NEVER HAS the outcome of a politician’s plans been seen as such a predictable, sure-fire fait accompli as that of Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant’s avowed plans to ban ‘pit bulls’ from the province… unless one counts Prime Minister Tony Blair’s ‘debate’ about sending British troops to war against Iraq alongside American forces.
The Ontario Assembly was due to vote on Bryant’s infamous Bill 132 on Tuesday or this week and, barring a miracle whereby about 20 Liberal politicians would not turn up or would vote against the Bill, then it would pass onto the Statute books later this week.
During Monday’s pre-vote debate on Bill 132, NDP opposition politician Joseph Tascona, observed that Bryant’s Bill would pass its Third Reading in the Ontario Legislature on March 1st simply because the Liberal Government had an in-built majority.
Mr Tascoma addressed his remarks to Dalton McGuinty, the Liberal Prime Minister, saying: "My question is for the Premier. Instead of dealing with the real priorities of Ontarians -- eliminating the doctor shortage, reducing wait times and providing proper hospital funding -- your government is calling the fatally flawed Bill 132, the dog statute amendment act, or pit bull ban, for third reading today. You were told at the public hearings that the day after Bill 132 passes on March 1, the public will be no safer from vicious dog attacks because there will be not one fewer pit bull or vicious dog on the street but there will be more victims of pit bull and vicious dog attacks.
"My question to the Premier: Why should the public have confidence in an Attorney General who fails to understand that safety from vicious dogs matters to them? You have done nothing in Bill 132 to protect them from vicious dog attacks. What will you say to victims of vicious dog attacks after March 1 when Bill 132 fails to protect them?"
Predictably, Mr Guinty ducked the question and instead referred it to Michael Bryant – hotly tipped as his successor as PM when he stands down – to answer. Bryant tripped out his usual tired clichés in response: "There has been an enormous amount of public consultation on this bill, and it is coming forward for further debate again today. I think this bill probably got more days of public hearings, more days of debate in the Legislature and more consultation than any other bill on the subject of dogs in the history of the Commonwealth, and it has benefited from that.
"If the Legislature votes in favour of this bill, mark my words, this bill will save lives and save injuries and, over time, it will mean fewer pit bull attacks and, overall, fewer attacks by dangerous dogs. That's good news for public safety in the province of Ontario."
Mr. Tascona responded: " Bill 132 contains no measures to address the two major problems involving vicious dog attacks and public safety: (1) a lack of enforcement, and you are on record saying there'll be no money for municipalities to better enforce, and (2) no measures to make irresponsible dog owners more responsible. You are betraying the public trust in proceeding with Bill 132, which, as you know from the experts in the public hearings, will not protect the public from vicious dog attacks now.
"Attorney General, it seems that Bill 132 is simply a shameless exercise to promote your image. Why haven't you listened to the public and proposed legislation that will effectively protect the public from vicious dogs and allow people to feel safe while walking on our streets?"
Bryant replied that the people of Ontario said they wanted legislation in place that would protect them from dangerous dogs, and that the Government "had done that with this bill. The people have said that they don't want to continue to walk the streets, parks, farms and living rooms of Ontario and be attacked by pit bulls, and we're on their side. We want to bring that public safety."
Several opposition MPs put forward petitions calling for amendments to Bill 132, calling for non-breed specific legislation. Although these were duly noted, it was doubtful at that late stage that any more notice would be taken of them than any of the previous calls for sensible dog control legislation.
Mr Bryant later moved third reading of Bill 132, and said that he would share his speaking time with Joseph Zimmer, a senior Liberal MP and former judge who had sat on the Standing Committee during the 4 days of hearings into Bill 132 during late January and early February.
Bryant was in bellicose firm, declaring his belief that ‘pit bull’ type dogs were inherently dangerous and that the Government would not be deflected from their plans to ban them: "I say again that pit bulls are inherently dangerous. No matter the nurture, they are an inherently dangerous dog, and I'll be speaking to that a little later on with some scientific evidence and some remarks by a number of people who know something about dogs.
