[This post is written by a friend and colleague in the law faculty, David Groves. We attended a conference this week called "Crime & the Law: The Future of Justice in Canada" hosted by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada as student bloggers. This is his recap of the second day of the conference.]
The theme of the day was the recently passed Bill C-10, or the “Safe Streets and Communities Act”. It was, to put it mildly, not well-received. In a panel on sentencing, Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, stated that “it’s hard to imagine a society realizing its potential by increasingly caging more of its citizens.” Senator James Cowan decried the “vending machine”-logic that lies behind mandatory minimums. Professor Carrie Rentschler of McGill argued that both the content of the Harper crime agenda and its rhetoric closely mirror the now widely condemned “tough on crime” legislation of the 60s and 70s in the United States. After all this, conference organiser Professor Will Straw joked that he tried to get more people to come speak who actually supported C-10, but couldn’t find any.
Along these lines, the biggest news of the conference came from Québec Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier, who suggested that, regardless of the content of C-10, Québec will follow “its own model” of criminal justice. He stressed the need for flexibility, for discretion among judges, and for sentencing that is as rehabilitative as possible. Coming not long after a televised speech by Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, who insisted that the Harper government was “improving and streamlining the criminal justice system”, Fournier attacked C-10 for its “guichet automatique” (ATM) approach to sentencing (similar to Sen. Cowan’s remarks), and concluded that the Québec government will push strongly for amendments to the recently passed legislation.
It will be interesting to see, in the coming months, how a battle between Québec and the federal government over criminal justice will play out. Fournier tried to strike a respectful tone, but a clash is inevitable if the province chooses not to enforce aspects of federal legislation. Fournier also stated that Ottawa must assume the costs of implementing the bill. The Harper government has stated a willingness to cover some, but not all, of this increased burden. Footing the bill will be another source of tension in the near future.
While the bulk of the day focused on discussions around C-10, sentencing, and the justice system, there was also an excellent panel on the future of crime reporting and a fascinating speech by Professor Joanne St. Lewis of the University of Ottawa. The reporting panel featured heavy-weight investigative journalists from Ontario and Québec, and stressed both the challenges of good crime journalism and its importance in a democratic society. Over stories of retaliatory attacks (apparently it’s something of a rite of passage in Québec crime journalism to get shot) and the frustrations of sensationalism, the panellists argued that crime writers “hold a dark mirror to society”, a vital, if troubling, exercise. Professor St. Lewis spoke of a recent shift in societal focus from “justice” to “just us”, of a terrorization of our approach to immigrants and minorities within Canada, and of “functional amnesia” in how we have permitted state intelligence-gathering more and more access to our lives. Echoing some of the comments from yesterday’s panel on policing protests, St. Lewis warned of a potential criminalization of dissent, noting that several of her students were hesitant to visit Occupy Ottawa for fear of repercussion.
Towards the end of the final panel, entitled “The Justice We Need”, I asked the assembled speakers the question that all of the discussions and debates of the last two days seemed to pointing to: What do we do now? If this group of experts, drawn from law enforcement, academia, social activism, the criminal justice system, government, and the media, is almost unanimous (the notable exceptions being Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and the two Chiefs of Police, Duchesneau and McFee) in its conclusion that bill C-10 and C-30 are bad for our country, then what should we do?
Mrs. Sandra DeLaronde, executive director of the Helen Betty Osborne Memorial Foundation, noted that there is still a lot of flexibility in the justice system for those who need it. Echoing this idea, several others suggested that we are likely to see a “devolution” of discretion away from the judges (who must now enforce mandatory minimums) to prosecutors or the police. Charges might be “written down”, or made less severe, to avoid minimums, or suspects may be advised to plead out before they actually get to court. And, as noted above, provinces may simply refuse to enforce the bill, although this may set a troubling precedent.
There is obviously no easy answer. The law is the law, and among the panellists there was a general consensus that ignoring this fact is potentially more dangerous than enforcing policy they disagree with. However, it was heartening to see this many speakers, from so many different spheres within the justice system, speaking so eloquently and passionately on the topic. The conference was excellently curated and organised, and, speaking personally, one of the most enriching experiences I’ve had in law school so far. My hope is that the discussions and arguments of the past few days continue on because they matter a great deal to our future. How we think about crime and what we choose to do about it speak volumes about us as a nation. Are we a country of compassion and openness, or one of retribution and mistrust?