The recent mass shootings at the Eaton Center and a street party in Toronto along with the mass shooting in Colorado that had a sad connection to the Eaton Center violence has put the discussion on how to deal with gun crimes back into forefront of the national agenda. In Toronto, Mayor Rob Ford hosted Prime Minister Harper to discuss the issue, and we can only hope that a better solution than Ford’s initial offering was arrived at. Rather than addressing any root causes of gang violence, the Mayor’s solution was simply that after gun violence has occurred the convicted should not be permitted back into Toronto. The opinions of the mayors of communities around Toronto on this solution has not yet been polled, but it is doubtful that they would consider exporting Toronto’s problems onto their doorsteps as optimal. There was no statement, however, after the meeting from either Harper or Ford to indicate any direction that might be taken besides Harper’s desire to continue to increase punishments.
Here in Ottawa, City Councilor Stephen Blais came up with an equally ridiculous solution by suggesting that the issue of gang violence could be mitigated by simply refusing gang members tenancy in subsidized low-income housing. One would need to believe that gang members will give up on criminal activities if barred from a few home addresses to believe that this would have any effect, instead of noticing that it only addresses the future living arrangements for people already caught and convicted and has no impact on any new criminals joining the ranks of gangs to replace the convicted.
One might also wonder whether the issue of gun violence would better be discussed with the major stockholders, the Provincial premieres who are meeting this week in Halifax, rather than just to have a closed door chat with one municipal leader. The Prime Minister, however, has refused to meet with them making this the third year in a row that Mr. Harper has refused the invitation to their yearly gathering. The message being sent by the Prime Minister, then, is that gun crime is a Toronto problem that requires a Toronto solution rather than a national issue meriting a wider discussion.
Justice Minister Nicholson, meanwhile, used the shootings as a platform to tout the omnibus crime bill C-10 which received Royal Assent in March of this year, noting the increased penalties for gun crimes contained therein. This, however, has been the first portion of that Bill to flounder in the courts when an Ontario Judge refused to impose the mandated minimum three year sentence on a drug dealer charged with attempting to sell a handgun that he did not have. The judge ruled that a three year sentence in that instance was cruel and unusual and therefor unconstitutional. The crown is expected to appeal this decision, along with another Ontario court decision that refused to implement the mandated minimum sentence, and the judges on those cases have been under fire from the government for their rulings.
The Attorney General of Ontario John Gerretsen wants to tackle one relevant issue with his call to ban handguns in Canada. This does not seem to be gaining any traction, however, especially with the Federal government who is looking to pass the buck. Rather than looking to domestic sources such as the 700,000 registered handguns in Canada, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews elected to blame the United States when he stated “The access to firearms from illegal sources — especially firearms from south of the border — simply make that type of ‘dispute resolution’ so available.” Justice Minister Nicholson also jumped into the fray, stating to the Canadian Press that “We have taken steps to ensure that the border is open to legitimate business but closed to criminals and gun smugglers.” This is not supported by the facts given that the government is reducing Border Services personnel as part of its austerity measures, leaving several border crossing either completely unmanned or with reduced hours of staffing citing low traffic at those crossings. To believe Nicholson’s assertion that this is taking steps to protect Canadians one would need to believe that smugglers would feel too inconvenienced to have to drive to an unprotected crossing rather than risk a search at a protected crossing. The final effects of the government cuts to border security have also not yet been realized as, besides these crossing points now being left unprotected, there have also been notifications sent out to a further 1151 Border Services employees that their jobs could be declared surplus. As such, the final impact to border security is still unknown.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney went a step further, blaming gun violence itself on immigrants when he stated “clearly the recent rash of gun crime in Toronto is connected to criminal gun activity, and we are aware that there have been foreign members, sometimes leading members of criminal gangs in Canada, able to re-commit offenses while delaying their deportation.” He gave no statistics on the citizenship status of those convicted of murder in Canada to back up his assertion, and later backtracked his position claiming that his comments were “not in relation to any particular crime, or any alleged particular criminal” but about Bill C-43, which the government introduced last month as the faster removal of foreign criminals act. He added that “the broader problem of gun crime … sometimes does involve foreign citizens who are delaying deportation from Canada”, but again gave no specifics on how significant a percent of those convicted of gun crimes fit that description.
While the recent spate of shootings have certainly led the headlines, there was a splash of good news when Statistics Canada released its yearly report noting that over 100,000 fewer crimes were reported in Canada in 2011 compared to 2010. This represents a 6% drop in crimes and reduced the overall crime rate to the lowest reported level since 1973. Never one to miss an opportunity to take credit, Minister Toews stated that this was due to his government’s tough-on-crime agenda despite the fact that their crime bill was not passed until 2012 and the statistics were gathered from 2011. Then again, this isn’t the first time Minister Toews has claimed that Bill C-10 had a material affect before it was even passed. Earlier this month Minister Toews returned $1.4 Billion from Corrections Services budget to the general government coffers stating that the expected increase in prison populations due to the longer sentences mandated in the omnibus crime bill had not happened. This is hardly surprising given that the Bill was only passed into law four months ago, so it is only now that people charged with crimes under the new legislation have begun to go through the court systems and have thus not yet had any impact on prison populations. To assume, then, that the predicted rise in populations will not occur seems grossly premature.
The discussion of mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes, however, does not represent a serious discussion on how to stop violent crime. And make no mistake, this is a growing problem. While the overall crime rates in Canada have dropped, the rate of murder bucked the overall trend with a 7% increase from 2010 to 2011. A focus on sentencing, however, is only a discussion on how to deal with the perpetrators of violent crime after the violence has already happened. This is not to minimize the fact that discussion on what represents fair sentencing in Canada is a valid conversation to have on a recurring basis as the national opinion is constantly in flux, but it is hardly a complete discussion on the problem of violent crime.
A conversation on minimum sentences does not discuss the root causes of crime. It does not discuss how to address poverty, racism, gangs, or drug addiction. It does not address how to provide services in prison and to paroles that are geared to reduce recidivism rates. Thus far, however, there has been no hint of any such talks underway to be seen in the media, nor has this government ever given any notion that these issues are on their agenda. With the recent cuts to prison farm programs and to other skills programs at Corrections Canada, it does not seem that this is likely to ever be part of an agenda that Harper wants to have in the forefront of the press.
The only politician showing any desire to discuss those issues has been the Liberal Premier of Ontario Dalton McGuinty, who stated at a press conference at a Toronto boys and girls club that “the smartest way to deal with crime is to be tough both on crime and on the causes of crime”, and adding “This is a complex matter, it’s a tough nut to crack, it’s something we’re going to all have to find a way to get our arms around and I think we’ve got to beware of simplistic, short-sighted solutions.” Mayor Ford responded that any funding for programs targeting at-risk youths represented “hug-a-thug” programs and refuses to support them. When informed of Ford’s position, McGuinty stated. “That’s unfortunate. That’s shortsighted. And it reflects a lack of understanding that this is a complicated problem.”
Sadly, given the positions offered from the Federal conservatives and Mayor Ford, it seems apparent that no discussion of addressing the root causes of gun violence will be in our future as long as the Conservative side of the conversation refuses to acknowledge that there just might be some merit to trying to stop the crimes before they happen rather than only deal with the fallout afterward. Indeed, the fact that Premier McGuinty was denied the opportunity to join the meeting between Harper and Ford to discuss gun violence in Toronto makes it clear that there is no desire to have this discussion at all from the Conservatives.