A piece of legislation tabled in the House of Commons could serve as a deterrence to committing violent acts against emergency first responders.
Bill C-345 was tabled by New Westminster-Burnaby MP Peter Julian and seconded by Nanaimo-Ladysmith MP Lisa Marie Barron. The local MP held a press conference Wednesday, June 28, at Nanaimo Fire Rescue Station No. 1, to talk about the proposed legislation.
The bill, if ratified, would bring more serious charges and stiffer penalties for anyone who assaults or threatens the safety of first responders, including firefighters and paramedics. The intention is to amend the Criminal Code so that the murder of a first responder automatically brings down a first-degree charge, and the bill also calls for increasing the maximum term of imprisonment for assaulting a first responder, and making the assault of a first responder a specific criminal offence.
The bill, which would provide firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians similar protections to peace officers under the Criminal Code, was given first reading in the House of Commons on June 19.
“During the pandemic we all watched as firefighters, paramedics and first responders showed their unwavering commitment to the health of our community, risking their safety and well-being to be of service to Canadians,” Barron said.
She said communities are now struggling from the impacts of toxic substance use, mental health and affordability crises, which first responders are also contending with. Representatives from Nanaimo Firefighters Association Local 905 met with her in Ottawa earlier this year and impressed upon her the need for all first responders to be protected in the face of increasing assault incidents.
“Unfortunately, while serving our communities in endless ways, these same first responders also continue to see a striking increase in aggravated assaults against firefighters, paramedics and other first responders … It’s evident that there’s a problem when those who chose to serve in our communities – many in volunteer capacities – are being left without protections…” Barron said. “When assaults on first responders tragically happen, we need to make it clear the consequences match the seriousness of the crime.”
Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog said Bill C-345 is the kind of legislation that should receive unanimous support in Parliament. He said crimes against first responders should be recognized as offences against the collective system of society that ensures citizens’ safety and well-being.
“It’s one thing to engage in a criminal act, as between individuals or a business or whatever. It is a very different thing when you literally assault the community and the collective order and system of justice that is there to protect all of us, and so it’s absolutely right and proper,” Krog said. “We’ve recognized before that peace officers … are treated differently under the code and that’s for that very reason. It’s a right, good and just reason and society came to that conclusion a long time ago.”
Geoff Whiting, Nanaimo Fire Rescue deputy chief, said firefighting is a dangerous job and firefighters are at higher risk than the general population for contracting multiple types of cancer, heart disease and potentially life-altering occupational stress injuries. Firefighters accept a certain level of risk to serve their community and the fire department does what it can to mitigate those ever-present risks.
“The key is making sure our people have the skills to de-escalate situations and recognize situations and remove themselves,” Whiting said. “So we certainly support anything that addresses first responders’ safety.”
Chad Porter, Nanaimo Firefighters Association Local 905 president, said aggravated assaults and other acts of violence against first responders are on the rise and all workers deserve to come to work and feel safe on the job. He said in the past year there has been a “stark change” in the frequency of incidents where firefighters have had to remove themselves from incidents to protect their personal safety or wait for the RCMP to ensure emergency scenes are safe for first responders to move in. He said passing the bill will not be a “magic wand” to solve societal issues, but will help build momentum toward a culture that ensures greater safety for first responders.
“We strongly urge all members in Parliament to support this bill and to strengthen one of the fundamental workers’ rights, which is a a safe workplace,” Porter said.
Barron said she hopes that all MPs will “sign on to get this done” when Parliament sits in the fall.