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Bissonnette judge’s ‘unusual’ sentencing decision likely to be appealed: experts

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  • 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


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    Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to visit Canada next weekend, April 27-28

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  • OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will meet with his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, when the latter visits Canada next weekend.

    Abe and Trudeau’s two-day meeting on April 27 and 28 will centre on the upcoming G20 summit in Osaka in late June, as well strengthening ties between the two countries.

    Trudeau’s office says in a statement the two will also discuss the revamped Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which the PMO says has created opportunities in both countries.

    The Canadian and Japanese leaders are expected to address the media after holding their bilateral meeting.

    The pair most recently spoke at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting in Papua, New Guinea, last November.

    Abe’s upcoming visit to Canada is part of a week-long trip to Europe and North America that includes stops in the United States, France, Italy, Slovakia and Belgium, as Japan prepares to play host to the G20.

    The Canadian Press


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    All eyes on the surging Greens as Prince Edward Island goes to the polls

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  • After a brief provincial election campaign devoid of drama, voters on Prince Edward Island appear poised to stir things up and make some history when they cast their ballots Tuesday.

    The Island’s Green party, led by Scottish-born dentist Peter Bevan-Baker, has recorded upward momentum in the polls for more than a year, suggesting the smallest province may be ready to elect Canada’s first Green government.

    “It has not been a particularly fascinating campaign, but I think it’s going to be a fascinating election night,” says Don Desserud, a political science professor at the University of Prince Edward Island.

    “There’s something going on here. You can’t deny that after a whole year of solid numbers for the Green party that they’ve attracted attention and are being regarded with great favour.”

    A Narrative Research poll for the Charlottetown Guardian released this week suggests the Greens had maintained a lead, but it was within the margin of error and the Tories and Liberals were not far behind.

    The close numbers also raised the spectre of a minority government, which would itself mark a historic moment for the Island: The last time a minority was elected in P.E.I. was 1890.

    Islanders have been electing either Liberal or Conservative governments since Confederation. And a clear pattern has held since the mid-1960s, with majority governments being regularly replaced after serving three terms — though the Liberals eked out a fourth term in 1978, only to lose power a year later.

    Premier Wade MacLauchlan’s Liberals will be seeking a fourth term on April 23, which has prompted some critics to suggest the party has overstayed its welcome.

    Though the province’s economy is among the strongest in the country, voters have been reluctant to attribute any of that success to MacLauchlan.

    Donald Savoie, the Canada research chair in public administration at the Universite de Moncton, says he’s bewildered by the lack of credit given to the Liberals.

    “It is difficult to imagine how the MacLauchlan government could have produced a better report card on the economy before going to the polls,” Savoie wrote in a recent editorial, noting the numbers look great for wages, employment, immigration, housing starts, exports, retail sales and tourism.

    “And yet public opinion surveys reveal that the MacLauchlan government is confronting a serious political challenge. This suggests that there are forces at play in the Maritime provinces that are playing havoc with the region’s political landscape.”

    So what is it about the Greens that has moved the Island’s traditionally small-c conservative voters to consider a more progressive party?

    Bevan-Baker says the shifting political sentiments on P.E.I. are a reflection of a broader movement away from traditional, mainstream politics. He’s called it the local expression of a global phenomenon.

    “People are looking for something that doesn’t sound or smell or taste like a conventional politician,” he said in an interview late last year.

    Bevan-Baker became the first member of the Green party to win a seat in the P.E.I. legislature in 2015, having failed to win a single election after 10 attempts on the Island and in Ontario.

    As party leader, he has spent the past three years carefully crafting the party’s brand by consistently challenging the notion that the Greens are a single-issue entity devoted only to environmental activism.

    During the election campaign, Bevan-Baker made a point of broadening the party’s public appeal by focusing on social issues.

    When the party released its entire $30-million platform at the beginning of the campaign, the largest chunk of that planned spending — $10-million — was earmarked for increasing social assistance rates. Increasing the inventory of affordable housing was also a top priority.

    “They’re really broadened out their platform to talk about socially progressive issues,” says Desserud. “It’s a rebranding of the party that has been extremely successful.”

    The party has been talking about environmental issues, “but they have not foregrounded them,” the professor said.

    And when it comes to climate change and carbon taxes, Bevan-Baker has been careful to link a healthy environment with a prosperous economy.

    As for the Progressive Conservatives, the party may have deep roots on the island, but it has been plagued by infighting. In the past eight years, the party has had no fewer than six leaders, including Dennis King, who was elected in February.

    The party enjoyed a boost in the polls in March, when it was in a virtual dead heat with the Liberals and this week’s Narrative poll suggests they have continued momentum.

    As for the Island’s New Democrats, led by Joe Byrne, their poll numbers have remained at single digits for the past year.

    On Tuesday, voters will also learn the results from a binding referendum on electoral reform, which will determine if Islanders want to keep the first-past-the-post system or change to a mixed-member-proportional-representation model.

    In a 2016 plebiscite, 52 per cent voted in favour of switching to a mixed-member system, but MacLauchlan rejected the results, saying the 36 per cent turnout rate was too low.

    Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to abolish the first-past-the-post system federally during the 2015 election, but he later abandoned that pledge, saying Canadians were not eager for change. Voters in British Columbia rejected making such a change in December 2017.

    Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press


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