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Have Canadians been hoodwinked? | Murray Fallis

Tuesday, June 15, 2021 @ 12:56 PM | By  Murray Fallis

Murray Fallis %>
Murray Fallis
There are few things people like less than feeling actively deceived. Feeling misled, feeling hoodwinked, feeling as though things just aren’t what they believed. The introduction of Bill C-31 has left many with precisely that feeling. It has left us with hope for criminal justice policies that are unlikely to become real. As Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair knows, the Act to Amend the Criminal Records Act will not become law before the summer recess. If the rumours of an upcoming election are true, then this bill will surely die.

In the days following the 2017 election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke extensively about the legalization of marijuana. A discussion soon emerged about how old criminal records should be dealt with. Should they impede one’s employment? Their housing? Their health? Four years on, little has changed. In the last decade, record suspension applications have actually fallen 57 per cent. This is largely due to wait times, excessive costs and bureaucratic nightmares. The process remains precisely the same. Like so many of Trudeau’s aspirations, promised criminal records reform simply never occurred. 

Now, just months before a likely election, Blair has brought forward Bill C-31, a bill which takes baby steps without transformative change. It does little to remove the systemic barriers and discrimination faced by Indigenous, Black and other marginalized Canadians long after their sentences are spent and their debts to society are paid.

Some have described Bill C-31 as a “step in the right direction.” It is a tiny step at best. If the expected prorogation occurs, it is no step at all. As Blair, and every staffer in his office knows, Bill C-31 has absolutely no chance of passing before Parliament rises June 23. In its finest of moments our democracy moves slowly. Twelve days to pass a bill is like sprinting a three-minute mile — I hope Blair’s staffers can run faster than Roger Bannister.

If an election is called, what does Bill C-31 mean?

Ultimately, it means a political calculus was made. A calculus to be seen as having moved on promised criminal records reforms despite an awareness that Bill C-31 would never become law. A calculus to play on the hopes of marginalized Canadians that relief from discrimination was coming, while knowing deep down that the old system will remain. A calculus to engage in no substantive effort to address inequity, while hoping that naïve Canadians, oblivious to the procedures of Parliament, will rally in their blindness to support seemingly progressive ideals.

If Blair were serious about Criminal Records Act reform, then why didn’t he consult stakeholders at any point over these past four years? If the government had been serious about removing systemic barriers faced by Indigenous, Black and marginalized Canadians, why didn’t it support Bill S-208 which creates an automatic expiry of records after a criminal sentence and crime-free period are completed? Unlike C-31, S-208 would have broad support from stakeholders due to the efficiency and fairness it produces, while also actively removing an expensive, subjective and dysfunctional application process. In Canada, this system has worked well for decades for youth criminal records. This system already exists in other jurisdictions. Why not in Canada?

Bill C-31 was rushed. It was tabled without any stakeholder consultation just days before a parliamentary summer recess, with a rumoured election on the horizon. Is this an effort to hoodwink Canadians into believing that meaningful criminal justice reform is actually coming? It certainly feels that way. The prospect that the government may have rushed Bill C-31 as part of its pre-election strategy rather than as a vehicle to deliver relief to marginalized Canadians is truly troubling. It reminds us, yet again, that meaningful criminal justice reform in Canada is absolutely nowhere to be found. 

Murray Fallis is a lawyer with John Howard Canada.

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