Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to join the second reading debate on Private Member's bill, Bill C-206, an act to amend the Criminal Code.
At the outset, I want to to acknowledge the laudable objective of the bill and thank the member from Yellowhead for giving us the opportunity to debate this important social issue this evening.
Bill C-206 amends the Criminal Code to specify that the physical, emotional, sexual or financial abuse of a person over the age of 65 or of a person 18 years of age or older who depends on others for their care because of a mental or physical disability is to be considered an aggravating circumstance for sentencing purposes.
The member for Yellowhead said that the bill seeks to give vulnerable seniors further protections to ensure that they can live safely and in dignity, while protecting them against exploitation.
The bill would fulfill that objective by imposing harsher sentences on offenders who abuse these vulnerable victims, whether financially, physically or psychologically.
I am in full agreement with the member for Yellowhead that we must do everything to address the physical, financial and emotional exploitation of our seniors and other vulnerable Canadians who depend on others for their care because of a disability.
I hear about this issue in my work here in Ottawa, in my work around the country and also in my riding of Parkdale—High Park. Constituents speak to me about the statistics, which are problematic. Those statistics show that seniors and Canadians with disabilities are at a higher risk of being victims of crimes.
For instance, while older Canadians have historically reported low victimization rates, the physical disabilities and cognitive impairments experienced by some seniors may increase their vulnerability and make them more prone to certain kinds of abuse, such as online financial crime, neglect, financial exploitation and family-related violence.
By 2036 the size of Canada's senior population will increase about twofold, and persons aged 65 and over will represent approximately one quarter of the Canadian population in total.
Given Canada's aging population, Statistics Canada notes that police-reported violence committed against seniors will continue to increase if it is left unaddressed.
According to police data, Canadian seniors were more likely to be the victim of family violence in 2017 than they were 10 years ago. In 2007, Statistics Canada reported that the overall rate of police-reported violence against seniors had increased by 20% between 1998 and 2005. From 2009 to 2017, the rate of police-reported family violence against seniors rose 7%.
In 2014, people with a disability were about twice as likely to be victims of a violent crime than people who did not have a disability, and women and men with cognitive disabilities or mental health-related disabilities reported violent victimization approximately four times more often than their counterparts who did not have a disability.
Elder abuse, senior isolation and the abuse of vulnerable persons are completely unacceptable. Our government is working hard to provide Canadian seniors with greater security and a better quality of life. That is what compelled us to appoint and name a Minister of Seniors to the federal cabinet.
We have also invested in the new horizons for seniors program, which, through budget 2019, will receive an additional $100 million over the next five years. One of the key initiatives of that program is to tackle elder abuse and fraud.
Several legislative amendments have been enacted by Parliament to address the problem of elder abuse. For instance, in 2011, the Standing Up for Victims of White Collar Crime Act enacted an aggravating factor to the fraud offence found at section 380.1 of the Criminal Code. This was referenced in the earlier part of tonight's debate.
This provision directs a judge to treat evidence that the offence had a significant impact on the victim, having regard to “their personal circumstances including their age, health and financial situation”, as an aggravating factor at sentencing.
In 2012, there was also legislation enacted called Protecting Canada's Seniors Act, which enacted a provision that directed courts to treat evidence that the offence had a significant impact on the victim, having regard to his or her age and other personal circumstances, including health and financial situation, as an aggravating factor at sentencing.
These two legislative amendments essentially codified the current sentencing practices. In other words, when these legislative amendments were proposed, the law already required the courts to consider all aggravating and mitigating circumstances related to the offence and the offender's degree of responsibility, including the effect of an offence on a particular victim under all circumstances. In a given case, this can obviously include the victims' age and their vulnerability.
In summary, by codifying the aggravating circumstances, parliamentarians clarified the sentencing law for all Canadians and sent a message to the courts that it is important to consider these aggravating circumstances in sentencing decisions.
The Criminal Code includes a broad range of offences that apply equally to protect all Canadians, including vulnerable and elderly Canadians, as well as specific offences that take into account the vulnerability of the victim. For instance, the offences of assault, assault with bodily harm and aggravated assault apply to protect everyone, regardless of age, health or gender. However, there are also specific offences that target the abuse of vulnerable persons, such as in section 153.1 of the Criminal Code, which applies to the sexual exploitation of a person with a disability. The code also lists several aggravating factors that can apply in cases involving abuse of an elderly or vulnerable person who depends on others for care because of a mental or physical disability.
There are four aggravating factors: one, evidence and offences motivated by bias, prejudice or hate or based on, for instance, age or mental or physical disability; two, the fact that the offenders abuse their spouse or common-law partner; three, the fact that offenders abused a position of trust or authority in relation to the victim; and four, evidence that the offence had a significant impact on the victim having regard to their age or other personal circumstance, including their health or financial situation.
Based on my interpretation of the aggravating circumstance proposed in Bill C-206, I have to wonder if the amendment proposed in the bill could overlap with the circumstances already set out in the Criminal Code. I wonder if the amendment fixes any flaws in the law regarding the abuse of seniors and other vulnerable persons.
I look forward to hearing other members' thoughts about whether this conduct is already covered by the Criminal Code and how this amendment would affect the criminal justice system. For example, if we were to adopt an aggravating circumstance that is similar to the ones already in the Criminal Code, would there be an increase in the number of cases related to determining the scope of the new provision and how it differs from the aggravating circumstances set out in the Criminal Code?
Moreover, I wonder about the implications of setting a chronological age distinction of above 65 as the hard limit in the Criminal Code for assessing a person's vulnerability. Witnesses who testified before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights as part of its study of former Bill C-36 emphasized that the impact of a crime on an elderly victim is not necessarily dependent on chronological age, but rather on the combined unique characteristics of that elderly victim.
This leads me to question whether an individual's vulnerability is not best assessed by weighing a combination of factors, such as mental and physical health, financial situation and degree of autonomy. I am sure members of this House can come up with examples of when age is not the best indicator of a person's level of vulnerability. For these reasons, I look forward to a thorough debate on these important policy questions.
During second reading debate of the former Bill C-36, the member for Pierrefonds—Dollard at the time said that if we focus only on legal measures, we will be missing a very important point. Non-legislative measures can also significantly help address the problem.
In total, I would underscore that the bill proposed by the member for Yellowhead targets a very important and laudable objective. I look forward to the important debate continuing on this issue and on the issue of combatting elder abuse.