by Justin Piché, Assistant Professor, Criminology, University of Ottawa
As the outlook for Canada’s struggling economy remains bleak, the Conservative Government of Canada’s (in)security and punishment agendas are picking-up steam as the 2015 federal election approaches. This edition of TPCP-Canada features posts that offer a glimpse into some of the issues that are ignored and necessitate resistance in a context where Canadian politics operates as a terrain to purge populations that do not fit the Conservative mold of “hard working, law-abiding Canadians”, drain power from those who resist the status quo, divert attention from the harms perpetrated by corporations and political elites under the cloak of economic growth and progress, make citizens feel better about themselves at a symbolic level by directing our attention to scapegoats – old and new, all while appearing to take action in the name of public safety. Purge, disempower, divert/distract, appear to act – only time will tell if this well-rehearsed and mastered formula used by Harper’s Conservatives will curry enough favour from voters when the writ drops.
Prime examples of this brand of divisive politics can be gleaned from the transcripts of recent Conservative stump speeches, statements, press conferences and legislation promising even more ‘truth in sentencing’, including the recently introduced Life Means Life Act (Bill C-53). Core elements of this piece of legislation mandate life sentences of imprisonment without the possibility of parole for high treason and certain homicides, while also giving judges the ability to impose such a sentence when those convicted are serving prior sentences for first degree murder or previous second degree murder convictions related to the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act. It is proposed that individuals serving life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentences in Canada – also known as “the other death penalty” in the United States where this practice is widespread – could only be released from prison after 35 years behind bars should they successfully apply for an executive release by the Governor in Council. In other words, the federal government of the day, rather than the Parole Board of Canada, would decide whether release was appropriate.
Given that this is perhaps the most significant change to life sentences in Canada since the abolition of the death penalty in 1976, Bill C-53 and its promise that “life means life in prison” has drawn criticism from numerous corners. Prison staff are concerned about the impact of extinguishing the hope of release amongst certain prisoners will have on their safety and the climate of their workplaces. Watchdogs question the impact such a measure will have on community safety when lifers on parole are, by-and-large, successful in serving their sentences outside prison walls. Leading academics have correctly pointed-out that the Canadian state already possesses mechanisms to keep the dangerous few behind bars and that the most appropriate time to make decisions about release in these cases is not at the time of sentencing, but after the time prisoners spend proving that they can return to society and make a contribution. Prominent legal minds are concerned about putting the power of release in the hands of politicians and believe the new legislation is cruel and unusual punishment that is likely to be deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada.
While one could delve more deeply into the how the bill is costly in numerous ways, while having a negligible impact on community safety, there are pressing moral questions raised by this legislation. Do we live in a country where the value of one’s life is reduced to their worst actions? Do we believe all human beings are capable of improvement, of change and to do good in this world? What does history teach us about where this brand of demonization and dehumanization can lead us? Are we seeding the ground for great atrocities to occur in the name of higher loyalties that may prove to deserve no loyalty at all?
If we condemn our brothers and sisters to futures without hope that better days may lie ahead, we extinguish our common humanity. In sum, it is not just for the sake of the condemned that we need to resist LWOP in Canada, but our own.
To conclude this introduction I want to turn my attention to Peter Collins, who is an award-winning human rights activist and artist who is serving a life sentence at Bath Institution for the October 1983 murder of Constable David Utman of the Ottawa Police Service. Peter has recently been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, is in considerable pain and will likely die in the next few months. Given his considerable regret for his past actions, and the contributions he has since made to the advancement of human rights both inside and outside prison walls during his lengthy period of incarceration, I urge readers in the strongest of terms to consider writing to the Parole Board of Canada to request that they issue a parole by exception in his case on compassionate grounds.
To learn more about Peter and how you can help, please visit http://kersplebedeb.com/posts/compassionate-release-peter-collins/.
by Aaron Doyle, Associate Professor, Sociology, Carleton University
and Laura McKendy, PhD Student, Sociology, Carleton University