My second post for the McGill Human Rights Interns blog is about how Canadian criminal law stigmatizes people living with HIV/AIDS by making non-disclosure of their status a criminal offence, without contextualizing their situation. I also discuss “Positive Women: Exposing Injustice,” a documentary film produced by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, which premiered two weeks ago.
All posts in category canada
Posted by RK on June 28, 2012
You may or may not have heard about the student strike in Quebec, against the proposed $1700 tuition hike over 7 years. It’s been going on since February – nobody ever thought it’d be still going or even get this much attention. Charest – the premier of Quebec – sure didn’t, and he may or may not be regretting it now. The Education Minister – who was considered a rising political star – resigned over the matter. To this day, the Charest government refuses to negotiate with student groups.
In fact, he may be regretting it so much that he passed a new bill that would outlaw student “riots” altogether. A demonstration is defined as a gathering of 10 students or more in public. Students who wish for a demonstration must notify the police eight hours in advance. Those that break these provisions can face fines between $70,000-$350,000.
I had a short stint one summer where I examined laws of countries that were considered human rights violations. Many of them contained similar clauses on demonstrations – having to notify the police or the union and obtaining approval – which have been singled out by many human rights organizations as infringing on their democratic rights. And it’s happening here, in this country.
That’s why this bill is very, very worrisome. More and more our streets are being intruded upon, and taken away from us by corporations, cars, the police, and now the law. During this school year, as I heard person after person refer to student protests with disdain, I kept on asking (sometimes to others and often to myself), “to whom do the streets belong?”
When did we give up our streets as a democratic medium?
For some reason, we as a society seem to have given up on using the streets as a medium of expressing our will, instead being content with voting (which is not representative of popular will), or “online activism” in the means of petitions or sharing things on Facebook.
Maybe it is the increasing presence of the internet and gadgets in our lives, but when did we take the physical and bodily “act” out of activism?
And when did we start believing that heavy police presence is necessary, or that the police somehow knows more and should have monopoly of the streets? I’m not sure, but laws like this tells me that perhaps we need to have our voices heard and our bodies seen - which is our right, not a privilege granted by governments – more than ever.
So here’s a start – an online petition against Bill 78. I know I spoke about the inadequacies of “online activism” earlier – but it’s an easy start, I won’t argue with that.
Posted by RK on May 19, 2012
[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?
Posted by RK on March 17, 2012
[ I attended conference today called "Crime & The Law: The Future of Justice in Canada" hosted by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada as a student blogger. Here's my recap of the second plenary session, "Protests and Conflicts: Who's to Blame?"]
In stark contrast to the first panel’s focus on police accountability, the second panel of the day, entitled “Protest: Who’s to Blame?” explicitly addressed problems of police brutality from the activist’s and the advocates’ point of view.
David Eby, president of the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), started off the panel by showing the audience a picture of a “crowd control” machine that looked like a tank with a big mirror on top. Discussing the police department’s massive budgets for crowd control, Eby discussed how such budgets are leading to budget cuts in areas like health care and education, threatening democratic values of society.
Another concern he raised was the overhyping of social media as a tool of resistance, by stating that a cell phone footage of police brutality is unlikely to go “viral” in a way other videos do – here I was reminded of the massively successful Kony video campaign and the incredible amount of attention it garnered, while a grainy video telling many more truths than Kony remains largely unseen.
Noticing the serendipitous coincidence of the conference falling on the same day as the International Day against Police Brutality, Alex Hundert made an explicit connection between the rising police brutality and the current political climate. Hundert pointed to the neoliberal undercurrent of the law protecting property and capital rather than people’s rights as a main problem of politics. He also discussed the troubling silence from the political leaders – with the exception of Andrea Howarth, NDP leader in Ontario – and their reticence to protect citizens’ rights to protest as a bigger concern than police brutality itself. With political reticence to protect citizens’ rights and increasing police brutality, protests are bound to become more violent than before, he said.
Judy Rebick, founder of rabble.ca and Eakin Fellow at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, located the problem of police as not just of accountability, but its “patriarchal culture.” She also noticed the general air of timidity among students that is threatening activism – when she suggested to her university students that they go out and join a protest, she was met with fear from students that they might lose their jobs.
Joe Warmington, journalist for the Toronto Sun who covered the G20 happenings, dramatically described the decline of the Toronto police. “It died that day. I’m talking about democracy.” Even though there are still no official numbers, he estimated there were about 1100 arrested, detained and constrained on June 26, 2011, and 16 women being strip-searched.
When answering an audience question about the police’s increased presence of weapons, Eby emphasized the need to be one step ahead of the police for effective resistance. He cited both the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA)’s and the BCCLA’s success at stopping the police from using crowd control machines by making press releases about their harmful effects before the machines’ release, or filing for a court injunction.
Technology continued to be an important issue at the panel, where panelists brought up both its insidiousness and subversive nature. Eby discussed some “crowd control machines” that sounded almost too absurd to be real, such as a machine in the UK that can shut down all mobile phones and read all texts without having to cooperate with phone companies.
