In Debate: C-35 & Animal Cruelty

Ms. Irene Mathyssen (London—Fanshawe, NDP):

    Mr. Speaker, I also want to thank the member opposite for bringing forward a bill that takes into account a need to respond to the killing or injuring of a service animal.

    As a compassionate community, we are well aware of the many times that animals have come to the assistance of people and have served as law enforcement animals, military service animals, or service animals that support persons with disabilities. The stories are many and legendary.

    One example is that during Hurricane Katrina, a 19-year-old dog saved his 80-year-old owner from drowning. A 19-year-old dog is perhaps even older in years than some of us here in the House. This particular situation was very poignant inasmuch as the elderly gentleman, George Mitchell, said that he would have given up his struggle against the surging waters of Katrina had it not been for the actions of his long-time pet, his long-time friend. Clearly there is a sentient reality to animals, and we have to be very cognizant of that.

    There is also the example of Yoshi, a police service dog in Waterloo region. Yoshi had served the community since his deployment in 2009 and was known as a top cop. He was highly skilled in capturing suspects, finding narcotics, and finding missing persons. This last skill of finding missing persons touches us closely. We think of elderly people who have gone missing and children who are lost. Service dogs are incredibly important and instrumental in addressing those kinds of situations.

    Bill C-35 is called “Quanto's law” in remembrance of Quanto, the police service dog killed in Edmonton trying to stop a fleeing suspect. The assailant was charged with animal cruelty and sentenced to 26 months in prison. The decision in this case was made at the discretion of a judge and was based on years of jurisprudence, existing law, and the evidence presented in court. That is how it should be. A sentence should be determined in a court of law by an experienced judge in an effort to ensure the sentence fairly reflects the crime. That is at the centre of our concerns about Bill C-35.

    Bill C-35 is laudable in its sentiment, and we should indeed be concerned about animal cruelty. Section 445 of the Criminal Code sets out penalties and fines for those guilty of injuring all animals other than cattle.

    I want to be very clear: New Democrats condemn all forms of animal cruelty, a position that we have supported for a long time. We have expressed those concerns over the past number of years regarding this Parliament's inability to truly protect animals. Members may recall some of these situations, because at present, animal cruelty crimes are considered property offences. It is not an offence to train animals to fight other animals or to receive money from the fighting of animals. There is no specific offence for particularly violent or brutal crimes against animals, and no additional protection is afforded to law enforcement animals.

     Bill C-35 seeks to change that by bringing forward specific and additional protection for law enforcement and service animals. However, we have to look carefully at what is proposed in this legislation.

     Bill C-35 would create a new offence, as I said, for killing or injuring a service animal, a law enforcement animal, or a military animal while the animal is on duty. It proposes a minimum sentence of six months if a law enforcement animal is killed by an individual while that individual is perpetrating an offence. It proposes that sentences imposed on a person be served consecutive to any other punishment imposed on that person for an offence arising out of the same event or series of events.

    Like all Conservative legislation, the devil is in the details. This is a laudable bill but it has been tainted and undermined by introducing minimum sentencing, which clearly reflects what we can only call a repressive agenda. It does not take into account that we have courts and jurisprudence with respect to those courts and sentencing. We once again see a government showing its desire to deprive those courts of their discretion in sentencing, which is a very important part of a workable and intelligent justice system.

     I am certain that every member of the House knows that there are circumstances. There is nothing that is absolute. There is no situation that can be absolutely deemed like any other. We have many examples of that in the courts. We simply cannot forget that and set it aside.

    The Conservatives should also be aware of the consequences of minimum and consecutive sentencing on the criminal justice system. In this case, we have to hear from the experts about the consequences of minimum and consecutive sentencing. That is why we are recommending that the bill be studied carefully in committee. We need to hear from experts on what the consequences of this particular legislation could be and would be. We have to pay attention to those experts and to warnings from the courts.

    I am sure members are well aware that in January of this year a B.C. judge challenged Ottawa's tough on crime legislation and found that mandatory minimum sentences violated the charter rights of those being condemned. I am concerned that Bill C-35 would also face such challenges. The Supreme Court is looking at a specific B.C. case regarding a criminal who was convicted of drug trafficking. In that case, Judge Galati said that in that situation a one-year minimum sentence would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited under section 12 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. At the time, Judge Galati declared the law in question to be of no force and effect in B.C. That is why it is now being heard by the Supreme Court. It is important that we wait for the decision and rely on the wisdom of that court before we go ahead with any other legislation that could be challenged under the charter.

    The lawyer in that case said that mandatory minimum sentences are problematic because they remove the discretion of judges. He said that the federal government's enactment of mandatory minimum sentences was more political than reasonable. This notion that being tough on crime would somehow make us safer is a misconception. We are no safer now than we were 10 years ago. That is a simple fact.

    Other jurisdictions have eliminated or have begun to reduce mandatory minimums, most notably the United States. They are moving away from those practices because they are found to be ineffective. Most Commonwealth countries with mandatory minimums have an escape clause so that judges can bypass the minimums when they deem it necessary. Therefore, we are going in the opposite direction of much of the rest of the world at a time when our crime rate is historically low.

    Finally, I would like to say that New Democrats, of course, condemn all forms of animal cruelty. We have held that position for a very long time and have supported legislation such as Bill C-232 and Bill C-592.

    We do believe that this particular bill is undermining what is otherwise a laudable idea. We have to be very careful of that. We have to be very cognizant of that.

 

Ms. Peggy Nash (Parkdale—High Park, NDP):  

    Mr. Speaker, I remember a few years ago, in Toronto, when Brigadier, a beautiful Belgian cross horse, was struck and killed by someone fleeing in a getaway car. It shocked and outraged the entire community.

    My community of Toronto was shocked and horrified just a couple of weeks ago when animal services announced that a black Lab puppy was in their care. It was the most severely abused animal they had ever seen. It had acid burns, broken bones and internal injuries. Clearly all protections for animals, especially service and companion animals, need to be improved, as the member for London—Fanshawe said. I put forward Bill C-232 to improve our animal cruelty laws, and we have not found support on the other side of the House.

    Why does the member think that the government side would not support general laws to improve the welfare of animals and to improve the struggle against animal cruelty, but that it would overreact and in fact undermine the situation with some of the provisions in Bill C-35?

 

Ms. Irene Mathyssen:  

    Mr. Speaker, it is a very strange and bizarre contradiction that we see from the government.

    I was in the House, as was the member, when a number of bills came forward in an effort to ensure our cruelty laws were updated. I take special note of Bill C-232, a bill the member had a great deal to do with. I do not understand why the Conservative government did not support any of those efforts. It would seem that it may have been influenced by outside interests that perhaps put pressure on them to overlook the reality of the kind of cruelty that my colleague described in regard to the Labrador puppy.

    In this particular case, there does seem to be an overreaction. I think it has a great deal to do with public perception, the way the public and the media reacted to the very unfortunate case of this particular dog. It was unfortunate. All cruelty to all creatures is absolutely unacceptable. However, we have to come back to what we know and what we understand, and respect for our courts and respect for the kinds of things that work in terms of sentencing. This is not it.

 

Ms. Peggy Nash:  

    Mr. Speaker, with crime in Canada at a 40-year low, why does the member think the federal government would spend hundreds of millions of our tax dollars building 2,700 new prison cells, which it clearly intends to fill with its so-called tough on crime agenda. This, at a time when its counterparts, the Republicans in the southern U.S., have come to see the light of day and have recognized that in fact this not only makes no sense when it comes to good criminal justice but in fact it is bad economics.

     It undermines the ability of a society to rehabilitate people, to get them back and effectively working in society, rather than paying for their upkeep in the criminal justice system when probably the vast majority have no need to be there whatsoever.

   Can the member explain why our government seems to be so wrong-headed in this regard?

 

Ms. Irene Mathyssen:  

    Mr. Speaker, quite frankly, I am at a loss to understand what motivates some of the thinking and legislation that comes out of the current Conservative government. As my colleague pointed out, crime is at a 40-year low. We should use this opportunity to start looking specifically at prevention and rehabilitation: rehabilitation for those who are on the wrong path, and prevention for youth and people who are vulnerable in the community.

  I would like to mention that a significant number of people who are incarcerated are mentally ill. However, we do not have money for mental health or community support, but we have a lot of money for jails. In this particular case, it is the provinces that would be footing the bill. In my own city of London, Ontario, the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre is crammed full to the point where violence and desperate behaviour is rampant.

    We have to do better. Surely we can.