree with.
We have seen the consequences of this abuse. For example, Dr. Gretchen Roedde of Latchford, Ontario has decided to retire early due to online abuse. This small town could lose a doctor because of this kind of behaviour.
Shockingly, this abuse and harassment even extends to children. Nolan Blaszczyk, a seven-year-old boy, faced a torrent of verbal abuse when he went with his mother to get his vaccine. Abby Blaszczyk was told that she was murdering her son and she was committing genocide. How is this acceptable?
As everyone knows, the Criminal Code includes a broad range of general offences to protect all Canadians. The Criminal Code already prohibits some of the despicable behaviour we have seen over the past year, including assault, criminal harassment, intimidation and threats. Today we see just how urgent it is to go even further.
Enhancing these existing measures by explicitly prohibiting this conduct in the health care sector has become necessary and urgent.
During the recent election campaign, as COVID‑19-related protests began to intensify around health facilities, the Prime Minister committed to protecting our health care workers and ensuring all Canadians had access to health care without fear of threat or intimidation. The measures introduced in Bill C-3 would fully address these commitments and ensure a broad range of responses to various forms of harmful conduct facing the health sector.
The bill would create two new offences specific to the health context.
First, a new intimidation offence would be enacted to protect both health workers and health seekers. Intimidation is already criminalized as a general offence, but these amendments would give police and prosecutors additional tools to specifically protect our health care workers and users. Furthermore, they would provide for a higher maximum sentence for intimidation of 10 years. The current intimidation offence carries a maximum sentence of five years.
This new offence would extend to health care workers similar protections to those justice system participants, people like judges, jurors, witnesses, as well as journalists who report on organized crime. Intimidation is treated as a more serious offence when committed to impede them in their important functions.
That specific intimidation offence was created in response to a series of incidents in which prosecutors, witnesses and others were intimidated by criminal organizations to destabilize the criminal justice system. Similar to what we are doing now, Parliament's response then was to enhance criminal law protections for such intimidation with a distinct offence and an enhanced penalty. It is important to protect those who are working to improve our country, whether through the health care system or legal system.
The new intimidation offence would prohibit any act intended to promote fear in health care professionals in order to stop them from performing their professional duties. As noted above, this includes health care professionals working at abortion clinics, other frequent target of threats and intimidation. Anyone who works to assist health professionals in the performance of their duties would also be protected by the intimidation offence. Depending on the circumstances, this could be a professional support worker or clinic staff working alongside a physician or nurse.
It takes a community of health workers to deliver health services in our country, so those who assist health care professionals in carrying out their duties are rightly covered by this offence.
The proposed offence would also protect anyone seeking or receiving health care services. Any behaviour intended to incite fear in individuals seeking health care services, for the purpose of dissuading those individuals from obtaining services, would be expressly prohibited.
Creating this new offence will also allow us to increase the maximum penalty for this behaviour. The new offence will be a hybrid offence and will carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, on indictment. This is a harsher penalty than the general offence of intimidation, which is five years.
Increasing the penalty in this way sends a very clear message that Parliament strongly condemns these forms of behaviour directed at the health sector.
There is another point that I want to be very clear about. The proposed intimidation offence can be committed in person or through electronic means, including social media and other online channels. Media outlets across the country are reporting that health care providers are being threatened and intimidated on social media. Medical associations, including the Canadian Medical Association and the Ontario Medical Association, have confirmed that threats and intimidation are occurring not only in person, but also online. The offence of intimidation would apply regardless of the means of communication.
In addition to protecting the heroes in the health care sector, the bill also creates a new offence that would prohibit intentionally obstructing or interfering with a person's ability to access a health facility. The offence would protect access to any and every place where health services are provided, including a hospital, a mobile clinic, an abortion clinic, a vaccine clinic, a doctor's office and even doctors' homes if that is where they provide their services. This new offence is hybrid and will carry a maximum penalty of 10 years of imprisonment.
I want to be very clear about one thing. Nothing in the proposed legislation would undermine workers' ability to strike or Canadians' ability to peacefully protest. Our government stands by the charter and the freedoms it guarantees, including freedom of speech and the right to strike. That is why this offence would expressly exclude communicative activity that remains peaceful and lawful, such as strike action or peaceful protest, even if it has a minor impact on access. Minor inconvenience for those seeking to get into buildings is a fair price to pay to protect our cherished liberties, but behaviour that is threatening or violent or that creates a major impediment to access is rightly criminalized. This is the current state of our criminal law and the bill would only enhance that.
The legislation provides for a definition of “health professional” to clarify the scope of the offences and how they are intended to be applied to police and prosecutors. A health professional would be defined as a person who is entitled, under the laws of a province or territory, to provide a health service, such as doctors or nurses. Given that the provinces and territories are responsible for the health sector and regulation of health professionals and services, the definition is intended to be broad and capable of being applied in accordance with each jurisdiction's health system.
I would now like to talk about the sentencing reforms in Bill C‑3. These changes address the concerns that health professionals have had for a while now, and, in fact, parliamentarians from all sides have presented similar reforms in the past through private members' bills.
The bill would require that, in cases where there is evidence showing that the offence was committed against a health care provider who was carrying out their duties, sentencing courts treat this evidence as an aggravating factor. Aggravating factors will also apply if the offence involved impeding another person from obtaining health services. Individuals on both sides of our health care system must be protected, meaning health care providers and their patients.
Support workers, also referred to as orderlies, are also vulnerable to violence in the workplace. Even though they are not regulated in many regions across the country like health professionals are, they still provide care and essential support to many Canadians. Therefore, the aggravating factors proposed in this bill expressly include personal care services.
These sentencing reforms are based on long-standing calls from stakeholders. Indeed, during our news conference following the introduction of the bill, the presidents of the CMA and the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions affirmed the importance of these measures to our health workers.
The aggravating factors also implement a recommendation of the 2019 report conducted by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health entitled “Violence Facing Health Care Workers in Canada”. The report requested the Government of Canada amend the Criminal Code to require a court to consider the fact that the victim of an assault is a health care sector worker to be an aggravating circumstance for the purposes of sentencing. The same report documented that health care workers have four times the rate of workplace violence than any other profession, despite most of this violence being unreported due to a culture of acceptance.
While the pandemic has created new challenges for health care workers and exacerbated the violence they face, as I mentioned before, those who provide abortion services and the women who access them have also experienced unacceptable threats and violence. It was not so long ago, in the 1990s, that several physicians in Canada were shot because of their work providing abortion services. Abortion clinics have been attacked and blocked. Those seek abortion services have been harassed, threatened and intimidated by individuals opposed to abortion. The safety and security of abortion health care workers and patients continue to be a troubling issue. Our government will protect abortion service providers alongside other health professionals. We support the rights of women to control their bodies and have unimpeded access to abortion services along with other health services.
I hope—like all members here today, I am sure—that health care workers will one day be able to do their jobs free from violence and can feel safe and valued when they are caring for us. The pandemic is not over, as we know, and neither is the need to protect our health care workers.
These workers play a very important role in the lives of all Canadians. Thanks to them, we have been able to fend off this devastating pandemic and make recovery plans for our society and our country. The proposed reforms will enhance existing measures in the Criminal Code and they have broad support within the medical community. For these reasons, I urge all members to support Bill C‑3, which is urgent, important and necessary.