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Feds aim to criminalize threats towards health-care workers with new bill

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OTTAWA -

The federal government introduced a two-pronged bill Friday to implement 10 days of paid sick leave for federal workers as well as impose new criminal sanctions for threatening health-care workers.

The new legislation, Bill C-3, if passed would amend the Criminal Code of Canada to include new offences in instances where people intimidate health-care workers, impede access to medical facilities, or intimidate people accessing health services such as COVID-19 vaccinations or abortion procedures.

The changes are intended to make it illegal for anyone to deliberately make a health-care worker so afraid that they cannot do their job, or to intimidate someone from seeking medical help, with a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

“These are designed to protect our health-care workers, doctors, nurses, and those who assist these health care professionals as well as those people who need access to health care. I will be honest, I'm disappointed to have to do this,” said Justice Minister David Lametti during a press conference.

“Even this week, COVID deniers were trying to stop children from receiving vaccinations. Imagine trying to stop a child from receiving a potentially life-saving vaccine,” Lametti said. “This type of behavior is abhorrent and it's unacceptable, particularly at a time when access to health care services is more critical than ever.”

These new measures were sparked by anti-COVID-19 lockdown and anti-vaccination protests seen this summer, which were roundly condemned by political leaders of all stripes, though the provisions do not include specific distances or buffer zones, with officials telling reporters the rules “apply everywhere.”

At the time Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first made this promise during the election, questions were raised over whether existing criminal penalties already prevent protesters from blocking essential services, such as hospitals, or from blocking people’s access to medical services.

Addressing this, Lametti said that the Criminal Code changes he’s proposing to go further than the general offences that protect people from intimidation, threats, violence, and obstruction.

“These amendments would give police and prosecutors additional tools to specifically protect our health-care workers and users,” he said. “Furthermore, they would provide a higher maximum sentence for intimidation of 10 years. The current sentence, the general sentence, carries a maximum sentence of five years.”

Joining the ministers for the press conference, President of the Canadian Medical Association Dr. Katharine Smart, and President of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions Linda Silas praised the move.

“Preliminary results from our 2021 national physician health survey suggested that three out of four physicians have experienced intimidation, bullying and harassment in the workplace. And one in three say that this happens regularly,” Smart said. “The existing legislative measures were clearly insufficient to prevent and respond to the threats, violence, harassment and intimidation that healthcare workers were experiencing and that was being targeted directly at them.”

These changes would not strike or other union actions, the government said, noting that “Canadians who want to express their opinions in a peaceful way we'll be able to continue to do so.”

10 DAYS PAID SICK LEAVE

The legislation also looks to update the Canada Labour Code to replace personal leave for illness or injury with 10 days of paid medical leave to workers in federally-regulated private sectors who do not currently have sick leave coverage. Personal leave can still be taken for other reasons.

“This new measure would apply to people who work in industries such as banking, telecommunications, broadcasting, and federal Crown corporations just to name a few… We want to see paid sick leave implemented across the country in all sectors because the cost of inaction is too great,” said Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan Jr. on Friday. “It's time to close the gap that the pandemic exposed in our social safety net.”

O’Regan said that workers should not have to face the choice of going to work sick, or being able to pay rent.

“We will engage in consultations with federally regulated employers and workers to better understand the impact of these changes on their workplaces and local realities. We are taking a big step forward today, and we need to take that step together,” he said.

This law change means an estimated 63 per cent of current federally-regulated workers will see an increase in the number of sick days they have, officials told reporters during a technical briefing following the announcement.

According to the government, as of 2019, approximately 582,700 employees in the federally regulated private sector had access to fewer than 10 days of paid leave to treat a personal illness or injury. These amendments will not apply to federal public servants or provincially or territorially regulated employees.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh called the announcement of paid sick days “long overdue.”

“Justin Trudeau owes frontline workers an explanation about why he couldn’t help them when they needed this over a year ago… New Democrats have been calling on the Liberal government to support workers with paid sick leave for almost two years. Workers have been forced to wait for too long already, they shouldn't have to wait until 2022 for this crucial support. We will continue to push the Liberal government to put these sick days in place before the end of the year.”

Both of these initiatives were 2021 federal election campaign commitments from the Liberals and were among four key priorities the government pledged they would act on and aim to see passed in the next few weeks.

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