Prime Time Crime


(Published in the Similkameen Spotlight week of Mar. 14, 2005)

Government Gets Tough – When So Inclined

  By John Martin

The country continues to mourn and seeks to answer the tough questions following the senseless murders of four Mounties in Mayencourt, Alberta.  More and more, we’re seeing that this tragedy had nothing to do with marijuana and everything to do with a chronic violent offender who should have been behind bars at the time of the massacre

The spotlight, and rightfully so, is illuminating the sentencing practices of the country’s judges.  And there is a particular focus on the judiciary’s lack of willingness to order incarceration even when the law and circumstances authorize and support it.

I listened to a media event where three judges sought to exonerate their colleagues and instead, blame Parliament for sentencing trends.  One question put to the trio was particularly revealing.  Between the three of them, not one had ever experienced so much as a residential or vehicle break-in.  Not even one.

Living in gated communities, far removed from the realities the rest of us encounter on a daily basis, must be quite comforting indeed.  “What’s all the fuss?  What crime?”

Some observers are asking if any good will come from this tragedy.  Will it prompt some common sense reform in the criminal justice system?  Will it move us to reconsider our misguided efforts to emulate the Europeans where incarceration is fast becoming extinct and violent offenders terrorize law-abiding citizens with immunity?

A change of course is not entirely unthinkable.  Unlikely; but not unthinkable.  Think back to the October Crisis of 1970.  A British Trade Commissioner is kidnapped from his Montreal home.  Then a solitary cabinet minister from Quebec is abducted and murdered.

Almost immediately the civil liberties of Canadians are suspended.  Tanks and armed military (remember when our military was armed?) roam the streets.  Suspects are rounded up and held without charge.  Doors are kicked in.   There are no warrants.  Social clubs are raided and hordes of people detained without any legal rights or recourse.  The army is sent in to protect the House of Commons.  In all, 497 people are arrested.  Less than one in eight would actually end up being charged.  In 1970 there was no government talk of due process or the rights of detainees.

Trudeau, when asked how far he was prepared to go, uttered his most famed bit of braggadocio, “Just watch me.”

Decades later, cabinet documents released through freedom of information legislation clearly demonstrate that the Liberal government of the day never considered the separatists a serious threat to national security.  It was widely acknowledged at the cabinet table that the suspension of the Canadian Bill of Rights was an unjustified over-reaction.

What seems to have happened was a calculated act of violence hit too close to home.  And violence, at least violence targeting politicians, would not be tolerated.

Unlike other violent offenders, these guys were hardly cuddled. You don’t kidnap and kill a Quebec politician and plea bargain a conditional sentence. 

Two of the FLQ members were given life sentences for murder.  A third was sentenced to 20 years for kidnapping.  Another member, convicted only of being an accessory, was given eight years.  No house arrest or probation for these guys.  After all, they killed a Quebec cabinet minister.  The point is; government, even a Liberal one, is fully capable of acting swiftly and decisively when it chooses to.

Chronic offenders with a history of violence are being given community sentences as a matter of routine.  Even those rare offenders who are incarcerated are typically released long before their sentence expiry date.  Despite recommendations for prolonged confinement of offenders who clearly pose a real and imminent risk to society, the system releases them to save money.  Dangerous predators are placed in halfway houses only to wander down the street and kill again.  The government shrugs its collective shoulder and says they still have a pretty good track record.

If it were four judges who were ambushed and gunned down last week what do you think the government reaction would be?  What about four cabinet ministers?  What if they were from Quebec?

The Prime Minister has an opportunity to call for substantial and significant reform to our broken and dysfunctional criminal justice system.  He has a duty to do so.

Unfortunately, Paul “Mr. Dithers” Martin is unlikely to announce anything quite as bold as “Just watch me.”

“Let’s study it some more” is a more likely battle cry from this fearless leader.

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at

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