moved that Bill S-221, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (assaults against public transit operators), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to join the debate today and to speak in strong support of Bill S-221, a bill that seeks to acknowledge, through explicit sentencing principles, the harm caused when public transit operators acting in the course of their duties experience violence.
I urge all members to vote collaboratively to ensure that the bill is passed into law as quickly as possible.
I would like to start by first thanking Senator Runciman for his diligent work on this file in the other place. I would also like to mention the work of the member for Leeds—Grenville in this matter.
Transit operators play an absolutely critical role in the lives of our citizens and our communities all over Canada. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our major cities, where public transit is relied upon to transport millions of passengers every day.
It would be no exaggeration to say that without the people who drive our buses, trains, subways, trams, and taxis every day, our economy and our communities would be in peril.
A 2010 report prepared by the Canadian Urban Transit Association, entitled “The Economic Impact of Transit Investment: A National Survey”, offers the following key findings: transit reduces vehicle operating costs for Canadian households by approximately $5 billion annually, and it reduces vehicle accident costs by $2.4 billion annually.
We need to ensure that the transit system operates effectively, that people feel safe when they use the transit system, and that those operating our public transit feel assured that if they are victimized on the job through acts of violence, the criminal justice system will effectively respond to such violence.
At present, there is no specific offence or aggravating factor in the Criminal Code that uniquely targets acts of violence committed against public transit operators. The proposed bill would amend the Criminal Code to create a new aggravating factor for the sentencing of offenders convicted of uttering threats, any of the three assault offences, and unlawfully causing bodily harm to transit operators.
This would send a strong message that Parliament believes that such crimes must be treated more seriously because of the fact that those victimized are vulnerable, given the role they occupy, and because of the potential for broader harm to passengers and the public.
The amendments align with the preventative purpose of criminal law. That is, the bill proposes a criminal law response that seeks to prevent harm from occurring in the first place by deterring the commission of such crimes through explicit sentencing principles. It further responds to acts of criminality that can have a significant effect not only on the individual victim but more broadly on the safety of the general public.
These amendments would make Canada's criminal law approach to violence against public transit operators comparable to the approach taken in other jurisdictions, including a number of U.S. states and Australia's New South Wales. While the approach taken is not identical in all cases, these jurisdictions have all taken steps to explicitly address violence committed against transit operators.
More serious incidents of violence toward transit workers are occurring across the country. Every day, transit operators face the real risk of being assaulted on the job. Their physical exposure and frequent customer interactions leave them vulnerable to being molested, struck, or spat on and to becoming the targets of verbal abuse, threats, and thrown objects.
Transit operators, due to the nature of their work and their inherent inability to defend themselves against aggressive acts while carrying out their duties, face a number of unusual and unpredictable threats in their workplace that most Canadians do not.
Transit operators face most of the known risk factors for workplace violence: interacting directly with the public, working alone or in isolated areas, having a mobile workplace, working late at night or early in the morning, providing services to people who may be experiencing frustration, having a workplace where access is uncontrolled, handling monies or fares, and having inadequate escape routes. Relying on this, transit workers are at higher risk for violence than are workers in many other occupations.
Members need not solely listen to me to understand why we are singling out public transit operators in this bill. Let us hear testimonials from people directly involved in this matter.
On June 12, 2014, the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs heard from Neil Dubord, the chief of the Metro Vancouver Transit Police. In his own words, he explained why public transit operators need to be granted additional protection by the law. He said:
Public transit is differentiated from other occupations by the very nature that they serve a broad spectrum of customers including the working poor, homeless, addicted and those suffering from mental illness. As with other occupations, the opportunity for operators to disengage and extricate themselves from potentially violent situations does not exist. They cannot walk away or withdraw from the incident because they are locked in the driver's seat and operating a large vehicle. A pilot would never allow a passenger to freely walk into the cockpit of a plane.... Public transit operators do not have the luxury of restricting access; their occupation is unique and the hazards they face are not experienced by other occupations. This is why they require the protection of Bill S-221.
Passing Bill S-221 would provide Canadian public transit operators and taxi drivers with an extra legal safeguard to deter assaults committed against them.
My riding of Pickering—Scarborough East contains two separate municipalities and, in turn, two separate transit authorities, Durham Region Transit and the Toronto Transit Commission.
In the area serviced by Durham Region Transit, there were four relevant instances of assault on transit operators in 2013 alone. The TTC states that there is an assault on a public transit operator in their system at least once a day.
For example, on July 20, 2011, a woman boarded a TTC bus and became involved in a fare dispute. She proceeded to hurl racial slurs at the TTC employee. The situation quickly escalated, and the woman pepper-sprayed not only the bus driver but three passengers who bravely came to the aid of the victim. Her penalty? Forty-six days of jail time for four charges of assault with a weapon.
