IN THE NEWS ~ Give it a transit pass Silly snap protections for drivers would set untenable double standard

The Edmonton Sun
SECTION: Editorial/Opinion

The horrifying attack on an Edmonton bus driver has ratcheted up the campaign to recognize transit workers in the Criminal Code and impose particularly harsh sentences when they're victimized.

But as sympathetic as I am to the 2,000 bus drivers across Canada who were assaulted last year, complicating an already complex hodgepodge of legislation by adding a specific group of victims is unwieldy and unwise. Two private members' bills, initiated by B.C. NDP MP Peter Julian and Manitoba NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis, have been introduced in an effort to better protect public transit workers. Both bills would include transit workers under a section that deals with assaulting a peace officer.

In addition, Julian's bill would introduce a harsh maximum sentence for aggravated assault against transit workers -- 20 years in jail.

This is quite remarkable given the maximum sentence for aggravated assault against anyone else, including police officers, is only 14 years.

Attacks against bus drivers are inexcusable and the penalties should be tough enough to teach the assailants a lesson and deter others.

But harsher sentences for pummelling bus drivers than for beating the snot out of other citizens?

It gets even more bizarre. Under Julian's bill, anyone accused in the murder of a transit worker would automatically be charged with first-degree murder, whether the killing was planned or deliberate or not.

Currently, only those accused of murdering police officers -- who put their lives on the line in the interests of law enforcement -- are automatically charged with first-degree murder.

With all due respect, bus drivers often face drugged-up, drunken idiots but by no stretch of the imagination do they confront the same risks as police officers. Nor do they carry the same societal expectations and burden as cops, protecting the public.

All I can say is thank goodness it's a private member's bill and will, hopefully, never see the light of day.

The Amalgamated Transit Union has lobbied Parliament for a couple of years to have public transit workers included in section 270 of the Criminal Code.

"We just want to be recognized in there as a group that's being assaulted on a regular basis," says Robin West, the union's Canadian director.

Surveys show more than one-third of the ATU's members have been assaulted on the job, he says.

"We're not psychiatrists. We don't know why we're being assaulted out there but maybe we're the first people somebody sees when they're in a bad mood," he says.

"It's got to stop and we're trying to do whatever we can."

Now Edmonton city councillors Amarjeet Sohi and Karen Leibovici have jumped onto this strange bandwagon. They're drafting a motion calling on city council to endorse the ATU campaign.

But section 270 serves no formal legal purpose, notes Chris Levy, associate dean of the University of Calgary's faculty of law. By that, he means the maximum sentences for assaulting an officer are no greater than for attacking anyone else.

And if we add transit workers, what about nurses and taxi drivers? "It opens a Pandora's Box," says Levy.

How about a practical idea? Maybe judges shouldn't be so reluctant to impose stiff sentences for violence. We already have the law. We just need to use it.