Criminal charges against paramedics shows need for regulatory college, says advocate

Criminal charges against two Hamilton paramedics show the need for a regulatory college where they could be first judged by their peers before the court system, according to the Paramedic Association of Canada's executive director.

Professors says colleges for other professions haven't stopped ethical breeches

The Paramedic Association of Canada says criminal charges against two Hamilton paramedics highlight the need for a regulatory college in Ontario where their performance could be judged by their peers. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Paramedics in Ontario accused of malpractice should be judged by their peers first, not by a criminal courts system that doesn't fully understand their specialized training, says the Paramedic Association of Canada's executive director.

Pierre Poirier's comments come after criminal charges were laid against two paramedics for failing to provide the necessaries of life when Yosif Al-Hasnawi​ was shot Dec. 2, 2017. A union official has described the charges as precedent-setting and a potential "game changer" that could cause more paramedics to be brought to court.

Poirier said he believes the case is the first time paramedics in Canada have faced criminal charges for "doing their duty."

Al-Hasnawi was reportedly trying to help an older man being accosted by two men outside a mosque when he was shot. Bystanders claim paramedics told the Hamilton teen he was faking his injuries, and that he'd been shot by a pellet gun.

Niagara Regional Police launched an investigation and announced last week that Steven Snively, 53, of Hamilton and Christopher Marchant, 29, of Whitby had been charged.

Yosif Al-Hasnawi, 19, was shot and killed in Hamilton on Dec. 2, 2017 while trying to help an older man being accosted by two men outside a mosque. (Al-Mostafa Islamic Centre)

He says paramedics should have their own professional college, similar to those for nurses or teachers.

"If Ontario had a college I could see that these individuals would first be assessed in terms of their performance and their competence by their peers," said Poirier.

Five other provinces across the country already have colleges and advocates here have applied to set one up as recently as 2013.

P​​oirier said they're still waiting for the province's minister of health to make a decision on whether or not it will be allowed.

Pierre Poirier is the executive director of the Paramedic Association of Canada. (Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment)

The director added paramedics have special training and specific skills that go beyond what the public and legal system can be expected to understand, so the only people fit to properly judge their actions are other paramedics.

"Paramedics do specific interventions that are done by very, very few practitioners," he said.  "There's a unique body of knowledge that paramedics have and the way that we practice, I think, should be evaluated first and foremost by your peers."

If this goes all the way to trial and results in a finding of guilt, I would be surprised if it stays at a trial level. It will probably make its way up to the appeal courts to figure out.- Daniel Lerner, senior counsel at Lerner Law

The charges against the paramedics might be unique at this point, but Daniel Lerner, a former Crown prosecutor and current senior counsel at Lerner Law, said if they're found guilty it could cause charges to come up "a bit more often."

A charge of failing to provide the necessaries of life is typically used in cases involving a parent-child relationship, spouses or someone who is in charge of caring for another person, according to Lerner.

"If this meets the requirement for being under somebody's charge, you may see it come up a bit more often," he said. "Honestly if this goes all the way to trial and results in a finding of guilt, I would be surprised if it stays at a trial level. It will probably make its way up to the appeal courts to figure out."

Union says paramedics will be cleared

Mario Posteraro, president of OPSEU Local 256, which repesents Hamilton paramedics said last week that both paramedics "are intent on vigorously defending against these criminal charges" and that the union is confident the pair will be cleared of any wrongdoing.

"These precedent-setting criminal charges are game-changers for our paramedic profession and we are confident that when the totality of the evidence is provided, they will be vindicated."

Officials with the Hamilton Paramedic Service are doing their own investigation into Al-Hasnawi's death and said the results of that review should be available soon.

Judging the performance of a paramedic is difficult because they make "life and death decisions" in "sometimes traumatizing" situations every day, said Stephanie Ross, an associate professor at McMaster University's School of Labour Studies.

Colleges don't stop ethical breeches

Ross said she believes the creation of a college could help paramedics regulate their profession, but noted existing colleges for other occupations such as nurses or surgeons show that simply creating a college doesn't prevent ethical breeches from happening.

She added another negative side effect could be the fact that some people may lose their certification, meaning they can't continue with their profession in the future. Pierre Poirier 

"It would layer on both the processes as well as sanctions someone might be subject to," Ross explained.

Firas Al Najim, human rights activist, and Yosif Al-Hasnawi's younger brother, Ahmed Al-Hasnawi, hold a photo of Yosif Al-Hasnawi at a memorial in 2017. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

Poirier said it's true that is some "egregious" cases a college could rule that a paramedic should lose their ability to continue working.

But, he added, they would have a chance to call witnesses and plead their case. And, if need be, the option of turning to the criminal courts would still be there. 

"This doesn't replace the judicial system, but it very much mirrors the judicial system in a good, positive manner."

with files from Ron Charles