Yukon MP Larry Bagnell’s private member’s bill, aimed at helping people with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder who are involved with the justice system, was defeated in the House of Commons Tuesday.
The bill was defeated 133 in favour to 170 against.
“I’m disappointed, but I’m happy on the other hand that we made so much progress and we had strong support from all three of the major parties,” Bagnell said after the vote.
The bill would have allowed judges across the country to take someone’s FASD into account during sentencing and to order assessments, and would have required the correctional system to recognize FASD as a disability.
All of the NDP members present for the vote supported the bill. The majority of the Conservatives did not. Liberals who voted were split. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among the MPs not present for the vote.
Bagnell said he was surprised how few MPs knew anything about FASD and how it can lead to time in front of a judge.
FASD is a brain injury caused when a mother drinks during pregnancy. It limits healthy brain development, including the ability to understand cause and effect.
Former Conservative MP Ryan Leef tried to pass a similar bill when he was in office, but withdrew it in late 2014 saying there wasn’t enough time to make it through the process.
After Leef, Sean Casey, the Liberal MP for Charlottetown, tried to pass his own bill but ran out of time. Records show Casey voted against Bagnell’s bill.
Following the vote Leef tweeted he was sorry the bill didn’t pass.
“Good work Larry. It was close.”
Bagnell said he knew his bill was unlikely to pass after a report by representatives of federal, territorial and provincial justice ministers came out in October.
It concluded legislative change was not the way to go to help people with FASD.
The Yukon Department of Justice confirmed that staff contributed to the lengthy report but couldn’t say whether staff or Brad Cathers, who was Yukon’s justice minister at the time, agreed with its conclusions.
In 2014, the Yukon Legislative Assembly voted unanimously in favour of a motion urging the Canadian government to support Leef’s bill.
Current Justice Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee wrote a letter four days ago to the federal justice minister expressing the Yukon government’s support of Bagnell’s bill.
Bagnell said he’s glad more politicians are aware of FASD in the justice system than were before.
He hopes the federal justice minister will consider the support this bill got when she’s reviewing the criminal justice system.
“One of the things she’s looking at is mandatory minimum sentences,” he said.
“If those are reduced that will help people with FASD who are in a mandatory minimum sentence who shouldn’t be in jail at all or shouldn’t be in a mandatory sentence, should maybe be in other types of treatment.”
Wenda Bradley, executive director of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society Yukon (FASSY), is not surprised that many MPs are unfamiliar with FASD.
“We run across this all the time in any profession. So why would MPs, unless they’ve been specifically involved with a family member or a friend or work, know about this?”
Even though Bagnell’s bill was defeated, Bradley said the process was worthwhile because it got a conversation going on the prevalence of FASD in the justice system.
“Because until we get talking about it on levels where people have more influence on the bigger culture of Canada then it’s not going to get recognized to the extent it needs to be.”
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