"But I say we're not going to back down, because we believe that this bill is about public safety. We believe that this bill will make our communities safer. That's why we're doing this. I look forward to the debate, from those who oppose the bill, as to how they think the status quo is somehow satisfactory, because it is not….
"I think we have to acknowledge the courageous and pioneering work done by Councillor Berry Vrbanovic, who I know was a pioneer in this area here in Ontario, and also the work done in the city of Winnipeg. There are other municipalities across Ontario that are either adopting or have adopted a pit bull ban. Windsor is one. I'll get to Windsor in a moment.
"We also heard in the committee hearing some powerful testimony from people on the front lines who have to face pit bulls at their most dangerous. Consider the compelling testimony from Chief Julian Fantino, who spoke on behalf of the country's largest municipal police service. Mr. Fantino said in no uncertain terms, "Pit bulls pose a very serious, very real and legitimate threat to the safety of the public and to our police officers." He went on to say, "These officers know better than anybody that appropriate and consistent training is essential for any breed of dog. However, they also have experienced first-hand what can happen with predatory-type dogs, regardless of their training or circumstance. These officers have seen the utter viciousness and severe rage with which these dogs attack. That is compelling."
Bryant continued, referring to the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate on dog aggression: "Recently we heard from a University of Windsor behavioural genetics researcher. I'm relying here on the Windsor Star in reporting, "The Ontario government is justified in banning pit bulls because by nature some mammals are more aggressive than others, says a University of Windsor behavioural genetics researcher." This professor of biological sciences, Doug Wahlsten, said, "The important thing we've found is that ... some genetic strains are more affected than others.... I think (banning pit bulls) is a public safety issue." Wahlsten's research -- and again I'm relying on the article here -- regarding genetics and behaviour has been published in Science magazine. He said that similar research was done in the Netherlands, the US and Finland. I'm quoting here from Wahlsten again: "The rearing does not change their heredities."
Conservative MPP Mr. Norm Miller derided Bryant’s remarks, saying: "I just listened to the Attorney General, and he's dreaming in Technicolor. He talked about dogs getting something into their head and not being able to stop them. I think the same could be said about him with this bill. Look at the testimony we had over four days of public consultation. He said that not all the testimony was in support of the bill. Well, for his information, just about all of it was against: 81 of 103 presenters at the public hearings on Bill 132 strongly rejected the proposed ban.
All the experts rejected it. He talked about Chief Fantino. I had the opportunity to question Chief Fantino, and he's not a dog expert. I know he's trying to look out for the protection of his officers, and I recognise that, but I asked him about a Staffordshire bull terrier. He had no idea what it was. He had no idea that it's a 30-pound, 14-inch-tall dog that's the nanny dog in England -- there are 250,000 in England -- and none of them have hurt anybody here in Ontario.
"You have been very selective in your quotes and have made a sham of this whole process. You have insulted the people who came before this committee by being so selective. I'm frankly embarrassed that you have the gall to be in here and put blinders on and not even listen to the people who came before this committee. You have a flawed bill. You could have made a good bill.
You could have listened to all the people who came before us and gave testimony, but you have not. The parliamentary assistant from Willowdale [Mr Zimmer] treated the whole process like it was a courtroom. He cut off people who were trying to make a point so he won his point. Well, yes, but he didn't let them say what they wanted to say. Wasn't the process about trying to learn something? I'm embarrassed by the process we went through. I sat through five days. I listened to the people. You certainly did not listen to the people who came before the committee.
Joseph Tascona added his voice to the criticism of Bryant and his Bill, in forthright fashion, saying: "I'm very pleased to join in the debate with respect to third reading of Bill 132. Just for the record, I was there when Chief Fantino spoke to the public hearings. He basically said, and I think everyone would agree here, that the criminal element was using the pit bull as the dog of choice.
Who couldn't support any police officer with respect to wanting to make sure that the criminal element is not using a vicious dog of any nature? For the record, Mr. Miller made no comments about Chief Fantino; I know he has total respect for him, as we all do here in this Legislature.