Addressing an audience question about the future and the potential of “hack-tivism” with sites like Wikileaks and the recent McGill leaks site, Eby discussed the lack of resources in investigative journalism, and how such sites are an attempt to take control into their own hands.
It’s difficult to know how to feel or where to go next. When listening to the interconnectedness between police brutality and political inactivity surrounding such brutality, it’s hard not to think of the chicken-egg conundrum. What’s a law student to do in a situation where the system I am learning to navigate appears so flawed and mismanaged?
An article I read for a class recently said the most mediocre law students are ones who believe that the law must make sense of the world. This is perhaps a reminder of that message – that the law or the “system” is not a way to make sense of the world, but rather, something we need to keep questioning and see as something that can and must change for the better.
Posted by RK on March 15, 2012
[This post is written by a friend and colleague in the law faculty, David Groves. We attended a conference today called "Crime & Law: The Future of Justice in Canada" hosted by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada as student bloggers. Here's his recap of the first plenary session.]
The conference got off to a start with a lively, at times heated, discussion over the question of police oversight, an issue of particular relevance in light of student demonstrations, C-10, the recently passed Omnibus Crime Legislation, and C-30, the Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act. On stage were former Liberal MP for NDG Marlene Jennings, Former Montréal Chief of Police Jacques Duchesneau, Chief Dale McFee, President of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, Nathalie Des Rosiers, General Counsel of Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and Peter Tinsley, Former Director of Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit.
The main issues of the night were a) where effective police oversight comes from, and b) what it should look like. On one end was Mrs. Des Rosiers, who argued that oversight is best administered by strong external pressures, including constant dialogue about police procedure with the public. “When teaching others,” she argued, “you learn a lot about yourself”. Mr. Duchesneau contrasted, arguing that internal discipline as it currently exists is more than enough. He insisted that Canadian police are the most accountable and least powerful in the world, and that, with obvious reference to Des Rosiers, “There will always be critics pointing fingers, that’s the nature of policing today.” The two sparred more than once, with Duchesneau sarcastically referring to Des Rosiers as “the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
Between these two, Mr. Tinsley and Chief McFee staked out the middle ground. McFee argued that a variety of mechanisms are necessary, including media and direct citizen engagement (taking pictures, protesting, and so on). Tinsley argued that civilian oversight is a necessary supplement to, but not a good replacement for, internal accountability in police forces. He noted that the civilian oversight faces two significant challenges: first, oversight operations depend on support from the gov’t, even when they make politically unpalatable decisions, and second, they depend on cooperation and transparency on the part of the police, the very people they are tasked to scrutinize. Trapped between a “rock and a hard place,” civilian oversight will never alone be enough to ensure responsible policing.
While the panellists discussed oversight and what shape it should take, a larger issue continually resurfaced: are violent or corrupt police merely “a few rotten apples”, as Duchesneau described them, or are they symptomatic of deeper cultural problems within the force? The Police Chiefs asserted that effective oversight amounted to weeding out the bad officers or the troubling practices; Mrs. Des Rosiers, by contrast, suggested that scrutiny from outside was necessary to keep police culture within acceptable bounds. Interestingly, cultural and structural critiques dominated the second panel, where the speakers seemed largely in accordance with the idea that it was not the individual officers but the politics of law enforcement itself that needed reform.
Finally, as one would expect, the Harper government’s crime legislation featured prominently. Chief McFee threw his support fully behind Bill C-30, which provides mechanisms for law enforcement to access IP information without a warrant, stating that it strikes the right “balance” between safety and privacy. Mrs. Des Rosiers and Mr. Tinsley, however, were far more skeptical, noting a lack of safeguards concerning both access to and distribution of personal information.
Posted by RK on March 15, 2012
Jack Layton passed away today, leaving behind his political legacy and his powerful, moving words to Canadians. As we all embark on new journeys and chapters in our lives, Layton’s courage and motivational words will resonate with Canadians forever. Jack Layton’s last letter to Canadians affected me profoundly.
I remember feeling excited earlier this year, about studying an area where I would be able to fight on behalf of those who had been disenfranchised. However, this summer I have been hit with waves of doubts regarding my decision. Was I being naïve about my optimism towards changing the world with my new degree? Was it too late for me to be doing this? But reading Layton’s affirmation that optimism is better than despair, and that Canada can be a country of greater equality, I saw the answer to my questions clearly: I am in no position to doubt myself, as my life lies ahead of me. My words and my efforts will not be wasted, if I do not waste them.
I voted for the NDP in the last election, in the “orange province” that resonated with his vision and his spirit so much. I felt proud to be a part of that change in Canadian politics. I felt proud to see so many young and fresh faces enter politics for the first time.
So thank you, Jack, for showing me that change is really possible with passion and dedication, and thank you, for giving me affirmation for my idealistic vision and goals for a better society as I embark on this new journey.
Posted by RK on August 24, 2011
Just dropping in to say that tomorrow is the big voting day, people! Don’t forget to take some time out of your day to make a difference. Your employer is legally obliged to give you some time off to exercise your civic duty. 5:30pm-7pm tend to be the busiest time for voting; if you’re a student with a more flexible schedule, try to avoid the lineup.
Posted by RK on May 1, 2011