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Bill to Amend Certain Acts and to Make Certain Consequential Amendments (Firearms)

Third Reading--Debate

December 11, 2023

Colleagues, I rise today to speak to Bill C-21, An Act to amend certain Acts and to make consequential amendments regarding firearms. As previously mentioned, there is very little in the bill in its current form that addresses the reality of gun crimes as they happen in Canada today. The title that the government used last year to describe Bill C-21 in its press materials was “A comprehensive strategy to address gun violence and strengthen gun laws in Canada.”

Colleagues, that is how the government refers to Bill C-21. However, when we examine this document, we see that there is virtually nothing in its measures to crack down on gun crime.

With Bill C-21, the government claims that by increasing the maximum sentence for firearms trafficking from 10 to 14 years, it is trying to address the light sentences often handed down by our courts. However, the data show that the courts are not even imposing the current maximum penalty of 10 years. In fact, virtually no firearms trafficking cases have been subject to the most severe sentencing options. In testimony last year before the House of Commons committee regarding this bill, André Gélinas, a retired detective sergeant from the Montreal police service, said, and I quote:

The bill also proposes raising the maximum penalty for people found guilty of firearms trafficking from 10 to 14 years. At first glance, this appears to be a good move, but no defendants have ever been sentenced to the current 10‑year maximum sentence for this offence. The measure will have no real effect. It is another example of an ineffective measure.

When Mr. Gélinas appeared before the Standing Senate Committee on National Security, Defence and Veterans Affairs, he once again talked about how frustrated police officers are about this. Those frustrations are shared by victims of crime and other law enforcement officers — not just retired police officers, but also the police chiefs and deputy police chiefs who appeared before us.

For example, the deputy chief constable of the Vancouver Police Department, Fiona Wilson, said the following in committee, and I quote:

With the exception of domestic violence and police shootings, where police are the victims, we’re generally not seeing lawful gun owners being responsible for the shootings in the city of Vancouver. Without exceptions, those are firearms that are not lawfully possessed in the first instance.

On the subject of gun violence in Vancouver over the past year, Deputy Chief Constable Wilson said the following, and I quote:

To date in Vancouver, we have had 22 shots-fired incidents in 2023 resulting in three homicides and 16 people wounded. Fifteen of the 21 incidents have confirmed or suspected links to gangs.

Deputy Chief Bill Fordy from the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police appeared before our committee and stated the following:

 . . . it is important for our citizens to remember that in Canada ownership of a firearm is not a right, it is a privilege. Legislation must strike an appropriate balance between the rights of the accused and those of victims, survivors, communities, police officers and public safety to help mitigate the impact of the worst outcomes of firearms.

Then, Deputy Chief Bill Fordy recommended the following during his testimony:

 . . . provide sentencing judges with the discretionary ability to increase parole ineligibility to two thirds of a custodial sentence when the court finds that an offender has discharged a firearm in a congregate setting in committing the offence, and that this discretionary ability on sentencing be extended to those who are found to be parties to such offences.

Therefore, honourable senators, the penalty imposed for discharging a firearm in a public location must have teeth. It must produce results. This is what many police officers are asking for.

Every time we propose measures to strengthen the law and incorporate mandatory minimum sentences for serious crimes, the government comes out with its usual argument, questioning the constitutionality of such measures. For example, Senator Cardozo mentioned something along those lines before the committee when he said that mandatory minimum sentences would require the use of the notwithstanding clause. However, this general statement is simply inaccurate. In R. v. Lloyd, the Supreme Court of Canada stated the following, and I quote:

 . . . Parliament is not obliged to create exemptions to mandatory minimums as a matter of constitutional law. . . . Whether Parliament should enact judicial safety valves to mandatory minimum sentences and if so, what form they should take, are questions of policy that are within the exclusive domain of Parliament.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court confirmed that position in subsequent rulings. Earlier this year, the court upheld the constitutionality of the four-year mandatory minimum sentence for a robbery committed with a non-restricted firearm. In fact, in R. v. Hilbach, the court concluded the following, and I quote from the majority opinion:

The mandatory minimum—

 — which is four years for using a non-restricted firearm during a robbery —

 — does not shock the conscience or is not so excessive as to outrage standards of decency. While the punishment is severe, the high threshold for gross disproportionality is not met.

Unfortunately, because of Bill C-5, which received Royal Assent on November 17, 2022, the government repealed this mandatory four-year sentence for the use of a non-restricted firearm during a robbery. Two months later, however, the Supreme Court confirmed the constitutionality of this sentence. Why did the government not try to reintroduce this sentence to the Criminal Code, if it truly intended to better protect Canadians against gun crime? We might wonder whether the government read R v. Hilbach. The court found that this inherently dangerous offence induces terror in the victims and is committed only by offenders who make the conscious decision to use a firearm to rob or endanger the safety of others.

The government is defying all reason and jurisprudence by being unwilling to impose tough penalties for serious gun crimes, even though jurisprudence provides it with plenty of leeway.

This leads me to propose an amendment today that was first put to us in committee by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. This amendment would create an additional provision in the law so that a death that results from the discharge of a firearm in a congregate setting would be subject to automatic consideration for first-degree murder under subsection 231(4) of the Criminal Code.

Not only is the criminal use of firearms increasingly common in urban areas, but firearms are also sometimes discharged in public places without anyone realizing the impact on innocent bystanders.

On Monday, November 27, while the National Security, Defence and Veterans Affairs Committee was hearing from witnesses on Bill C-21, there was a shooting in a public parking lot in Gatineau, in broad daylight. In a video captured by a surveillance camera, we can see a person in a parking lot stretching out their arm as though they have a gun in their hand and pointing it at a moving vehicle. That scene is immediately followed by what sounds like two successive gunshots. A few metres away, we can see children walking on the sidewalk. According to the police, the incident occurred at 4:45 p.m. near Eddy Street. Two men were wounded in that shooting. In other words, a shooting occurred five minutes from here while we were studying the amendments to Bill C-21 in order to impose harsher sentences for shots fired in public places.

We have also seen many shootings in Toronto and Montreal where innocent bystanders were wounded or killed when gang members recklessly opened fire on their rivals.

In my opinion, the government must take strong action to combat these criminals’ sense of impunity, as Chief Inspector David Bertrand from the Montreal police force said in his testimony before the Senate committee during the study of Bill C-5:

What we want to work on is the perception that mandatory sentences are being maintained. We want to work on the criminal’s sense of impunity at two levels. The sense of impunity is the certainty of being caught when committing a crime and the certainty of suffering the consequences.

Such reckless acts with firearms, especially when they cause death, should carry the harshest penalties, but often don’t.

Also, take the case of Christopher Husbands, who opened fire in the food court at the Eaton Centre in Toronto in 2012. Originally, he was convicted only of second-degree murder for a shooting spree that left two people dead and several others injured. Originally, he was sentenced to life without parole for 30 years. However, on appeal, he was granted a retrial and was convicted at the second trial of manslaughter only. Although Christopher Husbands received a life sentence again, this time for manslaughter, the early parole eligibility period, which is mandatory for manslaughter convictions, meant that he became eligible for early parole in 2021, nine years after he committed this heinous crime. For the victims’ families, this is simply abhorrent.

I therefore wish to propose an amendment, as recommended by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, which would ensure that any death resulting from a shooting in a public place would be considered first-degree murder. I think this amendment reflects the reality that there are people who discharge their firearms in a completely reckless and careless manner.

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