"The public has been led to believe by the government that Bill 132 is going to solve the public safety problems of vicious dogs. After March 1 -- we're voting on this tomorrow -- there won't be one less pit bull or vicious dog on the street, and I think Mr. Zimmer, the PA, pointed this out, to his credit. So the same public safety concerns are going to be there on March 2, the day after we vote this bill through. We won't be supporting this, because this bill is fatally flawed.
"The saving grace -- because we cannot stop the Liberal majority -- is that we know this legislation is going to be constitutionally challenged. They know they are going to get hit with it.
The fact of the matter is that they know it's over-inclusive. They know it's going to be a problem with respect to how they're going to get enforcement on the pit bull identification issue. All the amendments from the Liberal government that came forth at the hearings were on the identification issue with respect to pit bulls, because they are so afraid it's going to be challenged in the courts after it's passed. So they brought in all these amendments, which are only going to cause increased litigation and an increased waste of court time.
"During the Barrie hearings, we saw first-hand the compassion that the government had for non-pit-bull-bite victims. Michelle Holmes, a registered veterinarian technician, talked about being bitten by a Chihuahua. I'd like to read you their exchange, straight from Hansard:
"Ms. Holmes: I've never, ever been attacked by a dog such as a pit bull. I have been bitten by a Chihuahua, but we don't seem to be concerned about those....
"Mr Zimmer: Did the Chihuahua take your leg off?
"Ms Holmes: No, but he did draw blood.
"Mr Zimmer: So does a mosquito."
"Can you believe that exchange? A young woman comes forth to testify at a public hearing. She is a veterinarian trained in the science, and that's the treatment she gets from Mr. Zimmer, the parliamentary assistant to the Attorney General.
"Why is the government only concerned about pit bulls? I would bet that if the Attorney General's child, any child in this House, was bitten by a pit bull, it wouldn't matter to you what breed it was. The issue is about vicious dog attacks."
The debate continued back and forth for over two hours, but towards the end, a very telling and pertinent statement was made by Opposition MPP Shelley Martel which would serve as clear notice for Bryant and his fellow Liberals that a bad law would not be easily forgotten by voters: "I want to make a couple of comments. I said earlier that I did have a chance to speak on second reading. I had really encouraged the government at that time -- and I think if people take a look at my remarks they will see that -- to bring forward all of the evidence, all of the information, all of the expertise that was necessary to show that a breed-specific ban would work, and then I might actually consider supporting the government's legislation. But as I look through what happened at the committee, as I listen to those who sat through it for the four days, I can tell you that that didn't happen… there is just no way I can support this bill….
"We should have used this legislation and this opportunity to bring forward a bill that would have dealt with all kinds of dangerous dogs, and that would have dealt with irresponsible dog owners, because if we had done that, we probably would have done something about public safety. I regret that the Attorney General, I guess, got his back against the wall and decided he was only going to be dealing with pit bulls. It didn't matter who came forward to the public hearings, what experts, how those experts dealt with dogs, the behaviour of dogs -- anybody who came forward to say, "If you really want to do something, look at all dangerous dogs," was just dismissed out of hand. I don't understand it. I don't understand why the government didn't use this opportunity to bring in legislation that we could have supported, that would have truly protected the public.
"In conclusion, let me just say that I had urged the government at second reading, ‘Bring forward all the experts, bring forward the information, bring forward the evidence to show me that a breed-specific ban would work and I will be there supporting the legislation.’ It didn't happen. The experts that came said over and over again that a breed-specific ban doesn't work, but the government wasn't interested in hearing that. The government certainly wasn't interested in hearing about recommendations to deal with dangerous dogs or irresponsible dog owners. I regret to say that we're going to have a piece of legislation that tomorrow afternoon, after this passes, isn't going to do very much at all, if anything, to deal with dangerous dogs and public safety.
"One thing that came to my attention, and this is for the Attorney General: At the end of every leash, there is a voter."
The Bill is now most likely to be subjected to a Constitutional Challenge in the Canadian Courts, so the fight to stop BSL rearing its ugly head in Ontario is not yet over. However, as far as the Parliamentary process is concerned, it seems, at the time of going to Press, that the Attorney General would have his way…
The full Hansard transcript of the debate can be found at website: