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Appeal court wonders about future danger posed by Halifax mall plotter

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HALIFAX — Nova Scotia’s top court focused on the potential future danger posed by an American woman who plotted a Valentine’s Day shooting spree at a Halifax mall as she appealed her life sentence Tuesday.

Three members of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal heard arguments Tuesday in an appeal of Lindsay Souvannarath’s sentence of life with no chance of parole for 10 years.

Souvannarath, 26, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder in a 2015 plot to shoot people at the Halifax Shopping Centre, but is asking the appeal court for a fixed term of 12 to 14 years.

She argues the sentencing judge mistakenly imposed a burden on her to prove she was remorseful and had renounced anti-social beliefs.

But at the appeal hearing Tuesday, Justice Anne Derrick wondered whether “future dangerousness” was one of the sentencing judge’s main considerations.

“When I read his decision I didn’t see him treating remorse as an aggravating factor,” said Derrick. “I saw him taking remorse into account in assessing what sentence he should impose in light of him not being satisfied that he could be confident she wasn’t going to be an ongoing danger.”

Defence lawyer Peter Planetta told court he believed that was a consideration in light of a previous Supreme Court of Canada decision related to an Ontario terrorism case, but he said the previous case involved “hardened terrorists” and added that Souvannarath’s case “pales in comparison.”

“In this case it escalated or raised the sentencing bar too much,” Planetta said.

Derrick returned to the theme later in the hearing.

“Isn’t it dangerousness that the trial judge was trying to address . . . not on the issue of remorse or not, but is she dangerous?”

Replied Planetta: “Yes, and I would submit rely heavily on the lack of remorse to determine that issue.”

Justice Jamie Saunders noted the court has four volumes of appeal books containing the record of Souvannarath’s transmissions on the Internet. He said she was also aware that her two cohorts had filmed the mall’s food court to determine the best location for the attack.

“She speaks glowingly, that’s my adjective, about the carnage she hoped to inflict and the pain and the suffering,” said Saunders. “So I’m wondering where else could Justice (Peter) Rosinski go for guidance in those circumstances than to consider the terrorism cases?”

“It’s still not a terrorism offence, that’s not what she’s been charged with,” Planetta replied.

Outside court, Planetta told reporters he believes the issue of whether his client is an ongoing danger to the community will play a role in the appeal decision.

“It’s one of the issues that their decision is going to come down to — how much of a factor it is and how much it should influence the sentence,” he said.

Crown lawyer Tim O’Leary told the court he believes the sentence was appropriate, though it was on the top end of what’s recommended for the offence.

“I don’t mean to sound trite but sometimes the facts really do speak for themselves,” said O’Leary.

He said he believes the trial judge did not commit any legal errors in his decision given the evidence before him indicated that the planned attack was imminent had arrests not been made.

“The intention was to inflict as many casualties as ammo allowed,” he said. “Really a life sentence by its very nature would be rare, but this is the rare case that warranted a life sentence.”

The three-judge panel reserved its decision.

Souvannarath was not in court Tuesday.

She pleaded guilty in April 2017, about six months after Randall Shepherd — a Halifax man described in court as the “cheerleader” of the foiled plot — was sentenced to a decade in jail.

A third alleged conspirator, 19-year-old James Gamble, was found dead in his Halifax-area home a day before the planned attack.

Planetta brought up the issue of sentencing parity, pointing out that her sentence was more than that handed to Shepherd.

The origin of the conspiracy was traced back to December 2014, when Souvannarath and Gamble began an online relationship.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

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Trudeau to push trade pact in EU leaders’ summit as France moves ahead on CETA

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MONTREAL — Lawmakers in France begin their ratification of the comprehensive trade agreement between the European Union and Canada as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomes the leaders of the 28-country bloc to Montreal today.

Trudeau has been pushing hard for a win on trade and foreign policy after two difficult years marked by a rough renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with the Trump administration and the deterioration of political and trade relations with China.

Trudeau will talk up the merits of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, with European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in a series of events in Montreal over the next two days.

But Wednesday’s legal development when the French National Assembly begins its consideration of France’s ratification bill is also a prime focus for Canada’s Liberal prime minister, who will be fighting a federal election this fall.

Sources in France and Canada, who were not authorized to speak publicly about the talks, say Trudeau lobbied French President Emmanuel Macron for more than a year to introduce the bill, and that those efforts finally paid off last month in Paris during their most recent face-to-face meeting.

Almost all of CETA — in excess of 90 per cent — went into force in September 2017 under what is known as provisional application, but individual ratifications by EU member countries will bring it fully into effect.

That would mean a win for the international trading order that has been under assault by U.S. President Donald Trump.

“It’s an essential step. We’re very pleased with our co-operation with the French government,” International Trade Minister Jim Carr said in an interview.

