Conservative Crime Bill

Nobody can accuse me of not having a sense of humour. It’s a bit on the dark side, I must admit. Like, I sometimes get a laugh out of things that really aren’t very funny, or so some people might think.

For example, Canada’s Conservative government, newly re-elected a few months ago with a majority government despite getting just 40 percent of the popular vote, now has the numbers in Parliament to do pretty well whatever it wants. And all it took was one day of the new session of Parliament to demonstrate that the Harper government is out of touch with the real pressing issues this country and its people are facing.

In a word, those issues are economic. There are signs we’re on the verge of yet another global recession/depression – or a continuation of the one the United States especially is still struggling to climb out of, in vain. Relatively speaking, as Canadians have been told so often in the past three years of global economic uncertainty, this country is in better shape than most. But Canada is a trading nation, and as the world economy goes, so go we.

Meanwhile, here at home Canadians already feeling insecure about their financial futures, are facing a suddenly increased cost of living, brought on mainly by rising gas and food prices.

But instead of putting the economic issue on the front burner of public affairs, instead of dealing with it head on, by, for example, kicking off a non-partisan national dialogue about what to do in the more than likely event of yet another global economic crisis, the Harper government has put on its ideological blinders and followed its neo-conservative, “tough-on-crime” obsession into dangerously uncharted territory.

The first order of business this week for the majority government was its massive (110-page) crime bill, a so-called omnibus bill, that includes several tough-on-crime measures it wasn’t able to get through Parliament in minority.

No doubt the Canadian justice system can always be improved, one way or another, as new crime issues arise, like child pornography on the internet. Who can argue with that? But the overall impact of the Legislation will be to put more people in jail for longer periods of time. At public presentations of the bill in Brampton and Montreal, which upstaged its introduction to Parliament, nothing was said about how many billions of dollars of precious tax money will have to be spent on the renovation of existing prisons, federal and provincial, and the construction of new ones to house thousands more prisoners.

But more to the point, the faulty, obsolete foundation upon which the crime bill sits is already crumbling. In the U.S. which puts more people in jail as a proportion of its population that any other country in the world by far, even people on the political right are beginning to realize it’s not the answer; otherwise, crime in the U.S. would have virtually disappeared.

I’m willing to grant that to some extent crime is a personal problem, a sign of bad or weak character, including a person’s failure to take responsibility for the consequences of their bad choices. But it’s also far more complicated than that. Social conditions play a huge role in creating a crime problem. They include poverty, racism, and a systemic failure to help make sure that children are given a good start in life, given the educational opportunities and health care they need to grow up healthy, and overcome whatever challenges they’re facing through no fault of their own.

Data compiled by Statistics Canada shows the overall crime rate has been falling in recent years to the extent that it’s as low as it’s been since 1973. I heard federal public safety minister Vic Toews being interviewed on CBC radio a couple of days ago about the crime bill. He was asked about that statistic, and why it was necessary to get tougher on crime and put more people in jail if the crime rate was down to that extent. His response was it’s still a lot higher than it was in 1961. True enough. But so what? What does that tell us? Does it tell us, for example, that a lot of domestic crime like spousal assault and child abuse that went unreported to police, or was ignored by police, started being taken seriously?

Another statistic that jumped out at me this week was the crime level in various parts of the country. The crime rate, especially for violent crime, is higher in Saskatchewan and Manitoba than the rest of the country, but highest in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. In fact, the far north is the only area of Canada where the crime rate actually went up. I’ll stick my neck way out here and say that likely reflects problems in the large Aboriginal populations in those areas. It’s surely no secret that poverty, drug, alcohol and substance abuse, suicide, and poor living conditions, isolation, and a lack of economic opportunity plague a great many Aboriginal communities in this country. It’s a shameful state of affairs for one of the richest countries in the world.

Already a high proportion of people in prison in Canada are Aboriginal. How to change that, how to respond to the challenges Aboriginal communities are facing is an extraordinarily complex problem that requires a lot of thought and appropriate action. One thing for sure the answer is not to put more Aboriginal people in jail. Nor is it the answer to the problem that 20 percent of the people in prison in Canada are mentally ill.

Putting more of those people, or any people in prison, is not the way to reduce crime in Canada. Anybody with any understanding of the issues involved knows it doesn’t work. The Harper government should, and probably does, know better too.  But instead it’s playing politics with the future of the country. It’s almost laughable, in a dark sort of way, of course, if it weren’t such a national tragedy in the making.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2011.

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