Saturday, December 31, 2011

Who’s driving the Omni Bus?

Phil Burpee

Phil Burpee, Columnist, Pincher Creek Voice

What are we to make of the new omnibus crime bill, fuzzily referred to as the ‘Safe Streets and Communities Act’, currently being touted by the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper? And why is it called an ‘omnibus’ bill? Well, that’s easy enough – an omnibus bill typically contains a hodge-podge of half-forgotten, relegated, reviled, discredited, contentious, half-formed or otherwise previously unsuccessful pieces of legislation which are now lumped together in a grand attempt to hustle the reprobates and under-agers into the night-club without the bouncer noticing (“Yeah – don’t mind her – she’s my cousin…looks real young for her age”). In this case, Canadians are being offered a document which contains some nine previous attempts to bring criminal legislation up to what is perceived by the government as being ‘right’ and ‘fair’ for the times in which we live. These nine amendments in question were left on the table at the dissolution of the last Parliament when the late Jack Layton finally determined that the government no longer enjoyed the confidence of the House. The reason given for this was that the Minister of Justice refused to give to Parliament a full accounting of what these bills might ultimately cost the taxpayers of Canada, both in dollars, and in long-term socio-economic costs, notwithstanding a protracted attempt on the part of a parliamentary committee to elicit such data.

Typical shenanigans so far. But there’s something fishy here. Although the omnibus bill in question falls ostensibly within the bailiwick of Justice Minister Rob Nicholson (who ever sees this guy on TV?), why does it always seem to be the Minister of Public Safety, the Honourable Vic Toews (aka ‘The Moustache that could Kill at Fifty Paces’), who is put forward to remind us that we should be ever thankful for his government’s dedication to ‘putting the bad guys away for a very, very, very long time!’. Mr. Toews is, of course, a stern and fatherly sort of fellow who no doubt has the best interests of all law-abiding folk set deep in his heart. But you only have to look to see that Mr. Nicholson would, in all likelihood, melt like a cherry popsicle at an afternoon Blue Jay’s game beneath the steely glare of his Cabinet colleague, the estimable gentleman from Steinbach, Manitoba. So, this whole affair is perhaps to be construed as being rather less to do with Justice per se, as it is to do with Public Safety, or the perception thereof  -  and the best way to maintain public safety is to get the villains out of circulation - pronto. Evil-doers must be called to account. Retribution must be ready and decisive – BANG! CLANK! – and throw away the key.

But such a complex piece of legislation must not be summarily dismissed merely out of philosophical or political distaste. Clearly a great deal of thought has been invested in and informed this process, and there is indeed much to celebrate in the intent of certain elements of the bill. However, the red flag on any such an endeavour is that politically-motivated legislation based on populist sentiment or partisan pandering might be piggy-backed on to otherwise honourably-intentioned pieces of jurisprudence which, left unencumbered, would otherwise conform to essential tenets of our civilization. It becomes, therefore, not so much a matter of throwing the baby out with the bath water, as it is swaddling up the dirty bath water along with the baby. Or, put it another way -  you go to a farm auction and have your eye on, say, a nice length of 3/8th chain. Then the auctioneer piles together with it three rusted-out buckets, a broken pump handle, fourteen used Husqvarna spark plugs, a pail of sour barn paint, three open spools of baler twine, a generator for a 1963 Valiant, and a pigeon-shit speckled operator’s manual for a John Deere 2130. So the $5.00 chain gets buried in a bidding war between a congenital pack-rat and a ‘pay-whatever-it-takes-for-that-part’ Dodge collector, and the thing of real practical value gets buried in the junk pile, going for sixty-five bucks to the guy in the rubber boots and UFA suspenders. Catch the drift?

All right then – what about the Bill? Several key points are listed below, as articulated by CBC sources: -

  • Present mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.
  • Eliminate house arrest for violent offenders.
  • Stiffen jail terms for child predators.
  • Limit judicial discretion in the treatment of offenders.
  • Compel internet service providers to hand over email and other internet usage data without a search warrant, even if no formal investigation is underway.

Most of these involve either a stiffening of punishment measures for convicted offenders, or an increase in the powers of authorities to either define 'criminality' or to more easily apprehend accused persons. This would also include further involving victims in determination of sentencing in as yet not fully realized ways. The following Statistics Canada graphs provide an overview of the evolving incidence of crime in Canada, revealing an overall decrease in criminality. We are left then with a paradox – why is it that the Government of Canada deems it timely to address, with vast sums of money, a problem which, by any meaningful accounting, is diminishing with every passing year?

charts from

Corrections Canada has determined that the costs associated with the anticipated surge in incarceration levels will rise from the $1.6 billion dollars they were at in 2006 when the Conservative government took power, to an anticipated $3 billion per year. As can be seen from the bulleted list of items above, there are laudable efforts to appropriately punish such as sex crimes, especially pertaining to children, and a further provision of consequential punishment for violent crime. However, we also see that familiar, old reactionary bugbear of ‘drug crimes’, which has been time and again documented to show that far too many people are clogging up the courts and prisons for what are, by any reasonable determinants, social, not criminal, transgressions. Counseling and rehabilitation are far more effective, and far less costly, and have the added benefit of producing balanced and productive members of society instead of a revolving door of recidivists who soak up taxpayer dollars through extra policing, court costs and incarceration. Likewise there is provision for trying young offenders as adults - a reaction to gang violence. However, the thing of value is once again lost amidst the junk. Punishing young people for the ills of the society within which they have grown is a crude and foolish solution to a suite of deep social ills. Blame not the child for the failings of his elders - rather engage him and present to him a vision of a future within which he can find worth and relevance. He looks out and sees the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and the world getting meaner -  big dogs are eating little dogs, so why behave any different? Why indeed?

And then there's this broadly sinister attempt to extort information for the state and its law enforcement agencies from Internet service providers, based on some vaguely-articulated suspicion that some wrongdoing 'may' be occurring. This is totally bogus, and nothing but a thinly-veiled grab at Big Brother powers of surveillance. Fortunately, this initiative has been temporarily thwarted by a massive public reaction orchestrated by, but it is a prime example of a 'crime and safety' fixated government seeking to usurp our fundamental rights to privacy, not to mention a presumption of innocence dating back to the Magna Carta.

This omnibus crime bill attempts to capitalize on public fears which are themselves based upon an alarmism propagated by purveyors of snake-oil and lurid fantasy. As a society we are doing rather well in bringing about a diminishing level of criminal activity (well, not so good with white-collar larceny). This has been achieved through careful, patient, thoughtful and targeted social programming. It must continue to be done so. Further criminalizing the failures of our society only serves to perpetuate the problems. Transformative programming, especially for the young, is the key. Making criminals out of hopeless and despairing young people is the true crime. Throwing money at the bleak effects, rather than seeking ways to alter the abiding causes, is short-sighted, bereft of imagination, and ultimately retrogressive for our society as a whole.

Whoever's driving this Omni Bus should be made to piss in a bottle himself. Something squirrelly is obviously sloshing around in his brain - and I don't think it's at all performance-enhancing.

Phil Burpee
December 31, 2011

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