MONTREAL — A Quebec judge’s “unusual” decision to modify the Criminal Code as he sentenced six-time murderer Alexandre Bissonnette to a life sentence with no possibility of parole for 40 years highlights the ongoing legal debate over consecutive life sentences in Canada, according to legal experts.
On Friday, Quebec Superior Court Justice Francois Huot rejected the Crown’s call to sentence Bissonnette to 150 years with no chance of parole, arguing a sentence of 50 years or more would constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Sentences that exceed an offender’s life expectancy and offer no reasonable hope of release are “grossly disproportionate and totally incompatible with human dignity,” he wrote in his 246-page decision.
But instead of sentencing Bissonnette to serve his six sentences concurrently, Huot rewrote the 2011 consecutive sentencing law, section 745.51 of the Criminal Code, to give himself the discretion to deliver consecutive life sentences that are not in blocks of 25 years, as had been the case. (First-degree murder carries an automatic sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole before 25 years.)
In the end, Huot decided Bissonnette will serve at least 40 years in prison.
Bissonnette, 29, pleaded guilty last March to six counts of first-degree murder and six of attempted murder after he walked into the mosque at the Islamic Cultural Centre during evening prayers on Jan. 29, 2017 and opened fire.
Kent Roach, a law professor at the University of Toronto, described Huot’s decision as “innovative.”
“Charter challenges to the 2011 provisions had previously been denied on the basis that the judge was not forced to increase parole ineligibility for multiple murders,” he wrote in an email.
“It may very well be appealed by both the Crown (who wanted far more than 40 years) and the defence, which may argue that if the judge thought the provision violated the Charter he should have imposed only 25 years of parole ineligibility.”
But Renald Beaudry, a criminal lawyer who was at Bissonnette’s sentencing, doesn’t think the sentence would be easy to overturn.
He noted that Huot’s lengthy decision included a comprehensive overview of worldwide jurisprudence on the issue of consecutive sentences, the philosophy behind the fundamental principles of Canadian law, and a summary of House of Commons debate on the issue.
“He really backed himself up, to use the expression,” he said.
On Friday, lawyers for both the Crown and defence said they would study the decision before deciding whether to appeal the sentence. A spokesman for the Quebec Justice department also indicated its lawyers were studying the possibility of appeal.
Lisa Silver, a law professor at the University of Calgary, said the decision reflects the ongoing conversation in Canada surrounding the law that allows judges to “stack” life sentences for multiple murders instead of serving them concurrently.
“(The decision) does seem unusual, but it’s also very consistent with what some judges are saying, not just about this section, but about sentencing and the larger discussion about these sections in the Criminal Code,” she said.
Recent high-profile sentencing decisions across Canada have reflected different judicial approaches to the idea of multiple life sentences.
The longest prison sentence in Canada to date is 75 years without parole, which has been given to at least five triple killers including Justin Bourque, who murdered three RCMP officers in a shooting spree in New Brunswick in 2014.
But other judges have rejected calls for consecutive sentences, including the Toronto judge who on Friday sentenced Bruce McArthur to life in prison with no parole for 25 years for murdering eight men with ties to Toronto’s gay village.
Silver said the difference in sentences can be problematic because it leads to comparisons, such as the perception that a gay or Muslim person’s murder isn’t “worth” as much as that of an RCMP officer.
But she said people should understand that a sentence isn’t about putting a numerical value on a person’s life.
“We need to remember that sentencing is individual, it takes in a number of factors, and those include the circumstances of the crime, the severity, the impact on the community, but it also has to reference the circumstances and background of the offender,” she said.
Silver agreed that the Bissonnette sentencing is also likely to be appealed, and she believes that’s a good thing.
She said she believes the consecutive sentencing law needs to be reviewed in order to provide more guidance for judges and avoid the harm caused by the perception of inconsistent sentencing.
“The difficulty in the street level is, these are communities that need to have some closure,” she said. “And when you have appeals and decisions that, in a public view don’t seem consistent, it’s difficult for people to move on with their lives.”
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press
Manitoba wants to attract Quebec civil servants worried about clothing law
WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government is planning to recruit civil servants from Quebec who are concerned about a new law in the province banning religious symbols at work.
Manitoba has a shortage of bilingual civil servants, Premier Brian Pallister says, and will send letters to Quebec professional organizations, colleges and other entities to invite public-sector workers to move west.
“We think that there may be people in Quebec right now who want to come to a province where we don’t have clothing police, where their freedoms will be respected and their rights will be respected,” Pallister said Thursday.
The Quebec ban on religious symbols in the workplace applies only to some people in the civil service in positions of authority, including judges, police officers, court clerks and public school teachers.
Pallister’s office says the Manitoba recruitment effort will target a range of public workers in areas such as education, health care, social services and agriculture.
Critics say it unfairly targets Muslims, Sikhs and other religious minorities. Quebec Premier Francois Legault has said the law helps ensure secularism in the workplace and is supported by a majority of Quebecers.
Pallister raised his opposition to the law at a meeting of Canada’s premiers in Saskatoon earlier this month, although it was not part of the formal agenda and was not included in the communique issued by the premiers after the meeting.
Pallister said the letter to Quebec organizations will be finalized soon and will be made available publicly.
“I’m not trying to hide the fact that I disagree with Bill 21, and I’m not going to try to hide the fact that we’re going to use the threat of it to serve the needs of the people of Manitoba, and to give opportunity to people who feel at all concerned about that particular bill,” he said.
The Quebec law was a campaign promise by Legault and took effect last month. It is being challenged in court by a national Muslim organization and a civil liberties group.
A Quebec Superior Court judge rejected their application Thursday to suspend the law until the court case can be heard.
Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
Appeal for calm as tensions mount in Oka over land transfer to Kanesatake
MONTREAL — There were appeals for calm Thursday amid steadily mounting tension in Oka, Que., over a private developer’s plan to return land to the Mohawks of Kanesatake.
Hundreds packed a church Wednesday night in the community, about 90 kilometres northwest of Montreal, to discuss the return of a pine forest central to the 1990 Oka crisis as part of a federal ecological donation to the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake.
The meeting was convened by Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon, who said he was caught off guard by land developer Gregoire Gollin’s intention to donate the 60 hectares known as The Pines last month, ensuring its preservation.
Gollin said he acted in the spirit of reconciliation when he signed the agreement, and was also prepared to discuss the sale of an additional 150 hectares he owns to the federal government to transfer to the Mohawk community — nearly half of which he said is adjacent to land owned by Kanesatake.
Quevillon said he is concerned about Oka becoming “surrounded” by the Mohawk territory, and worried about property values. He implored the federal government to take the town’s concerns into consideration.
He said the adjacent Mohawk community has illegal dumps and numerous cannabis and cigarette merchants — things the village of Oka doesn’t want to see expanded.
“My comments are the reality — I would like to tell you otherwise but it’s the reality in Kanesatake,” Quevillon said.
Quevillon stressed he doesn’t want another Oka crisis but said he fears one could be triggered — this time led by Oka residents worried about encroachment.
“We don’t wish it, but if there is another one, it won’t come from the residents of Kanesatake because it’s the residents of Oka and their rights that are impacted,” Quevillon said.
Speaking to reporters in Montreal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he felt the mayor’s comments about being surrounded “lacked the necessary respect and understanding that is key to true reconciliation.”
“Reconciliation is extremely important for Canada and Canadians, that means overcoming difficult challenges, some loaded with historical significance,” Trudeau said.
“We know that the only way forward is through respectful partnership and dialogue and we certainly hope that all parties in Oka will engage in that respectful and constructive dialogue to allow us to move forward for the benefit of all.”
Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon said tensions with Oka’s leadership have worsened in recent months and he has sought intermediaries like the provincial government to help.
“There’s always been an underlying tension,” Simon said. “There’s always been the ghost of 1990 and a mistrust of each other.”
But Simon took particular issue with the idea that the repatriation of lands would result in a drop in properly values, calling the mayor’s remarks racist.
He also called the notion of invoking another Oka crisis inflammatory, given the historical precedent.
“It’s irresponsible of him knowing damn well what happened and how it happened (in 1990) and he’s following in the same footsteps,” Simon said. “He’s knowingly fomenting a crisis.”
“(It’s) dangerous, very dangerous,” Simon added. “My community, we don’t want to live through something like that again … people back home aren’t afraid to fight, but it comes at a heavy price.”
The Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador called Thursday for calm, noting the mayor’s comments are reminiscent of how tensions sparked between the Mohawk nation and Quebec some 29 years ago this summer.
Grand Chief Ghislain Picard said the priority is finding a way to talk.
“I certainly feel confident we’ll come to a resolution,” Picard said. “This obviously lies with the capacity of both Oka and Kanesatake to find a common space to engage in a constructive dialogue.”
Also Thursday, Quebec Indigenous Affairs Minister Sylvie D’Amours vowed to work with all sides, even though land claims are federal jurisdiction.
“In order to preserve social peace and ensure the safety of all, Minister D’Amours has been intensifying exchanges with the federal government, the mayor of Oka and the grand chief of Kanesatake for months,” spokeswoman Nadine Gros-Louis said in an email. “It is essential that the dialogue be open and positive.”
The donated land is part of lands central to the Oka crisis which began July 11, 1990.
Gunfire erupted between provincial police and Aboriginals defending a small stand of pine trees from the expansion of a golf course, resulting in the death of officer Marcel Lemay and sparking a 78-day showdown.
At the end of it, a deal was struck to bring down barricades in exchange for cancelling the expansion.
Simon said his own community held a meeting about the ecological gift and raised concerns about a gift of land that belongs to them. But he said it was a way to cut through red tape and keep the lands free from development, noting that part of the forest in question includes a wetland.
As for other future developments, Simon said Oka would be able to invest in projects that would be of use to both communities, like an arena for example, which could promote reconciliation through sport.
“We just need to find a way to work in harmony with our neighbours and promote more co-operation, peace and equality,” Simon said.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press
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