Tuesday, March 10, 2009

NDP looks to protect transit operators

Throughout the transit strike, Public Transit in Ottawa strived to discourage any acts of violence against bus drivers when service resumed. Most readers agreed. Thankfully, there have been no serious reports of assault in the last few weeks.

Nevertheless, such acts do occur. And two MPs have introduced bills in the House of Commons this year that look to deal with them under the Criminal Code of Canada.

NDP MPs Peter Julian (Burnaby-New Westminster, B.C.) and Judy Wasylycia-Leis (Winnipeg North, Man.) have both introduced private member's bills during the current session of parliament to add provisions to the Criminal Code.

Julian introduced Bill C-314 (read here) and Wasylycia-Leis followed with Bill C-333 (read here).

Julian's bill amends subsections 231(4) by creating a new classification of first-degree murder that applies to offences committed against public transit operators. It also amends subsection 268(2) to strengthen the sentences in such cases.

Both Julian and Wasylycia-Leis want to add public-transit operators to subsection 270(1), which would provide for harsher sentences when operators are subject to aggravated assault.

Earlier today, Wasylycia-Leis was kind enough to offer us a few minutes of her time and her thoughts about the necessity of such bills.

"Members of the [Winnipeg transit workers] union -- and this goes back a number of years -- started coming to see me about the kind of incidents they were dealing with, and the growing number of assaults that bus drivers under Winnipeg transit were experiencing," she started.

"The numbers they gave to me continue to show the dire need for change. If you go back over the last 15 years, the number of assaults per month per year that are endured by Winnipeg transit operators has gone up significantly. It appears to be growing.

"In the last three years in Winnipeg, we were dealing with between 30 and 45 incidents per year. Bus drivers were experiencing this, and feeling nobody was paying attention. And transit drivers were treated differently than other, similar professions in the field -- like peace officers."

Her bill, she said, hopes to change the criminal code so that bus drivers are treated in a similar manner to peace offices.

"This will send a message to people who think it's open season on transit operators."

Julian read Bill C-314 into the record on Feb. 11, and Wasylycia-Leis followed with Bill C-333 on March 3. Below are their speeches to the House at their bills' respective first readings.

Julian on C-314:
Mr. Speaker, more and more serious incidents of violence toward transit workers are occurring across the country. We have seen incidents in Vancouver, Calgary, Mississauga, and Halifax. We have heard recently about a number of different incidents where bus drivers and transit workers have been assaulted.

This bill would create a new category within the Criminal Code that would ensure the protection of public transportation workers by creating a separate first degree murder offence and increasing the punishment for aggravated assault when a victim is a public transportation worker.

Every day the women and men who run our public transportation systems across the country do their utmost to make sure that Canadians arrive at work safely. We must ensure that their workplace is safe. That is why I am moving the bill today.
And Wasylycia-Leis on C-333:
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to present this bill which aims to amend the Criminal Code so that those convicted of assaulting the operators of buses, street cars, rail and light rail vehicles and ferries would receive the same penalties as currently apply in the cases of assaults of pilots and peace officers.

We know that millions of Canadians depend upon the skill and protection of transit drivers each day and we value their service to our communities, yet as the law stands, these workers regularly endure threats and attacks.

Since 9/11 we have become increasingly aware of the targeting of mass transit vehicles and the vulnerability of their operators. This bill is in the spirit of trying to protect our public service workers who transport people in various ways and we want to ensure their safety.

Although this bill was written and introduced in the last session, prior to the tragic death of Tim McLean, who was beheaded on a bus coming from Edmonton to Winnipeg, and although we do not know whether this bill in fact would have any bearing on that case, we are reminded, each and every one of us, about the importance of safety on our public transit systems.
Julian is simply re-introducing a bill that he brought forward in 2007 (Bill C-473), and which he introduced to the House on Nov. 13 of that year. In that speech, he provides more statistics about the plight of bus operators:
Mr. Speaker, this is an act to amend the Criminal Code to protect public transit workers. A recent survey showed that 36% of bus drivers and transit operators have experienced some form of physical assault. In Vancouver and the Lower Mainland region of British Columbia there are about 240 physical attacks on drivers every year. In the greater Toronto region, it is more than one a day. The lives of Canadians are in their hands. The least that we could do is move to protect them.
Both active private member's bills have relatively poor chances of passing into law, but Wasylycia-Leis said that she hopes that parties across the House of Commons will support the their intent. Her hope is that the government will include the provisions in a major crime bill.

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