Gov't won't support Liberal MP's proposed FASD Criminal Code amendments

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell's private member's bill would allow for special treatment of individuals with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), who are involved in the criminal justice system.

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell's bill would see FASD diagnoses considered when sentencing offenders

'The courts are clogged with people with FASD, in huge percentages. They go back and back again,' said Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, whose private member's bill would allow judge to consider FASD diagnoses as mitigating factors in sentencing. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell says he's more "sad than frustrated" that his private member's bill looks set to die when it's voted on in the House of Commons next week.

Bill C-235 would amend the Criminal Code to allow for special treatment of individuals with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), who are involved in the criminal justice system. It would allow judges to consider FASD as a mitigating factor in sentencing.

Bagnell introduced the bill earlier this year, hopeful that he could get his own party on-side and succeed where his predecessor, Yukon's former Conservative MP Ryan Leef, failed. Leef had introduced a similar private member's bill, but it was dropped by his government.

Bagnell's bill looks set for a similar fate.

"It's not a great situation, actually," Bagnell said. "I think a lot of the Conservatives and the government will vote against the bill."

No rationale for singling out FASD, committee says

MP Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary to Canada's minister of justice, said in the House of Commons this week that his government supports the "laudable objectives" of bill C-235, but "is unable to support the specific proposals of this bill."

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Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Justice, said the bill could have unintended consequences, leading to a 'discriminatory' regime. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Blair referred to a recent report from a federal-provincial-territorial steering committee on FASD, which looked specifically at FASD and the justice system.

The committee concluded that "legislative amendments which would single out one specific disability for special treatment to the exclusion of others was not supported.

"It was noted that the criminal law does not currently single out specific disabilities and no policy rationale for singling out FASD in this way was identified," the report says.

Blair said the bill could have unintended consequences, leading to a "discriminatory" regime.

"One can only imagine what the Criminal Code would look like if each and every disorder was specifically defined and our courts were given instructions to treat each specific disorder diagnosis differently," he said.

'It's just excruciating'

Bagnell says he's still trying to win enough support for his bill from individual MPs before Tuesday's vote, but he knows it's an uphill battle.

"It's pretty hard to fight all the justice ministers in the country," he said.

"I have answers to all these concerns, that's why I was up until four in the morning last night, actually writing the answers to all these to try and convince MPs to vote for it."

The NDP has said its MPs will support the bill, and Bagnell says he know some Conservative MPs will also vote in favour of it.

"We're making it harder in the justice system for no sense at all. I mean, a sentence is supposed to be a deterrent, but if you don't understand what you've done wrong ... then that sentence doesn't make sense," he said.

"It's just excruciating for those people who have enough trouble in life as it is. So I feel sad for them if we don't get it through. I haven't stopped fighting."

Bagnell says if his bill dies, "it's all over," — meaning he can't introduce a similar bill for the rest of his government's mandate.

Still, Bagnell will not feel his efforts have been wasted, saying he's heard from FASD organizations across the country that the bill has "enhanced the national conversation, so it's been a benefit."

Wenda Bradley, with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Society Yukon (FASSY), agrees.

"It has very much been brought to the forefront of discussion across Canada, so that there is a national focus on, 'if we can't do this, what can we do?'" Bradley said.


With files from Sandi Coleman