Carr will be meeting his EU counterpart Cecilia Malmstrom in Montreal. He said the French move towards ratification is a significant step in Canada’s broader goal of diversifying Canada’s export markets.

Trudeau was in Paris in early June after attending the 75th anniversary commemorations of D-Day in France and Britain, and he and Macron emerged with news that France would move forward with CETA’s ratification. The introduction of the bill in the National Assembly is a first step in a process that the French government hopes will lead to full ratification by the end of 2019.

Macron and Trudeau have talked about the agreement repeatedly — in Paris in April 2018, in a telephone conversation a year later, and other face-to-face meetings. Macron is a staunch Europhile and open supporter of CETA, but he has had to tread cautiously because of populist opposition to trade deals in France and across Europe.

Canada has lobbied French lawmakers, businesspeople and farmers, an effort that included more than two dozen visits to various regions of France by Isabelle Hudon, the Canadian ambassador.

Trudeau also made a direct appeal to French lawmakers in an April 2018 speech to the National Assembly, the first time a Canadian prime minister addressed that body.

“Let us ask ourselves this question: If France cannot ratify a free-trade agreement with Canada, what country can you imagine doing it with?” Trudeau asked.

CETA gives Canadian businesses preferred access to 500 million European consumers, and a $24 trillion market. In 2018, Canada’s exports to the EU increased by seven per cent to more than $44 billion.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press


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Uncompetitive nomination races weaken parties and Canadian democracy, study warns

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OTTAWA — Nominations for federal elections are strikingly uncompetitive and opaque, according to a new study, which says that has profound consequences for Canadian democracy.

New research by the Toronto-based Samara Centre for Democracy shows only 17 per cent of more than 6,600 federal candidates from 2003 to 2015 faced competitive nomination races, while 2,700 candidates were directly appointed by parties.

“If you see the nomination as a moment in a chain of democratic moments” leading to the election of a member of Parliament, said Michael Morden, the director of research at Samara, “I think it’s notable that, in an overwhelming majority of cases, there’s no real decision being made by local people.”

Morden said through exit interviews with MPs Samara has found there is “broad, quiet understanding” in political circles of the deficiencies of the nomination process. 

But he said most Canadians have little access to or ability to scrutinize the “black box” of party nominations, despite the stake they have in how parties run their internal elections.

Political parties are private organizations, the Samara study says, but they’re also “public utilities” that have a profound effect on Canadian democracy.

And a lack of competition might signal a worrying disconnect with the Canadian public, the study suggests.

There are several reasons the study proposes for why races are so often uncompetitive. Snap elections account for some of it, while rules that benefit incumbents are also a factor. Then’s there’s the reality that many local party associations are just too disorganized or small to attract multiple candidates.

But the trend extends even to larger parties that are competitive across the country, Morden said.

“In our mind, that is still a stunning lack of competition,” he said.

Beyond the lack of competition, the study also found nominations rules also have significant effects on the diversity of nomination candidates and, consequently, the diversity of members elected to the House of Commons.

Morden noted parties occasionally justify appointing candidates on the basis of diversity, but this was not borne out in the data.

In particular, the study suggests appointed candidates were less likely to be from visible-minority or Indigenous backgrounds.

The issue of female representation in the nomination processes was even more stark.

In line with findings that women win elections at around the same rate as men, the study suggests female nomination candidates are just as likely to win internal races as men are.

But just 28 per cent of nomination contestants covered by the study were women.

“That shifts the focus right back to recruiting, to the general openness of the process, to the intangible factors that cause some people to find their way in and others to self-select out or to never have the option,” Morden said.

The study found that longer nomination races and races that didn’t require monetary investment were correlated with higher female participation.

Morden said parties essentially close themselves off from a majority of Canadians through rules that make it more difficult to participate in nomination processes: short races, monetary costs, lack of information and protections for incumbents.

The study recommends corresponding changes in party policies: standard opening and closing dates for races, the obligation to report the number of votes candidates receive, and holding contests even where there are incumbent MPs.

These changes are in the best interests of parties that want to stay internally strong and remain connected with the Canadian public, Morden argued.

The study also considers a potentially expanded role for Elections Canada in administering or regulating the races, something Morden acknowledges is not popular among the parties.

Parties can also be reticent to even provide information about their nomination processes, Morden said. For example, only the Green party provided information about how many candidates it screened out of its nominations in 2015.

“There’s just not a culture of openness,” Morden said. “The nomination process is still seen as a very internal one, rather than a vehicle for mass political engagement.”

The first step in a reform process is convincing Canadians to care, Morden said, because otherwise “you’re not going to convince parties to do much.

“It’s hard to regulate parties, because parties make the law.”

Christian Paas-Lang, The Canadian Press

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