As horrible as such cases are, they pale in comparison to the ordeals that other public transit operators have had to endure across the nation. A bus driver in the Maritimes received 14 stab wounds to his face, neck, and arm. He lost over half of his blood and nearly died in the process, all because he would not deviate from his route. In Edmonton, a driver was hospitalized in intensive care after he was subjected to a vicious and unprovoked beating from a passenger. The list goes on and on, and tragically, it lengthens each and every day.
These attacks not only take a personal toll on the victims but can also have a significant financial impact on the transit systems in terms of lost work hours, medical claims, employee absenteeism, and lawsuits.
According to the Canadian Urban Transit Association, there were 2,061 reported assaults in 2011. That is over five reported instances of assault a day across this country.
StatsCan reports that the average public transit operator is more than four and a half times more likely to be assaulted while operating their vehicle than the average person walking on the street.
Of course, the need for quick passage of the bill is not based merely on the fact that public transit operators are more likely to get assaulted; quick passage is also needed because of the consequences of the assault on the public in both the immediate and long term.
Public vehicles are, by their very nature, transporting members from the public. An assault on a public transit operator can happen quite literally at any time, whether it is in a school zone, on a highway, in a side street, or parked at a station. The transit operator is tasked with an incredible amount of responsibility for the individuals that they are servicing.
Should an assault happen while an operator is driving their vehicle, we suddenly have not only the driver at risk of serious injury but every other person on the bus as well. In addition to the passengers, every single pedestrian, cyclist, and driver in the immediate vicinity also becomes a potential victim.
While being physically assaulted is of course horrendous, being witness to such a destructive act can have its own effect. Members of the general public using transit need to be reassured that their safety is protected at all times, and the best way to do that on our transit systems is to protect our operators. Every single Canadian should have a right to both be safe and feel safe at work.
I appreciate the hard work that many associations and organizations such as the Canadian Urban Transit Authority and the Amalgamated Transit Union are doing in committing themselves to making sure that the workplace of public transit operators is as secure as possible.
In addition to shaking the confidence of the general public, assaults on public transit operators have a more direct effect on the industry, namely in the recruitment and retention of competent operators.
Bill S-221 is intended to serve as a deterrent to violent acts against public transit service operators and to increase overall safety on public transit. Having legislation like Bill S-221 in place would give judges the grounds to hand down harsher sentences than if the victim were not a transit operator or a taxi driver.
If I may, I would like to briefly touch on the reasoning behind including licensed taxi drivers in this bill. Much like the assault of a bus driver poses an immediate threat not only to the driver but to his passengers and the people around them, so too does the assault of a taxi cab driver. The similarities do not end there. Cabbies often find themselves working alone at late hours, dealing with fares, being restricted in their seats, having a mobile workplace, etcetera. That much is very straightforward.
The need to include taxi drivers is only emphasized when we look at the staggering rates of violence against this group of individuals. From 1997 to 2011, the homicide rate for taxi drivers was 3.2 per population of 100,000. In that 15-year period, 23 taxi drivers were murdered in cold blood. Unfortunately, we do not have official statistics on assaults on cab drivers, but one can only shudder when thinking about how high they must be.
The very last point I would like to speak to concerns a recent court decision here in Ottawa. I feel that it perfectly illustrates the actual issue Bill S-221 would address.
A man was charged and pleaded guilty to assaulting a bus driver. The crown requested that the judge consider the fact that the victim was a bus driver in rendering the sentence. When handing down his decision, the judge said:
Does his status as a bus driver alter the severity of the sentence I am to impose? I do not believe the law supports the notion that bus driver assaults per se attract higher sentences than other assaults....
That bus drivers are exposed to the risk of assault is supported not only by periodic media reports of driver assaults but by common sense. Bus drivers encounter thousands of individuals during their work, many of them impaired or simply intent on mischief...
While all of this is true, I am aware of no settled body of authority holding that an assault on a bus driver is per se more serious than assaults on anyone else who has the misfortune of being victimized, and no authority was advanced by the Crown. To be sure, the Criminal Code of Canada does contain principles aggravating the seriousness of an offence for vulnerable groups including those prone to hate-based abuse, the mental or physically disabled, children, and those who the offender owes a duty of trust to. Bus drivers are not, however, enumerated.
This is not the first time we have debated criminal law reform to address this reprehensible activity. There have been several private members' bills on the subject, from members from all political parties, but unfortunately, they were not passed.
Support for this bill extends far and wide. Transit unions, transit police, bus and taxi drivers, the Ottawa Transit Commission , the TTC, and many others have spoken in strong support of this bill. We now have the opportunity with Bill S-221 to work together and unanimously pass into law meaningful changes that will appropriately address the violence committed against transit operators.
We owe it to these hard-working men and women to ensure that the law properly responds to the harm they experience. Bill S-221 would assist in this regard, and I strongly support the bill.